Something education-related seems to have hit the blogosphere – many blogs I follow cover online-courses, teaching and education yesterday.
My feelings are mixed.
Important note: Though this was intended as a balanced review. But it ended up as one of my usual posts attributed to this genre I have no name for. I could invalidate most of my own arguments – however, I don’t want this post to become even lengthier.
I should have an opinion on education.
I have given lectures, labs and problem solving courses at the university in a former life – mainly on superconductivity and laser physics. I have designed vocational trainings for aspiring IT engineers as well as train-the-experts no-nonsense hardcore workshops on Public Key Infrastructure.
Most recently I had given an academic lecture on PKI for five years – including an “asynchronous online learning part”, and currently I am also a part-time student again myself in a (down-to-earth) renewable energies program.
In my online course – which was not massive – I have handed out virtual machine computer puzzles to students and required them to solve those within several months – supported by scheduled online discussions. Every year people badly need the looming deadline to get working two weeks before due date.
Corporate professionals who are students at the same time demand rules and deadlines to be imposed on them – in the same way as it happens in The Corporate Borg Sphere. I can relate – too much. As usual, I am also part of the target audience of this post.
Unless non-interactive lectures are MOOCs my own MOOC student experience is limited to a programming course – company internal, but rather massive though – I took before MOOC was an acronym. So I am not qualified to write this post; I just cannot resist.
Ironically the field of expertise I had been most “renowned” so far was one I had zero formal education in. I learned from the IT hacker community to judge people only on skills they demonstrate right in front of me. Hackers detest bragging with degrees or – worse – certificates issued by market leading technology providers, based on multiple choice tests. One of the main decoders of Stuxnet, the worm that aimed at damaging the nuclear facilities in Iran, is a psychologist by education.
I dare say that real hackers are 100% self-educated – no matter if they put some formal education on top of that later. The latter is a hidden mega-trend in my opinion: More often than not I saw experienced professionals going for a degree – in a program they knew more about than the teachers – just because they wanted that piece of paper giving proof of what they already knew.
I see strange contradicting trends in education and I don’t think that Massive Open Online Courses are a disruptive new way of education per se.
They are a symptom of changes in educational systems or society at large – of which I am not sure if I like them all.
As I said I am still baffled by the Bologna standardization process and associated splitting up of study programs. It is like neat little boxes that can be attached to each other in a compatible way – called “modularization”.
The upside: Cross-country recognition has been facilitated finally and you are more flexible to craft your own degree program.
The downside(s): The bar has been lowered in order to provide more cross-discipline / cross-programme permeability. The latter is a noble goal of course, in order to solve the complicated interdisciplinary blah blah issues that an interconnected global blah blah society faces.
I have the perfect backup material for all readers who prefer to hear opinionated rants rather by somebody with substantial experience in education – unfortunately it is in German. Austrian philosophy professor Konrad Paul Liessmann has written a book called Theorie der Unbildung – Irrtümer der Wissensgesellschaft which roughly translates to Theory of Non-Education – Misapprehensions of the Knowledge Society. Actually Unbildung is illiterateness, but it is meant in a sarcastic sense – so I believe non-education is a better term.
Liessmann calls it a polemic himself. He rants in a most entertaining way – appealing to anybody who appreciates Dilbert cartoon humor – on:
- Sociology dropouts turned management consultants who give seasoned university professors patronizing advice on didactic concepts.
- Management consulting mantras flooding academia, backed by their infamous management and controlling software and the involved gamification … sorry… enforcement of metrics, benchmarks and other silly rules.
- The mantra of playful learning based on interactive media. Unfortunately you won’t be able to get rid of the need of the efforts of thinking hard. I am at a loss for translating his brilliant and subtle sarcasm in the way he oppose the naive mantra of anything being fun and play opposed to plain hard work.
- Standardized, quality controlled exams that fosters Teach to the Test mentality. In my most recent encounters as a student and a teacher I have been stunned by new levels of optimization of the credentials collecting process – illustrated by collective group work on the pre-defined catalogue of potential examination questions, or asking The Most Important Question in the first lecture which is How many XY do I need to submit (present, solve…) in order to [paraphrasing] barely scrape by with PASSED [/paraphrasing].
This is my summary of the most conflicting trends I conclude from my anecdotal experiences:
1) Free information for a networked society:
Endless valuable information is available for eager learners – if you know how to google and how to tell pseudo-science and marketing from the real stuff: Scientific publications, lecture notes and text books. I am not sure if we need all that re-packaged and sold as “courses”.
An economist might reply: If there is a market(*) for that – why not? And don’t that material exist only because of the universities’ outreach progams – initiated by management consultants who were criticized by professors?
Do we need coaches who help us to navigate through the vast universe of knowledge? (Not a rhetorical question).
2) Gamification and edu-/info-tainment garnished with corporate-style deadlines for a society built on the mantra of the ever reducing attention span:
We as a learning society seem to need: infographics, videos, blended learning, Facebook-like discussion groups. As odd as it seems we – the free people of earth – rely on triggers, pop-up messages and arcane rules designed by others more than ever. And in contrast to cyberpunk stories – we are aware of it and we like. (“We” does not exclude “me”.)
I am intrigued by this ambiguity – as I feel free information on the net and corporate strangeness / gamification have common roots. These roots seem to be tied to technology.
Nicholas Carr who analyzed our relationship with reading in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: We have gained the ability to skim, scroll and evaluate content fast, but we lose the ability to read linear, long-winded text. Research has shown that students allowed to click on videos and other material related to a specific article remembered less than students who had to focus on the text only.
As I said, I am subject to that as well. I have turned from a voraciously reading teenager – capable of immersing in long-winded wooden existential philosophical prose – to a constantly distracted channel hopper.
I have been conditioned by multi-tasking to the extreme, always in firefighting mode, with several pop-up windows of the corporate equivalent of social media fighting for a small time-slots of undivided attention. I have learned to learn on-the-fly and on-the-job for years until I decided I wanted to reconnect with the old silent learning experience.
Thus I started re-reading and re-learning physics nearly 10 years ago – for the pure enjoyment of escaping multi-tasking hell. It was fun but it was hard at the same time. It took me to overcome an activation barrier to get “into” the linear, gradual absorption of knowledge again.
I am a strong advocate of learning alone – the very old-school concept of the problem-solving strategy attributed to Richard Feynman (by Murray Gell-Mann): Write down the problem – think hard – write down the solution. I would like to add: Bang your lonely head against the wall in despair until your brain grows some new synaptic connections. I could never get the concept of “learning in a group”. Probably I have now finally revealed that I am a sociophobe introvert, but anyway: This should make me a MOOC advocate, shouldn’t it?
I have watched a lot of physics lectures online, I enjoyed in particular David Tong’s QFT lectures – awesome blackboard & chalk style, no Powerpoint. But I enjoyed it because there were lecture notes as well. After watching some videos I started reading the notes in advance. I had always felt the most awesome physics video lectures were those that gave me a fresh perspective on something I had learned the old school way before – by solving lots of mind-numbing problems.
If this (non-interactive) lecture counts as a MOOC – I am a big fan. However, I am a dinosaur travelled to the future – I am not the one to judge on how well a MOOC-only learning environment would act on a digital native’s brain.
On writing this post I was struggling with my desire to let all those weird thoughts running wild – associations between cyber economy and cyber learning. I failed to establish any balanced angle.
In summary I feel uncomfortable about turning the process of learning into something that is built on instant gratification, game-style motivation resembling the tools we are tortured with the corporate world, social-media-style interactions, packaging and standardization of microscopic units of knowledge, and gradually replacing linear text by visual aids.
But there is more substantial criticism I can also relate with:
The market might be dysfunctional. For well-paid professionals the pay for teaching courses in a moonlighting fashion payment does not matter – you would do it for free because pay is low anyway compared to your usual rates (I speak from experience, and this holds for online and traditional courses). So you might lose money already by having to postpone more lucrative assignments because of teaching – you do it due to idealism and/or ego.
Quote from this post: In other words, while a few already well-paid superprofessors get their egos stroked conducting experiments that are doomed to fail, “second- and third-tier universities and colleges, and community colleges” risk closing because Coursera and its ilk have sent higher education price expectations through the floor and systematically devalued everybody else’s work.