Thursday, November 05, 2015

Role for Educators in MOOCs

My comments to the Networked Learning Conference 'hot seat' on the role of educators in MOOCs. Read the full discussion here. 

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At the risk of self-reference, I'd like to contribute to this discussion by pointing to something I wrote on the role of the educator a few years ago - The Role of the Educator - which was based on a few talks, including We Don't Need No Educator.

The point of these presentations is to say two things: first, that as the learning environment is reshaped by technology, it doesn't make sense to think of it as being provided by a single artisan manually performing a wide (and increasing) range of professional tasks; and second, that the role of the educator(s) is far more varied than one might think, even in the age of the MOOC.

After all, it's not as though the one task of the educator was to present content, and it's not as though the educator disappears once a person begins to be able to manage their own learning and find and view resources for themselves. Rather, it means that the same number of professionals (probably more) can now begin to offer specialized services to a much larger number of people.
 
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@hsp writes, "I have no issue with social constructivism per se, but I do have an issue with the relative and subjective knowledge that it can generate. It leaves room for groups of people to come to different conclusions based on the same facts."

We've digressed a lot from the topic of 'the role for educators' but in an interesting and necessary way. And indeed, many of my discussions of MOOCs begin with a discussion of the nature of knowledge.

Allow me to begin, though, by dividing the discussion into a practical thread and a theoretical thead:
  • the practical matter of whether educators ought to see themselves as conveyors of authoritative knowledge, whether or not such knowledge actually exists, and
  • the nature of truth, and whether there are truths that can be known in an absolute sense, as opposed to the relativism described by @Zerove
With respect to the second matter, I think that the net result of some 2600 years of philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge and truth is that knowledge and truth are at best relative to a community, a symbol system, a model, a perceiver, or some such non-global entity.

It does not matter that "a further dialectic process towards a global understanding of facts" is hampered by this. [x] Arguably, this is beyond our reach - we could engage in the process forever, but never know whether we are even getting closer to a conclusion.

We could discuss the state of knowledge and truth at length, but that might best be a separate thread.
The practical question is whether, despite this, and for more pragmatic reasons, teachers out to be seen as conveyors of authoritative facts and knowledge.

Several reasons have been advanced in the discussion this far:
  • it may be the case that students are unable to learn unless facts and knowledge are presented in this way, ie., there are pedagogical reasons
  • it may be the case that there are cultural reasons for presenting knowledge and information this way, ie., there are cultural reasons
  • it may be that the stability and prosperity of society as a whole may depend on a common understanding (or, if you read Rawls, agreement) on certain propositions, ie., there are social reasons
Against these arguments I offer my own proposition that social, pedagogical and cultural issues are better addressed by encouraging learner autonomy than by encouraging teachers to act as sources of authoritative facts and knowledge.
  • first, it is arguable that students learn better if they are able to understand and reconstitute the knowledge for themselves, rather than having it distributed to them as already known and authoritative. There have been some recent discussions1 around the Common Core approach to mathematics that are illustrative of this.
  • second, it is arguable that culture, rather than being harmed by a decline of authority, is actually strengthened by it. This is a long digression which I won't explore here, but a significant topic worthy of discussion.
  • third, society as a whole is more stable if the ondividuals in it are viewed as autonomous, pursuing (as Mill says) "their own good in their own way". There has been a lot of recent discussion showing the quality of decisions and stability of social systems are increased when organized as networks of diverse autonomous members.
One final note. We will not doubt touch on the distinction between 'authority' and 'expert'. The two are very different. The former represents a perspective that is imposed on the learner. The latter represents a perspective that is given weight by being recognized as such by the learner.

Contrary to the perspective of cMOOCs offered in the paper cited by @Vivian below, the position of connectivists (or, at least, of me) is that while teachers should not take on an authoritative role, they can and certainly should function as experts.

Their role is not merely to facilitate - that is a conflation of connectivism with constructivism. Their role is, to put in slogan form, to model and demonstrate.

[x] In the same way the assertion that "we do not have wings" hampers our ability to fly. But no much it hampers our ability to fly, it does not follow that we have wings.

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@Fleur_Prinsen I guess I would ask first of all why it is wrong for people to come to different conclusions based on the same facts. This is a very common phenomenon, and it is indeed this diversity of opinion that strengthens our own cognitive processes and the cognitive processes of a society as a whole.

But also, secondly, I challenge the presupposition that there is such a thing as the "same facts". To my knowledge everybody experiences the world in different ways, and while there may be social and linguistic conventions concerning our shared experiences (eg., the sentence "Paris is the capital of France") even these are experiences by different people in different ways.

What we call 'facts' are theory-laden representations of the world and experience, and are literally different depending on whether one believes in spiritual entities or not, on whether one believes in an underlying reality or not, on whether one interprets the perceptions as particles or waves. They vary from perspective and point of view, in significant and importance and relevance, in salience, and with reference to background knowledge, context or understanding.

So I do not think that it is an objection that people come to different conclusions. I think it is a strength.

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@jeffreykeefer Most of the research on 'theory-laden data' was actually done on research in the hard sciences. This slide show3 outlines some of the foundational work by people like Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend to establish this. Even the nature of observations themselves, much less theoretical statements, are interpreted differently depending on one's theoretical perspective.

This is important not because it puts astronomy and astrology on the same level - it doesn't - but because it corrects a persistent misunderstanding about the nature of knowledge and scientific theory.

There is no 'foundation', there are no 'basic truths', no particular 'facts of the matter' carry a special status over and above the rest. Knowledge is not an edifice, construct, or canonical representation of the world. It is far more complex (and far more interesting) than that.

A couple of examples, one from Lakatos, and one from my own writing:
  • the Millikan oil drop experiment1 was one of the foundational moments in chemistry and physics. It involved dropping oil drops between two charge plates, measuring the effect of the plates, and deducing the value of the charge of a single electron. Previous efforts had attempted the same with water, but because the results were so fickle, Millikan employed oil instead. "The Millikan–Ehrenhaft contro-versy can open a new window for students, demonstrating how two well-trained scientists can interpretthe same set of data in two different ways."
  • 'basic' mathematics. It has long been held that children should learn 'basic arithmetic', such as addition and subtraction, multiplication and division. But the selection of these as 'foundational' is completely arbitrary (and are not surprisingly challenegd by Collon Core). Mathematics itself may be thought to be based on a foundational set of axioms, such as are represented by Peano arithmetic1, based in the concepts of set theory, identity, and succession. Or perhaps we could employ Mill's methods1, which derive mathematics from as a set operations on a series of pebbles. In view of modern computation (and to help in their later understanding of modal logic) perhaps the core concepts taught ought to be transitivity, substitutivity, and symmetry.