June 9, 2013

The changing face of education: Part 3

In the first part of this series of columns, I described what a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) was and compared it to a prototype that I implemented in the ‘70s to see if we had made any educational progress over the past half-century. Don’t laugh — it took 25 years for the overhead projector to move from the bowling alley to the classroom.

In Part 2, I compared MOOCs to the present-day classroom environment and concluded that although current Online Courses have downsides (what doesn’t?), they will probably be addressed and solved, and they will be in the wave of the future for education.

In this column, I want to wrap up the discussion and address some pedagogical and political issues associated with MOOCs.

They don’t yet solve the classic problem of pedagogy: Every discipline requires mastery in two areas, theory and practice. We need both because they strengthen each other; practice helps you better understand the theory, and a better grasp of the theory makes you a more effective practitioner. But which aspect should be taught first? The pedagogical model I grew up with was always to present the theory first with a lecture and give the practice as homework. While this worked fine with me, I know that it failed miserably with many of my peers.

I was lucky enough to be taught by a math professor who used a minor modification to greatly benefit me; he always ended a lecture with a brief introduction to the next topic, then for homework we were to read the textbook’s explanation then practice with some homework problems. In the following lecture, he would continue with the theory and answer any residual questions. Years later, I realized that his solution to the “theory before practice or vice-versa” problem was to make it into an A-B-A process where A stands for theory and B for practice.

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