The standard for online courses is firmly in place?

March 6, 2010 at 1:22 pm 5 comments

I found the following both depressing, and promising:

When wearing my Wimba hat, I often remind my audience that it’s only been about a decade since the modern format of online courses was put into place. The current configuration of combining course management systems, web conferencing, instant messaging, message boards, etc. to teach a class to students in a classroom and/or their pajamas barely existed in the 20th century, so when one stops to consider the idea that collegiate courses had been taught (more or less) in the exact same manner since ancient Egypt, Greece, and Mesopotamia, it’s quite startling to see how quickly this transformation has transpired.

Obviously this format of modern courses is still being tweaked, but it certainly appears that much of the technological and pedagogical foundation is firmly in place. As of today, the dawn of the ‘10s, tens of thousands of postsecondary faculty, either because of or in spite of their ability and/or willingness, have already taken the plunge and incorporated technologies into their courses – often with a great deal of success.

via Views: Switching Sides – Inside Higher Ed.

Surely, this can’t be it — it can’t be that Sakai + Twitter + a blog or Wiki is what all future studies will call the “traditional” form of online courses?  What about amazingly and powerful collaborative spaces like Kansas, and provably better ways of teaching with technology like cognitive tutors?  Surely we can do better than what’s being used today?

It’s that second step that’s more promising.  We can do much better than that.  It’s not even very hard.  Have you seen the great new tools that CMU has made available for building your own cognitive tutors?  I’ve learned that there is a term for those trying to change education through radical on-line approaches: “edupunks.”

“The edupunks are on the march. From VC-funded startups to the ivied walls of Harvard, new experiments and business models are springing up from entrepreneurs, professors, and students alike. Want a class that’s structured like a role-playing game? An accredited bachelor’s degree for a few thousand dollars? A free, peer-to-peer Wiki university? These all exist today, the overture to a complete educational remix.” (From How Web-Savvy Edupunks are Transforming American Higher Education)

While I’m not convinced that a tool like the MIT Open Courseware initiative is as impactful as the edupunks say it is, I realize that I share their vision.  Distance education could be an important way of making higher education available for many people who do not have access to it today.  And what we have today in the way of distance education is demonstrably bad.

I’m an academic who works in education research.  For people like me, an easily-beat standard is a hand-written invitation to do better with inventions, studies, results, and papers.  I once heard John Anderson respond to the question, “Can you explain your enormous success with cognitive tutors?  Why are you able to do so much better than traditional approaches?”  His answer: “It’s easy.  Just find something taught really, really badly today. That’s not hard to find!”  (Do note that the topics that Anderson “found” first for his cognitive tutors were Geometry and programming in Lisp and Pascal.)  Maybe Anderson was the first “edupunk”?

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  March 6, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Hi Mark,

    According to John Holmstrom, the founder of Punk magazine, punk rock was “rock and roll by people who didn’t have very much skills as musicians but still felt the need to express themselves through music” (and if this is a real quote, few skills in the English language but still wanted to publish a magazine anyway).

    I interpret this as “people, who perhaps rightly, think that alternatives need to happen, but aren’t willing to put in the work to get to a high enough quality level to really be in the same conversation”.

    So, to me, the real question is “what constitutes top quality education via any forms of communication”? The most likely examples to be seen are essentially forms of “Guitar Hero” (non-content dressed up in high tech to caricature content).

    On the other hand, the fruits of the printing press have been the most successful “distance learning” (and learning in general) in history. So this is definitely a good place to start when trying to find quality models for new technologies that could help deep education to happen.

    The main thing I worry about is (as they say in the music biz) “gear is easy, you just buy it”. But if you really want to play highly developed music, everyone (even the largest talents) has to put in a lot of non-gratuitous work to coax their brain/minds to get fluent in the new stuff.

    I can certainly imagine much better learning environments than books being doable and tremendously helpful, but we still have brains that have their own dynamics, and when modern knowledge is different from those dynamics (as is the case in music, math, science, human relations, etc.) it’s going to require some real work on the part of the learners to get fluent.

    We have already seen both
    (a) the “designer jeans” approach being more and more used (in part relabeling the same bad old stuff with new goal names – e.g. claiming to teach “mathematics” by relabeling the texts from “arithmetic” to “math” but never actually trying to teach real math), and now
    (b) the “Guitar Hero” approach where often little more happens than the bad acetate slides used by indifferent professors are recapitulated in silicon (as in much of the MIT Open Course Ware offerings).

    The general notion of “punk” seems disastrous here.



  • 2. Lon Levy  |  March 7, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    My perspective on this is a little unusual. I spent five years teaching high school AP Computer Science in a “Distance Learning Lab”, which was a two-way television classroom for Wisconsin high schools connected via “BadgerNet”.

    As schools add “on-line” courses, I am very concerned. My students in a classroom with two-way tv had to be more mature than the average high school student since there was no adult in the room with them. I was the responsible teacher and could request that the local school remove a student from the course if they were too disruptive. Even with full control of television cameras in my room and their room, many students were not mature enough for this arrangement.

    Whether I am teaching in a high school or as an adjunct at a university, I am a lousy teacher for each of my students who is not present. The more we separate students from the human part of the act of learning, the more challenging it is for the student. While there are some students who learn best from books or computers without the presence of other humans, I believe that they are a small minority.

    The cool technologies, edupunk or whatever other hip name is applied, can be seen as an extension of Thomas Jefferson’s ideal in his concept for the University of Virginia. If I remember correctly (from reading), the ideal was a collection of pavillions where students and teachers would come together and learn together for so long as each wished; without assessments, administrations, or grades. Of course, this is not how UVa really operates.

    IMO, the people, both teachers and students, are a much greater concern than the medium.

    • 3. Aaron Lanterman  |  May 2, 2010 at 3:30 am

      My wife and I are planning on homeschooling our son. I hate the term “homeschooling” since it implies that you sit around in the house all day. I’ve come up with the term “hybridschooling” – the idea that you mix and match different kinds of learning, including possibly a homeschooled student signing up for high school classes “a la carte” instead of in a full 7 AM to 2 PM block.

      Your description of Thomas Jefferson’s concept for the University of Virginia fits a notion of “learning spaces” – sort of a generalized “hacker space.”

      What if there was a place with a chemistry lab, a music “lab” with all sorts of different instruments, a drama studio, woodworking and metalworking workshops, etc., with a mixture of free-form and pre-planned activities (occasional master classes by visiting musicians, etc.)?

      And if this notion of “hybridschooling” works at the pre-college level, why not at the college level? Why even pay for online courses? So much information is out there, and there are so many potential places for discussion. Perhaps the role of professors should be as “curators” of all this knowledge, and not just the sole sources of it.

  • 4. The Third Bit » Blog Archive » Is That All There Is?  |  March 11, 2010 at 11:39 am

    […] of the song to Bette Midler’s; I wonder if Mark Guzdial thought of either when he wrote this post a couple of days ago: Surely, this can’t be it—it can’t be that Sakai + Twitter + a blog […]

  • 5. foresttrailacade  |  January 10, 2012 at 2:02 am

    Hi Aaron
    I have finished my diploma courses online. I used to choose a subject my own and used to prepare notes too. Whenever I got stuck on something I used to email the author for my answers. Learning online is quite comfortable but I agree with you that sitting whole day at home is boring too.


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