Eyjafjallajökull and PrejudiceX

My edu-disappointment was set to turn around: my graduate studies failed to engage (tip: don’t take a Masters in your undergrad major) to that point but optimism was slow to die. A chance to return to Oxford called, however feebly and I would answer. In short order a ‘plan’ was thrown together: attempt a reading in something bound to interest (medieval Islamic philosophy would do the trick), and continue towards a degree by taking online versions of these infernal introduction courses. So I ordered and packed the books I would need for my ten week courses and loaded the podcasts. Ethics, New Testament Gospels, and Theology II would be my lowest priority, and this I admitted freely to myself. And so I flew home and prepared to sleep amidst the dreaming spires.

A cloud not so figuratively separated me from this chance at redemption. Temporarily, of course, but I was n’t prepared for such a delay. So I listened to a few podcasts, read a few passages, and took sparse notes as I checked the boxes comprising my course responsibilities.

ominous NASA overview of the Icelandic sleeping giant

After several days I was finally transported. Opportunity. Fresh air. The promise of raindrops’ fall to heal my wearied optimism.

Ah, Oxford in the rain — I can imagine droplets on the Vines’ stones too easily

Strangely I was not only transported, but transformed. I became a morning person — a charge none would bring against me ever — rising before 7 each morning to blaze through 200-300 pages of reading at moderately difficult levels per day whilst dutifully implanting the earpieces. And the effects of this whittling began to show. For every 1,000 pages read or two hours’ lectures heard I felt the burdens lightening.

I processed 10 weeks’ reading and lectures in about the span of 3 weeks and could not have been more self-satisfied. The readings were largely dull as were the lectures. Little surprised me in the lectures either. These lecturers were more specialized than my previous professors, but I could n’t interact with them in this format. To be fair I barely interacted with my teachers in graduate school beyond maintaining something akin to eye contact and wincing at 85% of my classmates’ questions. There were few ‘hooks’ or insights I cared to deal with. I understood the majority of the readings and kept up with the lectures, but I was more checked out than I was in a physical classroom.

He’s not looking at me…

After over a week of this I began interspersing the West Wing with the listenings and readings. I never tried three at a time, but it was not unusual to attempt following an episode whilst straddling Facebook chatting and listening to the briefer podcasts. Needless to say, and partly due to my split attentions, my meaningful interactions with the materials were minimal.

On the other hand, I found my study exhilarating.  Breathe in — breathe out.  M. Whit happened to have written not only on Medieval Islamic philosophy, but on my preferred philosopher.  Though everything I tried was unpolished, he still offered his guidance in constructing an initial bibliography and tightening my research questions.  Our sessions continued to trim this focus in and by the end I had summarized the philosopher’s contribution, although I continue struggling with the best explanation of this, and become briefly acquainted with some important excerpts.  A non-expert I remained but I can speak meaningfully about this project because I was directly guided and I was heard.

My writing faults were laid bare to me insofar as they affected what I wished to communicate — if you want to say something miscommunication hurts.  Grammar and form not only guide, but serve meaning.

I miss my whiteboards

In my not-so-massive and not-so-open online course I was not heard.  I was to listen, and read, and finally take some exams and write.  I put some care into the book-reports, but barely studied for my exams and blagued my way through.  The final 28 hours approaching the submission deadline on the distant Pacific Coast saw me generate well over 30 pages of academic writing.  I breathed deeply — and I want to imagine it was raining as I escaped that small library, stole away home, gesticulated wildly as my email ate my work before finally obeying my wishes, and finally became one with that creaking chair.  As memory serves the result was in keeping with my GPA — unspectacularly in A-/B+ territory.

There was naught by way of feedback aside from the grades.  No helpful interactions.  No suggested improvements.  Take this and move along.

Elation wore away.  Optimism was served another cold blow and I marched three disgruntled steps closer to graduating — no better for the wear.


You may think my juxtaposition unfair.  I attempt to extrapolate the distance learning version of the lecture course, which sadly would ‘ve had little more by way of feedback or interaction, to massive open online courses or MOOCs.  But what I do n’t hear in Sams’ EPIC2020 prognostication or in many pro-MOOC/anti-brick and mortar establishment gushings is a thoughtful pedagogy.

I am first comparing the value of a teacher-centered model of learning, or lecture-based, with a student-centered one which emphasizes student aptitudes, learning styles, and skills.  TedEd, according to Sams, is matching the best lecturers (or best known) with the best design teams.  But a lecturing model is minimally effective — even when there is class order, the class is small, and the personality of the instructor is dynamic.  Eye contact and the opportunities for interaction are sacrificed in favor of the memorize-what-I-said framework.  Knowledge which can be expounded in this manner by an expert must necessarily be stationary, so the hearers can catch up, and containable — or reductive.

MOOCs mean everyone can achieve the back-row lecture experience

What types of knowledge fit such a pedagogy?  We should be little surprised to find it is basic mathematics or grammar.  And here I would point out a similarity.  Math is a language by which we analyze items around us through analogies (remember word problems) and models (e.g., xyz-planes/Cartesian coordinate systems).  It is useful, so long as the rules are followed.  A do-exactly-as-I-do approach is effective for a fair sampling of the populace, although student-discovery programs are valuable as well.  Basic grammar is quite similar — the ability to accomplish solutions in the real world without sequencing and order suffers with consistent errors.  Anyway, this model will work for some self-actuated learners whose learning styles match well with a lecture-based format.

But it cannot work well in teaching students to become masters.  And for this reason it will not replace, although it will certainly draw away from, campuses.  Knowledge would have to stop changing — but it is a moving series of boundaries whenever closely examined in any fine detail.  It’s why you can’t learn a language wholesale from a podcast, or a few movies, or from one lecturer.  You need to interact, receive feedback on the culture you ‘re failing to consider.

Language deserves its own full treatment, but it will have to suffice to say that so long as there are speaking-communities, so long as the language ‘lives’ words will continue to change in usage.  As such, their precise meaning cannot be fully ascertained by data-mining.  Instead spending time in a community is necessary to achieve mastery.  Knowledge of this sort requires familiarization with culture.  I fully realize few institutions adequately provide for real-language learning opportunities, but MOOCs are n’t close to the answer either.  In the coming years language-learning is going to be a driving force and the education needs can be served by tutors, whether in small or large companies, but not by MOOCs once the student reaches an intermediate (or more likely pre-intermediate) level.

Socialization and interpersonal skills will not ever be fully met through social media, insofar as social networking continues to mean screen-to-screen communication.  Decorum, true empathy, and the people skills necessary to succeed in any job which has clients or co-workers are best served by a mentorship model.  Part of the reason companies like to hire college graduates is they know a graduate at least had to live with other people in some capacity.  This could be achieved without an on-campus experience, but the value of working within social constructs will remain appealing to many portions of the economy.

Finally, critical thinking in the form of helpful arguments and top notch writing cannot be achieved alone.  At some point we all have to hear why our support is wanting, our repetitions clanging, and thinking clouded.  Writing is a practice best learned by finding something worth saying and then fumbling for the words.  My deficiencies were discovered in steps and at last I have found a voice I recognize akin to my own.  My distance learning courses were not part of the sharpening, but my being tutored was.  I could see what I was failing to say more clearly than what I was saying.  I needed to be heard before I could hear myself.

Peer-grading in MOOCs is not the answer if companies wish to employ articulate message-bearers.  Advertising, and fund-raising, and in-office consensus building require writing and reasoning skills not to be found through social media.  Do any need proof Facebook and Twitter are not the places to learn the value of logical reasoning?  They are, rather, reflections of what their members already are — or are n’t yet.


Lest any should think I am stumping for the general on-campus experience, I ‘m not.  The cost of education versus the return in marketable skills, quality of life improvements, and employability is horrifically mis-distributed.  Too much of future students are indebted in the service of new and unnecessary construction, new student recruitment, textbook suppliers, and middle management.  As a result class sizes grow while teacher-student interaction diminishes, teachers who bring research-grants or new students to the schools are rewarded while the best teachers//not lecturers//are easily overlooked or filtered out.  The goal of these education-institutions is easily too monetized and too little interested in the surrounding community or the students’ real potential impacts in their jobs.  So much for optimism.

MOOCs seem most likely to replace community colleges while the large scale universities crumble simply because the current model is unsustainable.

unless progress does n’t mean learner improvement

Tutoring centers and mentorships or research fellowships could well fill in the gaps for those seeking to develop skill sets.  Business writing and other skill-focused centers could supply the missing links as students hone skills and pursue mastery.  Instead of a Mozilla badge, or certificate of course completion, schools, MOOCs and tutoring centers will most hopefully provide portfolio pages which both laud demonstrated skills and suggest steps for improvement for the students.

Whatever shape the future will take, it is meaningless to simply predict what will happen.  It is far better to attempt to shape it with meaningful values guiding the discussion.  If education is to improve, it won’t be merely technological innovation — it will require varied pedagogical models, community- and student-focuses, and just enough optimism to seek continued improvement.  Or else we shall be left well acquainted with a knowledge cheaply bought, poorly summarized, and inappropriately suited to our purposes.  And that would n’t be worth teaching to anyone.