When it comes to trendy pedagogy, libraries were ahead of the curve. Barbara Fister thinks we should celebrate a little
Two trends that seem to be in the news lately are the rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses that can be taken by huge numbers of students) and flipping the classroom. Both grow partly out of developments in technology that give teachers an opportunity to create digital versions of course content and share it online. Both take a traditional approach to teaching—the lecture—and move it online, giving students the opportunity to engage whenever they want, as often as they want, while providing new opportunities for teachers: to scale up their classroom to unprecedented sizes or to use traditional classrooms for more engaged and interactive forms of learning.
MOOCs, of course, involve more than filmed lectures, and teachers who flip their classrooms are doing more than filming lectures. All that said, I find it curious that the lecture remains such a fundamental instructional mode. Putting the sage on film instead of a stage doesn’t seem all that revolutionary to me. If it says anything, it’s that theater is giving way to cinema. (Thanks, TED.) It’s kind of a TiVO moment. The audience wants more control over when they tune in, and the teacher can edit out their goofs—but it’s still watching. One can only conclude that either we’re so wedded to a traditional teaching strategy that we can’t let go of it, or that lectures really are a useful pedagogy that simply needs to be delivered differently.
The durable lecture
Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote an interesting critique of MOOCs as a chimeric part of the recent controversy at the University of Virginia. (Apparently one reason that board members wanted to fire the university president is that she was unwilling to embrace online education as a cost-saving measure. Note that she wasn’t against moving in that direction; she simply resisted rushing into it without a finer grasp of the costs, benefits, and likely outcomes. ) I tweeted a paraphrase from part of his essay, and got an interesting response:
The press release that Lisa pointed me to was about a study conducted by a company that describes itself as “a leading provider of technology solutions to government, education, and healthcare customers.” They found good news: almost half of teachers in high schools and colleges are trying to do something other than merely lecturing. Almost half?!? Seriously? It’s 2012, do you know where your pedagogy is? Given that the other major finding is that moving away from lectures will cost a lot in hardware and tech support from companies like theirs, I won’t lean too hard on this survey without confirmation, but combined with MOOC-mania and the flipping fad, it does suggest two things: lecture remains a dominant instructional mode, and the trendy way to stop lecturing is to put them online and assign them as homework.
New ways for students to pay
The other ingredient for this stew that’s simmering in my head today is another Twitter-delivered announcement. Remember the Sweaty Guy? Chances are you weren’t born yet, but a long time ago a bright young fellow in Texas thought college students would dig it if they could subscribe to an online service and access ebooks when the library was closed. An early ad campaign suggested that would be the night before the paper was due and that the library couldn’t possibly be of any help (and featured a guy who was sweating profusely as he started a paper that was due in a few hours). He wanted not just to replace the library, but to revolutionize publishing.
The entrepreneur found out that students actually aren’t willing to pay for personal subscriptions to material their library traditionally provided to them at no extra cost. Now that bright young fellow is a little older and just started working for Macmillan. Now he’s all set to revolutionize the textbook business. His job is to buy tech startups that Macmillan can use to replace the textbook market with something just as profitable, but more high-tech. His big insight is that this isn’t a consumer market after all— “you end up having to sell to the institutions.” We could have told him that more than a decade ago. But what is it these institutions will be buying? And at what cost?
Still flipped after all these years
Even we have trouble avoiding lectures: when we have classes come to the library, we have a terrible urge to lecture/demonstrate, even though we all know from glazed eyes that we would do better bottling it for the lucrative sleep-aid market. Though perhaps with projects like ANTS and PRIMO we can at least claim to put our teaching materials online sooner than others.
But here’s the real innovation: libraries are the ultimate flipped classroom. They are designed for engagement, self-directed learning, and experiential education. They are the antithesis of the comforting simplicity of the textbook and the condensed overview of the lecture. In libraries, students find themselves in a swirling stream of ideas. We’re there to help, but they have to do the swimming.
Maybe we don’t have to go through revolutions to flip the classroom. Maybe massive open online learning will happen as a natural byproduct of open access to scholarship. Maybe this new kind of learning is what has been happening in libraries all along—that giant, teeming, learner-centered classroom in the middle of the campus. We just have to keep reminding faculty of how very rich the opportunities are.