I am writing this four-part essay for a number of reasons. Foremost in my mind is a series of conversations with Pittsburgh students I had as part of a fellowship with the Sprout Fund’s Remake Learning initiative. Students yearn for the ability to take charge of their own education. There is an urgent need for an expansive platform that lets students visualize and engage with the entire scope of their life’s learning: archives for the past, resources for the present, and planning for the future.
In my work at the Saxifrage School, we are doing everything we can to develop models that refocus on the strengths of in-person, expert-taught learning. As we have worked to lower costs,re-think campus communities, and reconcile disciplines, we have been frustrated by the difficult nature of online content. This essay is a thought experiment on how to meet the needs we see for our work and the needs of the students we have spoken with. It is also a serious proposal.
In Part I “Beyond the MOOC, Beyond the Library” I want to define the limits of online learning so that we can play to the strengths of new technology as we work to create the digital learning platforms of the future.
In Part II “The New Library” I will introduce a concept for a new online learning platform that, in many ways, is the evolution of the ideal library.
In Part III “The Trees and Branches” I will describe a lot of the detail behind this “Askr” project. For me, a lot of the excitement behind a project like this lie in these technical capabilities.
In Part IV “Addressing Limits with Integration” I will discuss the role of embodied learning experiences in collaboration with a platform like “Askr”. Here we come full circle and see the roles and opportunities for schools, librarians, and teachers when we recognize the limits and strengths of digital and embodied learning.
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Part I: Beyond the MOOC , Beyond the Library
A few months ago, Anya Kamenetz asked the right question: “Can We Move Beyond the MOOC to Reclaim Open Learning?” Continuing to invest so exclusively in current MOOC platforms is short-sighted. The MOOC, despite its claims of disruptive innovation, is handicapped by the baggage of the traditional course format. In many ways, it just offers a lonelier version of the regimented, lecture-and-test model. By holding fast to the Course, the MOOC idea does not utilize the incredible potential the web has to assemble a diverse, scaleable, sortable library of learning content. In moving beyond the MOOC, we will begin to recognize both the potential and the limitations of online learning. When we do this, we will build a much greater online learning tool: an expansive and curated knowledge map. Just as the libraries of the past found their mission in organizing,preserving, and sharing knowledge, so will the open education platforms of the future do the same.
To start, I must be clear: I do not want to critique the MOOC as much as I want to define the limits of its potential so that we can rightly value its place in the work of higher education reform. The news cycles have already spun past the “MOOCs will save us all!” phase to the “MOOCs are Dead” phase. I want to write about neither of those. Instead, I hope to discuss, first, what online learning cannot do well and then propose a way in which the energy behind online learning resources could focus on a more productive, long-term open education project. A project that begins by recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of online platforms and moves beyond problems in higher education to consider the problem of higher education.
Currently, MOOCs are seeing understandable attrition rates north of 90%. Using rhetoric like “drop-out” and “enrollment” to discuss these figures assumes they ought to be proper “courses” in the first place: most students in MOOCs are not looking to take an entire course. Instead of shrugging off the 90% of lost students as “just people checking it out”, what if we developed higher education content that aimed to serve and engage that 90%. This supermajority of learners (especially those with short online attention spans) is made up of people looking to learn something, just often not the entire course.
The MOOC assumes the right-sized package to transfer knowledge is in 6-12 week schedules. If we are going to put forth so much effort to capture the expertise of our nation’s best educators, we need to do so in a way in which we can catalog and share that coursed content. The value of this perspective is understood and perfectly exemplified in the work of the Khan Academy. By offering content only within a single course, it limits that content from being utilized individually or as part of another, different course. What if the MOOC professor had 2 excellent lectures that should be captured for posterity, but the rest of their course was mediocre? Even the most MOOC-friendly reviewer admits to utilizing just portions of the overall content.
The Short List of The Limits of Online Learning
Beyond the unfortunate adherence to the traditional Course rhetoric and structure, the MOOC faces the limitations of online learning. There are certain elements of education where the web really excels: content storage and querying, collaboration, and progress-tracking. Below is a list of areas where the web does not excel. There are partial exceptions to these limitations, but, generally speaking, these hold true. (An example of one such exception: when students learn to build the web from web developers on the web.) Again, remember that the hope here is to clarify exactly what “online” is great at and what embodied learning is great at. There are enough people espousing the benefits of the online, so here is a brief list of its limits. These limits, of course, point to the qualities of embodied learning.
- Mentors. Often we have a problem we just cannot get, or are in tears wallowing in our lack of confidence. We need encouragement, criticism, a tempered vision, and inspiration.As the writer/farmer Wendell Berry speaks of his mentor Wallace Stegner:
“He had a way of emitting a kind of aura about himself and if you got into that and you weren’t working as hard as you could, you got embarrassed. You knew he was working as hard as he could.”
Many students talk seriously about their “professor crushes” as people who completely changed the course of their intellectual development. Our ignorance and lack of discipline is challenged in these relationships. We need expert mentors to put us in our place, make us re-write that essay a third time, and give us a vision for what mastery looks like. Those of us who need mentors rarely seek them out (which the internet would require).
The best mentors are given to us by force, proximity, or happy accident. The separateness provided by the medium makes it far too easy to ignore. The same anonymity that lets us berate one another as we play online games, or post ridiculous comments, limits the effectiveness of e-mentorship. In talking of “mentoring”, I define it not just as career-advice-giving or a wiser discussion partner, or critic-from-afar, but as something more whole. The word itself is, in fact, the name of one of Odysseus’ closest friends, to which he entrusted the upbringing of his son. While off fighting the Trojan war (and struggling to return home) he trusted Mentor to father his son. To Mentor is to foster our wards not just in knowledge and skill but in courage and conviction. This requires deep trust and deep care that is impossible without a literal closeness. It requires that we look into each other’s eyes; that we look into each other’s souls. I recognize that this depth of relation is rare for most of us, including myself, but its potential is not to be ignored.
While the web can serve as a communication medium for mentoring, it is not a total solution. Online relationships can provide things that are mentor-ish and are better than no mentoring, but it is not the ideal. Again, the point I hope to dig at is not what can be done with technology, but what ought to be done. Especially in our citied-world, let us use online tools to humanize the mentoring experience by easily fostering connections between local mentors/mentees. In-person relationships provide a level of connection, fun, and accountability that is unmatched. We, as a people, require relationships that are “not merely texted, but storied” (to use Keith Martel’s phrase); relationships that occur genuinely without the express purpose of “mentoring”. To spur us to care for that which is not already personal, requires that we are, to use Berry’s words again “motivated by affection”, an affection that requires a relationship in place. The success of mentoring is not based on the act of knowledge transfer, but on a relationship of care.
2. Without Students. As someone who has taken online courses both now and in the dark ages of 1996 (Windows NetMeeting anyone?) I can speak to the difficulty of building an academic community on the web. For those who have tried to have conversations on the web, I remind you of the cynical but all-too-true adage: don’t read the comments. As hard as it is to foster good academic community in person, it is even harder to have a serious, consistently relational learning community online. The good online communities that do exist primarily consist, I would argue, of the already-inspired.
I must commend the value of twitter for shrinking the world in a way that lets us follow, or even engage, in the discussions of experts around the world. However, it’s a lot easier to find friends (or find true love, or find a co-founder) with your study partners, than with an anonymous MOOC forum poster or anonymous re-tweeter. The powerful acts of in-person friendship, accountability, and collaboration are not to be underestimated. People want to learn and build the world together.
3. Without Place. Beyond a lack of connection to people, online learning has no meaningful context. As Bunker Roy discusses in his work on the Barefoot Colleges, there is great importance in offering teaching in skills that are relevant to an exact place and the needs and aptitudes of its people. He powerfully states that “you are certified by the community you serve” and that, too often, he has seen that those who earn certified degrees use them to leave their homes and seek personal fortune, rather than investing in the fortune of their community.
Not only does a lack of place and context limit the relevance of learning, it hinders this idea of, what Wes Jackson calls, “education for homecoming.” The grand universal solutions offered by massive online learning fail to grasp the varied nature of local ecologies and cultures and is, inherently, anti-native in its approach. Jackson goes on:
“Our task is to build cultural fortresses to protect our emerging nativeness. They must be strong enough to hold at bay the powers of consumerism, the powers of greed and envy and pride. One of the most effective ways for this to come about would be for our universities to assume the awesome responsibility to both validate and educate those who want to be homecomers — not necessarily to go home but to go someplace and dig in and begin the long search and experiment to become native.”
4. Without Application. This point, like the others, is very much related to the one before. The lack of place seriously limits the potential application or value of one’s work in an online education. With the exception of web development (learning on the web, in this case, is native to a sort of place) MOOCs fail to delve into meaningful project-based learning. The recent Mapping/GIS course, for instance, merely let you play with pre-existing maps, not make a map of your own places. As much as traditional classes ask students to engage in token creation (the quintessential essay written, graded, and then immediately forgotten), the online course feels even more like pretending. Or, as Thoreau says, “merely studying” and “playing at life” when we yearn to “live earnestly”.
For many of us, our learning styles require this sort of application for effective instruction. For all of us, it is necessary that we make something that someone cares to have made.
5. Without Inspiration. Without mentors, without friends, without places, and without application, why do we even want to learn? Our vision, as students, for the point and purpose of our work becomes incredibly abstract, even debilitating. Again, online learning can be well-suited to the already-inspired, but it is detrimental for a student who struggled in high school and has yet to find agency or passion for school. During the recent Pittsburgh Forum hosted by the Saxifrage School, our guest Sean Purcell helped us get to the heart of our question for the weekend by asking us to describe our most powerful learning experiences. All of the stories had to do with specific places, events, and people, not with content or a “schooled” experience, let alone content enframed (to use Heidigger’s word) in an online learning platform. The discussion then centered on Albert Borgmann’s concept of “focal experiences” from his book Technology and the Character of the Modern Life. Here, Borgmann digs into the word “focus” which, in latin, referred to the hearth, “a gathering and radiating force” which was “the center of warmth, light, and daily practice.”
These elements of life—the mentors, the friends, the places, the projects, and the habits that surround them—provide us with focused purpose and memorable learning experiences that not only instruct, but transform us. Criticism, of course, is also a form of inspiration.We find inspiration in camaraderie, in challenges before us, in unburying our lives, and in digging into a project that addresses problems in our own community. Learning is best when it gets away from that which feels like a copy of a copy of a copy due to multiple acts of enframing or abstracting.
All technology has the capacity to create, destroy, or waste a lot of people’s time, often all three at once. In developing the next generation of educational tools online, we must be careful to not misspend effort. Recognizing its limits, there are some truly excellent things about the MOOC, but there is a more important project awaiting our effort: the future of the library.
Libraries continue their slow decline as they struggle to maintain relevance as slow providers of old mediums in a world of fast and free content. While continuing to draw crowds and serve the community with the addition of free internet, creative student programs, and video game stations (!?), libraries today rarely have a chance to actively fulfill their historical purpose. This purpose is an ancient one involving monks struggling to preserve ancient manuscripts in the dark ages (like the wonderful story captured in The Secret of Kells). The early librarians were truly the preservers of knowledge. They kept us from losing or forgetting texts and, just as importantly, curated content.
Many librarians call for a restoration of this noble purpose of the library, but, without radical re-invention, it seems unlikely. There is a sense of obstinence when Patricia Schroeder, President of the
Association of American Publishers, defensively refers to the rise of the web as the “Internet rage”, but she has a point:
“Those who declared librarians obsolete when the Internet
rage first appeared are now red-faced. We need them more than ever. The Internet is full of ‘stuff’ but its value and readability is often questionable. ‘Stuff’ doesn’t give you a competitive edge, high-quality related information does.”
The internet, for as grand as it has become, is still terrible at curation, especially when it comes to educational content. When I ask Google, “How to write a poem”, two top choices include somewhat comical offerings from wikihow and Oprah. Are they really the best we have to offer? The last word on the subject?
Google’s Director of Technology, Craig Silverstein admits these limitations:
“My guess is about 300 years until computers are as good as, say, your local reference library in doing search, but we can make slow and steady progress, and maybe one day we’ll get there.”
We need today’s librarians not to work as functional administrators of content, but as creative curators who define what is best and help to define and sort the complex relationships of resources. They have to do the powerful acts that Google cannot (and will never fully be able to do?). Just as the dark age monks before them, we desperately need librarians to protect, curate and hold aloft worthwhile knowledge. In the face of the barbarian hoards they were necessary because of the dearth of texts. Today it is the opposite. We need librarians as lighthouses amidst the floods of available information.
Now, in speaking of librarians, I mean the word in broader terms. The folks at the Khan Academy, for instance, are currently some of the world’s best librarians. Not only are they creating a lot of excellent content, but they are presenting it and sharing it in a way that is inviting and powerful. John Resig, who runs the CS department at Khan Academy, is an exemplary librarian in many respects. In addition to the CS Program, he is the creator of the JQuery library, and is behind the world’s largest repository of Japanese Woodblock Prints. In each of these areas, he is finding or creating content, sorting it, deciding what is worth knowing and holding it up for us to engage with. In this broad sense, so many of us function as librarians, as “custodians of learning”.
I bring up the Khan Academy, not only because they exemplify this broader, noble definition of library-work, but also because they are leading us in the right direction. The Khan Academy is a library of thousands of open, multimedia educational resources that is not only created, curated, and shared, but also, in some areas, ordered by difficulty and relationship. Much like the Dewey Decimal System, the Khan Academy is beginning (as teachers have done in their syllabuses for decades) to sort and assign educational resources according to a number of complex variables.
This is where the amazing capabilities of the web come in to play. Not only can it offer content that is, at once, multimedia, responsive, and interactive, it can also provide content that is easily updated, reviewed, and sorted to exist in multiple places at once while offering perspective and motivation to students by visualizing and awarding their progress.
If we can properly recognize the strengths and limits of online learning and move beyond the MOOC, there is an exciting future ahead. If we can rightly value the MOOC, the effort of expert teachers, MOOC supporters, and open education advocates could be redirected towards building the ultimate open educational resource library.