Monday, October 14, 2013

The Incredibly Shrinking Teacher


Despite my skepticism about MOOCs, especially when it comes to the subjects I teach (philosophy), I have been fantasizing about teaching one.  It’s a sad thing to confess.  And I don’t dwell on it.  But it just keeps popping into my mind.  Partly, I’m drawn to the “Open,” and I think that you can’t really have that in a meaningful way without the “Online.”  I don’t need the “Massively” at all.  But once you’ve got something open and online, what would it mean to restrict participation?  I suppose that you could have an enrollment limit.  Limited (but) Open Online Course...LOOC...?

But anyway, there ARE some courses that I could imagine teaching MOOly. 

Elementary Logic.  These days, we may tell our students that logic is the study of how we think.  Or ought to think.  I think it would a lot better to say what logic textbooks used to say:  “Logic is what logicians study.”  Here’s why it would lend itself to MOOCing:  Logic (at the elementary level) involves a system of rules which, though tricky to master, can be very comprehensively expressed in ordinary language.  The application of these rules can be drilled through discrete exercises.  And those exercises can be checked automatically, say, by a computer.  There is some room for explanation in logic, but mostly the explanations consist in pointing out very definite errors.  There is not much to discuss that requires great attention, group participation, reflection, creativity, etc.  Again, at the higher levels things are different, but at the low levels logic is much like math—there are rules and skills and problems to solve.  With the right tech setup, one instructor could lead almost any number of students through a logic MOOC.  Then again...with the right tech setup, an instructor might not even be necessary....

And that leads me to another course I’d like to MOOC:  my intro level course on Mark Twain and Philosophy.  This class is unlike logic in just about every way.  It requires careful and extensive reading of very subtle stuff.  It calls on one’s ability to move fluidly back and forth from the most abstract philosophical idea to the most concrete narrative detail.  There are no rules to learn, or apply, or practice.  Unlike logic, it is possible, maybe even preferable, for every single student to take away something different from the course.  Unlike logic, it is a subject that grows and deepens and illuminates the more it is subjected to discussion.  Different configurations of students can discuss the same passages over and over again, each time gaining new insights—indeed, it can never really be safely asserted that the topics have been completely explored.  With the right tech setup, you could set dozens of groups off on discussion,  and gather their thoughts and reflections together again on a blog.  It would be hard to monitor the actual conversations, but then, why would you need to?  The instructor could be replaced by a kind of network of discussion groups, all distinct, but all coordinated and kept on track by a few representatives.  Maybe this is more like the cMOOC (connectivist MOOC) idea, or what is now called a DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Course).  The goal is more to construct a discursive learning community than it is to transmit something from a teacher to students.  The latter idea hardly even makes sense in that picture.

It certainly seems like my MOOC fantasies range widely across the stuff I teach.  But what they have in common is that they by their nature de-emphasize the role of the traditional teacher/instructor/professor.  Where content is clear, rigid, self-contained, and univocal, it can probably be conveyed, drilled, and assessed mechanically.  We are, after all, in the age of the machine-graded essay!  Where the content is fluid, subtle, open-ended, collaborative, and so on, distributed conversations, loosely connected, are what we want.  There’s nothing to convey, drill, transmit, or assess. 

It could be that the MOOC idea is most attractive to me when it puts me out of business!