Pedagogy Stew: August 2013

I’m headed to my 30th high school reunion this month, which causes me to reflect on many things, including my overwhelming urge to find a copy of The Preppy Handbook (pretty sure there were no Southern Illinois locations mentioned in it, also pretty sure I didn’t catch that it was satire when I got it for Christmas, circa 1981, along with some knock-off Topsiders and a belt with little ducks on it).

I was ranked 5th out of a graduating class of about 400. I remember that because I’d been tied for first until my junior year, when I flaked out and could muster only a B in Advanced Algebra/Trig, the same in Chemistry. This coincided with the onset of that whole “imagine this graph/molecule in 3-D inside your head,” which I pretty much totally sucked at.

But overall, those pretty-good-but-not-excellent marks were just further manifestation of my lifelong urge to avoid certain sorts of difficulty.  I’m drawn to some challenges, primarily those of my own devising. Stepping off the valedictorian track involved a rejection of mastering the challenges of classes someone else chose for me. I refused to take calculus my senior year, and as I remember it, my Dad called the man who would’ve taught it (who had taught algebra to my Dad at a local community college) and they grieved together.

I can’t help wondering what kind of challenge students anticipate when they sign up for a MOOC.

MOOC is short for Massively Open Online Course, and they’re all the rage in higher education. They are available online, usually for free, from some terrific universities and professors.

The good part is having free access to lectures, assignments, and tests from some superstar professors.

The bad part is, typically, having zero access to that professor, or to feedback that isn’t automated.

The good part is how easy it is to sign up and participate.

The bad part is the incredibly high dropout rate.

The good part is that a highly motivated student can learn a lot, for free.

The bad part is that a student who is motivated to avoid the challenge of sitting in a traditional college classroom, or taking what now seems like a “traditional” online college course…this student may not be up for the challenge of learning in a less structured, less obligation-driven environment.

In general, as a college student, I’d have crashed and burned in a MOOC, especially if I were taking it to speed through requirements I didn’t see the point of.

But what if taking a MOOC were my own idea? And not required?

It might be like my sophomore English class, at that point. I insisted on doing my book reports on the silliest books—a biography of Colonel Sanders and one I still remember the title of, Sherlock Bones—Pet Detective.  But I was reading Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ on my own. A challenge of my own devising.

(This column appeared originally in Voice of the River Valley.)

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