Tuesday, January 22, 2013

This is Progress?

It has been a busy past week for sure.  But the lead story of our local paper on Monday  1/14/13 read as follows:

"UVa set to launch global classrooms"

Now there has to be something remarkable in this article to warrant putting education as the lead right?   Wrong.  

It is arguable that the University of Virginia is behind the times a bit in launching its digital presence and many theorize that contributed to the failed ouster of Teresa Sullivan this past summer by the Board of Visitors lead by Helen Dragas.  The efforts to improve in this area led to a partnership between Coursera and UVa as they offer MOOCs(Massive Online Open Courses).  This particular article features World History teacher Phillip Zelikow and his efforts to provide a World History Course using this approach.  

Zelikow and the author laud the new approach of flipping the classroom.  New huh?  

There is nothing new about much of this.  It is merely a reflection of the shifting political winds.  For starters the wondrous fascination with online education and technology leads to a false sense that technology infused education is automatically better.  They are blinded to the fact that it may simply be a lecture on a computer rather than in person.  The idea that the campus walls are being knocked down is intoxicating.  But UVa doesn't stand out for this type of this nor am I thinking it should try.  Certainly the access by the masses to skills and knowledge is a piece very attractive to many.

But so is Google. Can the result of a MOOC on the participant be described as "an education?"  Is this effort more valuable for UVa to go global or for the participants?   

I have taken several MOOCs and some were good, some were not.  One was even through UVa.  What usually made the difference was if I was able to interact with the instructor.  If you do not have access to an actual person to enrich your learning, what does that say about quality?  My feeling is that a real education starts when you are born and mostly comes from interactions with real life people.  There is a whole lot more going on that just the conveyance of information or content.  Learning  is a two way street despite what the commercials at the University of Phoenix would have you believe.  The MOOCs I've taken helped me but only to the degree necessary.   They did their job.  There are many shortfalls with  MOOCs not the least of which is the way they are pushed and marketed.  

The intoxication with flipping is even worse.  Nevermind "flipping" a classroom to those of us in the basement meant sneaking into a classroom and literally turning all the desks upside down.  This oft repeated  buzzword seems to seduce reformers and they immediately conclude this is the "panacea".  The magic bullet.   I can't escape the irony that this "flipping" (and the paper uses quotes too) is all too normal.  It usually amounts to a taped lecture and then making the students do what would have previously been homework in class.   In some cases that is an improvement and the teacher who can be replaced by a computer deserves to be.   It is one of many best practices.  But we must not forget that a good education involves a teacher, a student and an rich variety of methods.  None that are worthwhile should be sacrificed for expediency or cost.  There are trade offs with flipping.   In high schools for instance having 8 teachers "flip" on you might mean you are now saddled with a hours of instructional videos amounting to more homework.  The door may be open to individual attention in class and more student centered strategies but at what cost to the student?  The fluid nature of piecing together information replaced with uniform and robotic information. 

It seems in our rush to improve the status quo in education we are willing to look beyond the flaws of any given approach and promote it simply because of the novelty or the price.  Zelikow and UVa are doing a good thing. But anyone who believes this will amount to some increase in quality or experience for most enrolled is probably mistaken.  The real benefit is the ability of Zelikow to then do more small group discussion during the actual class.  As we change the face of education we must not overlook the fact that it still needs to resemble a face. After reading his piece it would seem to me that Douglass Rucskoff of CNN would agree that we should not make distance learning, MOOCs or similar reform into it something they are not.  
I remember 15 or so years ago doing my student teaching and supervising a latin class where the students learned via satellite network.  They watched broadcast lessons,  submitted their papers by mail and waited weeks for feedback.  Their boredom and frustration was painfully obvious.  Not so much with the delay but with the isolated feel and absence of a relationship with a knowledgeable teacher.  They were stuck with me.  Devoid spontaneity their learning suffered.   This and their multi-tasking meant there was no way they learned as much as the students present with the teacher.  But they did have the chance to take Latin which counts for something.  

So Progress has been made I suppose.  And in the years since we have traded satellite feeds for high speed internet.  The change is noticeably unremarkable.  Unwilling to accept the realities of the human mind and learning we continue to search for "better" ways to learn.  The result is an over-willingness to see such measures as headline worthy.  When in fact they are just worthy.  I commend UVa and Zellikow for their efforts.  But I stop short of buying this approach as anything but less than what students in his current class might experience. 

Flipping and MOOCs and what they are.  Not headlines.  And not real progress. 


1 comment:

  1. Good post that shares some valid concerns. These efforts are likely to increase as a result of the money involved. While they are not bad by themselves, their overemphasis and potential misuse by politicians and educational is indeed troubling.