Cathy gave a two part interview this month as part of the The New York Times‘“Ask An Expert” column series. She answered questions from Baby Boomers on accessing and using MOOCS. You can read the full article here.
September 4, 2013
Answers for Middle-Aged Seekers of MOOCs, Part 1
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
Cathy N. Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, is answering questions about how to find and use Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other online continuing education tools.
Professor Davidson, besides teaching a class, “Making Data Matter,” co-directing the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge and holding two distinguished chairs, is a co-founder of the Humanities, Arts, Technology and Science Alliance and Collaboratory (Hastac), which describes itself as “a network of innovators dedicated to new forms of learning for the digital age.” She was appointed in 2012 by President Obama to the National Council on the Humanities and is co-director of the annual MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. Her 20 books include “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn” (Viking, 2011).
Earlier this year on the Hastac site, she posted an article, “Clearing Up Some Myths About MOOCs,” describing her mixed experience sampling online courses and her decision to teach a free, open, public MOOC offered through Coursera in January 2014, called The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education. (Besides working with Coursera, she is an unpaid adviser to another for-profit provider of MOOCs, Udacity, as well as dozens of other nonprofit educational institutions.)
Transcending ‘Doc on the Laptop’
Q. I’ve taken four different MOOCs through Coursera and edX, and they have all been wonderful. I’ve joined Facebook groups associated with each class and participated in discussion forums that were interesting and engaging. In one course, my peer evaluators included a medical researcher in the Philippines, a Saudi physician, a nursing student in Nigeria and a high school kid from the Midwest who was interested in the subject matter. The fact that we all had different backgrounds and levels of language skill did not diminish the quality of our interaction or the value of the course. I’m honored to consider these classmates my “peers.” — Suzanne, Atlanta
A. Suzanne, you have given us a positive and even lofty place from which to begin this conversation on MOOCs. You model the potential benefits of participating in a community of other online learners (of any age, educational background or national origin).
Once we step away from all the hype and hysteria surrounding MOOCs, it’s easy to see that massive online courses are both an old form and a new one. On the one hand, MOOCs can be old-school online learning and even a pretty dreary and amateurish form of educational television. On the other hand, since MOOCs connect large numbers of learners to one another through an array of forums, discussion groups and other interactive social media, they can provide an avenue to a new paradigm for heterogeneous, global learning that takes advantage of the unique capacities for connection in the Information Age we happen to be living in.
If one takes a MOOC simply as a one-to-many form of learning (the model of the traditional online, extension or correspondence course that has been around for more than a century), one can gain a lot if the professor happens to be good at delivering smart, engaging content. To make the MOOC into a new paradigm requires transcending the “doc on the laptop” and creating an online community like your Facebook group, where you take charge of the course content, discuss it with others from radically different cultures, levels of expertise, backgrounds and perspectives. I’ve also heard of successful face-to-face study groups arranged by book clubs, libraries or local arts or humanities centers that use MOOCs as a jumping-off place for community interaction or even informed, relevant, civic activism. That is where MOOCs, even in this very early beta phase, offer us the potential for a new paradigm for learning.
What is important here is that you, as the learner, have made this conversion happen. Thanks for kicking this off with such an inspiring comment.
Cognitive Reboot at Any Age
Q. Seems a little condescending to me. What makes the writer think that middle age renders finding open-source learning difficult? — Mary, Washington, D.C.
A. Hi, Mary and other readers who took offense at the implication that middle-aged readers might take MOOCs to keep sharp. This particular column is addressed to boomers so I don’t think condescension was intended, but I share your general annoyance at the idea that anyone over 50 needs a cognitive reboot. Cognitive psychology is full of research confirming that learning something new and unexpected helps one stay mentally alert at any age, not just in middle age. In fact, much of the modern science on the brain provides counter-evidence to the old idea that we’re on the decline from age 35 onward. We may lose some cognitive skills as we age, but we also gain others. (If you’re interested in this research, there is a chapter on aging and learning in my Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.)
That said, I often hear my 22-year-old students say, with a tone of wonder and awe: “My younger brother can do anything online. This younger generation … ” In a time of change, we all need to unlearn our familiar habits, as the futurist Alvin Toffler says. The more rapidly the world changes, the more we all, at every age, need to learn new, better methods and habits for coping. Learning how to learn is one of the most difficult and important skills because it makes changing our habits a practice rather than a roadblock and, therefore, turns change into a challenge rather than an impediment. In the best of circumstances, it can even be fun. And, to my mind, it is that spirit of curiosity, adventure and fun that keeps us young — even when we’re only 22 to start with.
Few Impartial Sites
Q. I can usually find what I need online, but I am confused about how to do a search of MOOCs. Particularly, I am looking for courses in taxation and accounting. I do not need credits or a grade. –Jeannie, Midwest
Q. I’m wondering about the application of MOOCs in the K12 world. I would love to see students offered high quality, challenging courses in this format of exposure to worldwide users that would stretch them beyond the walls of their classroom. Your thoughts? —wcamp, Oregon
A. Several people asked about reliable places to find information about MOOCs, whether for primary, secondary, tertiary, or lifelong learning. There are numerous aggregator and recommendation sites out there, including one I read about recently begun by Michael Williams, who calls himself “homeless by choice,” and who spends his days in Starbucks using the free WiFi there to compile information about MOOCs for the World Mentoring Academy. I do not feel comfortable offering a recommendation yet on any of the sites since when you dig deep enough, most seem to have commercial ties and are not impartial, third-party, community-sourced recommenders. I keep saying that we need a Yelp for MOOCs (keeping in mind that Yelp is not entirely unbiased either). At present, you can go to such sites, but keep in mind they may be sending you to a MOOC with which they are affiliated. Most MOOCs also offer preview videos you can watch to help you decide and some have archives of past courses that you can dip into. Some features to look out for: Is there a discussion, chat or social media (like Facebook) site? Is the syllabus clear and well organized? Do you like the format (is it a lecture, project-based based or some other format)?
Video as the Starting Point
Q. I’ve tried several MOOC courses, all quite disappointing. I’m sure if I looked long enough, I’d find some that are quite entertaining. But, given their current model (lecture and test retention with multiple-choice questions), will I, or anyone, really learn from rev 1.0 of MOOCs. Whenever I ask adults if they feel they learned anything in college from large lecture courses with multiple-choice questions, the answer is inevitably “No.” So does making a failed education experience more cost effective really constitute a revolution in education? Or do current MOOCs, which are generally offered free, just reinforce the very limited value of an education that revolves around lectures? — Ted Dintersmith, Charlotte, Va
A. I’m sorry to hear you’ve had disappointing experiences. I have started taking maybe 15 MOOCs and have found a wide range of quality and methods. Not all MOOCs are lecture based by any means. I’ve had both fine project-based classes (ranging from statistics to HTML5 to perspective drawing) and poor ones. Similarly with lectures, there’s been a wide range of quality. And, now speaking from the point of view of someone preparing my first MOOC, shaping content in a video lecture and presenting it in an engaging manner is difficult, and most of us professors are amateur videographers even if we’re master teachers. MOOCs are still at the beta stage, and those taking MOOCs are, in effect, beta testers.
I recommend voting with your mouse! But a recent dim sum brunch with a good friend reminded me that, for some people, that’s easier said than done. My friend is a distinguished professor who took a MOOC on European history during long physical therapy sessions for a recent injury. “I didn’t learn a thing,” he said. “The professor was awful. I sat through all 24 sessions and learned nothing new!” I asked why he didn’t drop out, and he answered: “Because I’m obsessive-compulsive like that. I had to stay in there.” I was shocked, but no doubt that persistence and commitment is why he is a professor at an Ivy League school!
Still, the conversation made me aware it is cavalier to treat MOOCs like those dim sum carts whirling past, offering an array of tempting treats, not all of them turning out to be to one’s liking. Some people need as much permission to drop a course as others need encouragement to take one. It’s these huge differences that make teaching so exciting and so challenging, and make individualized attention from college mentors and advisers invaluable. If MOOCs try to standardize learning, they miss this key component of real learning.
You also mention lectures and multiple-choice tests, and you are right that neither is optimal for learning although both have become more and more common throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. (I have a chapter on the history of standardized testing in “Now You See It.”) We often forget that multiple-choice tests were invented for efficiency, not because they are a great way to either measure actual knowledge or logic or because they motivate deep learning. They don’t. A great lecturer can inspire us to think in new ways and it is clear that we humans often like doing things in groups, from watching sports or movies to attending lectures. But all the research shows we actually learn in ways that we can retain and apply by doing and by passing on the knowledge. Traditional medical school interning says: “See one. Do one. Teach one.”
So, yes, on the face of it, MOOCs that offer simple videos and multiple-choice testing hugely scale two of the weakest elements of modern higher education. Multiplying what is broken is no one’s idea of true cost savings!
That said, if you can use the videos as the starting point for interaction with other students, you can turn the experience into something more meaningful. In the MOOC I’m videotaping now, we’re extending the medical school model to: “See one. Do one. Teach one. Share one.” In other words, watch the video, talk about that week’s lesson with someone else on a forum, try to apply it in a real-life situation and then share with us how it all worked out. Whether in a face-to-face educational setting or in a MOOC, the real learning happens by connecting ideas, engaging with them, applying them, discussing them, seeing how they can be used to enhance your life, skills, critical thinking and creative contribution.
Q. I am a 20-year-old who went K-12 in the Washington, D.C., school system, am interested in being a high-school teacher and now work at Panera 20 hours per week. Does it make sense for me to start my college studies with online courses? If not, why not? If so, should the courses be MOOCs? If I could use help with some basic study skills, where might I go for that assistance? – Elizabeth, Reston, Va.
A. First, I want to thank “Polly from Vermont,” the community college chemistry teacher who has taught onsite for 25 years and online for more than a decade, for the good advice she offered in response to your comment. Polly suggests that you need to ask yourself if you can read well, if you have a broadband Internet connection, if you have a lot of self-discipline and if you have a lot of time (since online classes can be more time consuming than face-to-face learning, not less). That’s a great checklist.
I would add to Polly’s wisdom that, since your goal is to become a high school teacher, one thing you will really benefit from in onsite learning is observing the teaching methods of your instructors. From watching how they teach and interact with their students, you will start to build your own ideas of the kind of high school teacher you want to be and what you need to do to become that teacher. It is useful to see an array of teachers in action. The great ones inspire us but we can sometimes learn what not to do from the bad ones, too.
Also, you indicated that you need help with study skills. Most MOOCs, at present, are not very good for this whereas your local community college and sometimes your local public library can offer assistance tailored to your needs. It may well be that, after you have had help developing a learning style that is best for you, that you might want to continue with a mixture of onsite and online learning. The motivation comes first. Skills are something others can help you to build upon. We need great high school teachers so I wish you all success with your career. Good luck to you.
When You’re Over Your Head
Q. Salutations, Professor Davidson. What is to be done when encountering a course that is too advanced? Can the course offer a subcourse in order to master the main course? Or for that matter, can the instructor suggest other resources/links so that the student can get up to speed? – Miguel, New York
A. If a course is too advanced, you have at least two choices: You can stay in it simply to challenge yourself and see if you can pick up anything — and then perhaps take it again from the beginning. Or if it is so advanced that it is frustrating, drop the course and find one that is foundational or introductory — with the resolution of coming back later to see how you will do, once you are more prepared, in the advanced class. That gives you a goal for learning the basics, a great motivator.
As to whether the instructor can help, most online courses have discussion forums where you can ask the professor or the teaching assistants for advice and recommendations about an introductory course that best suits your educational needs.
Effort In, Results Out
Q. You don’t go to an Olive Garden for cutting-edge Tuscan cuisine. But if you’re hungry and there’s an Olive Garden a few blocks away, it’s not a bad option. I (in my 70s, with a lot of formal education 50 years ago) have taken three online courses, two of them an earlier mode that cost several hundred dollars each and had a fair amount of interaction via computer, and one free MOOC that had a small amount of interaction with students only via computer. I got a lot out of all three; less out of the one with less interaction; no surprise. I also have completed a real live master’s degree program at Georgetown University, with classes limited to 20 students, lots of interaction in class, enormous reading assignments, lots of papers to write that the professor graded — the real college experience but without the big lectures. Cost over $2,000 a course. I had to attend classes. Guess what? It was great, tremendous fun. I learned a lot, met people with whom I’m still friends. So like everything in life, what you get out is proportional to what you put in. I’m so tired of “either-or” discussion about MOOCs… They are good for some things and not for others; as good as lectures for some subjects but not for others; inferior to a small live class with an outstanding professor, almost certainly better than an enormous lecture course with a mediocre professor. —Joel Bergsman, St. Leonard, Md.
A. I could not agree more, Joel. Whether online or face-to-face, most courses are only as good as what you put into them. Sitting in an intimate seminar classroom, with the best teacher in the world, you still only learn if you participate. The hyperbole and the “either-or” generalizations tend to be unrealistic about what online education can offer and equally unrealistic about what traditional onsite education can offer. Neither is all good, neither is all bad and neither is a panacea. Nor is either all one thing. It’s not a binary. There is tremendous variety, online and onsite.