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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Coursera, Michigan, and why Provosts never want to do anything that might improve education

Today the web was alive with the announcement that some major universities (including Michigan) have signed up with Coursera, a company that offers free massive on line courses.
The Provost of the University of Michigan explained this new development in these words:

This is an exciting venture that opens up a new avenue for us to expand our public mission and share our expertise with tens of thousands of intensely
interested students all around the globe.
Our Coursera offerings will in no way replace the rich experiences our students obtain in classrooms, laboratories and studios here in Ann Arbor.
Instead, with Coursera, we will expand our public outreach, better connect with prospective students and with alumni, and develop online resources that
can supplement the learning experiences of our own students.

I have been part of the university system in one way or another for the last 50 years. I understand why provosts say what they say, and why universities do what they do.
The funniest part of this letter is the remark about not replacing rich classroom experiences. Does he mean the ones where 500 students listen to a lecture while using Facebook? Or does he mean the ones you can skip as long you can figure out to pass the multiple choice tests?
There may be rich educational experiences at Michigan but they are certainly not in classrooms nor are they in courses any larger than say 10 or 20 students.
Why is Michigan doing this? Because they want to improve education? They could improve education by not actually offering courses in the first place. Any Michigan student can tell you how boring most lectures are and that they simply endure them because they want a degree.
Michigan figures they can make money and not have to change in any way to do it. Every provost wants to spend as little on teaching as possible. That is why there are large lecture halls in the first place. 
And no provost at a research university wants to force faculty to change how they teach or he will soon be an ex-provost.
Coursera, I fear, is yet another make believe venture like MIT's open courseware before it, that will allow universities to pretend they are changing while staying the same.


Friday, April 13, 2012

Learning Wisdom (or why Khan Academy and MOOCs are a bad idea)


When I was young (23) back in the hippie dippie days in California, I attended encounter groups, psycho-drama and other stuff like that, that was popular in those days. At one these, the guru leader said to me that he knew I was smart but asked “was I wise?” I knew that I was supposed to say “no” so I did. I was a professor at Stanford so of course I thought I was wise. The years have taught me that I certainly wasn’t wise then and that I am not so sure I am wise now, and that anyhow, I am not all that sure what it means to be wise.
I was wise enough at that time to realize that the graduate course in Semantics that I was teaching was of no use to anyone who was taking it. (It was a requirement for the PhD in linguistics, so the students didn’t necessarily want to be there in any case.) Since then I have been thinking a great deal about teaching, about the mind ,and about universities in general, so I find myself asking two questions:
What does it mean to be wise?
How would teach someone to be wise?
Notice I am not asking, what is wisdom and how do we teach it, because everyone (except maybe me) seems to know the answer to that question, namely tell everyone what wise people have said. (Of course, I think that this is nonsense but our university system is based on that idea.)
I am not sure what it means to be wise but I know it when I don’t see it. My children (who are older than I was when first pondered this), are not wise (I hope they are wise enough not be angry with me when they read this. My employees are typically not wise (same hope.)
I say this because I spend a great deal of time advising them all on how to look at a problem, (technical or personal.) They are wise enough to ask however.
I am asked for advise often so maybe they see me as  being wise. I will admit to being wiser about their lives than they are, but I am not all that wise about my own life I think.
So, what is wisdom then? I am not sure, but that won’t stop me from thinking about how to teach it.
How not to teach it is easy: don’t tell anyone anything any wise person has said. They won’t remember it and they won’t know how to use it.
Although I am a great believer in experiential learning and in some sense experience does make one wise. but one typically does not become wise as a result of one (or a few) experiences. Experiential learning doesn’t make one wise either.
What does make one wise? I think the answer is repeated failure of the same type followed by reflection. The great French philosopher Montaigne (whom I consider to have been very wise indeed) never left home without a phalanx of bodyguards. That is an example of wisdom learned from experience.
If my definition is correct, then how to teach wisdom becomes an interesting question. And, inducing colossal failure repeatedly is the obvious answer. But it is not a very practical answer.
We can’t take a class full of university students and put them in complex situations in which they might fail and then do it again and again, now can we?
But, of course, that is exactly what they army does on a regular basis with its soldiers. It is also what an aspiring entrepreneur has done who succeeds on his or her tenth try. And curiously, it is also what good teachers do after twenty years or so of teaching.
To put this another way, wisdom can be learned and so it can indeed be taught, but only if we are willing to re-conceptualize education.
We simply have to get over the idea of teaching wisdom as the transmission of information and we have to emphasize repeated tries and failure followed by reflection.
I am assuming that the people who call me for advice are not actually calling for answers. (This is easy to believe since they don’t follow my advice all that often.) Rather they are asking me to help them become wiser through repeated reflection. I am being their mirror at that point.
Becoming wise requires repeated looks in the mirror.
Can education provide that mirror? It certainly would be nice if the education system took that idea more seriously.
Khan Academy, Massive On Line Courses and other fashionable trends of the day are more or less the opposite of what I have in mind here.