#FutureEd Peer Assessment 1 – Unlearning What it Means to be Learned

I’m not sure if it was reading encyclopedias for fun, or treating Jeopardy as appointment television each afternoon, or the years on the school quiz bowl team, but as a teenager I was quite certain that you could identify an intelligent and educated person when you saw them because they knew a lot of stuff. I also knew that factual accuracy was hugely important.  I just couldn’t understand why, one day when I patiently corrected an acquaintance that every big, fancy church was not a cathedral and that you had to have a bishop in residence, he promptly told me off.

It was in college that I started to unlearn the proposition that factual knowledge = intelligence and education.  I noticed that the adjuncts with Master’s Degrees, not the tenured Ph.D.’s were the instructors that had the best rapport with students and seem to inspire the most learning. But surely all those Ph.D’s knew more, didn’t they?  If being learned didn’t mean knowing stuff, what did that mean for me?  For a very long time , being the person who knew lots of stuff had  been a huge part of my identity. I took being called a walking reference book as a compliment. I won at Trivial Pursuit against a room full of Mensans.  Then came the absolute tipping point … Google.  The game was up.  With a search query , anybody could know stuff on demand with no expensive book habit required.

I still remember a moment when I started to understand what the alternative was.  I was in a music methods class and the professor was discussing the folk ballad “The Twa Sisters”.   I mentioned how it was like _________ (I can’t remember what, but whatever it was was non musical.) After class she stopped me and told me it was an intelligent comment, because it had made a connection between two not obviously related things. Maybe being educated was about being able to put facts and ideas together, like puzzle pieces. (Please note that I still can’t stand jigsaw puzzles.  They don’t lend themselves to brute-force analysis.)

This realization has, slowly but surely, changed how I teach.  In my first few years, I still clung to “objective” tests because I lacked the confidence and energy to defend a “subjective” grade on a writing sample.  I have slowly but surely moved the other direction, and have now reached the point where the graded multiple choice exam has disappeared from my course design. That unlearning also helped push me towards things like #FutureEd.  Most of our educational habits teach students something (explicit memorized knowledge) that is much less important than it used to be.  The questions I am left with are, “What learning tools help to create what I now understand a learned person to be in the same way a pile of encyclopedias and a Jeopardy habit helped create the knowledge-filled person I thought  a learned person was?”  “How do we make those tools as available to the world as Google is?”

What Education Should Be

Among the questions of the week in “The History and Future of Higher Education”  (Cathy Davidson’s MOOC at Coursera) is “What kind of education do you believe in?”  There are so many ways to answer that question that it quickly becomes daunting.  Nevertheless, I’ll start with the most controversial thought first and go from there, but before I get started, let me explain why this post isn’t in the Coursera forums.  One of the items in A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age is “The right to own one’s personal data and intellectual property.” I’m asserting that right by not putting my discussion posts in the forum at Coursera.  Instead they will be here on my blog that I administer.  If Dr.  Davidson and her colleagues were more serious about this right, they’d consider setting up an RSS aggregator as DS106 has done.

1.  Education should care less about sorting.  The process of dividing the A’s from the B’s from the C’s, while it may be nice for HR departments sorting through candidates, doesn’t seem to me to help people learn.  I believe in education that puts learning first, assessment second (has the learner met the objectives) and sorting last.  If I could snap my fingers and change one thing, all education would be pass/fail.I think this would also help build community, because you’d never be trying to get a higher grade than the person next to you.

2. Education should value process over content (most of the time) .You can’t hold a conversation in a language if you have to look up every word, and I don’t want the paramedic taking several minutes to look up things while I’m in a medical emergency, but in many other cases, we don’t need as much instant recall as we once did.  Unfortunately, far too many educational experiences are still designed as if we do.Oddly enough, this is something the oft-criticized “menu” of general education curricula understands.  One can learn a scientific way of thinking from studying biology or chemistry or physics, for example.  Keith Devlin from Stanford recently wrote this about MOOCs

What MOOCs and other forms of online education have already been shown to be capable of – and it is huge – is provide lifelong educational upgrades at very low cost.

 

But based on what I and many of my fellow MOOC pioneers have so far discovered – or at least have started to strongly suspect – the initial “firmware” required to facilitate those continual “software” upgrades is not going to get any cheaper. Because the firmware installation is labor intensive and hence not scalable – indeed, for continuously-learning-intensive Twenty-First Century life, not effectively scalable beyond 25-student class-size limits.

I like his notion that one of the primary purposes of traditional higher education is to engender the habits that allow a person to learn from a MOOC environment.

3.  Education should be learner-directed.  Ideally, learners should be  able to pick projects from within broad areas that match their interests and passions.  They’ll stick with them not because of grit but because they care about what they are doing. Some of my thinking on this issue is informed by my parallel participation in Dave Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning Course hubbed at P2PU.  It’s probably because of spending a couple of weeks in the #rhizo14 cohort that My first impression of #FutureEd was how restrictive it felt by comparison.  One could argue that #rhizo14 is more of a curated discussion than a course, to be fair.

I wrestle with the suggestions I’ve just made because I recognize the value of some things I’ve learned that I didn’t want to learn at the time.  For example, an “Intro to Literary Theory” graduate seminar, by making me read Freud and Derrida, helped me realize how much the reader matters to the experience of reading and understanding a text.  I’m not sure how to balance the benefits of exposing learners to ideas they didn’t know about and the benefits of learner agency.