On Friday, January 31, a group of fifteen faculty and staff came together as students for the first local “discussion section” of the MOOC on the future of higher education at SUNY Fredonia. We are all students in a MOOC led by Cathy Davidson, Professor of English at Duke University, on “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education: Or, How We Can Unlearn Our Old Patterns and Relearn for a Happier, More Productive, Ethical, and Socially-Engaged Future.”
The discussion on Friday morning was engaging, entertaining, and sustained by an energy that students bring to the first day of class. As we introduced ourselves, and our reasons for participating, it became clear that we brought a remarkable diversity of experience and perspectives to the table. Faculty from history, political science, education, English, Spanish, music gathered with staff and administrators from human resources, equity and diversity, instructional design, academic support services to talk about the future of higher education over coffee and danish.
Most of us have never experienced a MOOC before and many had never taken or taught an online course. We began by reflecting on the experience of the MOOC, acknowledging that Professor Davis has designed The Future of Higher Education as an anti-MOOC, in which authority is distributed among all the learners.
We all seem to be adapting as students to a new environment of learning. Some talked about feeling overwhelmed by the material of the course and the non-linear experience of moving among lectures, forums and readings. They said they missed the definitive structure of a course that starts and stops at scheduled times. One of our participants said that he realized he had to treat the course as if it had a definitive time, so he schedules two hours on a specific day of the week for his MOOC. This experience has made us aware of the level of self-discipline that a student needs in order to complete an online course.
Most of us liked the ability to start, stop, slow down or speed up a lecture as needed to help comprehension. Others felt the forums to be daunting in the number of posts, and some felt a little shy about contributing. Do I dare start a new thread? said one participant.
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn. –Alvin Toffler
But judging by the quality of our discussion, the members of our discussion section learned a lot from the first week’s lesson. All the participants in the discussion section were born and educated in the twentieth century, yet we find ourselves needing to adjust to a new paradigm of teaching and learning in the twenty first century. One participant said that the week’s lesson had made her reflect on whether we were really in an educational system created for the last information age. “Are we educating students for their future or our past?” This question may become the touchstone for our discussion section.
The discussion that unfolded on Friday was peppered with references to Robert Heinlein, John Cage, Robert Pirsig, and Yoda, as each person took turns as teacher. After our discussion, we exchanged links by email to Ken Robinson’s RSAnimate on Changing Education Paradigms and Seth Godin’s TED on the future of education.
As a provost, I find that I have to be determined and disciplined not to let the tyranny of administrative minutiae take command of my head space. I think it’s a matter of survival that we take time to have important conversations like this. I am grateful to Professor Davidson and her team behind the camera at HASTAC for giving us a wonderful, rich course on the future of higher education.