David B. Searls in his article “An Online Bioinformatics Curriculum” (2012) states:
“Clearly a revolution in open online learning is at hand.”
From the perspective he describes – MOOCS, Open Course software, though the Khan Academy – this is a revolution in educational delivery. Online courses, free or paid, small or vast, have changed the ways in which courses can be delivered to myriad people who otherwise might not have access to such educational material.
In school, colleges, and MOOCS, much attention is paid to listing “learning outcomes”, which typically begin:
Upon successful completion of this course students will be able to:
usually followed by a list of skills.
But what constitutes “successful completion” of the course, which apparently guarantees achievement of the learning outcomes? A grade of D or C? Or is a B+ or A necessary to be deemed to have attained the learning outcomes?
The learning outcomes are, in other words, a wish list. They look nice, admirable even, but what it means to attain them is usually not clear.
A large part of the reason for that is the structure of a course is rarely set by the stated learning outcomes, which are usually an afterthought, but by the “curriculum”, a list of topics to be “covered”.
What is missing, in a more revolutionary approach to education, is:
- What engagement in a course empowers a student to do.
- How a course matches a student’s interest.
When engagement and interest are in sync magic happens. Students realize they are in charge of their learning, and not simply passive vessels waiting to be filled with “knowledge”.
The most profound example if this I have experienced is with Jorge Fernandes who, as an undergraduate mathematics student, took on a project of his choice to model hurricane ingress and worked with faculty mentors to progress this project. When Jorge graduated and began work as a data analyst he took on another project on spatial modeling of reported crimes in Brockton, Massachusetts. These experiences not only changed Jorges’ view of learning, and his role in that learning, but helped him very directly in getting employment as a data scientist.
Here is Jorge’s description of his project from his LinkedIn page:
“I developed a shiny App that scrapes the brockton police website for dispatch log and then plots them on a map among other visuals. The goal is give this app as a gift to non-profit organizations to help fight crime in the City of Brockton, MA.”
We need another revolution in education – one that focuses on empowerment and interest, through projects that are meaningful and interesting to students, that empower them to do manifold related things, that open vistas of exploration for them.
What’s the alternative?