|Macie Hall: http://ii.library.jhu.edu/tag/mooc/|
The buzz over Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is more like a deep rumble. That anyone with an internet connection can freely access quality learning resources on sites such as Coursera, Udacity, and Khan Academy foretells lasting revelations about education and learning. I use the term revelation advisedly, because I think despite everything we will find out, schools may well continue plodding on their current course. Part of what is revealed, after all, is that schooling is not centered on student learning.
There is an online resource for learning nearly anything taught in schools readily available right now. Entrepreneurs clamber over what this means, but educators’ responses range from Luke-warm attempts at supplementing what they already do to outright opposition. Here is what we can say with certainty: the access to resources for learning what is taught in schools has increased dramatically. There is no evidence, however, that this increased access has led to proportional gains in student learning. That discrepancy demands an explanation. We can no longer claim that lack of access is the limiting factor preventing gains in student learning. Let’s compare student learning to a fire. There was a time when we might have proposed that the fire was smoldering because it lacked oxygen. Now we have the internet – a giant, oxygen-blowing machine. We should expect fire anywhere there is fuel. If only young people would burn to learn.
Pardon the analogy. What is revealed by the relative lack of learning gains in a world awash with learning opportunity is a lack of student motivation. Let’s face it; there is no barrier preventing the sufficiently motivated person from learning what is of value. That is a fraught statement for people who dedicate their lives, as many educators do, to enabling young people to overcome obstacles and achieve at the highest possible levels. Yet pretending that we (educators) still provide what is necessary for a young person to learn is just that – enabling. We enable students to continue to repel responsibility for their own learning.
If a young person really needed to know how to do something, why would she require convincing? We don’t have to convince babies to learn to walk, or toddlers to learn oral language. Literacy and numeracy will develop without institutionalized coercion to the extent those skills have value for the people in whom they develop. Of course people learn things at school that they would not on their own, and in the past some learning resources were only available through schools. That has been a good enough reason to compel everyone to go to school. We are right to do everything in our power to make whatever resources are available to some available to all. My argument is that we overreach when we go beyond providing equal opportunity. We overreach when we crowd out the self-motivation of a young person by assuming responsibility for her.
If you are still reading, perhaps my heretical position hasn’t put you off too much to consider this illustrative example, taken from prior conversations with Fran -- a (the) frequent commenter to this blog. Fran went through a teacher preparation program in Louisville KY (as did I), student taught, and then took on a middle school math teaching position. He quit mid-semester, and for the past several years has worked at his own surface restoration business. Fran continues in his mission to help young people, though. He volunteers daily at the Americana Community Center in Louisville’s diverse south end, where he tutors kids during “homework help” and coaches a middle schools girls’ basketball team.
Fran has been interested in this blog because he struggles over his role in motivating the kids he helps. Fran’s issue can be characterized by his interactions with one particular fifth-grader, we’ll call her Alma. Alma’s family arrived in Louisville several years ago along with a wave of refugees from Somalia. Alma (tellingly) has readily learned English, and communication is not an issue. She comes to homework help where she sits with Fran to complete her math homework. The tendency, he says, is for her to want him to show her how to work the problems by working the problems. Fran does the things that teachers and tutors should, such as showing Alma how to work similar problems and/or asking Alma to work on her own through the steps she is able and then use Fran only for “hurdle help.” Both of them find this time-consuming and frustrating, though. What Alma wants is to get the homework done, so she can get credit for it. What Fran wants for Alma is for her to build the repertoire of skills that will help her to complete her math assignments on her own.
Fran has pointedly asked me what incentives he could provide Alma so that she would want to learn the math, not just to complete the math assignments. He is familiar with Khan Academy, a full set of video tutorials and practice problems available online. The site provides the structure and feedback needed for self-paced learning of math skills from basic arithmetic to advanced calculus. He enrolled Alma on the site, and he registered himself as her coach. At first Alma seemed to enjoy working on Khan Academy. She raced through several concepts with which she was already familiar. She also looked at the section of the site devoted to pre-calculus and asked Fran about it. He told her that working those problems would require many prior steps and a lot of time. Alma quickly lost interest.
My explanation: learning pre-calculus isn’t a felt necessity for Alma. Yes, eventually she will take tests in school to demonstrate her proficiency in pre-calculus, and those may have real consequences for her, but she can’t feel that. Fran knows about those long-term consequences, and he can try to insert his own short-term contrivances to substitute for what she can’t feel. This involves a major hazard though, the same one we have in schools that perform essentially the same function. The best case is that Alma does the work for the contrivance (to get credit, to please the teacher, to get the treat, etc). In that case Alma’s motivation depends on those contrived rewards. Take them away and there is no reason left to learn.
Online learning resources generally lack the personalized rewards that schools can contrive. Khan Academy has implemented an automated set of badges as token rewards for achievement. It is hard for me to see how badges could be valued enough to motivate young people to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do. Young people need their own reasons for achievement.
I am literally writing a book in which I try to advise Fran on what he can do to support Alma’s aspirations He and other educators can play an important role without crowding out self-motivation. We have to build on what kids like Alma want for themselves. What Alma wants is to know who she is. That involves defining those things with which she identifies and also distinguishing those things that set her apart. Fran can help in that process, though he has to be careful not to put himself in her place. He can facilitate a group, for example, that Alma may want to join. Similar to a school sponsored club, Fran can help handle the logistics of a group that values math skills – like a math competition team. To the extent that members of the team want to fit in by becoming better at math, and/or standout by surpassing other teams, Fran may be able to help create an environment in which Alma is motivated to improve her math skills.
For a more detailed treatment of this topic you’ll have to wait for my forthcoming book [proposed title: Crowded Motivation: Stepping Aside to Support the Highest Aspirations of Young People]. What has become clear with the growth of online resources for learning is that schools can no longer even pretend to be mostly about student learning. What educators currently do, and perhaps have always done, is give young people a place to declare who they are. Perhaps the most important part of our work is knowing when to stay out of the way.