Before ‘All MOOCs’ Goes Down w/ the Ship

If the MOOC phenomenon is ending/fitting a Hype Cycle/dying (and won’t that make it awkward to post at my once-acclaimed blog?), there is a contradiction I want to address before MOOCs find their way next to SMART Boards in the EdTech graveyard.

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…paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion.

Thomas Friedman (Revolution Hits the Universities) – 1/26/13 (emphasis added)

In those institutions where faculty are expected to do research and publish, the incentives of tenure and promotion drive faculty behavior. Professors are rewarded for spending far more time on  research than spending time on developing and teaching student-centric courses and learning communities.

Larry Cuban (MOOCs and Pedagogy:  Teacher-Centered, Student-Centered & Hybrids) – 12/5/12

…at the start this was all an experiment, an improvisation.  I’d had no teacher training, no Big Idea for the most effective way to teach.

Sal Khan, The World’s Teacher (One World Schoolhouse, pp. 17) – 2012

The best professors in the world are working at institutions that value scholarship over pedagogy, while at the same time the popular culture father of pedagogy celebrates his complete lack of knowledge on things teaching.  The discussion around the learning phenomena of the last few years (most notably MOOCs and the flipped classroom, and when talking about the first you are talking about the second) points to the proliferation of ubiquitous video content as opportunity liberation for teachers to have the time to do what they do best.

What is it that teachers do best?

An assumption inherent in the flipped classroom rhetoric is that by moving the content portion of a curriculum to independent study outside the classroom, the time students spend in the classroom can be liberated and allow teachers to do what they do best* – teach.  Such a sentence feels like it answers the question with the question, defining itself by pointing to itself and shouting, “Me!”  Teaching, from this perspective, is independent of the content material and rather an abstracted best practice.

*This is a familiar refrain not only in policy but also from EdTech software mavens; product x will free teachers to do what they do best (see here, here and here).  It is unfortunate Ron Popeil has yet to foray into EdTech; set it and forget it.

Friedman’s archetype best professor, however, is largely dependent on the content material and, by affiliated demographics, is almost certainly a research luminary in the field who had not really considered pedagogy prior to the MOOC phenomenon.  Often, what the best professor does best is research, publish and generate scholarship, not necessarily in spite of teaching but because the institutional value of the profession places scholarship before pedagogy.  Understanding pedagogy is not the primary drive of the professorial discipline, from prerequisite study through to receiving the instructional position (and even once hired, pedagogy is often treated as a required meeting rather than a driving part of the position).  There is a scene in Frederick Wiseman’s outstanding documentary At Berkeley showing the teacher training for graduate students where the discussion has nothing to do with pedagogy or learning environments or scaffolding but rather classroom management and horror stories and dictating content.  There is a pragmatic push for all students to take a business and a computer science course while in college, but no similar drive for educational theory despite the call for more education and training in our fluctuating job market.  We have an idealized best instructor who is likely driven by scholarship in a society where we are calling to remove scholarship from the role of instructor.

I can’t yet ask what a teacher does best; now I wonder:  what is a teacher?

To the extent that learning is translatable into computer language and the traditional teacher is replaceable by memory banks, didactics can be entrusted to machines linking traditional memory banks (libraries, etc.) and computer data banks to intelligent terminals placed at the students’ disposal.  Pedagogy would not necessarily suffer.  The students would still have to be taught something:  not contents, but how to use the terminals.

Jean-Francois Lyotard (The Postmodern Condition, pp. 48) – 1984

Neal Tonken taught me English in 10th grade. He changed my life. He died last week. I don’t remember what he taught me about how to start an essay, but that’s the way he would have started it.

John Dickerson (To the Teacher Who Changed My Life), 1/29/15

To be a content expert is not equal to being a teacher.  But being a teacher means being an expert as well as a learning leader in a space or community.  Leaving the subject expertise to the hands of Sebastian Thrun or Sal Khan negates the relationships in the classroom, relationships integral to learning.  There are over 100 years of empirical research into education as a formal endeavor and academic discipline that supports the importance of relationship building in any learning environment, research even the most ardent distance education does not require a teacher presence scholars cite and support, but this falls into the same kind of research Khan finds unhelpful and Thrun says does not exist, two people considered master teachers in the social discourse of education.

There are plenty of people who have defined the role of teacher for popular society, usually in democratic terms wrapped up in transformation and potential but lacking a grounding in processes.  This is probably due to pedagogy as both art and science, and the historical autonomy of the teacher as an expert, so it is perhaps why John Dewey defined the position in terms of furthering democracy rather than classroom presence.  More recent theorists such as Piaget or Papert see the teacher as a facilitator, a person of expertise who can negotiate a student’s journey from novice to expert.  In this role content is not sacrosanct but fluid and dynamic; the movement of the course does not supersede the pillars of the course knowledge but rather allows the expert to engage the novices at their place and guide them rather than dictate and measure.  Piaget, Papert and a host of others would not transfer their overhead projector sheets to a screencast and call it a flip, nor would they believe a room of well-meaning but expertise-lacking volunteers could solidify said content through their guile and can-do attitudes.  Understanding how people learn is as much a part of the process as understanding what it is they are expected to learn.  This research-supported view of teaching is popular within education but is rarely engaged in cultural discussions about education, where education visionaries are not pedagogues but happy accidents of computer science and haphazard instruction.

Nutritionist Michael Pollan is famous for saying that real foods are what’s healthy about real foods; in the case of the carrot it is not abstracted carotene and potassium that is healthy but it is in fact the carrot.  I see the instructor in the same role; it is not abstracted content or guided practice that are beneficial but it is the entirety of the individual serving a role of subject and situational expertise.  This is not to say outside resources are not vital to a teacher’s abilities to engage and educate students, but these resources cannot be view-only grand narratives; they must be allowed for repurpose and remix (and the other Rs in the OER guidelines).  Ownership of the professional designation as an instructor (with its rights and responsibilities) allows the instructor to develop a learning environment conducive to the communal and environmental dynamic.  Teachers cannot depend on content knowledge to equate to pedagogy, and administrators/politicians/entrepreneurs cannot design institutions and applications of rigid and static content (no matter how an algorithm personalizes what content the individual student sees).  A carrot is good because it is a carrot, and a teacher is vital because they are a teacher.

About Rolin
Assistant Professor & Director of EdTech & Media at Seattle Pacific University. Consultant w/ RAM TEC. Work with faculty, teach students, explore non-formal learning spaces (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums)

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