Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Two answers to "What is Teaching?" and their implications for debating MOOCs

Years ago, I had a vigorous debate with a colleague about what good lectures could accomplish.  Frustrated, we paused and exchanged our definitions of 'lecture.'  It turned out we had entirely different things in mind. Once we understood our disagreement about that definition, it turned out we agreed on everything else.

Scholarly observation and empirical research agree: in many disciplines, faculty are split between two opposing views of what 'teaching' and 'learning' mean.
  • Instruction-centric: Folks holding this view believe that knowledge exists independent of students or teachers. They think it's the teacher's job to organize and transmit it (and test it). The student's job is quite different: to learn it.  If a faculty member teaches and 10% of the students learn the material, that shows the faculty member was teaching successfully (otherwise no one would have learned).
  • Learning-centric: Other faculty believe that learning is more like developing a physical capability (like learn to ride a bike) than it is like storing blocks of knowledge in a mental trunk.   For these folks, teaching means doing whatever it takes to encourage and help a student become mentally stronger in their field.  If a student doesn't learn, that means the faculty member didn't successfully teach.   
In my experience, faculty in each group believe the other group's definition is not in the best interests of most students. And they instinctively reject any 'evidence' advanced by the other group: experience shows that the other group is wrong so their evidence must be flawed.  (I'm not above that fight:  I  believe that decades of rigorous academic research demonstrates that learning-centric teaching produces far more capable students than the instruction-centric teaching does.)

We have no statistics about how common each point of view is but most faculty guesstimate that at least half their colleagues teach in an instruction-centric way.

MOOCs are built on the fault line between these two tectonic plates.

Imagine what each group of folks think about MOOCS that are essentially a sequence of video lectures, readings, some quiz questions, and an online opportunity for students to talk with each other about the course.

For instruction-centric folks, that MOOC design captures much of what's important about a college class -- the faculty member's inspiring, clarifying presentation -- and even improves upon the campus norm in at least one respect: the student can watch key parts of the lecture as many times as they need to.

In contrast, for learning-centered folks, that MOOC design ignores most of what could help large numbers of students become mentally skilled (e.g., carefully designed homework assignments that challenge and help students develop higher order thinking skills in their fields; coaching and discussion that power further improvements in what students are able to produce.)

Moral of the story: If two or more people are going to discuss MOOCs, each person ought to start by describing what great teaching looks like, and how it guides student learning.  Perhaps everyone will agree. More likely some participants will have strikingly different views than others. This quick exchange won't change anyone's mind about good teaching, of course.  But it should give each participant essential perspective for understanding other folks' assertions about MOOCs.