Techno-fetishists can’t see the forest through the trees.

I actually remember the speeches at my college graduation.  It helps that the President of Penn when I graduated was the late, great Southern historian Sheldon Hackney.  While I can’t quote him exactly, I remember his argument well:  It isn’t what you know that makes you educated.  It’s understanding what you don’t know.

You may think that’s cliché, but if that’s true the techno-fetishists of today’s world certainly don’t understand.  I thought of Hackney the other day while reading the Kevin Carey piece that I blogged about Monday morning.  Here’s the part I didn’t get to then:

The new digital credentials can solve this problem by providing exponentially more information. Think about all the work you did in college. Unless you’re a recent college graduate, how much of it was saved and archived in a way that you can access now? What about the skills you acquired in various jobs? Digital learning environments can save and organize almost everything. Here, in the “unlabeled” folder, are all of my notes, tests, homework, syllabus and grades from the edX genetics course. My “real” college courses, by contrast, are lost to history, with only an inscrutable abbreviation on a paper transcript suggesting that they ever happened at all.

My college classes are lost to history too, and deservedly so.  Leave aside the fact that my notes weren’t worth saving.  Just the other day, I caught myself copying Bruce Kuklick’s interpretation of the 1948 Presidential election in my survey class.  I didn’t need any notes to remember that argument because Kuklick gave the best lectures that I’ve ever heard in my life.  I can parrot the whole argument on demand because it went straight into long term memory without my ever having to replay any non-existent tape.

Yet now I see that MOOCs are supposedly teaching faculty how to get back to what real teaching is all about.  From the Chronicle (behind the paywall, of course):

While MOOCs have not been a panacea for concerns about cost, access, or quality, the rhetoric about them did shake faculty members’ sense of complacency, says Edward Maloney, executive director of Georgetown University’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship.

“The MOOC momentum pushed people to think about teaching in ways they hadn’t before,” he says. “That’s a huge shift.”

What exactly is included as part of this “huge shift?”:

Some professors, [Fiona M.] Hollands [of Teachers College, Columbia] says, are paying more attention to the pacing of their lectures, breaking them into three- to five-minute segments to better match students’ attention spans. Others are requiring students to submit questions before class about the day’s reading.

What happens if I want to teach students how to understand arguments that take more than five minutes to make?  Color me unimpressed.

The facts I learned in my history classes weren’t the reason I took all those classes.  You really can Google anything these days.  The most important things I learned in college were skills like writing, critical thinking and the ability to follow an extended intellectual argument.  To think that everything you learn there must be preserved for posterity is the sign of someone who simply doesn’t understand what college is supposed to be about.

Posted by Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

3 comments

Susan Amussen

I am always surprised at how little sense of history enthusiasts for every shiny new thing have. And when academics discover new technologies, or theories, it’s just as bad.

Just for the permanent record, I started asking students to provide questions before class in the late 1980s. Of course, those questions were written, and turned in in class, but I had the idea. And none of us would have known to pace our lectures without MOOCs.

This: Digital learning environments can save and organize almost everything. Here, in the “unlabeled” folder, are all of my notes, tests, homework, syllabus and grades from the edX genetics course. My “real” college courses, by contrast, are lost to history, with only an inscrutable abbreviation on a paper transcript suggesting that they ever happened at all.

Is hogwash! First of all, many of us save syllabi and notes on paper, which happens to be an excellent archival storage device that requires neither electricity nor software and hardware upgrades to access even decades later. (I also saved dozens of 5-inch “floppy” discs and 3-1/2 inch not-so-floppy discs for some reason, which are of no use to anyone now.) Secondly, as I’ve written about in my latest blog post (http://www.historiann.com/2015/03/10/everything-changes-part-ii/), electronic data are among the least stable archival material in human history. Just ask an archivist.

I wouldn’t count on edX or Udacity investing in keeping your course materials archived or stored indefinitely, given the way the MOOC bubble has burst lately.

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