Post 10: My 18,053 Classmates and I

Thursday, November, 8, 12 § 2 Comments

Some weeks back, my former boss and School Re-Formed guest contributor, Tony Gerlicz, invited me to take an on-line class with him, from Stanford University.

He and I had been chatting about Disrupting Class, the book by Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn that predicts the end of school as we know it. There’s a lot of things I don’t like about Christensen and Horn’s book–it’s myopically oriented towards the middle and upper classes, and outright fascist in calling for school leaders to dismiss the democratic process–but like Tony, I feel the authors are right in predicting that new forms of more personalized and flexible schooling, aided by new technologies, are on the rise.

The Stanford class that Tony invited me to join is called “Designing a New Learning Environment.” As a MOOC–a massive, open online course–the course itself serves as an example of its subject matter. The idea is to explore learning technologies through some video lectures and self-driven investigation, then form teams with your virtual classmates to design your own learning technology.

I was hesitant to join. I like technological gadgets okay, but as a teacher I always found myself so busy trying to get to know my students and make useful comments on their writings, I didn’t have time to fiddle with new platforms or online systems. During my last teaching gig, at a wealthy school here in Colombia, I did communicate with some students by email, and I tried some editing with Google docs, but at the end of the day, I found there was no technological substitute for kneeling beside a kid’s desk and spending some time listening.

But now that I’m not teaching (and actually have time to think about pedagogy), I decided to give the MOOC a try, and see what I could learn about edutech in the process. I logged on, created my portfolio and watched the first “lecture”–a mildly interesting six minute video with a little torso and head of Professor Paul Kim speaking from the lower right corner.

We’re a few weeks in now. I’ve done two assignments, short essays I uploaded onto my profile, and which I don’t think anyone has read, except perhaps Tony. I’ve searched around a bit to try to get to know some of my 18,053 classmates by checking out their profiles and head shots, Facebook-style. 596  report that they live in India; 6 in New Hampshire. 790 aspire to “found a start-up company,” and 348 have doctoral degrees. 147 are named John. We’ve divided ourselves into 446 teams (which suggests that many people have dropped out, as there would be a few thousand teams if all 18000 students had joined one), and in a couple of weeks will begin developing our projects.

At this point, I’m not sold on the MOOC format, but neither am I ready to dismiss it. Yesterday morning, I met online with Tony and his friend Bill in Poland, who’s a tech coordinator from the school he directed there. We began batting around some ideas to form our little team. With the help of Google Hangout, we had a great discussion, aided by the fact that Tony already knew both of us and we could hit the ground running. I think we’ve got a good chance of completing the course, putting together our project, and having it reviewed by a few other teams.

But for me, the jury’s still out on whether edutech inventions like this MOOC will be a valuable investment of my time–and ultimately whether they’ll end up helping schools create a more knowledgeable, wiser, and happier populace. Professor Paul Kim’s not an inspiring fellow, especially when he’s a couple inches high on my computer screen. He doesn’t even seem all that real to me, to tell the truth, like one of those phone robots at the airline company (“I’m sorry, I didn’t get quite that.”) And I won’t be able to invite him over for dinner, as I did once with Professor Ted Sizer at Brown–an evening in the presence of wisdom I’ll never forget.

To his credit, Professor Kim is very insistent in his lectures that technology is only a part of the learning process, and to be sustainable must be accompanied by innovative pedagogy. But based on the projects I’ve glanced at (and I include ours), most students seem to be focused on developing the perfect learning tool, the golden website or digital textbook that will explode the way students learn, unlock the world’s mysteries for them with touch of a finger.

It’s not going to happen. The history of humankind has proven that the only perfect learning tool is a dynamic, long-term relationship with an inspiring mentor. Yes, we can pick up bits of knowledge and skills on our own, using sticks or books or computers, but deep, resonant learning is essentially a social process. Great leaps in science, philosophy and the arts came after years of nose-to-the-grindstone individual work, but behind this work is always a backdrop of letters and conversations and arguments with mentors and peers.

The type of learning I’m interested in, and that I’m helping them studying over at the Academy for the Love of Learning, is transformative learning–learning that gets under your skin, that changes who you are, that makes you a more whole, more enlightened person. I firmly believe this type of learning can only happen in the context of a real relationship with a real person or group of people.

Some will argue I am in a real relationship in my MOOC–not with Professor Kim, but with Tony and Bill. And perhaps the work we do over the next few weeks, from our respective desks in New Mexico, Poland and Colombia, will end up enlightening me as a person. Perhaps all those intangible parts of a relationship–the handshake, the smell, the moments of silence, the sharing of bread–are not so important when it comes to learning. Perhaps the human being is evolving toward a more digital way of interacting with others and the world, and “virtual intimacy” will no longer by oxymoronic.

But I doubt it. My hunch is the brave new world of edutech will prove to be more of a distraction than a disruption to a quest for new forms of more authentic learning. Money will be made, initiatives launched, but in the best learning environments, teachers will have more time to kneel beside their students, push aside the laptops, and listen.

Seth Biderman | November 8, 2012

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§ 2 Responses to Post 10: My 18,053 Classmates and I

  • Santiago says:

    This is by far the post I agree with the most. It is all about the teacher-student relationship. A kid can love math and detest history, but a lousy, distant teacher can cause him to slowly despise math, while an enthusiastic teacher can make history entertaining and motivate the student to learn more. This is but a single example of the effects of a teacher on a student, but it helps illustrate how much weight the teacher has inside the classroom. And since teachers are the key element, it is not a priority to aid the learning methods by enhancing the gadgets that supposedly improve education. Yes, I agree that technology can help the teacher communicate certain ideas with greater ease and precision, and can also allow the students to understand better with audiovisual aids, but itis certainly not the core element. This is why I disagree with the importance (both financially and in terms of attention) that has been awarded to technological development. Instead, as previous posts have suggested, time and money should be invested in educating teachers. I do not mean to say that teachers are not prepared nowadays, only that education is quickly evolving and teachers should be aided to go at the same pace, all in order for them to be capable and win the trust of the community, thus allowing them to enjoy the precious autonomy that contributes immensely to the personalization of the curriculum. Keep up the great posts Seth!

    • Thanks for chiming in, Santiago. Great point: perhaps the key to personalizing education is not oiling the computers, but educating the teachers–and giving them the time to get to know their students. Glad you’re reading along, amigo. -Seth

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