Cut everything, but not ‘humanware’

Photo by Heather Davidson
Photo by Heather Davidson

Perhaps there are some among you who remember the joys of discovering the stereoscope: just insert a compelling photograph of one of the wonders of the world and in three dimensions you can scale the Eiger, walk the Great Wall of China or survey the mighty Amazon River.

My brother and I would trudge snow-strewn streets on icy Saturdays on our way to the public library, race up the wooden stairs and seize the first available stereoscope and begin our journey.

What great fun it was and how promising — such a gadget just might transform the early 1930s classrooms.

The years rolled by and while my brother and I left the stereoscope behind, our teachers, obsessed with gadgets, employed 35mm slides, films and film strips, all of which might be used to enhance whatever learning might take place.

How we would love those times when the teacher would draw the blinds, dim the lights and pull down the screen, times when we knew no teaching took place and no learning occurred.

Today, I cannot recall a memorable filmstrip or film experience, but I warmly remember the wise and gentle teachers whose teaching touched me.

But gadgets prevailed, from the stereoscope to the omnipresent PowerPoint; such innovations would certainly promote student learning and every pupil should be wired.

But even today, the value of these promising technologies is unproved and their use rests on some questionable assumptions.

Enter the Massive Open Online Courses: the new wave (The New York Times celebrity columnists Thomas Friedman and David Brooks hailed MOOCs a “tsunami”) of educational technologies now urged on us.

Some universities have purchased courses offered by online ventures such as Udacity, Coursera and edX.  The Chronicle of Higher Education has referred to such a movement as “MOOC Mania.”

Teachers everywhere have long heard such promises. Udacity’s website describes itself as a company “on a mission to change the future of education.” Coursera pushes for “democratization,” stating, “We hope to give everyone access to a world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few.”

Faculty members are understandably concerned with the MOOC bandwagon, suggesting courses designed by elite universities might compromise the quality of education, strangle different points of view, and might lead to the dismantling of tax-supported, public universities.

The New York Times recently cited a Gallup poll wherein most of the 889 university presidents surveyed said that online education would not solve a university’s financial difficulties or significantly improve students’ learning.

Surveys of those taking part in online learning report that students online are more likely to fail or withdraw from courses than students in more traditional classes.

In some courses, 90 per cent of students enrolled do not complete the course.

Geoff Shullenberger suggests in Dissent magazine that in promoting MOOC’s, “We are remaking education around information technology, rather than using information technology as a pedagogical tool.

This is a 21st Century version of what Paulo Freire called the ‘banking method of education’, a model that Deweyan humanists and practitioners of critical pedagogy have long repudiated as reactionary and disempowering.”

In my 54 years of teaching university students, I have seen new technologies come and go, all of them promising to “radicalize” my classroom, promising more efficient paths to greater academic achievement.

However, not one of them has succeeded in diminishing the importance of the teacher, who is thoroughly devoted to students and committed to academic excellence.

With pedagogical caritas, involving a love for students, a love for one’s subject matter and a love for the dual processes of teaching and learning, students get the essential engagement they require.

What they may get online is a feeling of estrangement from the teacher with progressively greater degrees of separation.

Some teachers may watch the MOOC bandwagon pass by and remain committed to the deeply personalized, liberalizing spirit of the classroom, constantly rekindling the joys of existential encounters with students.

Such teachers then have a right to hope that when government cuts demand sensible priorities, ”humanware” will take precedence over either hard or software.

    Leave a Reply