13 February 2013

Putting the cart before the course.

After getting in a discussion with Debbie Morrison on her blog Online Learning Insights, I came to realise that we were misunderstanding each other over the vagueness of the definition of what a MOOC really is, and I was going to write a post about this, when I realised that in order to do that, I would first have to consider what the meaning of the word “course” is.
This train of thought had actually been idling in the station for a while, ever since I watched a video of atalk given by Roger Schank to staff at the World Bank. Something Schank said didn't ring true – he described the word “course” as imply a race, winners and losers. I wasn't happy with this interpretation, but it wasn't until I got into the discussion with Debbie that I realised why.
A course is not a race, although many races take place on courses. No, a course is a route, a path. A river finds its “course” to the sea.

Many in Western education look at the Eastern tradition with some sense of awe. We are told that in the East a teacher isn't a “teacher”, but “one who has walked the path”, and a student isn't a “student” but a seeker of knowledge. But the question is: do the Easterners know this?  The origin of our word “course” shows that our system is built on the same philosophy, but we're not aware of this. Maybe they are blind to the meaning of their words, just as we are blind to the meaning of ours.
Now where does that leave us on the meaning of MOOC?

Well, in a rather pedantic sense, the MOOC as proposed by the people who coined the term is not a “course” at all, because there is no set path whatsoever, which is in fact part of the point of connectivist learning theory – the learning experience (for wont of a better term) is driven and steered by the students, with each student finding their own path through the information presented. Cormier says in his video introduction to the idea of a MOOC that there is “no right way to do the course, no single path.” If course is synonymous with path, this is a paradox.

Is it useful to define this as “not a course”? You may not agree with me, but I think it's not only useful, but perhaps even essential.

Connectivism is just the latest combatant in an on-going ideological war between whole-subject and basic skills teaching. Why do I call this an ideological war, and not a pedagogical one? Because neither side really has much of an argument or evidence behind them.

In the real world, basic skills and whole-subject teaching are two ends of a spectrum of teaching styles, and most teachers use different parts of the spectrum at different times.

In general, education follows a progression that starts with the aim of teaching certain well-defined basic skills, then we start to use them in more complex environments. As we progress through our education, we build levels of abstraction over those basic skills.

The question is whether we can learn those basic skills and abstract skills and basic skills at the same time. I personally believe that we can, but that it is less efficient. If you put the cart before the horse, the horse can push it, but it would be more efficient pulling it behind.

But perhaps the reason that the MOOC as proposed by Dave Cormier doesn't really fit the term “course” is because what it aims to replace isn't really a “course” either. Cormier mentions “lifelong learning”, but “lifelong learning” is a term that is in itself ambiguous.

There are two sides to lifelong learning – there's what we'd traditionally call “adult education”, which can be stereotyped as evening classes offering high school or university-level classes to adults who dropped out of the education system at a young age; then there's continuing professional development (CPD) for people who are qualified and working in a degree-educated field. (Well, not two sides, per se, as there's a whole spectrum in between, but never mind.)

I really think that what Cormier did was create something that was far more orientated towards that highest level of abstraction: the qualified, experienced practitioner who already had a well-developed framework for understanding the material presented, and as I said in a previous post, at that stage most professional development takes place in seminars, not in strict “courses”.

The whole concept of informal learning is now firmly entrenched in the Scottish teaching system. Teachers are set targets of CPD points to acquire through the year. Many of these are given through traditional in-service training days and seminars, but teachers are expected to top these up with other things through personal initiative. There is a large catalogue of activities that qualify as optional points, even down to watching a television documentary on a subject related to your teaching field.
That informal online learning is effective for people for whom informal offline learning is already known to be effective should not be a surprise

One of the biggest influences on my thinking about education was Michel Thomas. Thomas studied psychology, and he wanted to study the learning process. He reportedly chose to teach languages for a very simple reason: languages provide the best opportunity to work with a student with zero starting knowledge of the subject being taught. Eliminating the variable of prior knowledge made reaching conclusions about the effectiveness of teaching easier, he reasoned.

The style of teaching he developed is demonstrated in the courses he recorded before his death for Hodder. (He recorded courses in Spanish, French, German and Italian. The other languages released in his name are very different indeed.) They are all examples of very tight control by the teacher, offering a well-defined, clearly sign-posted learning path. As the courses he produced are live recordings with genuine students, you can observe him diverge from his preferred path as a reaction to things said by the student (for example, when one student makes a mistake conjugating a verb in Spanish and accidentally says an imperative, Thomas is forced to introduce the imperative early, because he doesn't want to tell the student that he's wrong), so there's a fair degree of flexibility there, but we can see that there is a definite “course” there.

The amount that the students on the recordings pick up even in just the first 2 hours is quite extraordinary – I've never seen anyone else achieve similar results

But he's working with absolute beginners, and beginners need a path to follow, they need a course. It would be a mistake, I believe, to try to use the term “course” to describe an undirected, pathless learning experience, as this leads to the conclusion that such a learning experience is a replacement for a genuine guided course, when I really think it's only something that can really be done once the student has finished with courses.

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