Monday, June 18, 2012

ACM Education Council Mtg. Surprises - Online Learning

I am in San Francisco for the ACM Education Council meeting. We covered all sorts of meaty ground today. Far too much to discuss comprehensively, so I'm going to share one or two isolated things that knocked me a bit sideways in my seat, and you can ponder them with me.

This morning we spent time talking about issues of online learning and CS education. Very interesting on so many fronts. This is not an issue one can ignore given the explosion of media and controversy resulting from Khan Academy, various free course offerings by Stanford, Harvard, MIT and others.

We listened to an invited panel discuss various online learning initiatives they are doing. Some of them are incredibly creative.

There are huge issues to address. Scalability is a huge issue. Transferability is a huge issue. Diversity is another issue.

Here is something that concerned me:

One of the panelists claimed that we don't know very much about how people learn.

I have to disagree. We know a lot about how people learn. Educational psychologists, cognitive scientists, educational theorists, cultural anthropologists - there are many many areas in which human learning  has been studied extensively and the research-based data is out there. This begs the question: Are all the necessary people and their fields part of the conversation?

Perhaps in some quarters we need better inter-disciplinary communication.

Who needs to be on board? Computing content experts, yes of course. Cognitive Scientists? Educational psychologists? Sociologists? Yes, yes yes. All these people have solid contributions to add to the conversation. Who else?

There are issues of scalability - which aspects of engagement and learning scale well? To upwards of tens of thousands of students?

There are issues of transferability - if initiatives are started at well financed wealthy institutions, how (can we?) extend them outwards to institutions that lack those same resources?

Issues of diversity - different cultures have different modes of viewing the world, of interacting with their perceptions and reality. Those differences effect how they learn. In some arenas there has been in-depth study of the interaction between culture and learning. How do we incorporate those understandings into large scale online learning? Some cultures learn in a fairly linear and systematic manner; other cultures learn in a fairly holistic and convergent manner.

Here is something else that surprised me:

One of the panelists said something to the effect that online learning spells the end of the community colleges. 

Where did that belief come from? There was so much going on that this claim wasn't followed up on. Unfortunately. From all the evidence I am aware of, the demand for 2 year colleges is growing in a big way. For a lot of reasons, that, if you are in education, you are no doubt well aware of. It seems important to understand what perspective led the speaker to say that. Any thoughts on that one?

What is the difference between training and education and how does large scale online learning address those differences? It may seem to some of us that the differences are fairly clear, but after some of what I heard today, I now believe that the distinctions are not well agreed upon. A bit unnerving because I thought that this was a topic that, although not everyone agreed upon the role of higher education, at least we mostly agreed upon the definitions. Not So.

I learned today that one of the biggest benefits of the explosive controversies surrounding large scale online learning is that it has drawn people into the conversation about teaching and learning who never wanted to talk about it. That is very good news.

On the other hand I learned today that with the expanded conversation, we have to set aside many of our assumptions about what is "well known" and engage in conversations about topics that we thought (hoped) we had settled.

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