Online Learning Conference, Part I

The conference was a massive success, folks. The presentations were fantastic, there was a million questions, and I had a mighty good time. The presentations were not read, which is the best. We delivered them in a conversational manner without any props or technology. Which is ironic, given the subject.

First of all, I want to tell you about the presentation that I found the most impressive. It was delivered by a colleague who specializes in online learning. He had taught his first fully online course back in 1997. Today, not only does he teach online but his research consists of theorizing online education. When he spoke, it was obvious that the guy is a brilliant pedagogue. The way he speaks, calculates his time, modulates his voice, pauses, keeps the audience’s attention, makes it impossible not to listen, strategizes his delivery, never trails off, finishes every sentence as strongly as he began it, and forces everybody to forget that cell phones exist – all of this testifies to his enormous pedagogical experience. Fuck it, the guy is a better teacher than me, which is not something I find myself saying often.

So here is what he had to say:

1. It is possible to deliver a good online course, but only if we remember the following:

            a. A good online course costs MORE to design and administer than a regular course.

                  b. Enrollment caps (i.e. the number of students in the course) should be LOWER in an online course than in a regular course.

                         c. The professor should be online, administering the course in an active way 7 days a week, at least 3-4 times during the day.

2. Having a PhD in a discipline does not qualify you to teach that discipline. Instead of content authority, we should rely on pedagogical authority.

3. Striving to create a psychologically and emotionally comfortable environment in the classroom is a MISTAKE. In order for learning to happen, there should be a degree of productive anxiety (God, I love this phrase) in both the students and the teachers. To put it bluntly, learning should be uncomfortable. 

4. A professor should not be the person who awards grades. It’s a good idea not to reveal any grades until the end of the course. [This is something I’m already doing, in part, in my courses. Students resist but I don’t give way.] Instead of numbers (grades, percentages, etc.), we should provide verbal feedback (“Good, excellent, etc. because. . . since. . . however. . .).

He wasn’t allowed any more time to speak, which is a pity because I could have stayed there hearing what he has to say all day long.

Mainstream Journalism

Just talked to some locals and discovered that all of them know every single version of Putin ‘ s disappearance but not a single one is even remotely aware that the day after Putin reappeared he discussed, openly and in detail, that he was preparing to deliver a nuclear strike a year ago (BEFORE THE WAR) in case he was thwarted in the annexation of the Crimea.

Mainstream reporting,  my ass.

The Art of Teaching

After my recent post on the uselessness of Schools of Education, I’m getting a feeling that people are starting to see me as somebody who hates pedagogy, which could not be further from the truth. I believe that pedagogy is extremely useful. It is a great mistake that college professors who are not in foreign languages receive zero training in the art of teaching. I took years of courses in the methodology of teaching (in foreign languages, we all do), and they were enormously helpful. I started reading books on the pedagogical theory before I was 10 years old and I still remember parts of them by heart because I read them many times. And as a result I’m now an extremely effective teacher. So I’m definitely not a pedagogy basher.

The reason why I find the School of Education model problematic is that there isn’t enough there to justify an entire field. A field needs to grow, develop, and produce useful NEW content all the time. If a discipline cannot produce new knowledge, it is a not a field of scholarship. There is absolutely no room in pedagogy to produce anything new that would have value. Teaching is a set of skills that do not and cannot change in a significant way on a constant basis.

Schools and Departments of Education struggle to justify their existence as independent fields of knowledge (and not purveyors of a  limited set of mechanical skills, which they really are) by coming up with tons of faddy and useless “innovations” that have zero substance. They try to move forward in an area of human endeavor where there is no place to move. Have you ever wondered why the extremely important art of hair-dressing cannot be a field of scholarship? Because aside from a set of specific practices, scholarship needs theory. That theory should be, by its nature, endlessly renewable and capable of transformation. And until human beings learn to sprout something radically different than hair on their heads, there can be no theory in hair-cutting.

To avoid recognizing that there is nothing but a set of (hugely important and valuable) mechanical skills in education, the “scholars” in this “field” attach themselves to fads that they hype up to the skies in vain attempts to pretend that it is possible to contribute anything radically new. Take, for instance, online learning. As I’m planning to say at my conference in a couple of hours, the current online learning fad is so old that it is nothing short of boring. Distance learning has existed in a variety of forms for over a century. In the late 1800s, there was an obsession with correspondence courses that were hailed as the radically new and transformative direction of pedagogy. In the 1930s, there was a similar wave of interest in teaching through radio. Then, there were courses offered through television. Now, it’s the Internet. Time and again, these fads fail to offer a valuable alternative to teaching by a live human being in an actual physical classroom. Departments of Education pretend to be unaware of the long history of failure behind distance learning, hoping that this new fad will save them from their own vacuity.

It would be great if all graduate students who are planning to teach took at least one skill course offered by a professor with a long experience of successful teaching in this particular field. Every department has such people, and it makes sense to share skills that are native to a specific discipline. Obviously, the teaching of languages is somewhat (although not hugely) different from the teaching of math or chemistry. But there is no need of whole Schools and Departments to provide this form of instruction.