There is a conspicuous and abiding fallacy residing at the heart of formal education, namely that what is taught is what is learned, that what the teacher teaches is what the student learns. Education systems, schools, college and universities around the world today rest, as they have done for much of their existences, on an illusory foundation, and I believe that much of what is wrong with formal education today arises from this enduring and mistaken belief.
When we come to the full realisation of the actual relationship between teaching and learning, we begin to discern the sheer pointlessness of so much of what passes for educational policy and strategy in today’s world. We know that human beings learn through interaction with others, with ideas, with information, with the world at large, but that ultimately they create and shape their own learning. The intervention of the teacher in this process is important and valuable, but at no point in the interaction of teacher and student, other than by occasional happy accident, does the learner ‘learn’ what the teacher ‘teaches’.
An appreciation of this, the true nature of learning, means that the complex edifices of curricula, pedagogy, assessment, accreditation, teacher education and professional development, as well as the overbearing structures of institutional management and educational organization, start to crumble to dust before our eyes.
There are strategies that teachers and schools can employ to ensure that technology becomes purposeful and systematic. There can be little doubt that its potential is very great, as it provides the opportunity for effective teaching of skills, of finding and using information within a context of high student interest. This unique combination is too great a value to be wasted.
.…the same three-person team of a professor plus assistants that used to teach analog circuit design to 400 students at MIT now handles 10,000 online and could take a hundred times more.…
So said Anant Agarwal, the computer scientist appointed by MIT and Harvard this year to head edX, a $60 million joint effort (currently including UC Berkeley and the University of Texas, as well as MIT and Harvard) to stream a college education over the Web, free to anyone who wants it. Their aim, in time, they say is to reach 1 billion students by this means.
However, while my pedagogical sympathies are somewhat closer to the MOOC’s prime movers, I also have a lot of admiration for what the big players are doing too. Coursera and Udacity, as well as the likes of edX, are all non-profit social enterprise ventures, and while their pedagogy is primarily a ‘knowledge-delivery’ model (as opposed to social-constructivist or connectivist model), they are very much part of a broad-based set of developments in education that, I believe, are coalescing into a major storm that will sweep through the structures and assumptions of formal institutional education in the next few years. Of course, there are many other MOOCs out there too: Stephen Downes offers a recent list of international providers.
That foundation in the pedagogy of the lecture theatre also means, of course, that the big providers are also hoping to find the commercial holy grail of trusted, authenticated and secure accreditation via the MOOC.
Nonetheless, it will be interesting to watch what the effect will be on all those universities across the world currently licensing courses from the big providers. I doubt that they are licensing their own annihilation, as some of the more lurid commentators might suggest; but i do think they are hastening a massive and welcome shift in the centre of gravity in higher education globally.
The MOOC is a development that, like all great innovations, is a culmination of inventions, formations, thinking, experimentations, mistakes and triumphs that came before it; it is also like all great innovations in that it is a game-changer. The game is changing in higher education, and in education generally — of that there is no doubt — and while the MOOC can only be a part of that change, it is a critical part. The MOOC will never be able to cope with all the requirements of learning and of study: there will also be a need, in some disciplines for lab work, ground work, work in the field, whatever. But there should be little doubt that the MOOC is a major development in education.
So, the greatest edtech development in 200 years? I certainly hope so!
On a number of occasions over the past 6 years I have been able to watch the work of UNESCO at close hand and in the process gained considerable respect for the organization. In keeping with that, I do believe that this report is a superb, detailed and compassionate summary of the state of education for millions upon millions of children across the developing world. It offers a description of a state of affairs that should bring shame to the rest of the world — we are failing all those children very badly.
Early in the report, he states that:
No education system anywhere in the world is better than its teachers.
And he goes on later to say:
Teachers are the backbone of any education system. Ultimately, learning is the product of what happens in classrooms through a relationship between pupils and teachers. That is why no education system is better than the availability, accessibility and quality of the teachers it provides, and the level of support that it delivers to those on the front line of education in the classroom.
With I Am Learner in mind, this begs many more questions than it answers, but it would be churlish in the extreme not to accept the core point being made, that good quality teaching should be central to a good educational provision, and most especially for the education of young children.
It is a dismal and unassailable fact that there is a massive shortage of good quality teachers across the developing world, especially, but by no means exclusively, across the countries in sub-Saharan Africa. According to Gordon Brown’s report, the world’s poorest countries need something like 1.8 million additional teachers over the next three years alone to provide even basic primary education to their children, as well as around 4 million more classrooms and all of the most basic items of equipment that we might expect to find in those classrooms.
Brown is absolutely right therefore to state that:
The world is today facing an education emergency. That emergency does not make media headlines. But it has disastrous human, social and economic consequences. It is consigning millions of children to lives of poverty and diminished opportunity, holding back progress in health, reinforcing disparities linked to wealth and gender, and undermining prospects for economic growth. And it is destroying on an epic scale the most valuable asset of the world’s poorest nations – the creativity, talent and potential of the young generation.
An education emergency indeed, and one on a vast and massively consequential scale for humanity worldwide. It requires equally vast and prolonged global investment to put right.
Elsewhere in the report, Gordon Brown enthuses over the potential for harnessing technology to improve educational provision. However, he believes that:
New technologies do not offer a quick fix for systemic problems in education systems. What they do offer is a vehicle for improving access to opportunities for education and the quality of service provision.
The last thing this global emergency needs is any kind of quick fix. But I do believe that there is a potentially powerful application of digital and networking technologies that could play a significant role, alongside all the other big investments needed, in contributing to a much better quality education for many millions of the poorest children in the poorest countries around the world.
From Massive Open Online Course to Massive Open Online Classroom (MOOCl)
Anyone with even the remotest interest in higher education of late will be aware of the MOOC. The basic concept of the Massive Open Online Course (a term devised by Dave Cormier) is a simple one, but the implications of the MOOC for the future of higher education in particular are the stuff of a debate that is washing around global education at the present time.
I will trust that anyone reading this already knows what a MOOC is, although I will not necessarily trust that everyone knows that there are MOOCs and there are MOOCs. If your knowledge of the concept of the MOOC is restricted to those ‘delivered’ by the likes of Coursera or Udacity, then I would urge you to go back to grass roots and read some of what you might find, for instance, in MOOC.ca, set up by Stephen Downes to host news, information and discussion around the concept, in the writings of George Siemens, Dave Cormier, already mentioned, and others. Open, experimental and connectivist in nature, the MOOC is an explicit and conscious attempt to use the incredible affordances offered by the Internet to change the nature of education.
The massive-ness, openness and online-ness of the MOOC are all givens, of course, and are all critical to the effect that the development is having at the present time. But I, for one, am less sure that the course-ness of the concept has to be a given too. I would recognise that the fact that the MOOC is built around the course is probably what is keeping the concept fairly firmly within the broad arms of higher education, for the moment at least. As Martin Weller has written:
…after a decade of OERs, it’s interesting that we’re coming back to educator constructed courses…
Classroom instead of Course?
When I look at the situation faced by those millions of children worldwide, in a context of potential massive global connectedness, and yet in circumstances where so many of them have no access to good teaching, I can’t but help wonder how the MOOC might be taken, re-shaped, and made into something that could begin to ameliorate some of the worst effects of that generally awful situation.
I recognise, of course, that such a simply stated change is, in fact, anything but simple. The course is a generally uncomplicated thing, usually (although by no means necessarily) linear, structured, a comprehensible process in which ideas or concepts or information are introduced, discussed, dissected, re-shaped, combined, understood; it can be a single unit of ‘instruction’ or a whole programme of learning, or something in between; and it can be delivered or presented (taught) by a single teacher or in some senses by everyone on the course (as the original conception of the MOOC seeks to achieve).
The classroom, even the virtual, conceptual classroom, is a quite different beast. It is a ‘place’, a platform; it is the site where courses can happen, where teachers can offer lessons across all disciplines, where learners can go to access learning, debate, insight, expertise, authority; it is a meeting place in which education can happen; it is the locus for teaching and learning activities of all kinds.
I believe we have many, perhaps most, of the elements already that would have to be brought together to create the MOOCl. Instinctively, however, I feel that a MOOCl would not be nearly as simple as a MOOC to start up and sustain. It would require an operational core of a kind and scale that is probably not true of the MOOC, although that operational core, I would suggest, need not be a single organizing unit: it could be an open, distributed affair, sympathetic to the origins of the MOOC. It should offer access to masses of great teaching and learning resources — the Khan Academy is an obvious example of what could be utilised, but so too could the thousands of other high quality, freely available teaching and learning resources that increasingly throng the web, and across so many of the world’s major, and not so major, languages.
So far, so what? All of these resources are available today. But the MOOCl would have to incorporate some kind of organizing layer, a simple interface that would allow any individual anywhere in the world not only to access the resources as such, but also to access courses, communities, teachers (who can be, and probably will be, other learners), expertise and guidance. The MOOCl might also be a device for those teachers who already are on the ground, so to speak, in the poorest countries, to grab hold of and use as a means of enhancing their own teaching expertise. The MOOCl would be the teacher’s global mentor, guide, teaching assistant, just as much as it would be the learner’s teacher too.
Again, you might say, this sounds like a description of the World Wide Web. But the MOOCl would have to be more than simply ‘available’: it would have to be set up in a way that would allow it reach out in a proactive way, to find its way into those places in the world where we know there are young children who currently have few or no teachers to help them learn, where there are few or no teaching and learning resources. This will require much thought, huge organization, and of course investment. Is there a role here for the big philanthropic foundations as well as governments? I believe so.
But what of access to the network, access to connected devices? Of course, the MOOCl would have to be capable of being used across the world’s mobile networks and accessible on mobile devices — Gordon Brown’s report tells us that mobile cellular penetration has reached 50% in the developing world and is still increasing fast. The cell phone is the default access device for many millions of people in the world’s poorest countries, and that is likely to be the case for many years to come.
How much of this can be done in the same spirit as the original MOOC? I don’t know, I suspect not much, but I would love to be proved wrong. I know I am merely scratching the surface with an undeveloped and potentially stillborn idea — but if the acute minds of thoughtful and creative people can come up with the MOOC, I would like to think those same, and other, minds could be applied to how we can turn the Massive Open Online Course into the Massive Open Online Classroom to serve the desperate desperate needs of so many millions of children in dire economic and educational poverty across the world.
Our approach to formal assessment seems to be so outdated that even pub quizzes are showing it up. The irony of a team of teachers winning a pub quiz by accessing the answers on their smart phones shouldn’t be lost on us. The kids I teach can access everything which is blocked to them in the classroom by stepping outside into the corridor to use their phones. They can access Facebook and Youtube and Twitter and possibly the answer to every question we are currently asking in school.
Even in the pub, after his customary half-pint of guiness, Kenny Pieper can see how outmoded our systems of formal assessment are.
Closed questions, closed books and devices switched off are all signs of a mode of assessment that, while they might offer results that can populate league tables, really offer little else of value today.
Our relationship to information has changed, but the processes that test that relationship have not.
Disputes and controversies and disagreements abound in every sphere of human knowledge and activity. That is the very nature of human discourse. The world would be a dreadful, boring place if we all agreed with each other all of the time on everything (some people, strangely, would define their heaven in just those terms). A little less disagreement here and there might avoid wars and bloodshed and pointless death and destruction, but that possibility does not appear to be a universal likelihood any time soon.
Disputation and debate differ in kind though from one sphere of activity to another. We can, for example, contrast the kinds of disputes that scientists might have with disputes between religious ‘scholars’: the former might arise out of differing interpretations of evidence whilst the latter are more likely to be debates characterized not only by a complete lack of evidence but often by a contempt for same.
My own principal sphere of activity, education, is an intense and constant battleground of crossed swords, conflict and contention, and it falls, I would attest, somewhere between those polarities of scientific and religious debate. The vigour of the manifold disputes in education is a function of its intrinsic nature as one of the humanities, as an activity arising out of the human condition.
As one of the humanities, there is simply no absolute right or absolute wrong in education. We make judgements and take positions based on our reasoning, of course, but also based on our values and principles, philosophies and ideologies, interests and self-interests, prejudices and, indeed, bigotries. There are, oddly, very many people — teachers, writers, philosophers, politicians, thinkers and non-thinkers alike — who will tell you, categorically, that their standpoint on any particular aspect of education is unequivocally right, and therefore that any differing take on the same issue is plainly wrong. Sometimes, these same people will point to ‘evidence’ that ‘proves’ their standpoint, all the while forgetting that undertaking research on education is a billion light years away from undertaking research on particle physics (for example). Educational research is in the same league as research in philosophy or sociology or anthropology: outcomes are heavily dependent upon the questions asked and the positions taken by the researchers. Evidence is useful, of course, but it will rarely if ever constitute ‘proof’ of anything in education — it gives us a starting point, if we are lucky, but never absolute validation.
Those who understand this distinction understand therefore that they can never claim any absolute validity for their views on education, since they recognise that their perspective on any or all education questions is inextricably bound up in the values they hold, in the political ideology to which they ascribe, in the psychology of their own learning experiences throughout their lives, in their (or their family’s, or their community’s) self-interest, whether conscious or unconscious, and in so many other imponderables in their lives.
Such people understand that they must argue and debate their standpoint constantly, and that they must be prepared to listen to other’s views, to learn from others and to change their own views through debate with others. Equally we are perfectly justified in seeking to explain and affirm our own philosophies in education, and even to seek to persuade others to see learning and teaching and pedagogy and all aspects of education as we happen to see them.
Don’t mistake my argument as one that endorses unalloyed relativism: we must always be willing to make critical judgements on the basis of our experience and, yes, on the basis of whatever evidence we can lay our hands on (going far beyond just the outcomes of academic research). But we use experience and intellectual argument and evidence to substantiate and support our own judgements, not to ‘prove’ that we are absolutely right and others are absolutely wrong. We must continue to judge, to evaluate, to distinguish between good and bad logic. Education, as a humanity, has to be based upon rigorous intellectual analysis and reasoning, as well as on moral and ethical considerations.
It is in that flux of ideas and conflicting opinions generated, maintained and developed by thoughtful, autonomous and rational minds that the beauty of coherent educational debate lies. We need not respect others’ views, but, mostly, we do need to tolerate them (I am with Frank Furedi when he decries the modern tendency to equate tolerance with acceptance and respect, and even the trend towards devaluing the meaning of respect itself). The caveat to such tolerance, of course, will be the extent to which we feel that others’ views on education are actually physically or emotionally harmful to children, to young people, or to learners generally.
Taking breakfast with friends in San Jose, Costa Rica, sounds like a nice way to start the day. But unfortunately I will not be able to take up my invitation to the Commemorative Breakfast being held for the 25th anniversary of the Omar Dengo Foundation on Friday of this week, 20th July. It would be nice to meet up once again with friends such as Clothilde Fonseca and Eduardo Monge, as well as the current Executive Director of this great organization, Leda Munõz.
I first visited the Omar Dengo Foundation back in 2007 and was struck immediately by the determination of everyone in the organization to work for a better society through the potent combination of digital and networking technologies with a progressive philosophy of education. I have been back a number of times since and I always come way greatly impressed by their work.
I hope the breakfast goes well, and I know that the Foundation will go from strength to strength, and will surely still be working on behalf of learners and teachers in Central America and beyond 25 years from now!