The center of learning

By David DeBrot, LSU

So how many articles have you seen recently on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)? If you haven’t, no worries – here’s what a MOOC is: it’s a university course online.

That’s pretty much it. The biggest fish in the pond right now is Coursera – they’ve managed to sign up some of the major names in Higher Ed for making select courses available online and for free. Coursera does not award  credit or degrees from these institutions, just the chance to learn in a variety of topic areas.

This has got the innovators and dreamers in Higher Ed looking to the horizon – Is the traditional model heading for extinction? How will this change what a university is and what it means to ‘go’ to university? Will people lose their jobs?

The cynics and ‘traditionalists’ would view this as a simple and short-lived diversion from the tried-and-true model of in-person lectures, tutorials and seminars in a semester format located at a brick-and-mortar campus.

As a learning support professional, I’m somewhere in the middle. My take on this whole debate is that we could be missing the point on where, and with who, the best learning is taking place at universities – the ‘center of learning’. Universities and 3rd party organizations like Coursera are building a new model of delivery on top of an existing, and potentially unsustainable, model of instruction, the expert/novice model. In putting the expert/novice model online and forgoing the important physical and social aspects of learning, the ‘center of learning’ is missing and this may endanger the potential of MOOCs to transform Higher Ed.

The value a physical location adds to the university experience may be greater than imagined  – see this Chronicle article on the matter. Discussion with others and effective and meaningful group work supports greater ownership, retention and utility of information. This seems supported by findings that most of the data we process comes from our visual and auditory senses. As an experiment, think back to your own university days and a moment when you felt you had a transformative learning experience – what’s the first thing you think of? Your lecturers, TAs and professors? Or do you see yourself with other peers? If you’re like me, your mind quickly registers the latter and then works harder to be specific about your memories of the former.

Add these two elements together – the value of the physical experience of university and the social dimension of learning, and it seems the ‘center of learning’ is very often among and between peers (novices not experts) and at a physical location. In short, learning is a social and physical experience.

Don’t misunderstand me – teaching staff do have a role in support learning, but students are people and people are social. Relegating the student experience to watching an expert speak on a video and suggesting that this will transform Higher Ed ignores the simple reality of the importance of face-to-face and social interactions between humans in their own learning.

A mix of instruction (online or face-to-face) with a greater inclusion of face-to-face peer learning combined with learning activities and assessments which are highly practical (such as the discipline allows) could deliver a quality student experience and the work relatedness and preparedness industry says it wants.

To transform Higher Ed requires a disciplined focus on the people paying to learn – the students – and how to get them to learn in the most effective ways possible by addressing the ‘center of learning’. As of now, MOOCs don’t give students the same quality of face-to-face social interactions and if students highly value the physical location and experience of a campus, then the future of MOOCs and other online delivery models which do not address the physical and social realities of learning will not have long-term success in transforming Higher Ed.

*Watch this space – in future we plan to explore the issue of MOOCs from the employer perspective – and one that is greatly missing from all of the discussion on MOOCs and ‘innovation’ in Higher Ed.

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4 responses to “The center of learning”

  1. Michael Healy says :

    “Discussion with others and effective and meaningful group work supports greater ownership, retention and utility of information.”

    “Why Paris?”, an article from the National Endowment for the Humanities, touches on this idea in the context of artist communities in Paris. The author appropriates the economic theory of “knowledge spillover”:

    “In 1890, the economist Sir Alfred Marshall described cities as “having ideas in the air.” He recognized that the countless interactions that city dwellers have with each other on a daily basis could also have a unique effect on innovation. Such interactions were a direct result of urban density, where people live and work in a close proximity to one another. Greater density meant a higher chance of unplanned encounters and conversations, whether on the street, across the hallway, or often in the gossip of restaurants and cafés. These discussions resulted in the phenomenon of “spillover.””

    Certainly, a university campus is a kind of city where a great deal of knowledge spillover is in effect.

    I guess an important question is can, or how can, a digital learning hub replicate this? Is the social potential of social media enough, or is there a intrinsically physical quality required for those transformative learning experiences to take place?

    • LSUvietnam says :

      Thanks for that Michael. The same notion of unplanned encounters is used in contemporary corporations as well, notably Pixar. They actually designed their head office to encourage such unplanned encounters on the way to get coffee, the bathroom, etc. It seems universities do benefit from these as well – between students/students and students/staff.

      In answer to your question, I would argue that the ‘socialness’ of online interchange will never be equal, characteristiaclly or in terms of benefit to learning, as true in-person, physically present social interactions. Perhaps the progress being made in holographic communication may one day trick our brains enough that we get the same benefit from talking to a virtual person as physically present one.

  2. Cheryl Erwin says :

    I have found that a mix of learning online and in person with fellow students and the professor provided a superior learning experience than only learning from an online format.I believe the learning experience is at a exceptional level when instruction is given to meet the requirements of all the different styles of learning that people possess.

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