Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Learning Is a Verb

A lot has been written about higher education being forever changed in the wake of COVID-19. Much has been aimed at how this disruption will drive the final nail into the coffin of an outmoded business model, but just as much speculation has been focused on the process of teaching and learning.

Teaching and learning will inevitably change, but all of higher education will not migrate to a virtual environment. What teaching and learning during the pandemic has proved to faculty and students is that some aspects of the academic enterprise are better online, some are worse, some are fundamentally impossible, and, in some instances, it’s a tie.

Applied disciplines like the performing arts and laboratories include many tactile components. It is true that much can be learned by watching and listening to great performers, but kinesthetic learning requires engaging in the practice. Likewise, there is much to be learned from the interpretation of data for a lab report, but developing “lab hands” and facility using research instruments comes from doing the lab.

I have had dozens of students tell me their biggest take away from this spring was that they preferred learning together in community. I know this is true, and I believe that in many cases they learn better together too, but many of our students had their best semesters in terms of grades.

We need to honestly evaluate the successes and failures of the recent global experiment in remote education. What worked, what didn’t, and most importantly, why? Is there a pattern in the types of material, in the types of learners, in the selected modality of delivery? Do synchronous and asynchronous deliveries benefit certain subjects or certain students?

Asynchronous formats accommodate students who are sharing technology access with other family members or have turbulent schedules, but synchronous formats allow discussion and debate. These are limitations of remote learning that are exacerbated by economic disparity.

Three decades ago, one of the mantras in pedagogy was that professors needed to move from being “the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.” It was clever the first time someone said it, but it was hardly a novel idea. Socrates had made the point over 2400 years ago.

The truth is that mere content delivery shouldn’t be a class. If reading a book, watching a documentary, or following a LinkedIn Learning module will duplicate the learning outcomes of a university course, an opportunity to do more has been missed.

This has been the shortcoming of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). They are immensely efficient in reaching many students in a single course, but they have failed to revolutionize higher education because students are not actively engaged.

NYU and WCBS pioneered the MOOC concept with Sunrise Semester, which presented university lectures on early-morning television as correspondence courses beginning in 1957. Distance learning had been introduced in the previous century, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) began in 1878. It is the oldest continuous book club in America. Participants read the annual selections and can graduate after completing 12 titles. The critical component is extensive discussions of the readings during the Chautauqua season.

Knowledge is a set of nouns. Learning is a verb. Many of us have recently found that we are much more capable of delivering knowledge remotely than we had imagined, but we have also reaffirmed the importance of applying that knowledge. Deep learning requires reflection, analysis, and synthesis.

This is the foundation of a liberal education, putting knowledge into action. The dialectic approach of the seminar is a direct descendent of Socratic learning. This is where students learn to build and test ideas. It is the competitive advantage of a residential liberal arts college

The collection and delivery of knowledge content can be enhanced and expanded through technology. To make the best transformation of education in the coming months and years, we need to critically identify the elements of teaching and learning that can only be achieved together and focus our future in-class and synchronous efforts on those activities. 

The classroom has been flipped, let’s make the most of it.


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