Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Notes from The Pedagogue's Desk

Several weeks ago, we began a new unit in the Medievalisms course that I'm teaching this semester. It's on fantasy and fan culture: First, the students watched an episode of Game of Thrones, read this fantastic review essay in the LRB, and did a bunch of internet research on the fansites and wiki sites around ASoIaF. Then they read Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf. Ethan visited class and led a lively and productive conversation about nerd culture, medievalism, fantasy, and role-playing. The following day, Ethan gave a talk to the larger community about the links between college culture and fantasy medievalisms, and then designed and led an evening D&D class. 

My co-professor and I are newbs to RPGs, tabletop or otherwise, and we were entirely uncertain, when we first designed the syllabus, how this part of the course would come together. 

It was fantastic.

The first half of this unit, on Game of Thrones and fan culture, got students thinking about the fantasy genre and medievalism. It has been challenging, throughout the semester, to help the students move beyond making arguments about accuracy and authenticity (or fidelity). However, once "accuracy" is off the table, as with fantasy, they immediately started to see the different medievalisms at play. The students were able to take the conversation further when they discussed Ethan's book with him, and they were *amazing* at the D&D session. Every single student got really into it, even the skeptics, and they were thoughtful and incisive the next day. They discussed questions of gender, performance, community and expertise, and medievalism, and analyzed their own experiences with the quest that Ethan designed. 

The moral of this story: Engage with what the students are interested in (all of the students are interested in medievalism, having read Harry Potter or watched LOTR; others are intense and frequent gamers or LARPers), and then bring in a really smart person to help you with what you don't know about. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Not Content

Recent articles and incisive blog posts about MOOCs, alongside few more recent news articles that present different ideas about the purpose of higher education in this country have vividly illustrated the shift to thinking about education as content and students as users. I don't have a lot to add to Historiann's fantastic close reading of the decision of Amherst faculty to turn down the opportunity to partner with EdX; however, it's notable that this story hit Inside Higher Ed just a few days before A. J. Jacobs review of MOOCs and Frank Bruni's column on the purpose of higher education both appeared in the NYT.

Bruni writes about the debates at the UT flagship campus in Austin: Is college intended to provide job training, or something else? This is an open question, as lawmakers and educators in Texas, Virginia, Oregon, and many other states are increasingly interested in providing job placement statistics and salary figures for graduates with different majors. But, as some high-profile educators have pointed out, judging the worthiness of a college education by immediate post-college graduate earnings is far too narrow a metric. A liberal arts education does more than train someone for a job; it gives young people the skills to envision and invent the jobs they want, and it helps them become better global citizens and community members. But this view can certainly seem like a luxury, given the high numbers of unemployment for people under 25 and ballooning student debt.

I don't think anyone working in higher education today is unaware--at least to some degree--of the many stresses on both private and public higher ed in this country, and the difficult choices they are going to force.* And I certainly think instructional technology can provide pedagogically exciting opportunities to meet some of these challenges and to democratize education. The Jacobs piece, however, exposes some of the major issues that MOOCs present: attrition, isolation, and the idea that education is the same as content-delivery. If that's the case, then why not just do away with MOOCs entirely, and just skip to Wikipedia and YouTube? This is a slight exaggeration, but I do think that, at its core, this idea of education seems to be based around a "content-provider" platform. Professors provide the content, which EdX, Udacity, etc. then provide to the user. Content is static, not dynamic (the lectures, once written, recorded, and produced once, can be essentially "syndicated" and repeated every year or two). The other tacit assumption that this model rests on is that teaching and learning are scalable. This, it seems to me, is what the Amherst faculty found most at odds with their mission to provide education "through close colloquy." The scalability of education that MOOCs promise is also part of the "content-provider" model: I can watch content on my tv, my computer, my tablet, and my phone, anywhere I go (Jacobs addresses this explicitly). Education through "close colloquy" between students and faculty isn't scalable, and it's not portable. How long before we see EdX or Coursera partnering with Comcast or Time-Warner? Has that already happened?
*Indeed, I recently talked to someone who'd been at a large meeting with the president of an extremely wealthy, extremely prestigious private university. When asked by an attendee what the president was optimistic or excited about w/r/t the future of higher education, the president chuckled bleakly.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Dystopic Future of Education Is Here

What an eye-opening week for higher education! Thanks to the folks at EdX, computers will soon be grading college papers. 

"The system then uses a variety of machine-learning techniques to train itself to be able to grade any number of essays or answers automatically and almost instantaneously.
The software will assign a grade depending on the scoring system created by the teacher, whether it is a letter grade or numerical rank. It will also provide general feedback, like telling a student whether an answer was on topic or not." 
It's true that I'm somewhat tempted by this; I'm looking at a very large stack of papers to grade this weekend. But this sounds like a bad idea for two reasons: The first is that offering feedback about whether  a paper is "on topic or not" is not particularly helpful for a student who needs to learn critical thinking skills. Mastering a particular topic or some information is far less important than mastery of logic and rhetoric; additionally, the latter are ultimately transferable from one kind of task to another, unlike the former. The second reason is that I don't think the increased automation of education is a good idea. Or, put a different way, I don't think it's a good idea for learning anything other than basic content.
Not only is human-graded student work going out the window, but those entire pesky universities are, too. EdX is also teaming up with Pearson, the educational testing service, to offer proctored exams for certificate credit to MOOC enrollees. Yes, the for-profit education testing service is now going to be in the business of accrediting MOOCs for students who want to get academic credit. And the Minerva Project offers the promise of a "hybrid" model--MOOCs and a residential college experience. Pay for both experiences, but without getting as much as either has to offer by itself. The privatization of college education is here to stay.