Is anyone else out there feeling as frustrated as I am by all the "revolutionary" new open courseware and online digital courses being announced that do very little to really tackle the basic assumptions of hierarchical, one-directional, silo'd learning--unconnected intellectually, unconnected to the world and problems around us, unconnected to other learners around the world? Can't we do better? I think we can! I know we can.
Last December, when Times Higher Ed (UK) asked me to make my prediction for education in 2012, I said we would witness the unveiling of open courseware by elite universities. I also offered the caution that not all of this open courseware would offer new paradigms that really helped students in the challenging world we face today. Well, that seemed like a no brainer since MIT and Harvard had already announced, with great fanfare, that they would later be announcing new twists on their Open Courseware initiatives. It's clear now that other universities are following this pattern, where tens of thousands of students can take online courses, using course materials from traditional courses taught by esteemed professors and made open and available online. I'm delighted Harvard and MIT are making offerings available online, although I'm nervous about the for-profit possibilities down the road and about the assumption that a lecture online constitutes an education.
As I've said before, if we professors can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be: meaning, if we offer nothing more or other than a computer, why not make ourselves available more conveniently, to a wider audience, and more economically? However, I believe there is so much more that a great teacher offers to students than simply content. That "something more" is what is tragically missing from online courseware and from the premature excitement (especially by commercial vendors) to get into this market.
Stanford has gone further by saying its medical students now would take courses online through Khan Academy's online programs, and then would use classtime for face-to-face tutorials and in-depth knowledge. That's colloquially called "flipping" the classroom--and research shows that it is a better way to learn content, retain it and be able to apply it elsewhere, as opposed to sitting through and being tested on the content in a traditional classroom. And it seems especially well suited to the hands' on life of a clinical physician. Bravo! To my mind, this adaptation of the flipped classroom model makes more sense precisely because it does put the prof in the role of a true, intense, one-on-one or one-to-some teacher in a situation where that method seems ideal, and perhaps preferable to the lecture model. What would be essential in this case, of course, is quality control and consistency between what is delivered by the Khan Academy videos and what the Stanford medical school profs consider to be reliable, state-of-the-art research on the various subjects.
But neither of these is particularly revolutionary as pedagogy or fully takes advantage of the other affordances of the digital educational technologies now available to us. In a piece for Fast Company, I argued that we shouldn't stick with "flipping" the classroom. We should use the technologies available to "make it do cartwheels."
Through collaborative tools, through distance collaborations with partners who bring more to the subject, we can make learning into a rich, connected, vital experience that can help train students (both those in the classroom and the collaborators) for the unpredictable, changing, global world they are entering. That requires not the passive receiving of content from a teacher (the flipping model doesn't change that) but students being actively engaged in the production, transmission, and broadcasting of knowledge--co-teaching, co-learning, co-researching. If students weren't just taking courses on line but participating in the making of new public courseware, that would not only make for a great learning experience (being forced to reconceptualize what you learned as something someone else might learn from) but for the possibilities of integrated learning communities, where the course material is not just received by but also enriched by future users. Now the flipping starts to become interesting, the traditional educational paradigm challenged, and the idea that knowledge is static content challenged in a significant and important way.
Here's the url for that piece on "cartwheeling" a classroom: http://www.fastcoexist.com/1679807/why-flip-the-classroom-when-we-can-make-it-do-cartwheels
Next year at Duke, we hope to inaugurate the next phase of our continuing work in the Franklin Humanities Institute's Humanities Labs: the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge. In this Lab, we will be exploring all the important new ways that learning and research can happen, not just because of technology but because of connection: peer-to-peer learning, global interconnection, the interaction between those learning about a subject and those who live those experiences, with transmission of experiential knowledge and book knowledge flowing in multiply enriching ways. The Ph.D. students leaving the Lab will be maestros in an array of new techniques for learning, research, and assessment--but they, even more, will have experimented with multiple new ways of conceptualizing:
(1) new ways of defining knowledge across the silos of the university. The Haiti Lab (described in detail in the Fast Company piece), for example, brings together historians, literary scholars, doctors, global health experts, environmental scientists, law profs, and students from all those disciplines too, in partnership with professors and students in Haiti. The other Labs this year are BorderWorks (focusing on refugees and forced migrations, again working across the full range of human and social and natural sciences) and Greater than Games (studying and creating learning games, and including computational scientists as well as those who study narratives and an array of disciplines in the humanities too). These Labs are structured around world problems and ideas, what NSF calls "Grand Challenges" and they rearrange silo'd knowledge as purposive and bold and a contribution by anyone lucky enough, in this world of grand challenges, to have knowledge that can yield solutions.
(2) new relationships between research and teaching, between teaching and learning--students will be working alongside their profs doing research, publicizing it while it's still in progress, working with extended, distributed research teams elsewhere, and sometimes "crowdsourcing" solutions to key problems by networking across institutions as part of the online learning communities. Digital study groups and digital research communities will work together, bringing original insights and solutions to problems.
(3) connected learning, where the subject matter of the course is connected to people who have expertise in that area, needs in that area, insights in that area--whether that is in the Durham community or in Tokyo or in Bangalore--and outside the walls of the classroom and academe.
(4) peer-to-peer pedagogies. We'll be talking about how students can take charge of their own learning and contribute to it, and working with doctoral students who can invent their own modes of peer instruction to carry on with them into their first professorial jobs or "alt-ac" jobs. This might include such things as teaching in game or other virtual environments while utilizing new methodologies, new visualization techniques, and other approaches.
(5) assessment. You cannot have a revolution in teaching and learning and research--and then judge it by the old assessment standards. This is a lesson that lab scientists learn over and over. If you don't change the metric of evaluation, you will miss the really new result your experiment produces. Understanding what assessment is, what it measures, and what it misses--and coming up with plausible, credible, reliable, and better standards of assessment--will be a key mission of the Lab. (NB: My bias is against those who think they don't need any form of assessment because they just "know" good from bad. That's not good enough. I've written in other places about taking several online courses where the Artificial Intelligence of the system is used to learn how I learn and to actually help me learn from my mistakes by giving me the best kinds of hints to help me learn better: if only every teacher understood every student that well! If educators are going to out-perform "the machine," we better be learning from it about how to pay attention with that kind of focus--not to our pontificating selves, but to the learning issues of our students.)
A lot of what we'll be doing next year is experimental. I'm so excited to be co-directing the Digital Knowledge Lab, an entirely new form of training for doctoral students, so that they can go out into the world with new, fresh ideas to bring to traditional academe and also to "alt ac" ideas. It's kind of like HASTAC, but materialized as pedagogical and research instruction for future academics. You can read more about it here:
Meanwhile, I personally hope to really make my classrooms do cartwheels next year by teaming up with students in the undergraduate class I'll be teaching with the noted behavioral economist Dan Ariely (author of the bestseller Predictably Irrational). Here's the undergraduate course description for English 390-5, "Surprise Endings: Social Science and Literature":
And I'll also be teaching a doctoral course in the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge (cross-listed in English and Information Science + Information Studies), in which students will work with the undergraduate class as a joint "Lab" (in both directions, or what is known in the field as "vertical integration"). Here's the doctoral course description for English 890S, "21st Century Literacies: Theories, Methods, and Tools for New Forms of Digital Research and Teaching": http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2012/04/29/course-description-21st-c-literacies-phd-lab-digital-knowledge
What happens when you put these three together? I hope it will open a new door to a new kind of really revolutionary learning, where faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates together "build" a public, online course that is interactive, has a social media element, is connected, and pushes new boundaries of what digitally-enhanced education can look like. We will be learning openly, in a public forum that the students produce, and will be taking feedback from anyone who connects to us so the course will be an "online" course--but we'll be offering participation and connection and peer learning, not just a computer screen. A community learning together, in multiple directions at once.
Will we succeed? If I knew the answer to that question, it wouldn't be an experiment. You'll have to stay tuned in as we all find out. Join us!
Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 9000+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change. Along with a steering committee of scholars across many fields, Davidson has been directing HASTAC's operations since 2006, when www.hastac.org moved to Duke University, where she also co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge. She is author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. NOTE: The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, www.nowyouseeit.net