Sometimes, very smart people say (kinda, sorta) uninformed things: Last comments on teaching and MOOCs (for a while)

education (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

From the Fast Company profile of Sebastian Thrun:

It’s hard to imagine a story that more thoroughly flatters the current sensibilities of Silicon Valley than the one into which Thrun stumbled. Not only is reinventing the university a worthy goal–tuition prices at both public and private colleges have soared in recent years, and the debt burden borne by American students is more than $1 trillion–but it’s hard to imagine an industry more ripe for disruption than one in which the professionals literally still don medieval robes. “Education hasn’t changed for 1,000 years,” says Peter Levine, a partner with Andreessen Horowitz and a Udacity board member, summing up the Valley’s conventional wisdom on the topic. “Udacity just seemed like a fundamentally new way to change how communities of people are educated.” (bold emphasis added)

Seriously? Education hasn’t changed for a 1,000 years?

Let me list *some* of the ways education has changed:

  1. In a 1,000 years education has changed it’s mission and method of delivery so completely and utterly that we have gone from just about 100% illiteracy and innumeracy to close 0% illiteracy and innumeracy (please, don’t think about everyone being able to do calculus; think about everyone being able to count) in the developed world;
  2. We see every developing nation that is serious about economic development seeking the rapid massification and democratisation of their education systems (and profound disappointment when they fail);
  3. School corporal punishment as a teaching aid has simply disappeared or been made illegal through vast swathes of the world;
  4. We have seen the most profound massification and democratisation of education and learning – especially over the past 100 years – with the progressive raising of school-leaving ages, and active encouragement of students into further education. Education is no longer the preserve of the elite few;
  5. We now have a vast array of primary, secondary, post-secondary, tertiary and fourth-level institutions, catering to an astonishing and (to a previous generation) almost unthinkable array of students of widely-varying backgrounds;
  6. Lifelong learning is no longer a cliche;
  7. Education has moved from being a small concern for small fraction of society to being one the central concerns of society – the engine of social, personal and economic development;
  8. Teaching methods and content have changed profoundly; just check out textbook and course evolution over the past twenty years. (You don’t even need to bother checking textbooks from the 1970’s or 1980’s – 1993-2013 will do fine);
  9. Teaching in universities (and lots of other places too) has (more-or-less) effortlessly absorbed in a generation the following: word processing; email; powerpoint and other presentational methods; video-clipping as part of teaching; online hosting of all manner of course-work and materials; wikis; twitter; blogging; podcasting of lectures; being research-led; problem-based learning (especially for clinical subjects); ever-higher standards (including ethical ones) for final year dissertations; all manner of type and stripe of practical teaching; intercalation of degrees; creation of novel degrees in subjects that didn’t exist a generation ago; undergone a transformation with regard to professionalisation of standards for vocational and professional education (how many MOOCs will create a physician or an engineer?); created audit trails for teaching and learning; (need I go on?);
  10. Universities have long since abandoned their clerical training origins to become knowledge-creation, generation and dissemination engines;
  11. Universities have absorbed a research mission of astonishing proportions over the decades since WW2, and this vast endeavour itself has transformed the content of courses taught themselves. Floyd Bloom, the eminent neuropharmacologist kindly gave me a present of the first edition of his book, The Biochemical Basis of Neuropharmacology. Wonderful to read as a benchmark – but utterly unusable as a textbook now -things have moved so far, so fast; IOW, teaching materials themselves have undergone a dramatic content expansion;
  12. And teaching itself? Someone (an ‘expert’?) standing in front of a class? Teachers who stand in front of their classes and deliver instruction are not “out-of-touch experts”—they’re role models;
  13. Lectures themselves offer an immersive, timetabled, scheduled, group learning experience with real-time feedback (and the chance of a coffee and a chat afterwards);
  14. We now have a psychology of learning and memory which gives us this (a quick summary) and this (abstract at bottom);
  15. We have experiments with flipped classrooms; small-group seminars; lectures; small-group teaching; group projects; tutorial groups (I have even heard that some students voluntarily create study groups to facilitate peer-to-peer learning…);
  16. We have generation after generation of students that have undergone the Flynn effect;
  17. We have now measurements (of variable worth and utility) comparing universities and countries on various indices of academic prestige, quality and outcome, which in turn drive academic effort and competition across the spectrum.

None of the above is to say that universities have it nailed. They don’t. But they are continually-evolving institutions with teaching and learning committees, and an institutionalisation of associated functions – which means there is an in-built capacity for learning by the institutions themselves. Furthermore, universities have survived for a 1000 years – making them among the most successful of human institutions (unlike most commercial entities).

There may be another (tongue firmly in cheek) reason why they have survived ‘unchanged’ for so long: the human brain, and the basics of human social organisation required to effectively enculturate and educate that brain, haven’t evolved so much in that time either…

And that tiresome human thing with old rituals and being inducted into communities, and providing symbols that are indicative of effort and motivation? Well, that’s not going away anytime soon, either.

Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology
John Dunlosky,  Katherine A. Rawson,  Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan and Daniel T. Willingham

Many students are being left behind by an educational system that some people believe is in crisis. Improving educational outcomes will require efforts on many fronts, but a central premise of this monograph is that one part of a solution involves helping students to better regulate their learning through the use of effective learning techniques. Fortunately, cognitive and educational psychologists have been developing and evaluating easy-to-use learning techniques that could help students achieve their learning goals. In this monograph, we discuss 10 learning techniques in detail and offer recommendations about their relative utility. We selected techniques that were expected to be relatively easy to use and hence could be adopted by many students. Also, some techniques (e.g., highlighting and rereading) were selected because students report relying heavily on them, which makes it especially important to examine how well they work. The techniques include elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, summarization, highlighting (or underlining), the keyword mnemonic, imagery use for text learning, rereading, practice testing, distributed practice, and interleaved practice.
To offer recommendations about the relative utility of these techniques, we evaluated whether their benefits generalize across four categories of variables: learning conditions, student characteristics, materials, and criterion tasks. Learning conditions include aspects of the learning environment in which the technique is implemented, such as whether a student studies alone or with a group. Student characteristics include variables such as age, ability, and level of prior knowledge. Materials vary from simple concepts to mathematical problems to complicated science texts. Criterion tasks include different outcome measures that are relevant to student achievement, such as those tapping memory, problem solving, and comprehension.
We attempted to provide thorough reviews for each technique, so this monograph is rather lengthy. However, we also wrote the monograph in a modular fashion, so it is easy to use. In particular, each review is divided into the following sections:
General description of the technique and why it should work
How general are the effects of this technique?
2a. Learning conditions
2b. Student characteristics
2c. Materials
2d. Criterion tasks
Effects in representative educational contexts
Issues for implementation
Overall assessment
The review for each technique can be read independently of the others, and particular variables of interest can be easily compared across techniques.
To foreshadow our final recommendations, the techniques vary widely with respect to their generalizability and promise for improving student learning. Practice testing and distributed practice received high utility assessments because they benefit learners of different ages and abilities and have been shown to boost students’ performance across many criterion tasks and even in educational contexts. Elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, and interleaved practice received moderate utility assessments. The benefits of these techniques do generalize across some variables, yet despite their promise, they fell short of a high utility assessment because the evidence for their efficacy is limited. For instance, elaborative interrogation and self-explanation have not been adequately evaluated in educational contexts, and the benefits of interleaving have just begun to be systematically explored, so the ultimate effectiveness of these techniques is currently unknown. Nevertheless, the techniques that received moderate-utility ratings show enough promise for us to recommend their use in appropriate situations, which we describe in detail within the review of each technique.
Five techniques received a low utility assessment: summarization, highlighting, the keyword mnemonic, imagery use for text learning, and rereading. These techniques were rated as low utility for numerous reasons. Summarization and imagery use for text learning have been shown to help some students on some criterion tasks, yet the conditions under which these techniques produce benefits are limited, and much research is still needed to fully explore their overall effectiveness. The keyword mnemonic is difficult to implement in some contexts, and it appears to benefit students for a limited number of materials and for short retention intervals. Most students report rereading and highlighting, yet these techniques do not consistently boost students’ performance, so other techniques should be used in their place (e.g., practice testing instead of rereading).
Our hope is that this monograph will foster improvements in student learning, not only by showcasing which learning techniques are likely to have the most generalizable effects but also by encouraging researchers to continue investigating the most promising techniques. Accordingly, in our closing remarks, we discuss some issues for how these techniques could be implemented by teachers and students, and we highlight directions for future research.

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer

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