Tag Archives: education

Closing the Digital Lid

I began teaching a new course last week, as so many other teachers everywhere did, and, as is my wont, I asked my students for ‘lids down’ on the laptops which inevitably appear on their desks as they first arrive and sit down. The rationale of course is that their computers are open in order for them to “take notes,” but we can all be rightly skeptical of that practice. The online distractions are simply too many and varied for that to be consistently true, given the perfect visual block that the flipped-up lids present to we instructors stranded on the back side of that web portal.

It’s interesting to note that recent research indicates that students who take notes longhand, as compared to on their laptops, fare better in recalling the substance of the course material than do their keyboarding counterparts. And the longhanders score better not only in factual recall; conceptually they also respond more accurately and substantively to after-class questions, avoiding what the researchers refer to as the keyboarders’ “shallower processing.”

It’s a contentious issue among educators of course. Some suggest that we instructors should ‘embrace’ the digital realm in our classrooms, allowing students to tweet as we speak, ask questions anonymously, fact check, all that. A richer, more vibrant educational environment is the result, say these internet enthusiasts.

It depends upon class size, and certainly I wouldn’t object to laptops or handhelds open and operating during any kind of educational ‘field trip,’ but I came to the lids down position long before I heard about the recent research I’ve just mentioned, and I did so out of what may be seen as an old-school notion: common courtesy.

My classes are small—as writing classes they need to be—and I am always looking for what I refer to as ‘engagement in the process.’ Regardless of the quality of the writing produced, I’m looking for students to listen carefully at all times, to me as well as to their fellow students, to think, process, and respond with ideas that may or may not be helpful to the group process. That just isn’t happening, or at least not as well as it could be happening, if students are in two places at once. Except of course they are not two places at once; their attention is simply bouncing rapidly back and forth between those two places. What we describe as multitasking.

In that sense I’m looking for more than just common courtesy, but respectful attention is nevertheless at the heart of what I’m asking for in a classroom. Anything less is simply rude.

We’re all familiar with moments like this:

 

babycakes romero photo
babycakes romero photo

Where the so-called ‘digital divide’ has nothing to do with separate generations or genders; it’s the sad loss of a potential conversation, and I very much consider my classroom process a group conversation.

Or how about this image, taken from the CNN election night coverage:

CNN laptops

This is more precisely what I’m on about. These folks are gathered as pundits to discuss and enlighten the audience on the events of the evening, and clearly, as part of that endeavor, they can be expected to listen to one another, with their varied insights and political leanings, and we in the audience can be expected to profit by that exchange. But, with lids up, we may be sure that each pundit is periodically checking the screen while their fellow analyst is speaking. Why? I’m assuming it’s because they wish to check in on the very latest election data as it flows in. But this is CNN headquarters, where the data flowing all around them couldn’t be more up-to-the minute!

If you’re going to engage in a conversation with someone, group or otherwise, then do that, engage: listen carefully and respond thoughtfully. Not with just your own talking points, but with a reasoned response to what has just been said by your conversational partner.

Online addiction continues to engulf us. My own personal survey indicates that more than half of those of us walking outside are either staring into the virtual void or at least carrying the tool which connects us to that space. At a bus stop or in the subway car the great majority of us are guilty. And so it becomes increasingly difficult for us to unplug when we find ourselves a member of a group meant to communicate face to face.

When it comes to conversation and common courtesy, I guess it’s like what an old professor once said to me about common sense: ‘Not so common.’

Immigration

I am in awe of an immigrant. This is someone who has severed ties, forever, with everyone who has ever supported them, and with everything that has served to define them. Friends, family, home, country, culture, familiarity in general; all that and more the immigrant has chosen to leave behind, with no intention of ever returning to stay.

Maybe it’s simply a reflection of my own middle-class background in one of the most peaceful and privileged countries on earth, but I can’t imagine making that choice. It seems an incomprehensibly difficult transition to complete, lonely, deeply unsettling, arduous in every practical way. And more than anything, for me, I can’t imagine permanently breaking the family tie, the ancestral line which, however inconsequential or little known, has brought me to where I was born and raised. Every immigrant must know, in their hearts, that their children will grow up to be fundamentally different from all the family members who have preceded them, that they will never enjoy the blood bonds that they would have had they lived in their country of origin. To immigrate is to accept that you must begin a whole new family history.

I have a friend who, in emigrating, gave up a career as a librarian to become a janitor. I once worked in a restaurant with a man who had been a lawyer in his home country, and who was now host at that restaurant, seating the customers. I know of couples who have not been able to manage the change together, where one or other of the two couldn’t make the leap, and so returned home, ending the marriage. And of course we all know of the people who literally risk their lives for a chance to emigrate. (To me, these people are by definition not immigrants, nor ‘economic migrants,’ but refugees.)

Sue Waters photo
Sue Waters photo

Give me your tired, your poor, 

Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free, 

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

 These words are of course the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, and they could hardly be more ironic at a time when Donald Trump leads the polls among Republicans running for President, while proposing that a wall be built along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

The very idea that we can draw an imaginary line along some part of the earth, then say, ‘The land on this side is ours; you are not allowed to enter or stay,’ is basically bizarre. Sure, we collectively agree to a set of laws which lends force to this prohibition, but morally, can it be justified? If so, why? Because we got there first, then organized to keep others out? Seems pretty thin justification to me.

Years ago, I watched a short film by madcap artist Byron Black (sadly it doesn’t seem to exist online), in which Byron furtively approaches a small concrete pylon marking the Canada-U.S. border as it crosses Point Roberts, the western-most peninsula descending from Canada across the 49th parallel, making ‘The Point’ a tiny but separate part of the American empire. Byron steps carefully over the pylon, then waits apprehensively for the wrath of god and government to descend upon him. It doesn’t; no bolt of lightning, no megaphone voice telling him to lie face down on the ground, nothing. It goes on, but suffice it for me to say that the piece ends with Byron gleefully hopping back and forth across the border, maniacally celebrating his ability to flaunt the power of big government. For my money, the film surgically and hilariously impales the notion of ‘border.’

Recently, Gboko John Stewart, a young man from Liberia, applied for and was granted admission to Quest University in Squamish, BC. Initially the Canadian government denied him a visa for entry because of the Ebola outbreak in his home country. Reasonable enough, you might say. An international quarantine was in effect against this virulent disease. But once Liberia was declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization in May of 2015, Mr. Stewart applied again for a visa. And again he was refused; this time because some nameless bureaucrat was not satisfied that he would leave Canada at the conclusion of his time at Quest.

I have never met Mr. Stewart; know little about him. He works as a freelance journalist and radio host in Monrovia, and, from his writings, it’s clear he is skilled in the English language. He’s also an activist, deeply involved in an organization called HeForShe, which calls for men to support the equality of women. Mr. Stewart presumably never expressed an interest in staying in Canada permanently, but regardless, and despite my limited knowledge of him, I have to think he should be exactly the sort of person my country might be prepared to admit, temporarily or otherwise.

And, once again, I find myself struggling to understand the helplessness and frustration he must feel at the anonymous, arbitrary power that denies him a chance at his educational dreams.

When it comes to immigration, tragically, none of it seems to make any sense.

 

Discrepancies

Pete Muller photo
Pete Muller photo

This photograph was published in the July 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. It was taken in a village in southern Guinea, during the recent Ebola outbreak which had its epicentre in that part of Africa.

The young girl sitting on the blanket looks distinctly uneasy. Before her, the caption tells us, a traditional “healer” is preparing to exorcise the “malign spirits” which may have caused the girl to contract the Ebola virus. We see the healer’s face encrusted in white; a bit of green vegetation is wrapped around one wrist; he carries a kind of sceptre, a decorated stick.

What’s most remarkable about the photo is to be seen in the background, among the small group of villagers who have gathered to watch the exorcism—two young men hold up their phones, videoing the process.

The elements of the discrepancy seem almost too much to set side by side, and yet, there they are. A rankly superstitious practice which tracks right back to a mention in the Dead Sea Scrolls (i.e. before Christianity), smack up against the latest in 21st century communications technology. How is this possible?

The fact is today’s world is rife with such discrepancies; it’s only that they’re usually further removed from one another. In whole villages in rural Afghanistan not one person may be able to read and write. In the city of Helsinki, with a population of almost one and a half million, you will be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of 15 who cannot read and write. (The literacy rate In Afghanistan is 28%, among females less than 13%; in Finland the rate is 100%.)

Carlos Slim, the Mexican business mogul, has a net worth of more than $77 billion U.S. The average hotel receptionist in Mexico brings home $4260 U.S. in pay over the course of one year.

In California, it is illegal for mental health providers to engage in “reparative therapy” for LGBT minors. In Uganda, you may be sent to jail for up to 14 years for failing to report a suspected homosexual.

More than half of new lawyers in Canada are women. In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive a car, vote, or leave home except in the company of a male chaperone.

In all these cases, the divergence is just too great. And no one, anywhere, should attempt to justify these differences via the notion of ‘culture.’ They remain in place because it is to the advantage of the privileged group that they do so.

Does digital technology close these gaps, or drive them ever wider? The answer is complex. Certainly those phones held up by the two young men in Guinea offer them opportunities for information-gathering and commerce that are unprecedented historically, potentially meaning that their lives are ‘lifted’ economically, educationally, socially. But at the same time, the very persistence of superstition, illiteracy, and poverty means that, if those two young men rise up, the gap between them and those next to them who believe in the power of exorcism will grow.

The rising tide of digital technology most assuredly does not lift all boats, any more than the growing wealth of the economic elite trickles down, in any effective way, to those living at the bottom of the financial hill. Any time the separation between two sets of people grows too great, whether it be the Mayan priests ruling over Palenque in the 7th century, or Marie Antoinette and her husband ruling over France during the final years of the 18th century, it does not bode well for us.

In today’s global village, the discrepancies which exist internationally present problems on a scale not seen before, and I mean that quite literally, because we are more aware of these problems than we have ever been before. We no longer have to wait for an emissary to return to court, after a year-long mission, to know about the conditions of a far-off land and its people. But, at same time, today’s problems are of a distressingly familiar order.

Those at the peak of today’s societal pyramid are doing just fine, thanks. What’s called for are measures to assure that the pyramid does not get any higher, that it in fact flattens, delivering greater equality of rights, education, health care, and economic opportunity to all people everywhere.

I’m sounding frighteningly socialistic to some I know, but the lessons of history are there for all of us to observe, and we ignore them at our peril. It is in our own interests to help those being left out or behind, wherever they live, because the discrepancies of today’s world are a threat to us all.

Fact Not Fiction

“The cool kids are making docs.”

                                            —David Edelstein

When I attended film school, back in the ancient 80s, there was not a single documentary program to be found anywhere across the educational landscape. We attendees were all keenly intent upon becoming the next Martin Scorsese or Francis Coppola; those most successful fictional moviemakers from the first generation of film school brats. Documentary film was seen by us as slightly dusty, quaint, more often suited to arid academia than the edgy dramatic territory we meant to occupy.

Otrocuenta Desarollo photo
Otrocuenta Desarollo photo

These days documentary programs abound in film schools everywhere, and documentary film is seen as a highly relevant form aggressively focusing our attention upon social and economic issues of immediate concern to all of us.

It’s interesting to consider why this change.

Certainly the greatly increased availability of production and post production technology (think cameras and computers) has a lot to do with it. Today’s media audience maintains a more forgiving expectation of documentary ‘production values’ (the quality of the sound and picture) than that expectation which remains for dramatic film. In the documentary world, content rules, and so if you have captured a terrific story using a comparatively cheap digital camera, then edited on your laptop, you may well be good to go in the marketplace. Searching for Sugarman would be a prime example. Not so much in the dramatic sphere, where a low-budget look is still likely to prevent you from ever hitting the theatres.

But there’s more to it than that I think. Today’s generation of film school students is far more determined to effect change then we ever were. We were interested first of all in making films; today’s doc filmmakers seem first of all interested in making a difference. Where filmmaking was an end for us, it is a means to them. Caught up as we were in the countercultural ethos of 70s ‘anti-hero’ movies like Scarecrow or Straight Time, we were willing to focus our lenses upon the downtrodden, the misfits, but we were rarely inclined to take direct aim at problems we nevertheless knew were all around us, problems like air pollution or economic inequality. Contemporary docs like An Inconvenient Truth and Inequality For All show no such reluctance.

And let me be perfectly clear; this change is much for the better. We humans have a ravenous need for stories, and one of the reasons for that is because we understand, sometimes unconsciously, that stories offer us ‘life lessons.’ They offer us insights into how we should or should not behave in the face of common human problems. To a lesser or greater degree mind you. Some stories are so simple minded that whatever insight they may offer is utterly generic, if not banal.

And documentaries, by their very nature, offer us better insights than do dramas. As good as the storytelling is in a dramatic series like Breaking Bad, for instance—and it is very good—it doesn’t necessarily hold any greater relevance to real life than does your typical comic book movie. Walter White is only marginally more real than is Spiderman.

Not so with Michael Morton, the Texan who spent 25 years in prison before finally being exonerated on all charges, and is the protagonist of a documentary entitled An Unreal Dream. Morton is the real deal, a genuine American hero.

Conventional TV broadcasters operating right now have badly dropped the ball on the burgeoning audience interest in documentaries, as evidenced by a recent Hot Docs study. Despite that fumble however, because of the rise of the internet, and because of their own commitment, the film school students of right now who are drawn to documentary are likely to succeed at making an impact, at changing the world, however incrementally. They are perhaps not entirely typical of the current generation, but they undoubtedly represent a new, different and very worthwhile slice of that generation. And more power to them.

An Education?

The conference was titled, “The Next New World.” It took place last month in San Francisco, and was hosted by Thomas Friedman, columnist for The New York Times and author of The World Is Flat. Friedman has been writing about the digital revolution for years now, and his thinking on the matter is wide-ranging and incisive.

In his keynote address, Friedman describes “an inflection” that occurred coincidental with the great recession of 2008—the technical transformations that began with the personal computer, continued with the internet, and are ongoing with smart phones and the cloud. Friedman is not the first to note that this transformation is the equivalent of what began in 1450 with the invention of the printing press, the so-called Gutenberg revolution. The difference is that the Gutenberg revolution took 200 years to sweep through society. The digital revolution has taken two decades.

5351622529_5d4c782817Friedman and his co-speakers at the conference are right in articulating that today’s revolution has meant that there is a new social contract extant, one based not upon high wages for middle skills (think auto manufacturing or bookkeeping), but upon high wages for high skills (think data analysis or mobile programming). Everything from driving cars to teaching children to milking cows has been overtaken by digital technology in the last 20 years, and so the average employee is now faced with a work place where wages and benefits don’t flow from a commitment to steady long term work, but where constant innovation is required for jobs that last an average of 4.6 years. As Friedman adds—tellingly I think—in today’s next new world, “no one cares what you know.” They care only about what you can do.

Friedman adds in his address that the real focus of the discussions at the conference can be abridged by two questions: “How [in this new world] does my kid get a job?” and, “How does our local school or university need to adapt?’’

All well and good. Everyone has to eat, never mind grow a career or pay a mortgage. What bothers me however, in all these worthwhile discussions, is the underlying assumption that the education happening at schools and universities should essentially equate to job training. I’ve checked the Oxford; nowhere does that esteemed dictionary define education as training for a job. The closest it comes is to say that education can be training “in a particular subject,” not a skill.

I would contend that what a young person knows, as opposed to what they can do, should matter to an employer. What’s more, I think it should matter to all of us. Here’s a definitional point for education from the Oxford that I was delighted to see: “an enlightening experience.”

A better world requires a better educated populace, especially women. For the human race to progress (perhaps survive), more people need to understand the lessons of history. More people have to know how to think rationally, act responsibly, and honour compassion, courage and commitment. None of that necessarily comes with job training for a data analyst or mobile programmer.

And maybe, if the range of jobs available out there is narrowing to ever more specific, high technical-skills work, applicable to an ever more narrow set of industries, then that set of industries should be taking on a greater role in instituting the needed training regimes. Maybe as an addendum to what can be more properly termed ‘an education.’

I’m sure that Friedman and his conference colleagues would not disagree with the value of an education that stresses knowledge, not skills. And yes, universities have become too elitist and expensive everywhere, especially in America. But my daughter attends Quest University in Squamish, British Columbia, where, in addition to studying mathematics and biology, she is obliged to take courses in Rhetoric, Democracy and Justice, and Global Perspectives.

Not exactly the stuff that is likely to land her a job in Silicon Valley, you might say, and I would have to reluctantly agree. But then I would again argue that it should better qualify her for that job. Certainly those courses will make her a better citizen, something the world is in dire need of, but I would also argue that a degree in “Liberal Arts and Sciences” does in fact better qualify her for that job, because those courses will teach her how to better formulate an argument, better understand the empowerment (and therefore the greater job satisfaction) that comes with the democratic process, and better appreciate the global implications of practically all we do workwise these days.

Damn tootin’ that education in liberal arts and sciences better qualifies her for that job in Silicon Valley. That and every other job out there.

Words

My own view on the ‘proper’ use of language is radical, though not so radical as some. I am told of a UBC professor who believes that, “If you used it, it’s a word.” I would amend that statement to read, “If you used it—and it was understood by the listener in the way you intended it to be understood—it’s a word.”

Rafel Miro photo
Rafel Miro photo

I’m employing the classic communication model here, where sender, message and receiver must all be present in order for communication to take place, and I do believe that clarity is the prime consideration when attempting to communicate with the written or spoken word. Honesty might be my second consideration, and all the niceties of language—the elements of style—would follow, a distant third.

Words are meant to communicate, and communication is meant to move you somehow, either intellectually or emotionally, depending upon the kind of writing or speaking being done. But nowhere should it be maintained that there is a proper way to communicate with words, that there is one and only one correct way to string words together.

And yet of course there is. We have the rules of grammar, and we have the dictionary. The dictionary tells us that there is one and only one correct way to spell a word, and the rules of grammar tell us that there is only one way to correctly construct sentences.

Well, to not put too fine a word upon it, hogwash. Shakespeare never had a dictionary or grammar text to refer to, and most of us would agree that no fellow has ever strung English words together better than he, and he invented some dillys (How about “fell swoop?”). It makes no more sense to say that there are rules to govern writing than it does to say there are rules to govern painting, or sculpture, or theatre. Writing is an artform like any other, and to impose rules upon it is an act of stultification.

I’m with Bill Bissett, subversive poet of deserved renown whose work can be found on his “offishul web site,” work like this pithy gem (from scars on th seehors):

IT USD 2 B

yu cud get sum toilet papr

nd a newspapr both 4

a dollr fiftee

 

now yu cant  

yu gotta make a chois 

Bissett points out in his essay why I write like ths that it was the invention of the printing press that precipitated the standardization of language:

previous to that era peopul wud spell th same words diffrentlee  evn in th same correspondens  chek th lettrs btween qween elizabeth first n sir waltr raleigh  different spellings  different tones  different emphasis  sound  all part uv th changing meenings  

Once again it seems it was technology determining change, change which in this case undoubtedly impoverished words as a creative tool.

It was the Victorians who truly imposed a final set of rules upon the English language—the first Oxford Dictionary appeared in 1884—and generically speaking, there has rarely been a more noxious bunch populating the earth.

The French have the Académie française, “official moderator of the French language,” there “to work, with all possible care and diligence, to give our language definite rules.” The Academy of course admits a few new words to the French language each year, mostly to replace odious English words that have crept into use in French, but again, it is hard to imagine a more officious and objectionable pomp of bureaucrats than these self-appointed jury members. (Did you catch me inventing “pomp,” and, more importantly, did you grasp my meaning?)

Language evolves, daily, as must any art if it is to remain an art. It must constantly be in search of the novel, for there is precious little else remaining when it comes to the recognition of art than that it be new. Those who would stand in opposition to this evolution stand with those charming Victorians who offered up as their sole necessary justification, “It’s not done.”

Yes, the too-indulgent use of words can be tedious and problematic (Has anyone actually read Finnegan’s Wake?), but even more problematically tendentious are the language police manning the checkpoints in defense of a hopeless, conservative cause. If you want to say, “There is data to support my argument,” as opposed to “There are data…”, go ahead. Those who would condemn you for it are snobs, snobs with a fascist bent, and not the least deserving of the respect they seek. If you consider it a word, and you think it likely to be understood in the way you intend, go ahead, fire away, use it. Feel free.

A Child Skipping

2445244162_f4bbeba0baA child skipping down the sidewalk may be the single most encouraging action you will ever see.  That child is what I would describe as ‘fully engaged,’ here and now, fully in the moment and enjoying it.  What’s more that moment may not be all that extraordinary; there’s no obvious reason for that kid to be so ebullient, no carnival grounds in sight, no ice cream stand straight ahead.  Chances are that life just is what it is for that child for that moment.  But it’s more than enough reason to skip.

If that kid is hand-in-hand with their mother or father, even better.  That kid is now not only fully engaged, he or she is feeling safe, cared for and secure.

Every parent’s responsibility can probably be reduced to simply providing their child with the most carefree childhood they possibly can.  I happen to believe that human beings are natural learners; we enjoy learning and will do so every chance we get, so there’s little need to worry about cramming edification into the childhood years.  Simply provide the opportunity, and kids will learn.

No, parents are charged with just making sure their child is loved and protected, experiencing as little fear and hurt as possible.  If a parent can do just that much, all anxiety about proper parenting should be gone; your child will be just fine.

Oh, and make sure your kid has as much fun as possible.  As the great philosopher of everyday life Kurt Vonnegut Jr. concluded, “We’re here to have fun, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”  Actually Vonnegut said “fart around” not “fun,” but let’s not quibble.  And Kurt was not referring to just kids on that point, by the way.

Perhaps the single coolest action I saw a parent take during the years I was actively parenting my own kids came at several of the long-distance running meets my daughter used to attend while in elementary school.  The parents would of course accompany their children to these after school competitions, then be obliged to stand around awkwardly while their small charges ran the considerable distances involved in these races, often through parkland.  When the very tired tykes would reappear, chugging for the finish line, there was a tradition of the parent heading out to meet their weary son or daughter, then turning to trot alongside them, until the finish line was finally attained.  Not ahead of the child, nor behind—directly beside, step for step, offering support in a very real and yet not quite literal way.

That’s really the way it should be I think, when it comes to education.  Accompany your child to the event, expose them to the opportunity, offer some advice if you’re asked to or so inclined, but mostly just be there to support them as they engage in the process.  It doesn’t even have to be verbal; just let them know you’ll be there if they stumble, or fail, to pick them up and encourage them to go on, and to congratulate them when they win, or just finish.

For many years you will be your child’s best friend, and that’s the way it should be, and don’t let anyone tell you different.  You’ll be more than that too of course, but you’ll be their confidante, their favourite playmate; there to reliably accompany them through life’s daily adventures.  As far as your child is concerned you’re a far better friend than any of the kids their age, far more patient and cooperative, easier to organize, yak with, order about and otherwise demand things from.  Heck, you even pay for everything.

And then one day they dump you.  Overnight you lose your status as best friend, in favour of those other kids their age.  Suddenly you’re no longer cool to hang out with, not really even that interesting anymore, if the truth be told.

It’s a change that’s enough to break your heart, and it’s all part of the glory of living.  Raising a child is easily the most amazing, meaningful, rewarding, and heart-rending challenge you will ever take on.  If you get through it, maybe try skipping a step or two.

MOOC Learning

Academia is said to be one of the societal institutions which has best resisted the changes that have come with the e-revolution.  MOOCs may be changing all that.  MOOC is the acronym for Massive Open Online Course—a post-secondary education course where anyone with an internet connection can sign up, complete the coursework online, receive feedback and ultimately recognition for finishing the course.  Class sizes can be huge, over 150,000 in some instances, and a MOOC is sometimes combined with regular bums-in-seats-in-the-lecture-hall students.

MOOCs (pronounce it the same way a cow pronounces everything, then add the hard ‘C’) made their first appearance in 2008, and institutions as venerable as Stanford and Harvard have since introduced them.  Why not, since, like so many web-based operations, they’re cheap to set-up, and ready-made for promotion.  Fees are usually not charged for MOOC students, but I suspect that will soon begin to change.

But think of it.  You too can enroll in a course from Harvard, presented by an eminent Harvard professor, if only virtually.  It’s more of the greater democratization so often brought about by the internet.  All good thus far.

As is so frequently the case with digital innovation, however, the picture is not a straightforward one.   There is little genuine accreditation that comes with completion of a MOOC.  You may receive some sort of ‘certificate of completion’ for a single course, but there’s no degree forthcoming from passing a set number of MOOCs.  Sorry folks; no Harvard degree available via your laptop set upon the kitchen table.

The attrition rate is also high for MOOCs.  Many students who have eagerly signed up find it difficult to stay with and succeed at an online course from the unstructured isolation of the kitchen table.  The potential for cheating is another obvious issue.

Back to the upside for a moment though.  With MOOCs, learners are engaged in an interactive form of schooling which, research tells us, is considerably better than the traditional bums-in-seats model.  MOOCs are typically constructed via modules, shorter lessons which require the passing of a concluding quiz to demonstrate that the student has grasped the modular content and is thus ready to move on.  If not, then the material is easily reviewed, and the quiz retaken.  It’s a form of individualized learning which has obvious advantages over the scenario where a student, having failed to comprehend the message being delivered orally by the sage professor at her lectern, is obliged to raise his hand and make his failure known to the entire student assemblage.

p.txtOne of the most interesting aspects to the MOOC phenomenon emerged with one of the early Stanford MOOCs, when the regular, in-class students began staying away from lectures, preferring to do the online modules along with their MOOC brethren.

But online learning is also, as we all know, hardly restricted to deliverance by august institutions of higher formal education.  Anyone who has ever typed in “How to…” in the Youtube search box knows that much.  The Khan Academy, started by MIT and Harvard grad Salman Khan in 2006, now has more than 3600 mini-lessons available via Youtube.  A website like Skillshare offers lessons on everything from how to make better meatballs, to how to create an Android app.  At Skillshare you can sign up as either a teacher or a student, although as a teacher your course proposal must be vetted by the Skillshare powers-that-be.  Nevertheless, Skillshare courses are a bargain.  For one course I recently looked at, the fee was just $15 for the first 250 students to sign up.

But here’s the real kicker from a Skillshare course on how to become a Skillshare teacher.  The course is presented in just two video modules over three weeks, including office hours, and the instructor advises that you’ll need to set aside an hour per week to complete the class.  “By the end of this workshop,” gushes the young woman offering this golden opportunity, “You will be able to teach an excellent class.”  Well, to employ a pre-revolutionary term, what utter codswallop.  No one, neither Ghandi nor Einstein, should be guaranteed the ability to teach an excellent class after taking a part-time, three-week workshop.  With the internet, especially when it comes to start-ups, you’ll always want to watch your wallet.

The most significant downside to online learning is of course that it lends itself far better to certain kinds of subject matter than it does to others.  It works best with subjects where there is one and only one right answer.   That or a very defined skill, say the proper way to prune a fruit tree.  Any subject where individual interpretation, subtle analysis, critique, or indeed genuine creativity is required is not so easily adapted to a MOOC template.  Whether a computer will ever write something so sublime as King Lear is one thing; whether a computer will ever be able to legitimately grade hundreds of essays on the same work is another.

Quite simply, and despite all those from C. P. Snow on down who have argued so persuasively for the melding of arts and sciences, there are certain studies—those where the goal is insight into and appreciation of the ineffable—that will never lend themselves well to the MOOC model.  Praise be.