Sunday, July 29, 2012

Education should not be a popularity contest

My smallest spinach plantThe thesis of Academic Rock Stars and Curriculum DJs is that rock stars are being created and nurtured by the breakthroughs in massively open online courses (MOOCs) I would like to offer a slightly different perspective.

1. When drawing comparisons between "music rock stars" and well-connected educators, Microsoft Research's Daniel Reed poses a "culturally simple" question:  
As a student, would you rather take a required general education or specialty elective course from one of several internationally rated instructors and/or lauded scholars, or be constrained to the pedagogical skill and intellectual acumen of the professors at a single university?"

Albeit a simple question to ask, answering it is quite complex.  Many assumptions are embedded in the original question that can lead to misconceptions.  (i) Students who choose a professor at the attending university are choosing a professor who is not connected to the outside world, fails to offer classes that connect students to the outside world, and fails to use blended learning or online blended learning as part of their teaching and learning methodology.  (ii) Choosing an "internationally rated instructor" inherently correlates to an academic's "rock start" (i.e., popularity) status.  (iii) An internationally rating system for instructors is valid, reliable, and unbiased.  And (iv) popular academics are inherently better than unpopular academics.  

2. What Salman Khan of Khan Academy did was fundamentally flip not only the classroom, but also the economic model of higher education.

Salman Khan does not flip a classroom by simply delivering small chunks of information online.  Educators flip their classrooms if their synchronous learning experiences become more dynamic and authentic as a result of their respective learners spending more time outside of class learning new information asynchronously.  This alone does not answer additional questions that relate to the complexity of successfully flipping a classroom.  

  • How much information learners access asynchronously is new and how much acts as a review of something they have already seen? 
  •  How do understandings from information accessed asynchronously enable learners to perform in authentic performance tasks in the presence of the educator, classmates, and other involved actors? And how much of this process is dependent on the course, teacher preference, and student profiles?
  •  How do learning outcomes differ between taking the exact same context and comparing a traditional class with a flipped class? As if...
Final point.  To understand the concept of a flipped classroom is to understand the relationship between the asynchronous and the synchronous forms of communication, the way content is being delivered, and the learning theories that apply to any particular educational context.

3. The business possibilities are endless...

Why discuss business opportunities when the point seems to be about how abstract concepts like MOOCs and the flipped classroom are changing how learning will occur in higher education.  Any business solution is as complex as any solution related to learning.  Ok, so there are more choices for informal learning for educators...y que?

4. The immediate future of MOOCs may be uncertain...

This is where trying to define a MOOC becomes problematic.  Just try defining massive, open, and online, and one begins to see whyWhile we're at it, try defining terms like course, class, syllabus, lesson, lesson plan, etc.  Defining abstract concepts can sometimes overshadow the complexity of understanding these terms in any practical sense.  But realizing the infinite number of possible meanings of these terms, my guess is that "open, online courses" will become more ubiquitous as they become less "massive".  That is, the size and popularity of the MOOC alone will say little about how formative assessment promotes learning.

5. thing is clear – the world of higher education is changing in ways that we never could have imagined.

Is this really that clear?  I think what's clear is that institutions in higher education will embrace or be forced to take advantage of the opportunities that informal learning has to offer.

6. By 2020, we could be on the way to embracing continuous, lifetime learning for everyone in society taught by the world's greatest academic rock stars. 

Gee, I certainly hope not - I prefer jazz over rock any day.  Seriously, lifelong learning exists due to the number of choices that are currently available for informal learning.  These choices will continue to grow, but academic "jazz stars" will be defined by the learner and will not simply be based on a popularity contest.  Learners will search for educators that serve them best and may not be based solely on the educator's number of followers. 

7. New curriculum DJs - who are able to mix-and-match course offerings for specialized degrees - may emerge, selling their digital wares on iTunes.

The future business model of education will be those frameworks that lead to the most engaging, effective, and efficient educative experience for the largest number of learners possible - a claim that warrants a separate post so to cover some of the many variables involved.

The whole point here is not that teaching in many cases is (or could be) free (as in free beer); it is not about the amount learners should or should not pay for an education.  Free education deals more with perception, accreditation, future educational and professional goals of each learner, etc.  Instead, what is more relevant is  how open teaching and learning emerge - understanding the infinite number of ways ideas, materials, and people relate to each other regardless as to when and where these interactions might take place.