No faster than several rapid-fire entries for Wikipedia’s definition of MOOCs back in September 2012 (“way back in September”) have a series of terrific and detailed white papers emerged on the Internet this week, documenting the successes and failures of online courses offered by major universities. This white paper by Sir John Daniel pointedly explains why apocalyptic hysteria around MOOCs may actually underscore ways that they are not just a passing fad. Several participating institutions in this movement have not been conflicted commercial partner bear the costs of building such platforms and keeping them running. There are ways to utilize such partnerships so that they are for managed for the greater good and not pressed to turn a profit, which can also become their downfall. Google research director Peter Norvig commented: ‘it’s a confusing or an exciting time… I think schools are experimenting and they don’t quite yet know what they want to do’ (Azevedo, 2012).
The most influential revolution that may emerge from this seismic shift towards what can be also called a “free, world-class education for everyone, everywhere” – Khan Academy’s clear and dynamic mantra – will be that in this parallel universe of online learning, masterful and talented teachers will become rockstars on the Internet. Not just famous, but quoted and studied and embodied as offering the world new ways to learn. A teacher that can explain complex material online, and in a way that is accessible and can be understood – could elevate teachers into a new kind of uplifted status that is much-needed in education.
I keep thinking about that line spoken by Jeffrey Canada in Waiting for Superman (2010), in which he says that watching a master teacher is just like watching a world-class athlete. It’s unmistakeable. You know when you are watching someone teach in an extraordinary manner, when faces listening look illuminated and when someone is able to connect to the group before them in ways that surpass mere conversation and rote teaching.
Maybe MOOCs will open up ourselves to celebrate and exalt masterful teachers just like we do with other celebrities in pop culture, in sports, in music and online. Why couldn’t an incredible video on how to understand trig or stats or any other subject become the next viral video? Vi Hart‘s has. I know there are more like Vi out there.
So here’s the problem: too much fantastic, out-of-this-world teaching happens behind closed doors. I often hear about “needing to create a safe space” to test out new ideas, so that an online space that allows teachers to work in public is shunned. A legitimate fear includes fear of letting the principal/parents/teachers-next-door find out that one teacher has decided to go rogue, and pour his or her soul into teaching students real-life learning that connects to their everyday lives by not teaching to the test. I’ve also seen fellow teachers roll their eyes when they hear about retirees who wish to enter the classroom, saying with disbelief that it’s not a profession that “just anyone” can enter into.
And yet all of these survival skills that truly exemplary teachers learn to protect themselves also serve to keep them in silos from the rest of the world. Safe spaces are like no places – they are great for incubating ideas, but then teachers need a place to start working in public. It’s sadly no wonder that few individual teachers are actually recognized for the work that they do in education; the very system that scrutinizes their work and makes exemplary teaching nearly impossible also serves to publicly shame and humiliate them in the press and in the media.
I can’t see why anyone in higher education, either as enrolled students paying the $40k per year tuition or professors fearful that they may be out of a job someday would worry about 144,000 students enrolled for free in xMIT or Coursera or any of the other MOOCs available out there in the world. The completion rate is somewhere around 7%, according to the above article. And enrollment in an Ivy-League university buys social privilege tied to race, class, socio-economic status. If it’s a liberal arts education, and it’s also tied to cocktail parties, social networking and entrance to power circles that do not yet happen online. But they could.
The powerful force of online learning may shape our attitudes towards teachers, serving to provide legitimate platforms that elevate and celebrate the teachers that are not just rockstars, but model citizens, paradigm shifters and agents of change in their community, their school, their town or city. It can happen. We’ll know it when we see it. And for now, I’m just going to remember that Ivy-League universities are exemplary because of their contributions in scholarship and research. Not because of the quality of teaching and instruction, even if its implied. Any assumptions that online learning will replace other types of learning is a red herring; what we are looking for are more opportunities for great learning.