Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Sage on the (Ever-Larger) Stage

The assumption that the "best professors" must lead to the best learning outcomes didn't start with MOOCs. It's a reply of patterns that we see time and time again in technology and learning.

It was my provost Carol Matteson at Rowan University in Glassboro NJ in the mid-1990's who first started my awareness of the profound impact technology would make on the higher education process. It was at that time I first heard the now-tired phrase: "We need to move instructors from being 'The Sage on the Stage' to 'The Guide on the Side'". In other words, the massive availability of content, and the affordances of technology enable us to best assist our students as a kind of coach and mentor, rather than a priestly authority figure speaking from an elevated lectern. I have found this idea to be a major inspiration on how I think about educational transformation.

But despite the "guide on the side" rhetoric, the thrust of educational technology has often focused on building a bigger and better stage. The movement to create "smart classrooms" was mostly about giving the instructor bigger and better tools to lecture - projectors, screens, document cameras, a computer (possibly the only one allowed to on in class), even microphones and speakers, all designed to enable a multimedia performance. Yes, there have been some innovations that directly touch the student, but even there they tend to have an asymmetric effect that reinforces the special role of the instructor, rather than putting the student at the center- clickers* come to mind.

Now MOOCs have recapitulated this same tendency - rather than challenging the notion that, in a connected world, knowledge does not lie only with a special class of priestly individuals, most (but not all!) MOOCs seem to be built around a model that emphasizes the brilliant and noble professor, up on the (digital) lectern above us, enlightening the world. Of course, the phenomenon of the TED conference and videos has proven that we hunger for good (and entertaining) explanations of the world. But the deepest learning takes place when the learner becomes the agent of his or her own learning. The "sage on the stage" pushes us in the opposite direction towards the passive acceptance of expert knowledge and opinion. Just open your brain and let the learning pour in.


Friday, February 1, 2013

Reasons to Hate MOOCs #1: The "Best Professors" Myth

I don't really hate MOOCs* - I think some of them are really interesting innovations. (Others are just old wine in new bottles.) It's more the popular idea of what a MOOC is and why it matters that brings out the curmudgeon in me.

Here's a quote from the irrepressible and supremely credulous Thomas Friedman in his article Revolution Hits the Universities:
I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world...
I could write a whole blog just on what Thomas Friedman gets wrong, but let's take a look at this statement. Like so many others, Friedman focuses on the idea of "the best professors" as if it's self-evident that the best learning comes from "the best professors". After all, who wants second-best?

When I was becoming a computer scientist, I became enamored of the books of Don Knuth, a professor at Stanford -  much later Ground Zero in the Great MOOC Explosion of 2011. Knuth was the model of a scholar and scientist who was also a great writer and explainer. Somehow I know this about him even though there were no MOOCs back then, just books.

But I never would have appreciated Knuth if not for my professor Marvin Paull at Rutgers. He helped me develop the intellectual capacity and motivation to appreciate what Knuth had done and the taste to understand why it mattered. He inculcated in me the curiosity to spend hours trying to perform a mind-meld with Knuth's elegant but not-always-easily-absorbed ideas. I may never open Knuth vol. 3 again but it's hard to imagine I'll ever get rid of the copy on my shelf. For me, Knuth - surely a "best professor" - had a huge impact on me and my intellectual development, but so did Marv Paull - for me, he was a "best professor" too.

The idea that "best university" = "best professor" = "best learning" is simplistic, pernicious, and wrong. And that's one reason why it's wrong to equate the MOOC with higher education.

*If you're not familiar with MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) - or you've heard the hype but you're not really sure what they are - I recommend ELI's 7 Things You Should Know About MOOCs for a primer.