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MOOCs and New Meanings of “School”

In 1977, Marshall McLuhan wrote a book with his son Eric and a teacher by the name of Kathryn Hutchon called “City as Classroom: Understanding language and media.” The book begins with the statement, “Let us begin by wondering just what you are doing sitting there at your desk.” The opening chapter deals with several important questions about the value and necessity of school in the information age and presents a very interesting perspective in saying:

Some educational theorists of this century argue that we are living today in a new kind of world: our community has become a storehouse of information of all kinds, and this information is easy to get. They argue that when schools were first established, there was not much information in the community, and schools were opened to provide knowledge and information. Your grandfather may have gone to the ‘little red schoolhouse’ that was common in Canada and in the United States. Such schools had a single teacher, and all grades  were taught in one room. The school teacher, next to the preacher, was the best-educated person in the community. (Look at Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, “The Deserted Village.”) Outside the school, people toiled at the country tasks of plowing and sowing and harvesting. They were very active physically. School was a strong contrast to work. How has the relationship changed between work done in the community and work done in schools?

Increasingly our schools have become factories for testing individuals on various types of knowledge. In this way we can measure who is performing their knowledge work more according to plan and who is not. Lots of money is wrapped up in this and therefore lots of politics as well. It begs the question, “what, exactly, is school for?”

In about 335 BC, Aristotle founded a school called the peripatetic school, which derives its name from the Greek word for “wandering.” Aristotle’s school was held at the Lyceum, which counted itself among the prominent early gymnasium, which derives from the word for “training naked.” These schools were dedicated to health and well being, including work in philosophy and other pursuits that extend beyond the flesh and muscle. Aristotle’s rhetoric offered a form of philosophical grounding for the pursuit of truth, including the persuasive arts of ethos (establishing credibility), pathos (emotional appeal), and logos (reasoning as the basis for argument). Aristotle’s system influenced formal schooling for centuries, including the formation of the medieval university, which was based on the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music). This organization is the basis for what we know as the liberal arts.

An important shift is often identified in the Aristotelian form of rhetoric and the medieval interpretation, which continues to be the basis for school in most industrialized nations. A scholar named Petrus Ramus systematized the liberal arts pursuit and introduced text books to curricula, following the natural evolution of his era’s technology…the printing press. Knowledge could be standardized and therefore schooling could be delivered systematically for anyone wanting to attend. Walter Ong wrote extensively about Ramus and the way he radically transformed the experience of education, noting:

Ramist rhetoric …is not a dialogue rhetoric at all, and Ramist dialectic has lost all sense of Socratic dialogue …The Ramist arts of discourse are monologue arts. They develop the didactic, schoolroom outlook which … tend finally even to lose the sense of monologue in pure diagrammatics. This orientation is very profound and of a piece with the orientation of Ramism toward an object world (associated with visual perception) rather than toward a person world (associated with voice and auditory perception). In rhetoric, obviously someone had to speak, but in the characteristic outlook fostered by the Ramist rhetoric, the speaking is directed to a world where even persons respond only as objects-— that is, say nothing back.

Ong argues that knowledge became compartmentalized (as we see in the boundaries between disciplines at most universities today) and the object of study superseded the process of deliberating and exploring. This harkens back to our last discussion about information and the types of circles we’ve drawn around things we find significant. Where we draw the circles determines a lot about how we see the world. It tells us where knowledge begins and ends, where psychological information is distinct from geographic information. It makes knowledge finite and measurable and allows us to possess knowledge and measure it.

McLuhan wrote his doctoral dissertation at Cambridge, later published as The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time. His thoughts on media largely stem from those early days of consideration, and include a number of telling remarks brought to us by former McLuhan student Bob Logan:

McLuhan developed the notion that media create an environment or an ecosystem that is best studied by what we now call media ecology, a term that he also embraced. Paralleling his notion of a media ecosystem was his notion of a knowledge ecosystem although he never used this term in which the study of one discipline in depth required one crossing disciplinary boundaries to study other disciplines as well. I would like to introduce the terms of a “knowledge ecosystem” and “knowledge ecology” based on McLuhan’s notion of the interdisciplinarity of knowledge as the quotes below will attest and also as an extension of the term he and I used in our manuscript the Future of the Library, namely the term ‘information ecology’.

These quotes from Understanding Media (McLuhan 1964) to my mind introduce the notion of a knowledge ecosystem (all knowledge is interrelated) and knowledge ecology or the study of interdisciplinarity.

In education, likewise, it is not the increase in numbers of those seeking to learn that creates the crisis. Our new concern with education follows upon the changeover to an interrelation in knowledge, where before the separate subjects of the curriculum had stood apart from each other. Departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed (p. 35).

In education the conventional division of the curriculum into subjects is already as outdated as the medieval trivium and quadrivium after the Renaissance. Any subject taken in depth at once relates to other subjects (p. 347).

Men are suddenly nomadic gatherers of knowledge, nomadic as never before — but also involved in the total social process as never before; since with electricity we extend our central nervous system globally, instantly interrelating every human experience (p. 310-11).

This excerpt from the famous March1969 Playboy interview reveals that McLuhan (1969) not only believed the acquisition of knowledge not only required crossing disciplinary boundaries but also required accessing knowledge in a variety of media.

PLAYBOY: Might it be possible for the “TV child” to make the adjustment to his educational environment by synthesizing traditional literate-visual forms with the insights of his own electric culture — or must the medium of print be totally unassimilable for him?

McLUHAN: Such a synthesis is entirely possible, and could create a creative blend of the two cultures — if the educational establishment was aware that there is an electric culture. In the absence of such elementary awareness, I’m afraid that the television child has no future in our schools.

So, the little red schoolhouse is no more. The reversal of the Ramist divisions of knowledge is upon us. Information is no longer scarce, but plentiful. Access to information is nearly limitless. Acquiring knowledge is child’s play when it comes to Googling the universe, and the divisions between bodies of knowledge and disciplines are eroding. School seems to be the last to know this…or at least among the last to formally admit it. In part, this may owe to the fact that schools are heavily invested in the system that constitutes their importance to society, even though that’s quickly racing away. (The same can be said for journalism, by the way.)

One argument suggests that this new order offers more people than ever access to formal education. The development of online learning opens the doors to individuals who had little access to formal education prior to the development of the Internet and offers new experiences for those with a long exposure to traditional schooling. The MOOC, or Massive Open Online Courses, promises greater interaction between peers, and the sharing of knowledge, experience, and expertise between a large pool of learners. More students get access to top quality professors and work via collaboration and resource sharing. Forbes published an article recently noting that current students believe that the future of education is online (although asking people what they believe and what they know about education are two different things). It’s said that MOOCs offer an environment in which race, gender, and class barriers partly dissolve (see: anonymity).

I would argue, as a counterpoint, that one ought to be wary of any claim that race, gender, and class truly disappear from the environment because they’re not immediately recognizable. Those concepts run deeper than appearance. I would also argue that race, gender, and class ought not disappear or become subdued lest we forget our persistent problems with them in the physical world. Because we forget to look at them in online environments doesn’t mean we’ve achieved a level playing field. From my point of view, it means we’ve grown less accustomed to facing our perceptions of race, gender, and class in favor of a form of blind avoidance.

For all the benefits of online learning, and there are many, there are a number of important losses as well. Fordham’s own Lance Strate offers a few interesting and entertaining thoughts on the subject. In his book Teaching as a Conserving Activity, Neil Postman argues that the business of education, and of schooling, is to serve as a cultural governor…to provide a culture with an important counterbalance to whatever forces are pulling it in one direction or another, foot firmly on the accelerator. In cultures bound by tradition and stagnating against the shifting tides around them, school is a place for shaking things up. In a society that is in the process of rapid and radical change, school offers a foot on the brake. It offers students a chance to slow down, ponder, deliberate and resist the changes going on around them in order to understand them better and make sound choices about what values are too important to surrender to the changing winds.

Whatever the means by which we choose to educate, Postman argues the point of our schooling is to create a public that shares important meaning (gods). Who we are as a culture finds roots in communication. It finds roots in the forces at play outside our perception. If school is a place that draws our attention to cultural work and offers tools to understand and curate, we all benefit. Postman writes in The End of Education:

Here, I will say only that the idea of public education depends absolutely on the existence of shared narratives and the exclusion of narratives that lead to alienation and divisiveness. What makes public schools public is not so much that the schools have common goals but that the students have common gods. The reason for this is that public education does not serve a public. It creates a public. And in creating the right kind of public, the schools contribute toward strengthening the spiritual basis of the American Creed. That is how Jefferson understood it, how Horace Mann understood it, how John Dewey understood it. And, in fact, there is no other way to understand it. The question is not, Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public? The question is, What kind of public does it create? A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers? Angry, soulless, directionless masses? Indifferent, confused citizens? Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance? The answer to this question has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools. The right answer depends on two things, and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.

Do you agree? What benefits are found in online learning? In MOOCs? How do we understand school in the physical world and what benefits are still found in attending a classroom-based education? What are you still doing sitting in that desk?


About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University


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