Content or Collaboration?

Before and After MOOCs

Universities have a category error about learning. They think it is content delivery. This is an almost 1,000 year old error based on the time when (learning) resources were extremely scarce and books where large, heavy, hand-written and locked away in libraries. The interface between teachers and learners was the lectern (hence lecturer). A large wooden frame upon which those frighteningly heavy books could be placed at a suitable angle from which the content could be read out aloud. The learners copied down what was read out and, hey presto, “learning” magically happened. Universities were systems for the transmission of content from a severely proscribed list of definitive works. Universities still essentially operate on this model.

Oxford University started with 30 books in its library in 1096. 113 years later Cambridge University was formed by dissatisfied Oxonians who had accumulated 130 books. In the 13th century knowledge was growing rapidly at the pace of 1 book per year and, for some, University education already needed redesigning. Monotheistic universities (which is how they started) have always dealt in the “language of the priesthood” and 800 years later continue to behave as though we are still living in content scarcity. Come to us and receive our benediction through content transmission. This confident but false assertion is what keeps people scrambling to receive the gift of Oxbridge arrogance to see them through to the end of their days; and possibly ours too if they study PPE (as recently pointed out). 

Learning is what is missing from our education system, not what defines it. The focus of our (learning-based) work has been to examine how the new participatory technologies of Web 2.0  (see Trust the Learner) can help surface learning as the key driver of the education system. We argue for collaboration, developing a shared understanding of whatever is being studied, and context (the learners circumstances) as being the key dimensions of learning, rather than high-stakes assessment. Learning is a “front-loaded” process motivating learner inquiry, whereas education is an “end-loaded” process laden with fear, and examinations. We think we should be designing fit for context learning not fit for purpose education…

MOOCS are the 21st century extension of this medieval  content is learning fallacy. Curated content as a metaphor for learning. In fact xMOOCs are short courses designed to fit into the course hours model of the USA university system and can be delivered at reduced cost. Learning is the process whereby any learner makes sense of what any education system offers them, and from which they draw conclusions that are meaningful to them. Education is still a ‘by rote” process of memorisation and foolish tests of that remembering… As we’ve indicated in Before and After MOOCs we can learn from the failings of our elitist education systems, but not if we keep thinking that A-levels remain the gold standard. We’ve had 921 years of medieval lecturn-based pontificating based on an assumption of content scarcity. Why not start designing around trusting the learner to navigate through content abundance? Why not allow learners to collaboratively negotiate their way to shared understandings about the many contexts in which they live in the 21st century? More…


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