By Jim Shimabukuro
[Updated 6 July 2013]
I attended the June 17 LINC 20131 morning and afternoon sessions via webcasts: the afternoon session live and the morning session on demand on July 32. I was especially interested in the morning session, “Four Perspectives on MOOCs,” featuring keynote addresses by Sanjay Sarma, director of MITx and the MIT Office of Digital Learning; Sir John Daniel, former president of The Open University (UK) and of the Commonwealth of Learning; Anant Agarwal, president of edX; and Tony Bates, research associate with Contact North, Ontario’s Distance Education and Training Network.
I expected some courteous differences of opinion but hoped for some heat. For most of the 3-hour 50-minute (3:49:44) session, I got what I expected, gracious statements of differences but no direct confrontations. Then, as the end of the open panel discussion drew near, at the 3:22:54 mark in the video, Dan Hastings, MIT Dean for Undergraduate Education and panel chair, said, “I’m going to insert a question from the Twitter feed, which is, will MOOC certification soon become meaningful educational currency?”
This was the spark, and what followed was a brief clash that lit up the issue of academic legitimacy for MOOCs that all were very careful to dance around throughout the discussion. The question, in this case, was: If a student, who has not been admitted to MIT, successfully completes the MOOC version of an MIT course at a distance, shouldn’t s/he receive academic credit that could count toward an MIT degree?
The 3:42 video below captures the exchanges among the panelists.
Agarwal was the first to respond, followed by an exchange between Daniel and Sarma, pictured in the video. Daniel said, “I think there’s still a fundamental question of intellectual honesty. I like the idea of the two funnels [hard in, easy out vs. easy in, hard out] but there’s nevertheless a disconnect in that one funnel [F2F MIT course] leads you to a degree and the other [MOOC equivalent of the course] leads you to a certificate.” He then asked about the 15-year-old high school student in Mongolia who aced Agarwal’s MOOC and will be entering MIT in the fall: Will he receive credit for the course or will he have to take it all over again?
Sarma replied that the Mongolian student would not receive MIT credit for the MOOC course, and Daniel replied, “At least you’re consistent, even if it’s stupid.”
Sarma, by way of explanation, reiterated the theme of his presentation, “The Magic”: MIT campus-based experiences add an element of “magic” to learning that cannot be duplicated over the internet, that without this firsthand onground experience, learning is not quite whole. (See the 4:56 video3 below; in the original video, this presentation begins at the 30:14 mark.) In his presentation, he explains that this magic is in informal interactions and relationships, water-cooler conversations, impromptu meetings and discussions in the “infinite corridors” of MIT. He also admits that this magic is difficult to quantify and that anecdotal data is all they have for this “special thing,” this “magic of the campus.”
The videos below provide selected audio clips from each of the three remaining presentations. This selective process reduces each 30-minute presentation to approximately 5-7 minutes for easy viewing. They provide glimpses into the different perspectives on MOOCs as well as general background on key issues. However, I’d recommend viewing each in its entirety, which includes photos and illustrations. The starting points for each presentation in the original video are also provided.
Sir John Daniel’s presentation, “MOOCs: What Lies Beyond the Trough of Disillusionment?” On the right is the panel chair, Dan Hastings. Length 5:08. In the original video, this presentation begins at the 1:01:37 mark.
Anant Agarwal’s presentation, “The Developing World of MOOCs.” Length 6:11. In the original video, this presentation begins at the 1:33:41 mark.
Tony Bates’s presentation, “How to Make MOOCs Really Effective: Lessons from 20 Years of Research Into Online Learning” (view .pdf of presentation). Length 6:05. See David Pritchard‘s (professor of physics, MIT) comment at the 3:02 mark. In the original video, Bates’s presentation begins at the 2:05:37 mark.
Eric Grimson’s introductory presentation on MIT’s progression to MOOCs. Grimson is Chancellor of MIT. Length 7:21. In the original video, this presentation begins at the 14:40 mark.
The Man in Blue
Immediately after the “consistent but stupid” segment during the open discussion, David Singer, a visiting MIT scholar who runs an international students foundation, asked a question. (See the video below.) In the original video, he appears near the end, at the 03:26:35 mark.
Here’s a transcript of his comment.
I’d like to make a comment that maybe you should get some feedback on. I think that it’s an interesting question that maybe everyone here could ask themselves. The presentation that you’ve made and even the response to the questions asked can all be done under distance learning. The need for you to be here from a knowledge base doesn’t seem, doesn’t really make sense logically, but, why are we here?
Each of us maybe ask yourself, What is the benefit of me being here when I could be somewhere else back home? That’s an interesting thing …
[Hastings:] Yeah. Let me comment. There are people watching us on the internet …
Yes, of course …
[Hastings:] Are they getting the same experience as being here?
I don’t know …
Singer, The Man in Blue, is the proverbial kid who points out that the emperor is naked, the student who asks the question that leaves the teacher slack-jawed. He’s the know-it-all’s worst nightmare. He’s the one who dares to acknowledge the elephant in the room and asks, “But what about him?”
The question couldn’t be rendered any simpler: Why are we here when we could be at home? Surely, this panel discussion could have been offered at a distance? We don’t need to be here to get the content in the presentations and discussions. Why are we here? The unspoken half of the question is: Is there something special or magical about being here, in person, that enhances the knowledge that I’m gaining? If yes, then what is it? I don’t know, and I’d like to learn.
Ironically, Singer’s question goes to the heart of the issue discussed in this nearly four-hour session, exposing what may be fundamental disconnects between theory and practice. But the panelists and audience were tired and lunch was waiting…
The Afternoon Session
“The Future Direction of Virtual Universities” featured presentations by Patricio López del Puerto, President of the Virtual University of the Tecnológico de Monterrey, Monterrey, Mexico (view .pdf of presenation); Bakary Diallo, Rector of the African Virtual University, Nairobi, Kenya; and Naveed Malik, Founding Rector of the Virtual University of Pakistan, Lahore, Pakistan (view .pdf of presenation).
The current running through this entire session seemed to be MIT’s BLOSSOMS initiative. See the brief overview page. Without going into specifics, I felt a bit uneasy about the program. On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. High school science lessons are presented in short videos, and each segment is followed by an interactive teacher-led discussion designed to develop critical thinking skills. Teachers are trained to use this scaffolding system, and they are also encouraged to design, develop, and share their own videos and lessons.
My concern is that approaches such as this could easily turn into teacher-proof regimens that reduce teaching to prescribed procedures and teachers to technicians, trained to memorize and practice standardized methods of instructional delivery. This is a throwback to industrial age scientific approaches to efficiency: Develop a fool-proof teaching process, train technicians to apply it, measure the outcomes, and revise the process to improve outcomes. To teach well then means to master and apply the process.
Kenneth Zeichner, Director of Teacher Education, University of Washington, in a series of papers, examines and discusses the role of teachers as technicians vs. teachers as “reflective professionals.” I was able to locate an online copy of what appears to be one of the papers in this series, but it’s not listed in his CV, it’s not dated, and it seems to be missing a list of references.
As a teacher, I’d like to think that teachers in the BLOSSOMS program are being treated and viewed as reflective professionals and that the focus is on training them to become experts in best practices for critical thinking rather than technicians who obediently follow scripts. I realize that the technician route is quicker and cheaper and, in some or many circumstances, may be the only practical alternative. If this is the case, I’d also like to think that this is a temporary, stopgap measure similar to barefoot doctors in China. Once the crisis has been met, the emphasis would turn to developing a corps of reflective professionals.
1 The Sixth Conference of MIT’s Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC) ran from June 16 to 19, 2013, at MIT. See “About LINC” for general background and “LINC 2013 Conference” for specifics.
2 Time zone differences put the live morning session on the 17th at 2:00AM my time, and on-demand wasn’t an option until after the conference.
3 Some of the videos embedded in this article are actually audio files in video format with a single photo running throughout. Each 30-minute presentation has been reduced to a fraction of the length by selecting highlight clips. For each audio-video: I recorded the audio off the LINC 2013 video, selected clips with an audio editor, captured a still from the video, and combined the two in a video editor. I then uploaded the result to my YouTube account for embedding in this article. For the two videos, I used Camtasia Studio 8.1 to record, edit, and upload.