Learning, from my perspective

[2351 words]

I will say from the outset that I am launching this blog in part as an exercise for a Coursera course, “What Future for Education?” The course is offered by the University of London, specifically the UCL Institute of Education. Obviously, it is designed and managed by a number of folks. The named teaching professor is Dr. Clare Brooks. The MOOC seems to be broadly connectivist in orientation since it asks participants to reflect on aspects of education and learning, to post their reflections, then to engage in dialogue and further reflection, to learn from the experience of dialogue, debate and exchange.  I am using this blog, at least initially, as the site of my reflections for this MOOC. I must admit that I have another signifiant motivation, since I am interested in publishing a book about the future of higher education in the United States and about learning in general, including investigations about why one would choose a traditional undergraduate education and what the alternatives could be. All of the foregoing might help guide American universities, including my own, as they think strategically about future developments. However, it is mostly to satisfy myself that I am doing these things (pursuing MOOCs, reflecting on learning and education, planning a book on that subject).

So let’s proceed now to the ostensible initial impetus for this blog , the “What Future for Education?” MOOC. Here is the initial reflection prompt for the first major unit in the course:

Reflect on:
  • your previous learning experiences. Think about one particularly successful and one unsuccessful learning experience. Consider what were the conditions that made this experience successful or unsuccessful for you and what this tells you about your own preferred ways to learn.

The following paragraphs are my reflections on successful and unsuccessful experiences in learning. (Note that I draw a sharp distinction between education and learning, even though many folks believe that they are practically synonymous.)

Less successful.

To illustrate a lack of successful learning, I would probably point to a philosophy class that I took at a private liberal arts college, where the professor lectured a great deal. In his talks, he usually restated the content of assigned readings from a highly structured textbook. He gave us writing assignments and tests based on readings and on his lectures. Those lectures and those writing activities were, in my view, counterproductive. They did not encourage students to make new connections or explore the subject matter beyond the book. Nor did they encourage learners to develop and test their own ideas. All essays and in-class exercises were patterned very closely on the textbook. The professor seemed to grade student work according to how closely it followed the arguments and ideas as presented in the textbook. The students who got the best grades were the ones who parroted the professor and followed the textbook most closely. In short, it was a course where the teacher saw his role as that of supervising students’ making their way through the textbook, regurgitating what they had read and heard, showing some understanding, but not really extending beyond the terrain delimited by the readings. The subject matter and style of the course were pre-determined by the textbook format and content. The teacher added relatively little to it, and students were actively discouraged from showing significant initiative, intellectual curiosity or deep cognitive processing. Most of all, we were discouraged from challenging the authority of the textbook or of the professor. We were expected to absorb, memorize and faithfully reproduce the ideas and information as they had been packaged in the textbook and reiterated by the teacher. My summary judgment? It was perhaps the worst philosophy course I have ever taken and, to be honest, I remember very little of the principles or ideas we covered in the class. I earned a passing grade, but I disliked the class because it failed (in spectacular fashion!) to excite my passion or stimulate my curiosity. Indeed, it killed curiosity, wonder and a desire to explore. It did gave me little to do other than memorize formulations. At the time, I thought of it as “boring.” What I now realize is that is was not engaging, that it did not challenge me or force me to work through ideas or do intensive cognitive processing. I was not challenged to wrestle with the major ideas. The professor did little to encourage me to integrate the concepts of the course into my previous learning. I did not make any significant new connections and I certainly did not commit course concepts to long-term memory. I read, listened, memorized (for the short term), then I regurgitated formulaic expressions. My unenthusiastic work in the course had its prime mover in extrinsic motivations. (It was a required course that I needed to earn my diploma.) I had little in the way of intrinsic motivation and the professor’s manner certainly did not kindle the flame of my desire to learn. On the contrary, he extinguished it in this course. I did not see the relevance or the purpose of the course. I thought the whole affair was a waste of my time. All things considered, that course was a terrible and, in my view, unsuccessful, learning experience, even though I earned an “above-average” grade.

More successful.

MOOCS. I have taken a variety of MOOCs which, despite my best intentions, I’ve had trouble completing. When it was feasible (which is to say, when I did not have an excess of interruptions or crises to deal with), I completed all assignments in these courses, sometimes earning a certificate, sometimes merely auditing. In general, I would consider the vast majority of those experiences highly successful learning events, even in cases where I did not finish the course. Failure to complete the course was usually due to the fact that I was pursuing that learning experience at the same time as I was teaching a full load, serving as Chair of my academic department and doing other administrative work. Often, difficulties or crises erupted in my teaching or in my administrative tasks that were so large or so problematic that they interfered with my learning, even “after hours” and at home. Indeed some emerging problems emerged that took up so much of my time that I was forced to set the MOOC aside entirely, missing deadlines or abandoning assignments that I had begun but not completed. Yet even in those cases, I often had a positive, effective and highly meaningful learning experience.

One such MOOC was “The Ethics of Eating,” offer by Cornell University in 2014. It is a course for which I did not earn a passing grade because I abandoned it at about the mid-point (out of necessity rather than by choice). I had found it highly engaging. Indeed, I retained a lot of the ideas, principles, notions, etc. that were covered in the course. Much of the thinking and the cognitive processing I did in that MOOC continue to inform my thinking about ethics and food (and the relationship between humanity and the natural world). Until a significant problem emerged in my department, forcing me to go inactive in the MOOC, I was completing all of the required work and I felt stimulated to think further. I was extremely active on the discussion board. I found and commented on many  connections both with my personal life and with previous learning (ethics, history, nutrition and health, gastronomic culture, familiarity with farming, animal husbandry and animal slaughter). Even though I did not earn a passing grade, the learning that I did in the course stuck with me. Indeed, it continues to resonate in my thinking and in my intellectual life. It informs my moral choices and it informs my teaching. It provokes further reflection and presses me to continue struggling with the complex and difficult issues of food production, food consumption and human domination of animals and of the natural world.

Conclusions? Implications?

What is it about the face-to-face philosophy course (which I passed) that makes me think that it was unsuccessful, whereas I consider a MOOC that I “failed” to be a great and resonant learning success? Engagement. Relevance. Autonomy. Struggle. Interest.

The face-to-face class “under-stimulated” me whereas the online learning experience was very challenging. The MOOC was not excessively difficult, but it certainly exposed students to a wide and complex range of ideas, data, opinions and presentation styles that required a lot of work to understand and integrate. The expectations in the MOOC were clear, setting a high bar, while also providing plenty of scaffolding, reflection prompts and tools. It was a well-planned and dynamic course. That experience offers a significant contrast to my face-to-face philosophy course, which seemed very staid, static, and lacking in real challenge. In the face-to-face course, there was no real dialogue between the students and the professor or between the students and the content of the course. In the MOOC, on the other hand, there was an immense amount of dialogue, conversation and confrontation between divergent points of view. 

So, I would say that for me as a learner, I need a large measure of challenge, high expectations, clear standards, interesting complexity and opportunities to engage further. Those elements spell out one formula for successful learning in my view. Learning happens when the course or module allows me to work autonomously, making connections with my own current or previous experience, while also engaging in dialogue with others. A good learning experience is one that challenges me. It provides me with good materials to explore and learn from. Such a course or learning experience will ask me interesting questions. It will offer me a challenge, then let me work. It will provide me with a bit of structure, with clear standards and expectations, appropriate tools and someone open-ended opportunities. When those things happen, I learn enthusiastically.

If you want me to engage in exuberant, meaningful, durable learning, please do not dictate to me or tell me what to think. Don’t force me to fit a pre-determined mould. Don’t reiterate what is in the book. Don’t restrict my expression. Don’t claim teacherly authority based on, well, nothing except an academic title and years of experience. If you want me — or others — to engage with the intended learning content, encourage the development of new ideas, new connections, new formulations. Do facilitate critical engagement. Do promote and encourage competence and innovation. Do help students to see the relevance of the material. Do make the most important principles of curriculum design apparent.  Do make the gist of the course relevant and compelling. Do allow a variety of genres and modalities of thought and expression. Do encourage and value creativity.

In short, for me, learning happens best when it is largely self-directed and when I have a high degree of intrinsic motivation, based on my understanding of the relevance of the activity, material or course. It works best when there are well-structured steps or stages or interconnecting components that are aligned in a process that allows me to set my own pace and do as much or as little as I want, but that also leaves many things open-ended for exploration and additional meaning-making. Learning works when I have the opportunity to wrestle with ideas and information, and when the work of the course encourages me to articulate for myself important connections between the new learning and previous learning, or to articulate implications or consequences of the new ideas or that facilitates my doing so in dialogue with others. It works best when I have some scaffolding, but when the learning experience is not inflexible or excessively determined. It seems that I learn best by doing my own investigations and reflections and by committing my cognitive processes and conclusions to writing, often in collaboration with others as part of the process.

I recognize that there are learners who are very different from me, who want a highly structured course with strict timelines and restricted or extremely-well-defined activities, who hate to be left to figure out how much to write or what to write about. For some folks, the philosophy course that left me very disappointed would be terrific. For those same learners, a MOOC that gives them “only so much” structure, then leaves them to figure out on their own or in collaboration with other learners just how much to write and what to write or exactly how to understand or use the proposed curricular materials (readings and videos)….  That experience might be nothing more than an anxiety-producing mass of indeterminacy for them. Indeed, if someone is more concerned about earning a grade for a certification or taking a specific step toward a diploma, but when they are not interested in the content of the course, they might hate the MOOC that I found so engaging and so meaningful. In short, one’s preferences and one’s attitude toward learning are important factors in the learning experience. Still, I think that there is a great deal in higher education in the United States that needs to be reconsidered, to make it friendlier and more effective for “distributed” learners like me.

PS – to be fair, I note that the philosophy class that I valued so little took place nearly three decades ago, whereas the MOOC I cited dates from only two years ago. That said, the effect of the former on me at the time I took it was significantly less powerful than the effect that the latter had on me two years ago. It may be that I was a higher-quality and better-prepared student with a lot more cognitive resources in the case of the latter, since I took the MOOC in my 23rd year of tenure-track teaching, than when I took the philosophy class as a wet-behind-the-ears undergraduate student. Still… one course was highly meaningful. The other was far less so. I would gladly re-take one of them, but not the other. In my mind, even as I try to maintain a reasonable and balanced perspective, there is a world of difference between the two instances.

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