I remember a time in my life when I was interesting. I used to read, go the symphony, subscribe to the repertory theater, and even see an occasional film before it was released on DVD or downloaded on a personal device for a plane ride distraction. Then I had children. I am happy to report that Taylor, who turned 12 just last Wednesday, and Dominic, age 7, are growing well and getting wiser and more inquisitive, but sadly their father is not. My day is busy with the trappings of modern life: meetings, modems, and money (the new 3M). I seem to be navigating through life without discretion, knowing where I am required to be not only in business but in scout meetings, and basketball practices and the occasional sleepovers. I am not complaining—I live a life that a large share of the world would envy, but there is something sad about being tied to a 4.8 ounce anchor (amazing how light the iPhone weighs but the gravitational pull it brings—Newton might be challenged).
My entertainment these days are not at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or Disney Hall (or even the Hollywood Bowl) as in my halcyon graduate student days, but with DVDs that are really quite instructive but sufficiently annoying once the songs get in your head and you can’t get them out. PBS learning and their franchise Elmo series have been successful in getting a generation of young learners to enjoy finding new things without even knowing that they were learning. This head start sadly doesn’t continue once children get to official school, but should be instructive to those of us who think about what the next generation of learning should look like. Recent news non-withstanding, PBS knows an awful lot about curriculum design that could easily be translated elsewhere.
One of our favorites is The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland. It is an instructive tale about sharing and blaming where Elmo is exiled to a strange world and tormented by the evil Huxley. (Those of you fortunate enough to have been educated in a liberal arts college will recognize the not so thinly veiled Huxley as Elmo’s nemesis).
This week, I had my own adventure in the strange new world of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) when my friend Paul Kim asked me to contribute to his venture lab class at Stanford. Paul is excited that 17,000 students from around the world are actively engaged in a course entitled Designing a New Learning Environment. Paul is rightly proud that his class is attended by more than 17,000 students worldwide, and that many of them are producing the expected world-class output. Paul asked me to join the class in a lecture about education as a business enterprise which I entitled, “Education as a Window to the World.”
There were challenges. First, I had to think about how I would film the lecture. Then, I thought, why a lecture? With all the wonderful electronic gadgetry, why sit in front of a camera and simply talk. It is what I knew of learning, but clearly there is a better way. Then, there was what appeared the gargantuan task of moving this mammoth data file through e-mail servers that have all kinds of safeguards to protect against mountains of data moving through their own faucet. I am happy to report that I am gaining a new skill during my old age—I now am a proud subscriber to Dropbox.
When the file got to Paul, he had three issues. First, he couldn’t see my face because the back lighting had not been anticipated. Second, only half of the lecture had managed to get itself to the Dropbox. (I am certain of user error.) Finally, I wore my academic robes to make a point that in ages past, faculty members utilized their hoods to collect fees from grateful students as they left their classes. It seems that MOOCs are bringing us back to our roots where superstar faculty members can earn incredible fees because they can touch so many students’ lives. (Three years ago I wrote a then controversial article for The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Superstar Professors Renowned for Teaching? Pay Them Per Student.” Now it doesn’t seem so controversial). Paul thought that the robes might scare some of the students from around the world who are not familiar with our charming customs so later today I am off to re-film (and to edit it from 25 minutes down to 15 minutes).
I am not certain that I will get used to this brave new world of education. I am not certain that I can summarize even the broadest notions of a higher education industry in 15 minutes, but I am going to try. Those students interested enough in the topic will know how to find me, and those who are not will be happy knowing just enough to be dangerous (not sure how we came to that notion, but it does seem true). But I am excited in a sense that I get to speak in a small window of the world to bright and interested people who would never hear about different worlds. I am excited that their own view might change mine, and that the chances that at least a handful of them will expand my concepts and bring new life out of my information thrills me so that I will continue, despite challenges, to try to enter this world and to learn from places I never learned before (even Elmo).
I may sound grouchy. I may notice some significant deficits of what might appear “short attention span theatre.” But in 1931 when the other Huxley wrote his dystopian novel warning about “sleep-learning,” he could never have anticipated some of the changes we are beginning to notice. Alas, even Carnegie is seeking to makeover its 100-year-old credit hour. My father was right—you can be grouchy even when you are correct.