October 21st, 2009
Part I was my first post on this blog to “escape” comment and my only one to explicitly invite comment, so I’m on my own here. It may well be that the expectation is that I should finish what I started, not leave things hanging. Very well.
My basic point in that previous post was that, contrary to one explanation for why online learning has plateaued, I don’t think the re-ignition of the growth in online and blended learning awaits some new technological innovation we don’t have. And I say that despite seeing, just yesterday, a reaffirmation of that position in the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s “Wired Campus” blog: “Online Programs: Profits Are There, Technological Innovation Is Not.” Stepping around the swamp of speculation about online learning as a cash cow (think how many ships of foundered on those shoals), I’d say what we’re really waiting on is a fuller understanding what of we have in online teaching and learning now, at least potentially.
That understanding, I would aver, is not unlike the understanding western civilization had to move to in its last great technological revolution (using the term as it should be used, to signify real upheaval and overturning). When, in the mid-1400s, the advent of the printing press meant that, not just the putative Word of God, but the words of Aristotle (and a host of other past luminaries) could be put in the hands of the literate laity, professors were as frightened as clergy that they were being superannuated, “automated” out their jobs as mediators of truth, learning, information.
That turned out not to be the case, of course, though it took centuries of growing literacy (we’re still working on that) to get the full sense of what the change was (and was not). Books didn’t replace teachers. They enabled teachers, empowered teachers, required teachers.
Ditto technology. It has made faculty more important than ever before. Their job was never (just) information transmittal. Books would have sufficed for that. But what we’re after is not information, but knowledge. Knowledge is the fruit of interrogation, interpretation, application, criticism, synthesis. You need teachers for that. They have plenty of work to do. And technology helps. Arguably, it helps most of all by getting us past the idea that the transmission of information is the great goal.
Nobody puts this better than John Seely Brown, particularly in a keynote talk he did at the University of Colorado’s 2005 Teaching with Technology Conference. He is all over the place in the talk, making fascinating observations about how amateur astronomers are outdoing their professional counterparts, partly because they engage in more online collaboration. I might have missed the key insight at the end if I hadn’t been listening to this as a podcast (and during a long run). He suggests that we are moving from one model of education, particularly college education, to another.
The old model is a one-way exchange: people who have information give it to those who don’t have it. This is basically a packaging operation: wrapping up thought (in lectures, courses, books) and presenting it. As JSB reminds us, this is not the only model of education. He notes that the model of graduate education was always supposed to be different — not one wherein people with information give it to those who don’t, but one wherein everyone has access to information while one among them (the teacher, of course) is especially good at navigating through it, understanding the gaps and tensions, pointing out the really productive points of inquiry. Now, says JSB, there’s no good excuse not to use this model with undergraduates and not just in graduate seminars. The general and remarkable access to information — a 24/7 proposition — should free instructors to focus on the really fun parts of teaching: the invitations to critical thinking, the fruitful interventions, the point-of-need support, the re-directions of attention, the due recognition of accomplishment.
In short, it’s not the technology that needs to change, but the teaching. And the change has already begun. What technology has done is enabled the change by being a transformative medium: not old wine in new bottles (because that’s boring) but something different because done differently. Students are likely to resist the change as much as some faculty — thinking is hard work — but the problems and solutions are pedagogical, not technological.
That, at least, is one way of looking at it.