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For the last two days UD has been in Washington DC, at a high-level gathering of federal government, Gates Foundation, and university people, all of whom convened to talk about how to use online technology to improve education for American students, from elementary to graduate school.

The meeting took place in a gorgeous multilevel hotel where grand pianos hovered over shallow pools and jazz with a perk up! beat filled the air.

It was the sort of place that lifts your game.  Everyone looked sharp, bright, perked up.

Four other groups met at the same time among the immense soft-lit halls of the lower level.  Behind the walls of the halls, immense Ladies' Rooms went on and on in the half-light, their vast handicapped stalls beckoning.   Outside the Ladies', buffets appeared everywhere, and these also went on and on, spicing the atmosphere with cinnamon teas.


Here was a world truly blessed, in other words, truly beautiful to the eye (eco-chic design), ear (jazz), and nose (the buffets). Everyone was genial, well-dressed, and rested. The signage was excellent. It was impossible to get lost.


Yet the feel of our particular convocation was unsettled. Our job was to contribute to a report that will be read by the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and other agencies as they implement national online ed initiatives. They wanted to know about best practices, the latest research, controversies across the very broad field of knowledge and technology.

Everyone's attracted to the capacity of screen technology to democratize education, to enable any student with internet access to benefit from the same materials more privileged students have enjoyed.  And for decades educational theorists and computer scientists have more and more minutely elaborated psychologies of the American student, along with ideas about applications that will attract and hold the intellectual interest of those students.  They have begun to talk about "affective computing," in which, for example, you attach sensors to students to see what emotions they're feeling as they move through an online lesson.

It's all extremely "student-centered," as the much-used jargon has it (UD heard this phrase almost as much as she heard the word MOOC at the conference).  One of the keynote speakers said American education is boring and ineffective because it doesn't resemble the online games and other screen activities students experience at home.  Educational reform thus needs to involve mimicking those conditions at school.  You have to meet the students where they are.

On the college level, many people at the conference insisted that (again using the popular jargon) the "sage on the stage" must be replaced by the "guide on the side."  The professor as superior in knowledge to the student, lording that knowledge over the student by hogging the limelight, telling the students answers rather than letting them find answers themselves -- all of this is a species of elitism, and screen technology must be used to hasten the obsolescence of this hierarchical model.  Above all, the traditional lecture has got to go.


The odd thing is that the hugely popular and hugely talked about MOOC phenomenon - a phenomenon that totally dominated discussion at this conference - is the exact opposite of all of this.

MOOCs are filmed lectures, typically given by charismatic professors from our best universities.  Rather than the rapid multitasking typical of computer games (a mode of behavior many of the attendees, again,  recommend for the classroom and for the at-home student), the MOOC focuses student attention intensely and enduringly on the face and voice of one other human being.  The pace is human; it isn't the manic shifting about of Facebooking and gaming.  The MOOC may include a discussion thread and tests and so forth; but its main component is one person, one voice, one almost unmoving human image.

So how can it be that MOOCs are so popular, here in America, and, it seems, all over the world?  Aren't they just bringing back the sage on the stage, the deadly lecture?  Why would people want this?  It's positively old-fashioned.

Two of the most high-profile participants at the conference expressed open hostility against MOOCs.  One scoffed that MOOCs had no research behind them.  He seemed offended that any phenomenon would assume cultural importance without the backing of lots of research -- his sort of research in particular.  The other suddenly broke into the civility of one of the breakout sessions with anger.  "Why do we keep talking about MOOCs?  If I hear that word one more time..."  Nothing in her decades of research made room for the possibility that the sage on the stage would come riding back into town on a Coursera pony.


People are curious about other people; they like other people.  They're not really designed to spend their high school and college years alone in their bedrooms; they're supposed to be at a school, among other people.  When you compound their isolation by offering fast-moving words and images and brief filmed snippets with people in them, you don't create at all ideal conditions for understanding aspects of the world.  On the other hand, when you display for them a human being they respect and find compelling, a human being they might want to be like, or might want to impress, they connect with that person, emotionally as well intellectually, and they are happy to settle in for many lectures with her as she gradually reveals both a field of knowledge and an attitude toward the reflective life.

As techies hop about with cameras and sensors, making the student more and more self-conscious, the sage on the MOOC stage makes the student forget herself and enter into a new and exciting world of thought.

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