I’ll admit it right up front … when it comes to teaching working adults in Higher Education, I am still “Old School” at the core. And however Higher Education changes, I believe we must maintain some “Old School” ideas in the mix!
It is pretty obvious that Higher Education is facing a tsunami of technology change as we attempt to deal with the growing challenges of skyrocketing costs, massive student loan write-offs, inability to match education to jobs and a general decline in the societal appreciation of knowledge for its own sake. (See my earlier post, “Is Education Redefining Itself?” elsewhere on this site). The debate is rising as the experts all weigh in on the various methods of utilizing technology, as well as the benefits and costs of the various alternatives. It seemed only natural for me to partake in a variety of these alternative methodologies to experience first hand the experience each one offers. The result? I am very impressed and excited about my experiences, but still find myself missing certain elements of the learning experience. It is not the content that I missed because my experiences were filled with interesting content, often rigorous. Rather it was the way I learned, the breadth and experiential nature of my learning, the camaraderie and collegiality of the classroom and the ultimate loneliness that kept creeping in my experiences.
I had previously begun my splurge into technology by taking a doctorate level management course at a major proprietary institution. In this course, email and focused newsgroups formed the technology core and the lectures, exercises and papers were in written format. There were Learning Teams, API Formatting and online Examinations that were machine graded. There were discussion questions and verbal interaction. It was nonsynchronous and very convenient.
I later tried one of the courses provided in iTunes, a political science course from a prominent school. It featured some spoken word lectures and video content as well as PowerPoints and slides. It was somewhat similar to the offerings on YouTube (yes, YouTube!!) that were based upon recorded lectures and some ancillary materials. They turned out to be pretty boring, although I have to take some of the responsibility for that.
And then the MOOCs – the Massive Open Online Courses that are the current rage. I took two courses through Coursera: (1)a course by the University of Edinburgh on Astrobiology and the Search for Life and (2)World History since 1760 from the University of Virginia. I found the academic content and rigor of these courses to be of very high quality, consistent with more typical undergraduate courses. The lectures were excellent – well planned and paced, consistently thoughtful and challenging and always attractive to watch. I found myself very much drawn to the presentations, whether viewed on my PC, laptop, iPad or iPhone. I viewed a few of the lectures multiple times to make sure I increased my retention. I’ll admit I did not do all the reading, but I did pass all the quizzes and participated in the discussion groups. The quizzes were a bit easier than I expected. The discussion groups were filled with discussion, but with an extreme mixture that ranged from inane to very insightful. It was very uneven and impersonal with no real basis for us to connect with each other. Of course there is no college credit, but I did earn a “certificate”.
As much as I enjoyed learning from all these different educational modalities, I missed some of the basic qualities that make “Old School” so effective in its own way. Primarily I missed the eye to eye contact with a real person, the opportunity to ask questions in the middle of a lecture to better understand a point. I missed the body language, the extemporaneous humor of the lecturer, the impromptu introduction of personal anecdotes and examples that seemed unrehearsed and “real”. And what we give up from the teacher’s point of view. There is no one to utilize “Classroom Assessment Techniques”, where the teacher can use cues such as eye contact, alertness, questions and facial expressions to make the alterations that enable the instructor to more effectively deliver the material. The classroom exercises would have been more natural and extemporaneous, and often more fun. In the absence of the teacher’s assessment skills there is a “sameness” and middle of the road presentation that falls short of the live presentation.
There are more Old School qualities that we also need to incorporate: the creation of a collegial and professional atmosphere for learning, outlets for informal and even social interactions to understand the human behavior characteristics that are often part of any solution. Heated arguments, earnest discussions, even a song or laughter are conducive to better learning.
One example that I believe has demonstrated some hope of retaining some “Old School” qualities is the FlexNet modality at the University of Phoenix. It is a modality where the first and last weeks of class are in the physical classroom led by a teacher, with all the related advantages. The middle of the course is offered in an online modality, using the Web and email to communicate. By adding some elements from the MOOC the combination may be quite powerful. To be sure, the online portion of such a course offers the great advantages of all online courses: time flexibility, proximity, and sometimes cost. Online simply can’t be beat for its flexibility in time commitment from students, and or the fact you can be anywhere that has an Internet connection to do the work. Students” concern for their schedule often is the dominate decision factor. But we are not reaching the full potential if we cannot integrate personal contact with a teacher and fellow students, a connection that helps enhance the meaningfulness and transformational nature of education, not just the knowledge base. Let’s hear it for “Old School!”