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EDUCAUSE Sprint 2013, Day 2: The Ways We Learn

Higher education has been living with various forms of nonresidential teaching and learning for a long time. Beginning with correspondence courses as long ago as 1728 and moving into other media as new technologies emerged—radio, television, the telephone, recorded audio and video, the Internet—learners and teachers have been finding ways to connect, and entities that provide education or accredit educators or decide what credentials to accept have had to reconcile the many forms of distance learning with “standard” education. “Standard,” of course, refers to the model in which someone who knows something stands (or sits) in front of a group of individuals who do not know that something and tells them that which they do not know. And then they know it, if they were paying attention.

Over the long history of distance education, the underlying pedagogy remained largely unchallenged and intact. Developments were mostly restricted to the delivery of education—new ways of replicating the standard lecture model of education across the bounds of time and location. The Internet and other information technologies, however, have prompted us to reconsider that model and investigate very different pedagogies, and the next question in that discussion is whether these “other” pedagogies might be better, even for residential students at traditional institutions of higher education. Which lands us in Day 2 of the EDUCAUSE Sprint 2013, a day whose topic is “How Technology Can Change Pedagogy.”

MOOCs are the starting point for this year’s Sprint discussions, and two of today’s presenters—Hank Lucas, Professor of Information Systems, University of Maryland College Park, and W. Eric L. Grimson, Chancellor, MIT—have each taught MOOCs. They both spoke in considerable detail about their experiences teaching in this model, Grimson to 95,000 students and Lucas to “only” 16,000. From their descriptions of the time invested developing their courses and the tools they used, it’s clear that teaching a MOOC today is not for the technologically faint of heart.

But what of the pedagogy? Is it fundamentally different, and if so, how?  At one point, Lucas said, “The lecture is dead, but the content of the lecture is not dead.” For his part, Grimson noted that MIT wants to use MOOCs to enhance residence-based education. In these statements, both presenters seem to support the notion that the technology can (and should) change the pedagogy. If that’s true, do MOOCs serve a purpose that other forms of computer-mediated education have not or cannot serve? In many venues, discussions about e-learning, online learning, and MOOCs tend toward an uncomfortable—if unintentional—conflation of these labels, and among the participants in today’s Sprint there was evidence both of this conflation and of objections from those who want more clarity in how the terms are used. Behind all this, the issue that seemed to underlie today’s Sprint discussions is the question of whether MOOCs are an evolution of e-learning and online learning, or whether something about MOOCs puts them into a different category. Is the MOOC simply the extension of online learning or e-learning to large, non-paying groups of students? Or do the size and the openness of MOOCs confer a new, qualitatively different status?

When I wonder whether one day “organic apples” will simply be called “apples,” I’m asking about the methods of growing apples. But an apple is an apple. When people question when “e-learning” will become just “learning,” we have a more difficult question because it implies a definable, fixed referent for “learning.” If technology can genuinely change pedagogy, maybe “e-learning” never becomes “learning” because different pedagogies produce different learning.

One of the presenters mentioned essays and the ways in which courses with massive enrollments have attempted to incorporate essays as assessment tools. Machine learning can do increasingly remarkable things, but to my eye, trying to figure a way to reasonably evaluate essays from potentially thousands of students in a MOOC feels like hammering a round assessment tool from a very different pedagogy into the square hole of a new approach to teaching and learning. If technology can indeed change pedagogy, it can also help us reevaluate assessment, credits, and a range of other teaching and learning issues. 

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