“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”

9 01 2012

If you didn’t recognize the “disaster of biblical proportions” reference in the last couple of posts, it was indeed from Ghostbusters. In the scene above, that awful man from the EPA turned off Spengler’s ghost-trapping machine and the Ghostbusters are trying to explain to the mayor what’s about to happen as a result.

I love Ghostbusters for many reasons, but only in my most recent viewing did I realize that they were all failed academics. Toward the beginning of the film, there’s this great part where the dean comes in and kicks them off campus. [Obviously, they weren’t tenured.] Therefore, I don’t even need to change much to make my extended Ghostbusters analogy fit online education.

Who, you might ask, is the equivalent of that awful man from the EPA in academia? I’ll go with Ayn Rand. Seriously, I don’t think anybody would ever have dreamed of bringing online classes to public higher education in America if it weren’t for gigantic cuts to state funding brought on by people with too much money who are desperate to keep even more. Their kids, after all, will never be learning online. That’s just for poor people who don’t need to understand the past for their future lives of service to our corporate overlords.

The setup of online courses is practically guaranteed to keep things that way. Another thing I learned at that AHA session last week is that you can’t test online students about historical facts because they can always Google anything. This is indeed strangely reminiscent of Nick Carr’s famous article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” but you don’t have to buy Carr’s premise in order to understand the problem here.

Suppose I want to quiz my online students on facts they learned on the web sites I sent them to throughout a particular section of the course. They have 15 minutes to finish the quiz. In the same time they can write what they actually learned, they can open up another tab on their browser, Google the question and write the answer whether they learned it when they were supposed to or not. As a college professor, I’m well aware that there are a lot more important things to learn in a good history class than a lot specific facts. However, I’ve also been involved in the TAH program for long enough to appreciate the benefits of historical knowledge for promoting good citizenship.

Moreover, students need to learn at least some facts, otherwise they won’t have any history at their disposal to analyze. I always tell my survey students that history is actually pretty easy when you realize that you can always remember the facts that you find most interesting in order to answer my very broad questions. Online history class, therefore, is like taking every test open-book. I’m not sure this means that Google is making us stupid, but it certainly decreases the incentive for history students to commit any historical facts to memory.

I think this kind of ignorance is going to haunt us all during our glorious online future. With the Ghostbusters struggling outside of academia along with the rest of us faculty, who we gonna call then?



5 responses

9 01 2012
Jonathan Dresner

One of the selling points, in our recent LMS demos, was the ability to “lock” a user’s computer during tests: apparently it makes it impossible for the user to switch windows for the duration of the test, in order to prevent google-cheating.

Of course, as the demonstrator acknowledged, there’s nothing to stop them having a separate device available — smartphone, laptop, whatever — so the whole thing is an exercise in empty-barn-door-locking.

9 01 2012
Music for Deckchairs

Can I ask very politely about where you feel memorised facts come in the overall priorities for teaching history? I don’t dispute that we need learned facts, but what if the process of looking them up is part of the process of learning them? Is it really not possible to design assessments that test the understanding that comes after they’ve been committed to memory?

I’ve used open computer exam questions in which a historical fact was the starting point for the answer, but the answer itself involved some deductive thinking. Along the way the students learned “1927”, and some of them might have remembered it a week or a month later, which is no bad thing. But to be honest, if they still needed to look up this detail, I don’t think their understanding of its significance was harmed.

OK, I’m getting under the table now.

9 01 2012
Britney Titus

Okay not to be cynical, but doesn’t that miss the point? I, as a student, don’t feel good about being able to “find an answer.” I feel good about putting what I’ve learned through reading and discussion into whatever assessment I am completing. I understand your point of deductive reasoning but take for instance secondary education right now. The junior high and high schools aren’t teaching deductive reasoning and higher level critical analysis, they are teaching towards a standardized test. This makes students not only fail to use that higher level critical analysis, but also motivates them to simply google the answer, especially in an online environment.

I’ll go under the table now, along with the Bronsen lady ( the online learning academy in Pueblo) I argued with that said it was more important to her, “that the students know how to find the answer.” What more education then does my 11 year-old cousin need? She already knows how to google.

10 01 2012

Since we’re now both under the table, here’s my thought. No one believes anyone can know all facts, so we always start with a process of selection–dividing the knowable into what we think everyone should know, perhaps, and then into facts and positions and hypotheses and conclusions that become increasingly specialized to smaller and smaller groups of experts–which the rest of us have to look up.

Then we all start to think about where the lines are to be drawn. Who needs to know what, and why?

I’m not at all against knowing stuff; I’m just wondering about the focus of assessment. My thought is that as historians we can still design questions in which students can Google the facts and still not have the answers. If we can do that, then their having access to Google isn’t the problem–but it challenges us to reflect on the emphasis placed on knowing from memory.

I strongly agree that we are seeing immense harm caused by teaching to tests, and a very resistant strategy of learning by rote to game exam systems. Neither are exclusively online problems, I don’t think.

9 01 2012
Jonathan Dresner

You’re arguing with a strawman, as near as I can tell: nobody here is remotely suggesting that historical understanding ENDS with learned facts.

Historical facts are the building blocks of historical arguments, which are the foundation of historical narratives. Chronology is a framework within which we build networks of causal connections.

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