Death of the teacher

Another from the MOOC.
Monday, May 28, 2012 6:03:34 AM EDT
An interesting question came up in the chat during Wednesday’s webinar, one that I’m sure a lot of those interested in online learning have been pondering in recent years: if all of the information you would ever need to present to students is easily available on the web, does that mean  all the  thousands of people who would have otherwise been presenting that information separately in classrooms (etc.) all over the world are now out of a job?This question was rather neatly raised at the Bb users’ conference here in dear old Durham earlier this year by Ray Land (here’s the presentation: http://bit.ly/JApsHH). He didn’t dwell on the answer for very long, although he did hint at his take on it through the course of the talk, but it start the following ideas flowing in my head…

  • Information (facts, data, collation of evidence, results of research, informed interpretation of events, etc.) used to be very difficult to access. Anybody could buy a textbook or an academic journal (if you had a spare $1000 and nothing else to do), but if you wanted it explained, contextualised or challenged, you had to go to a lecture.
  • Lectures were designed to disseminate information efficiently. They could do the things listed above, and add some updates if necessary.
  • Both of these are expensive ways of learning, but people will pay for them because, with the addition of assessment, they gain a worthwhile qualification.
  • But now…both text-based information and lectures can be made available very cheaply–cheap for the learner to access, but macrocosmically also cheap for educational institutions (a lecture is delivered once instead of 5000 times in different places every year).

So let’s just say that the person best suited to present every fact, concept or theory that you would ever want to teach has made a high-quality video free to use across the world. And let’s say that all of your students have the means to access all of the videos they need. What’s left for the individual instructor to do?

I think a big part of the answer is in the question: how likely is it that a video–any more than a textbook–will be sufficient to really teach students in a certain place (virtual or real) and time everything they need to know? And what does ‘know’ mean, anyway?

Let me step back a bit: there are a lot of good practices that are already embedded in the ‘old fashioned’ system. I’m particularly thinking of the university model, which started with experts taking groups of two or three students at a time and leading them through the material. In my undergrad experience, at least, this was translated into small(er) discussion sections (humanities) and of course labs for the sciences. This compromise most likely came about because of the democratization of university education, which was of course a very good thing. But in the compromise I think the purpose of discussion and labs was warped. Now, I believe, if the chancellor (or whatever flavour person-in-charge you happen to have) were to ask departments why they needed discussion sections or labs, they’d be more likely to say ‘so that we’re sure that students understand the concepts’ or maybe ‘so they’ve had hands-on experience’. This is true enough, but I think it avoids the more subtle reasons–probably because they are ‘softer’, less quantifiable and largely dependent upon the instructor. The purpose of these types of sessions is to allow students to (1) interact with, challenge, prod, mangle, reform, connect, deconstruct and make mistakes with the course content (whether it’s The Metamorphosis or hydrogen chloride) (2) with other people who are on the same journey (3) driven by someone who’s taken the journey before.

Of course, the one thing about this is that it’s not new whatsoever. It’s Dewey (and all those other people I’ve forgotten since I last took an education class), it’s the flipped classroom, it’s an ideal Montessori school, it’s the Cave. I think the danger, though, is that because it’s not new, a lot of instructors have probably already gone through the ‘this sounds great, but I’ve still got to somehow get this real information into people’s heads before the end of term’ process and given up ideals of interaction by necessity. The challenge of new technology is that of rethinking everything again and again.

This goes for institutions as well. Who wants to be the first put all of their content online for free? Who wants to tell their instructors that, because MIT is better at teaching this subject, students can just watch their videos and then have a chat with you about them later? Who wants to offer actual credit for students who have never set foot on campus? Who wants to pay editorial staff to process articles and get them peer reviewed only to release the finished product gratis online?

There are so many other questions as well: Would students (or their parents) feel cheated if the content of a course was all free, third-party material, leaving just the ‘fluffy’ conversation/experiment bits to the in-class/synchronous instructors? Would there be some kind of clearing house for the best of free video (peer review was mentioned a couple times in the webinar) and would this be a free service? What about the kind of interactivity that is currently available through software like Articulate/Captivate–would anyone think of producing these as OER? Is the institution’s unique selling point boiled down to its ability to bestow accredited awards, or would the emphasis also be on its identity as a community of practitioners, from novice to expert?

I said ‘challenge’ above, and won’t quote any motivational posters drawing a connection between this and opportunity. For a new kind of education to emerge, there will have to be a fundamental change in the perception of learning by institutions, students, governments. But, as in most cultural shifts, it will start with the small things–it will start with me researching how best our online students can interact with the material, each other and their tutor, and in a way that they will find rewarding. It will start with instructors deciding to create OERs, or posting cheaply filmed lectures onto iTunesU. It will start with projects like MERLOT and this MOOC.

But it won’t start with bloated blog entries.

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