The most intriguing aspect of last week’s trip to California was the contrast between the discussions I had “up north” with inventors, innovators and pioneers in new educational technologies (including MOOCs) and the students I encountered at a real-world school (Fullerton College – the Southern California Community College where I spoke at their 100th anniversary celebration).
When you interact with any aspect of the MOOC phenomenon, you tend to find that the creators of MOOC courses (i.e., professors and teaching teams), the inventors of the technologies that power MOOCs (i.e., folks at cool companies like Coursera, edX and Udacity) as well as the journalists who pound the education beat and policymakers trying to figure out what to make of these new teaching tools all have something in common. They (or, should I say, “we”) are all comparing new online learning experiences with what we encountered when we went to college.
And, for the most part, our college experiences involved leaving home at 18 and enjoying four years in residency in some bucolic spot where professors loved to teach eager students, where lasting friendships were forged, where intellectual and personal coming of age experiences were enjoyed, all in an environment designed to ensure our safety while maximizing our growth.
Given how many positive experiences tend to get wrapped up in such an important transition in our lives, is it any wonder that MOOCs (which, at best, replicate just one aspect of that experiences: the courses that occupied maybe a third of our waking hours) tend to compare unfavorably to “college” in all its aspects?
Lost in such analysis is an understanding that the experience we associated with residential college barely applies to half the students enrolled in college today. For instance, many community and state colleges are commuter schools, meaning students live in a variety of situations (including continuing to live at home) while involved in two- or four-year degree programs. And, unlike the name-brand colleges just discovering the ups and downs of online learning through their involvement with MOOCs, it was community and state colleges that first took the plunge with technology-enabled learning: flipping classes or moving entire degree programs to the web.
Fullerton College, for example, offers Associate Degrees and Vocational Certificates in various professional disciplines. And as I walked the campus during last week’s anniversary program, signs posted on school bulletin boards focused on helping students find jobs or transition into four-year programs at other California schools (rather than the location of that evening’s kegger).
One of my favorite conversations during last week’s Fullerton visit was with a student who went to work right after High School. And after working two jobs for close to thirty years, her present employer offered her the chance to go back to school to earn a business degree. So she enrolled at Fullerton where, as it happens, her son also attends. (The two of them share a teacher, albeit the mother studies under her in an online class while the son attends a residential version of the same course.)
Does that experience sound familiar? I thought not. And it certainly demonstrated to me that when we talk about the distinction between “college students” and “lifelong learners,” (for instance) we may not really know enough about what we’re talking about.
I talked last week about how each of the data points on any of the charts we look at which illustrate where MOOC students fall on this or that axis (whether labeled grades, engagement, age, education level or some other demographic) barely scratches the surface of the personal stories involved with each and every individual human story boiled down to a dot on a graph.
If another person I met a lunch (a stay-at-home Mom with whom I shared childcare stories) follows through on her plan to enroll in one or more MOOC to learn the business skills she needs to start her own company, is she just another MOOC enrollee over the age of 25 who already has a degree? And what does she have in common with the son of one of the conference organizers who will be seguing from video production into Web design using a combination of free and paid-for online learning resources? Is he the equivalent of those two mothers I talked to (or to me), just because we all fall into the same 25+ year-old demographic?
I’ve just submitted my first peer-graded essay assignment for Cathy Davidson’s Future of Higher Education MOOC, an assignment which asked us to describe something we had to unlearn during our lifetime in order to become educated. And the thing I realized I had to unlearn most is that educational theories and data (no matter how “Big”) divorced from the real-world experiences of individuals whose education was as meandering and quirky as my own is not going to tell us enough of what we need to know to make a difference in people’s lives.
That’s a lesson destined to stick with me even longer than memories of Virgin American’s creepy in-flight rock-safety video (which is to say a very long time indeed).