The Limits of the Learner-Centered Course : A Response (sort of) to Alan Levine

Alan Levine recently commented on some of the challenges of MOOC design, particularly noting what he called “MOOC ramming speed“, the tendency of MOOCs to rapidly move from one topic to the next.  All courses do that. When was the last time you were in a course that didn’t divide its schedule by the week?  Alan asks “Why a course?”

To extend the analogy, you have to move fast if you’re in a race.  At least in American education, speed is the new mantra.  In higher ed completion initiatives, it’s all about getting students from point A (where they are now) to point B as quickly, and therefore inexpensively, as possible . While point B may differ from student to student and institution to institution, from a national or state policy standpoint, it is invariably the possession of a skill set that makes the learner hireable.

This raises some other questions.  In order that learning systems be held accountable and assessed as to their effectiveness, we insist that learning have measurable objectives.  We also want everyone to be lifelong learners, Ergo, everyone should leave college able to create learning outcomes?

Sometimes self-directed learning has a clear outcome.  Last week, thanks to YouTube, I learned how to replace snare drum heads and snares, because I needed to do that, and someone in my PLN clued me in to the existence of Hot-Rods, a quieter drum stick alternative, because I needed a quieter stick for the novice drummer in the house.  Other times, learning isn’t about needing to know X or be able to do Y by date Z. Two years ago, Alan described it this way:

What is going to motivate the large swath of a society to become educated or to learn something in a self-directed fashion? It’s one thing to be facing a need that I need to to know first hand– how to fix a bike dérailleur, how to stop a leaking toilet, how to bake a lemon meringue pie how to add a widget to a web page– these are all places DIY shines, when I know that I don’t know something and want to fill that gap. It is clear when I don;t[sic] know something I want to know. Lots of people do this.

But what is going to drive people to learn what they don’t think they need to learn? What they don’t know is worth learning? In a DIY world with people tooling up for a better job, are they going to DIY their way into poetry? French literature? Is the limits of education the things we need to know how to perform/get a job?

In that respect the fleet analogy he uses would be hard to fit into the modern college or university, as is a real notion of learner-centeredness.  Learner-centered is another mantra of higher ed, but doesn’t real learner-centeredness mean that the learners decide what to learn, when to learn, and how to learn?  Even in the most learner-centered classrooms, the what and when are decided in advance by the instructor.  How do we reconcile the ideas of measurable objectives and time to completion with learning as “,,,being in the same space as people who care [about something],,,”? (Alan again) That kind of learning doesn’t have a defined endpoint.

These two visions of learning seem to part ways on whether the value of learning is extrinsic or intrinsic.  Education policy tends to focus on the former since it’s easier to measure. (Louis Menard examined higher education’s purpose brilliantly in a New Yorker essay last year. I wish it were required reading in every first-year seminar.)  Despite much searching I can’t find a citation, but someone has said that school is not learner centered because education, by its nature, is centered on society’s need to pass knowledge to future generations.What if he/she is right?


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