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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Princeton Professor teaches Coursera course; you must be kidding me!


I don’t recall ever agreeing with anything Thomas Friedman has ever written in the New York Times, but this Sunday’s article was especially ridiculous.

He was again extolling the glories of the coming education revolution led by MOOCs.

This is part of what he wrote:

“Mitch Duneier, a Princeton sociology professor, wrote: “A few months ago,  40,000 students from 113 countries arrived here via the Internet to take a free course in introductory sociology. ... My opening discussion of C. Wright Mills’s classic 1959 book, ‘The Sociological Imagination,’ was a close reading of the text, in which I reviewed a key chapter line by line. I asked students to follow along in their own copies, as I do in the lecture hall. When I give this lecture on the Princeton campus, I usually receive a few penetrating questions. In this case, however, within a few hours of posting the online version, the course forums came alive with hundreds of comments and questions. Several days later there were thousands. ... Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars.””
Friedman mentions this because he thinks it is a wonderful thing, I suppose. Let’s consider what this professor actually said:
My opening discussion of C. Wright Mills’s classic 1959 book, ‘The Sociological Imagination,’ was a close reading of the text, in which I reviewed a key chapter line by line.
Well, isn’t that just education at its finest? Princeton should be proud. Not only are they still lecturing, a relic of the Middle Ages when students didn’t have books and monks read them to them, but the professor is reading it line by line. The analysis of a text is a scholarly activity done by intellectuals, and when done with students, it is part of an effort to create more intellectuals. Does Professor think that the world needs 40,000 more sociology intellectuals? When this stuff happens at Princeton, it is still isn’t really good educational practice, but Princeton does try to produce intellectuals for the most part.

When done with 40,000 students from 113 countries, this is is simply fraud. There is no need for them to read a text in this way. Far from being a revolutionary new practice that will eliminate universities as Friedman says, this kind of activity is perpetuating the very thing that is wrong with universities --- their distance from the real world.

within a few hours of posting the online version, the course forums came alive with hundreds of comments and questions. Several days later there were thousands. ...

It is nice that there were thousands of comments. How many did you respond to Professor Duneier?

I assume the answer is “none.” As a professor, not responding to a student, is, in my mind, the worst thing one can do. Education is about the dialogue between professor and student. This is why classrooms, especially large classrooms, are a terrible idea. They limit discussion. When I taught at Yale and Northwestern I never assigned readings. just topics for discussion. And then we discussed. If you had 30 or 40 students you could get into some good arguments, especially if I had assigned a provocative question to think about. (“What does it mean to learn” was one I often used.)

Your job professor is not to notice how many nice discussions students have with each other. But it is his last line that got me:

Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars.

So, the Coursera experience was good for you eh? Nice to hear.

But the issue is that universities have always been good for the faculty. Places like Princeton are run by the faculty for the faculty. No one teaches much. No one cares about anything but PhD students and research.  Undergraduates sit in lecture halls in order to pass the time between football games and parties. No one cares because they all windup with impressive Princeton degrees.

Friedman is right that online will change universities, but not the kind of online that Coursera is providing.

Just yesterday, there were thousands of visits to a lecture of mine that is on line because it was assigned as part of a Coursera course. I find that very funny since my lecture was about why lectures don’t work (oh the irony!) and why learning requires doing and why universities should stop teaching scholarly subjects and start teaching students skills they can use in real life.
Yes change is coming. Too bad Mr Friedman doesn’t have clue why. Here it s. We can build mentored learn by doing courses online that challenge current teaching practice. They won’t be offered by Princeton because Princeton likes what it has now. But change is coming, just not the change Coursera or Friedman had in mind.



Saturday, January 19, 2013

Teacher's Despair: We cannot afford to be focussed on training intellectuals






As part of a presentation to teachers in Mexico City that I am to make at the end of the month, Telefonica of Spain has set up a forum for teachers to ask me questions here:



It is in Spanish and my Spanish is minimal at best, so they have been sending me translations of the questions and comments that have been posted. What I am struck by, as always, is the difficult situation in which teachers find themselves these days. It really doesn’t matter what country a teacher is in, they are faced with two truths:

1.    They are not quite sure what they are doing in school is really the right thing to do
2.    They know they have very little power to change things


Here is one question I got for example. (Excuse the awkward translation, I received them all in that form.)

·       We learn something new every day, depending on our attitude towards learning, and even if we are not going to put it into practice, we need to take it in as part of our general knowledge. For example, why is philosophy important for someone who is going to study engineering? There is some material that is simply useful in life. Is this assessment correct?

I can’t help but feel this teacher’s pain when reading this. I am saying, as usual, that we only learn by doing and this teacher is trying to figure out how what he or she is doing is still ok. “If we don’t put it into practice, isn’t is still ok to teach?” Now of course, for me the answer is “no” since I believe that we only learn by doing, but consider the teacher. The teacher stands up in front of class trying to teach general knowledge that will never be used. The teacher’s hope is that philosophy would be of use somehow to someone and that the “general knowledge” that is the staple of the school system will someone turn out to be useful even though this teachers isn't really so sure it will.

Consider this next question:

·       Learning depends more on the person doing the teaching, on the strategy and methodology applied, than on the student. This is because a good methodology can make the student take interest in what he/she is doing and be enthusiastic. Is that right?

Here we have another teacher saying that a good teacher can make students excited about anything so isn’t that a worthwhile thing to be doing? Well of course it is. Turning students on to things they didn’t know about and getting them to care about it is very enjoyable for a student and could possibly have a large affect on the rest of the student’s life. What’s the problem then?

The problem is well expressed by this next question:

·      It is possible to learn almost anything. All we need is motivation. We must try to somehow involve, motivate and encourage students to participate in their lessons... Is it possible to learn through practice, even when what is learned is of no use to the student?

This teacher is willing to accept the fact that what is taught in school may be completely useless to the student’s future life. I for one, find that idea very difficult to accept. I realize that teachers teach what they are ordered to teach, but what must it be like to teach material that you know is completely useless to the student?

I ask this question as If I didn’t know what it is like, but of course I know it all too well. Exactly the reason that I became an education radical is that I was teaching a course in Semantics at Stanford and realized within a few days that no student in the class cared about, or would ever make use of, what I was teaching. They were simply required to take Semantics. I knew right then I needed to re-think.

I will now consider the last (of the one’s I have chosen to write about) three questions together:

·       Would it be wiser to focus more on the theoretical basis than on practice? Students show more interest in classes in which the outcome is an object constructed upon a scientific foundation.

·       It is extremely important to find the reason behind what we teach and, often, this raison d'etre is the source of knowledge or of its use in other sciences or fields of knowledge.

·       Is it possible to remember what they have heard in a reading if it is truly significant to them? If what is read motivates the reader, does this mean there is a greater chance of learning it? Or do we only learn by doing?

I get an overwhelming sadness from these questions taken as a whole. These teachers are focussed on teaching science, and basic knowledge, and great books. This is what they do and it is what they have always done. They ask if there isn’t some use to it all and of course there is. This is how we create intellectuals. Intellectuals worry about science, and general knowledge, and philosophy, and great literature, Intellectuals can discuss these things and enjoy doing so. They may use them or they may not but it is part of the well-rounded education of an intellectual.

My question is about the percentage of intellectuals out there in world. I find it hard to believe that our school systems in every country are geared towards the creation of intellectuals. I am sure 90% of all students have no interest in becoming intellectuals. They would like to learn to earn a living, and how to take care of their families, and how to be good citizens, and how to have good relationships with people. They would like to know how to function in the world. While we can kid ourselves that making them read Don Quixote, or read about the glories of the Spanish Armada, will somehow contribute to their greater development, this just has to be wrong and irrelevant to their lives.

Our education system was designed to create intellectuals. In the U.S., it was designed by the President of Harvard (in 1892). He wasn’t interested in the average person. He was interested in the elite who would attend Harvard.

All this must stop. We need to focus on getting the general population to be able to think clearly. This does not mean teaching algebra and chemistry and pretending that such things teach clear thinking. It means having students practice making decisions and understanding the consequences of those decisions. It means having them come to a conclusion about something they care about by learning how to examine evidence. It means having them learn to create a plan that will help them get what they want and then executing that plan. The average person does not need to read Descartes no matter how much we rationalize to ourselves that Descartes said some things that might be of use to the average person.

I know teachers can’t change the system by themselves. But they need to band together and try to make some changes or another generation will be lost.