Teaching, credentialing, and obstacle courses

Great article today – what a MOOC can’t do, the value of an experiential (lab/fieldwork) class….
MOOCs are appealing to cost-driven administrators because they offer tremendous economies of scale. Charging even a pittance for streamed content is a profitable enterprise. Once the expense of generating and hosting “content” is covered, the rest is gravy. And if you see education purely as content delivery, that’s an appealing model. You should quit your job and go work for Netflix instead, because there is far more to education than delivery of content followed by regurgitation on exams. (I write this while my students are taking an exam… Irony)

But when the educational triangle is collapsed — when the outside world loses its stature as a full-blown third party — then you don’t take a course to understand the world, you take a course to succeed in the course. Education gets reduced to a testing and triage service.

“You take a course to succeed in the course” has to be a pretty lousy raison d’être for any course; basically this is the stereotype of a boiler-room diploma mill. “Give us your tuition and we’ll give you a certificate.” Any teacher, student, or academic leader who is actually interested in quality education must get a little knot in h/h stomach at that model.
It’s clear that the writer of that article is passionate about both studying biology and teaching it, and has done some thinking about teaching.
I’ll posit a fourth connection: the course content is not exactly the same as the real world, so let’s split those two. Of course it should reflect the real world, but it has to reflect it in an accessible way by presenting comprehensible models. Part of designing a course’s content must be acknowledging that the content is not reality itself, only a model. Well-established courses (generally at the intro level) are sufficiently well-established that, first, the content is pretty thoroughly established, and second, the gap between the simplified model and the real world is both large and well-known (to the instructor, anyway).

So now we have a tetrahedral vision: the instructor interacts with the course content through frequent revision and updating as s/he teaches the course; with the students in the classroom and/or lab, and with reality through h/h own scholarship, research, or advanced study.

The course content, including pedagogy, evolves as real-world scholarship trickles down (recent example in my area: the 2010 Nobel-winning Suzuki/Heck reaction system is now part of the ACS standard curriculum). It evolves as the instructor grows through professional development and pedagogical training. It adapts as the students interact with it and with the real world. The aforementioned article has a good example of the students’ response to real-world observation by expanding the class’s scope.

With any luck, the students will interact with the other three elements as well, thereby mastering the ideas and methods of the discipline as they engage with the faculty, and with the real world, using the tools of the course content.

As a chemistry teacher, I am fortunate enough to have twelve hours of scheduled weekly interaction with the real world. It’s called lab. I have a pretty small class, less than 50 even when the course is filled, so I am able to interact with every individual student on a weekly basis. And thanks to administrators who care about professional development – at least if it doesn’t cost money – I have some tools to interact in a meaningful way with my course content.

The best learning comes from the four-way engagement between student, teacher, course content, and the real world.


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