Helping Adults to Learn while Saving Face: Ukulele and MOOCs at Dagstuhl
I played ukulele every night while at the Dagstuhl seminar on CS learning assessment. Most nights, there was a group of us — some on guitars from the music room, one on piano, and several singers. It was wonderful fun! I don’t often get a chance to play in a group of other instruments and other singers, and I learned a lot about styles of play and synchronizing. The guitar players were all much more experienced, but we were all playing and singing music seen for the first time. We weren’t performance-quality — there were lots of off-key notes, missed entrances/exits. We were a bunch of amateurs having fun. (Thanks to Ben Shapiro, Jan Erik Moström, Lisa Kaczmarczyk, and Shriram Krishnamurthi for sharing these photos.)
We were not always a popular group. Some participants groaned when the guitars and ukulele came in to the room. One commenter asked if the singing was meant to drown out the playing. Another complained that our choice of songs was “wrong” for the instruments and voices. Clearly, some of the complaints were for humorous effect, and some were pretty funny.
Here’s the thought experiment: Imagine these were kids playing music and singing. I predict the result would be different. I doubt the listeners would criticize the players and singers in the same way, not even for humorous effect. While adults certainly criticize children when in a teacher-student or mentoring relationship, casual criticism by passerby adults of a child playing or practicing is unusual.
Why is it different for adults?
I’ve talked before about the challenges of adult learning. We expect adults to have expertise. We expect quality. It’s hard for adults to be novices. It’s hard for adults to learn and to save face. My colleague Betsy DiSalvo points out that we typically critique people at a near-peer level of power — we don’t casually critique those with much less power than us (children) because that’s mean, and we don’t casually critique our bosses and managers (to their faces) because that’s foolish. Getting critiqued is a sign that you’re recognized as a peer.
After her work at Xerox PARC, Adele Goldberg helped develop learning systems, including systems for the Open University in the UK. She once told me that online systems were particularly important for adult learners. She said, “It’s hard for people with 20 years of expertise in a field to raise their hands and say that they don’t know something.”
Andy Ko framed MOOCs for me in a new way at the Dagstuhl Seminar on Assessment in CS. In the discussion of social and professional practice (see previous blog post), I told him about some ideas I had about helping people to retrain for the second half of life. We live much longer than people did 30-50 years ago. Many college-educated workers can expect a work life into our 70’s. I’ve been wondering what it might be like to support adult students who might retrain in their 40’s or 50’s for another 20 year career later. Andy pointed out MOOCs are perfect for this.
College-educated professionals currently in their careers do have prior education, which is a population with which MOOCs are most successful. MOOCs can allow well-educated students to retrain themselves as time permits and without loss of face. A recent Harvard study shows that students who participate Georgia Tech’s MOOC-based OMS CS program are in a demographic unlikely to have participated in a face-to-face MS in CS program (see page here). The MOOCs are serving an untapped need — it’s not necessarily reaching those who wouldn’t have access to education otherwise, but it can be a significant help to people who want to re-train themselves.
There are lots of uses of MOOCs that still don’t make sense to me. Based on the empirical evidence of MOOCs today (in their current forms), I argue that:
- MOOCs are not going to democratize education. They have not been effective at motivating novices to learn required content, as opposed to elective or chosen content.
- MOOCs are unlikely to broaden participation in computing. Betsy DiSalvo and I ran a study about why women aren’t participating in OMS CS. Those reasons are unlikely to change soon.
- MOOCs may not work for adults who are being required to, or are asked to retrain, as opposed to those who choose to retrain. Motivation matters. I have not yet seen convincing evidence that MOOCs can play a significant role in developing new CS teachers. It’s hard to convince teachers to learn to be CS teachers — they’re not necessarily motivated to do so. Without the intrinsic motivation of choosing to be there, they may not complete. A teacher who doesn’t complete doesn’t know the whole curriculum.
Adults will still have to have tough skins when practicing their new skills. We expect a lot of expertise out of the starting gate for adults in our society, even when retraining for a second career. MOOCs might be excellent preparation for adults in their second acts.