Info, Info Everywhere, But Which of it to Drink?

About a week ago, a friend at Ursinus College, in Pennsylvania, brought to my attention an online article written by his colleague in their Department of Politics and International Relations, about enrolling in a MOOC (massive open online course) to see what all the fuss was about. You may have heard about these courses–hosted by companies, such as Coursera, that have entered into agreements with schools, they provide the content for courses at some of the country’s leading universities–for free. (Fearing that they were behind this curve was among the apparent reasons why the University’s of Virginia’s Board of Visitors ousted–temporarily–their President this past summer.)

After initially being impressed by the course–specifically the knowledge and experience of the instructor, though certainly not with the insufficient interaction that the course provided–the author writes:

This conclusion has something to do with another brief post that I just wrote, highlighting that what we do in the liberal arts is not just convey information; instead, we help students to learn how to learn. Whether or not people will wish to take free courses taught to thousands of people by impressively famous people, my hope is that they don’t fail to see that going to university, participating in a class, and moving through curriculum, is about more than just gaining specific information; education is not the sum total of the individual courses that you take.

Regardless how the growing for-profit online delivery industry tries to portray the supposed equivalence between their product and what I do in the classroom, a skilled lecturer is not simply a content provider. Instead, a good professor–and yes, of course, there are poor professors, as with any profession–presents to the students a model for: how to reason through an issue; how to speak with, listen to, and maybe even persuade people of differing views; how to deal with ambiguity and competing, even contradictory, information; and doing so on the spot, right in front of them and thus without a net beneath us, interrupted by a hand suddenly going up in the back of the room, someone’s eyebrows arced in surprised curiosity, or a student’s face scrunched up in puzzlement. Professors zero in on the winks and the nods in class–some are twitches, yeah, but others are clues and many are opportunities. While the important and ongoing need to provide engaging distance education options is crucial to address, and while technology (thankfully) takes us considerably further than those distance ed booklets that the U.S. Post used to carry back and forth between students and professors, good teachers do far more than talk to a camera, merely post PowerPoints online, or remain satisfied that, once it has been digitized (or “in the can,” as the old time filmmakers used to say), some past version of a lecture can live on as if in amber, as if it was the high point of their career.

So the article concludes:

Which brings me back to that online video that I linked to above, when first mentioning MOOCs. What this video sales pitch–created by a University, if you can believe that–fails to recognize is that the thing that these courses are responding to and taking full advantage of (i.e., the digital access/information explosion) is actually the problem that these courses fail to help students grapple with.

Information is indeed everywhere, much as online courses and their providers soon will be, as will be the universities scrambling for their piece of this new revenue stream pie; perhaps the best way for students to address this over-abundance of information is not by passively watching isolated, authorized speakers on a computer screen but, instead, by speaking up for themselves as part of a group of people who you can wink and nod at, and who will wink and nod back at you.

The video ends (at about the 3:33 point) by selling viewers on the

“… that they can easily maintain after the course finishes.” As I try to teach my students (who, in my experience, easily maintain what we used to just call “friendships” after the class is over–what university fundraisers long ago monetized as “alumni and donors”): show me the use of the word “authentic” and I’ll show you a sales pitch that’s more about rhetoric than substance and more about the interests of those selling the product and guarding their investment than those whom they’ve targeted to buy it.

If it’s true for Oriental carpets or Mexican food or art or sacred relics, then what does it mean for the commodities that we call information and status? I wonder what my students would answer? I’ll ask them in person this week.

4 thoughts on “Info, Info Everywhere, But Which of it to Drink?

  1. Andie–a very interesting response–thanks! We too infrequently, I think, hear frank comments from students on matters such as this. And those Facebook pics of pipes and fake mustaches that Vaia mentioned were wonderful; to know that students leave class and still mull things over, for whatever purposes, even for producing some funny pics on Facebook, is really quite heartening.

  2. I can understand from a business standpoint that adding a plethora of online classes does very well for the university, and of course, it is quite useful to many who aren’t able to attend normal classes due to varying circumstances. That to say, there are plenty of benefits to online education.

    Granted, I’ve only ever taken one online course (ANT 102: Intro to Cultural Anthropology at the University of Alabama), but, to me, it exemplified many of the basic issues or problems with online courses. It was well designed through the medium in which it was conducted, but that’s the extent of its efficiency. Though there were discussion boards to allow students to hash out and grapple with each others’ responses as well as what the professor was saying, I found them 100% ineffective. (Granted, I am very biased.) It was near impossible to have a productive conversation. We didn’t have designated times to do this, so one discussion would take place very sporadically and haphazardly over the course of a week or so. Furthermore, we never had any communication with our professor beyond his announcing our grades had been posted. However, it allowed me to make the most (or not…) of my course. It was all up to me. And for this particular class (an arbitrary Behavioral Science course I needed to take as a final General Education requirement), that was a good thing. While I learned some excellent Anthropology jargon in my online course, I learned little else. I had no one there to constantly push me to further complicate what I was saying. Once my thoughts were typed up, no more needed to be said, so we moved on. It was a memorization and regurgitation process.

    Higher education is, to me, a process of “learning how to learn well,” to quote another blog post. It is not vocabulary lessons and times-table memorizations. Students pay to come to these institutions, to be informed, to be guided. At least I do. So why not take advantage of that?

    What I get from my seminar and lecture classes is exactly what students–at least in my own opinions (opinions formed as a result of extensive discussions with my professors and advisors weighing the different objectives of higher education in the humanities) of what higher education should be–should get out of their education. In the classroom we are held more accountable–as you mention–by both the students and professor for the things we say. I can’t make a generalized statement and move on; I have to be able to analyze what informed my opinions as well as be prepared to discuss its broader implications. I simultaneously learn how to think critically, to discourse productively with someone who may completely disagree with me, and subsequently to apply these skills to my everyday life.

    This continual interaction with my classmates and professors–instead of “Mail to:”–allows me to build a network of peers who help to inform my opinions and help to guide me through my education at university. This created network consequently broadens the “classroom” to beyond the physical classroom. Any moment can then become a teaching moment, as I’ve often heard. Those moments are opportunities, as Vaia says, that can continue outside of class. At that moment, a class discussion on Foucault’s _This is Not a Pipe_, becomes an out-of-the-classroom experience that may or may not help to shape or inform students’ opinions and experiences. Though the photo-opp was just an amusing thing for us to do, I never applied what I learned in my online class to anything other than the exam.

  3. Indeed–there’s always more than one audience, isn’t there…? As for online education, much like a specialized education, I think that it is great for what it is–reaching people who would never have the opportunity to be here in person–but sadly insufficient if we start to think that it’s all that there needs to be.

  4. A great post as always…And a careful reader will notice how this article talks to two readers: generally to those who read you and to your students! Which makes the point of your post even more evident, at least to me, I mean would an online professor be able to communicate and on a more personal level to their students knowledge, has he/she not have had the inclass interaction? I don’t think so! As you say it’s not only about the information and knowledge you get; that you can get anywhere if you have the will to or the thirst, but what classes do or should do is create the opportunities, engage students in discussions that will hopefully bring/continue outside the class, THAT’s a successful class/learning/knowledge!!–So that they will post pictures of “this is not a pipe” as those who follow you on fb have seen your students doing! Online learning can NOT do that but it’s not of surprise that this sort of learning is seen as important, we praise TOO much internet/networking and we seem to forget the importance of interacting outside the internet (but that is another discussion)!