There’s more than one way to remove the sage from the stage.

10 04 2013

I’ve spent more than a little space on this blog defending lecturing.  The irony of that situation is that I don’t do very much of it in the great scheme of things anymore.  Since I’m a historian, there are a lot of facts that I feel obliged to cover in my survey classes. Nevertheless, I lecture a lot less than I used to do when I started teaching because I’ve developed other teaching priorities besides pouring facts into students’ open ears over time. With respect to my upper level classes, I hardly ever lecture at all. Most of the sessions in most of the courses I teach are unscripted, reading-inspired classes filled with discussions and a very wide variety of planned exercises.

This helps explain why I’m so fond of Peter Knupfer’s new article in the teaching section of the Journal of American History (subs. only). He offers an entirely different path towards removing the sage from the stage, one that depends upon faculty expertise and lots of access to the professor. Here’s a small taste:

My iteration of the seminar was not about my research, however. Indeed, it was deliberately oriented toward a different object, asking a different question: “whether,” as Gilbert C. Fite has asked, “as teaching scholars we are trying to train professional historians or attempting to increase the general level of historical understanding in our society.” I centered the seminar on two problems: How does history serve the public? and How do historians select and communicate with disparate audiences? The seminar’s work products were keyed to the answers to those questions and took the students into the community. The first question is predicated upon the beliefs that history is useless if it is not shared, that it has a public purpose beyond the interests of a close circle of friends or family, and that it seeks to improve the world at large. That is why the projects in this course were explicitly not family histories or explorations of a student’s particular past.The second question pushed the students to develop their own historical questions and to define their intended audience; this was a learner-centered task that cast the instructor in the role of consultant, not of sage on the stage.

[footnote omitted]

I already run our research seminars at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but unlike Knupfer, I haven’t been making nearly enough use of local resources in those classes. His article offers many suggestions for doing this that are both technologically adept and pedagogically sound.

On the other hand, anybody who know’s the slightest thing about the digital humanities really won’t find anything all that new here.  And that’s the really important political point that I want to make about this article. Too many people who attack the “sage on the stage” have no idea what professors actually do all day.  In my case, my survey class is only a third of my teaching work. Most of my classes are already a lot closer to Knupfer’s already than to the stereotype that MOOC enthusiasts put forward to advance their agenda.

The great irony here is that most commercial MOOCs want to replace lecture classes with more lecturing.  In disciplines that are generally less lecture-centric than history, I suspect there’s a very good chance that a Coursera MOOC will have more lecturing in it than whatever class it happens to replace.

But that, of course, is not the point.  The point of MOOCs is to disrupt destroy higher education for the sake of millionaire tech investors, not to actually teach anybody anything.




4 responses

10 04 2013
Music for Deckchairs

More and more I think the critical fact is that “Too many people from STEM disciplines who attack the “sage on the stage” have no idea what professors in the Humanities actually do all day.

That is, I suspect MOOCs are earnestly reforming the whole of university practice in the interests of fixing some problems in some areas.

This is very much in the tradition of installing a new bathroom to fix a leaking tap.

I would truly like to see more nuanced thinking (to use my new favourite Coursera headline word) in this whole debate about how diverse higher education is in its approaches to, oh, everything.

12 04 2013

I would extend that and say a lot of these people attacking the sage on the stage don’t know how to teach in the first place. Even in STEM disciplines good teaching has gone beyond lectures (and in ways that can’t be replicated online x1000). The people promoting MOOCs seem to have let this pass them by.

I propose a new definition of “super-professor”: a top person in their field who hasn’t kept up with teaching practice and is still teaching like it’s 1972 (or something).

17 04 2013

If the whole discussion/debate about brick-n-mortar vs. virtual engagement shifted to a more nuanced consideration of the process of learning, we’d find ourselves in a completely different discussion. That is, discussing the method of delivery/engagement in isolation from the course material and aims is pointless, because effectiveness depends on more than delivery alone. In some cases, lecturing may be an effective means of promoting learning if your aims are for students to acquire a set of facts. If your aims are different, for example, for students to accurately use a set of facts to solve a novel problem, or to make an informed decision about a situation, then lecture won’t meet those aims nearly as well as will a workshop or inquiry-based course. Even then though, research shows that workshop/inquiry classes still require periodic lecture or structured discussion to make sure students are pointed in the right direction (i.e., discovery learning goes awry when students “discover” misinformation, and that’s surely something to avoid because lessons learned via discovery are more deeply embedded than are lessons learned in more passive ways). And workshop/inquiry based courses work great face-to-face. They might work in a virtual arrangement too, but that depends on the quality of the program design and the motivation of the learner more than it depends on the more coarse contrast of face-to-face vs. virtual. Indeed, the reverse is true too, which again, is why these conversations need to move beyond a “single factor” comparison. I’ve been discussing this on my blog too (e.g., as well as in face-to-face discussions with colleagues on campus. If we want to make headway in terms of charting a course for the future of higher ed, the conversation needs to get more complicated and we need to use our heads (and our disciplinary knowledge, as relevant – Psych has a lot to add to these conversations) to effect positive change.

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