Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Learning, Teaching, and Talking

Just what does a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) have to do with education? In a couple of posts last month (the first one is here), I hinted that their real relationship to education is pretty much the same as that of any tool (books, for example), but that they can rarely be the basis for education by themselves. Access to information, in other words, is not the same as access to education. That's why, as a college professor, I see no threat from the entry of such educational behemoths as Harvard and MIT into the MOOC business. If anything, they are simply providing another way for my students to get the information they need in order to start learning.

Steve Krause makes an attempt to explain this by differentiating learning, teaching and credentialing, concluding that he really doesn't see MOOCs as "the future of higher education on the internet." I agree. As Krause says, MOOCs allow little room for teaching--and teaching is an integral part of higher education.

When I was living in Chicago in the uncertain economy of the 1970s, some three or four years out of undergraduate school, working in inventory control for an import house and (later) in the parts department for a car dealer (and selling cars at night), most of my entertainment was books, mainly science fiction and mysteries. As time went on, these became less and less satisfying and I cast around for books that had a little more meat to them. I remember running across Balzac's Pere Goriot, which led me to a number of his other novels... but it was Faulkner's The Hamlet that galvanized me.

I realized, when I put the book down, that my knowledge of literature was paltry, at best. I wanted to know more, and to read more, but didn't see my nearly random browsing through used bookstores and libraries as sufficient--nor did I think any particular 'great books' list would help. I wanted to be able to follow the pathways that books opened up for me, but felt I needed discussion and guidance, discussion that I could participate in and guidance tailored to my own particular interests and inclinations. I needed teachers.

So, I decided, what I needed to do was to go to graduate school, to get a Masters degree in English.

Fortunately, though my undergraduate degree was in Philosophy, I had graduated from a college (Beloit) with a strong interest in teaching, where one of the things I had learned was how to use a teacher to further my own education. I had also come to understand that a great deal of education arises from interaction with fellow students. Through this, I was better prepared for graduate school than I believed at the time.

And, partly because of that preparation, I loved it.

At that point in my life, I had no interest in becoming an academic, but reading was invigorating, as was the give-and-take with professors and students. Sometimes I think that, if I could have, I would have stayed at the University of Iowa forever... would that the glory of exploration could have always stayed with me. The educational environment was delicious though, by the time I had moved on and was nearing completion of my PhD, I realized that one does, at some point, have to emerge from that cocoon.

I was never a particularly good student, never a star. Instead, I gained from being around stars, both students and professors, whose presence allowed me to try things I never would have tried on my own.

For the real stars, perhaps, being in the environment of an educational institution may not be absolutely necessary. But not everyone is cut out to be an autodidact--I know I wasn't. I needed to be around people who were doing things, who were thinking and talking--who were excited about the world and about learning through exploration. And who loved sharing what they found, who loved teaching.

Schools like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, all involved in MOOC projects, understand this full well, and know that the MOOCs are no competition for what they are doing on their campuses. So do most American high-school students when they are applying to college. If they can, they want the experience that I had, for they understand (almost innately) that the experience gained at an 'elite' college or university will help them more, in the long run, than anything a MOOC or any other online "education" can provide.

For most of us, our real educations arose from interaction, and interaction on a close, personal level. At this point, though they may help, online teaching aids cannot replace that.

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