Thursday, October 10, 2013

Whither the Scholarly Conversation?

A primary component of my job as a library faculty member is to teach students how to search for, discover, and evaluate sources of information to answer questions that their coursework raises for them and to support their arguments in papers, presentations, and debates. I talk with students about entering the scholarly conversation – researching what previous scholars have said about a topic, then furthering the discussion through their own scholarly work. 

I also talk a good bit with faculty about the sorts of research assignments that are most effective in teaching students this process. If they want it to be an authentic research process, I try to steer them away from giving students a bibliography of sources to choose from, putting all the necessary sources on reserve, or scripting the assignment so narrowly that there are right and wrong answers. A MOOC could approximate these three types of assignments, but these are just countless recombinations of sources already prowled and exhausted by the course professor. These assignments can be great for teaching students to write argument papers using supporting evidence and appropriate attributions of intellectual property. But even beyond the obvious and enormous MOOC problem with regard to teaching writing, I would argue that there is no discovery in these types of assignments. There is no evaluation of sources. And there’s no extension of the scholarly conversation.

One of the most satisfying occurrences in my profession is working with a student on research for a topic that truly interests them and having them find sources that explore aspects of the subject they have never encountered before – not in class lectures, not in textbooks or other assigned reading. And an even more exciting occurrence is when that student has found something about which their professor – the expert – ALSO didn’t know. I love observing or hearing a recounting of the student’s utter pride in discussing this finding with their teacher, the teacher’s head popping up in joy and a smile breaking out their face as they are whisked away from the tedium of discussing the same information over and over again.

I’m having trouble envisioning any way to catalyze these occurrences in a MOOC. If one assigned a research project to students in a MOOC, how could you provide them with access to the necessary wealth of scholarly resources (more on this in a future post)? Who would help them understand the nature of the current information environment and the place of scholarly literature within it? Who would teach them search techniques such as Boolean operators, nesting, truncation, and field searching? And then who would help them translate this awareness and these skills into effective searching for their particular topic? Who would evaluate their bibliographies and their use of sources in their writing? These are all difficulties associated with the M – it’s a problem of scale. These things require personal attention and interaction – just like most of the problems we’ve seen with MOOCs.

And if we’re not engaging students in this process as undergraduates, if they’re not having a chance to become empowered and excited by their own intellectual discoveries, will any want to go to graduate school? Where will our next generation of scholarly voices come from? And what will politics and culture and corporations look like if even less of the dizzying universe of information comes from scholars?

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