Educational Transition II

The previous two blogs (Feb 25 and March 4) discussed some of the issues in our K-12 education that have attracted my attention during the special session of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting in Boston. My most recent blog (March 18) extended to colleges and universities, and was anchored on Tom Friedman’s Op-Ed (New York Times – March 6, 2013) reaction to a conference on online learning that he attended.

Here I will continue on my line of reasoning.

I am about to experience the excitement of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). The session that I will teach on the Vanderbilt Virtual School’s website has nothing to do with Climate Change or Physics, and is directed not at college students, but at K-12 students all across the United States. The topic is the Holocaust and I will join forces with Matt Rozell, the History teacher from Hudson Falls, who brought to light the liberation of the train that carried me (together with 2500 other inmates) from Bergen-Belsen to Theresienstadt concentration camps. His World War II Living History Project put me in touch with other survivors from the same train, as well as one of our liberators.

This will be my first experience with the impact of this technology. The virtual school that I will take part in does not compete with regular class activities. Each session is a unique event that students would not be able to experience without the technology. While Friedman was writing about a system in which, at best, schools would supplement technology, in this case, the session will instead serve as a supplement for schools. The Vanderbilt Virtual School serves as an additional instrument for learning, making direct use of existing dissemination technologies like TV and the internet in order to function.

There are already MOOC courses on sustainability, with sessions on Climate Change. For example, here is the Illinois course description:

The course is completely free, and delivered online. There will be a mixture of readings, short lectures, quizzes, collaborative projects and discussions. All participants who successfully complete the required activities (and tests!) will earn a completion badge.

As described, the course is not part of a degree program but an effort to educate willing members of the general public. Successful completion entitles the participants to a certificate of completion. There are online courses, all throughout the educational horizon, that are already part of the degree-granting curriculum. The discussions regarding these are in high gear in almost every academic institution. Pedagogic considerations are not the only issue. Budgetary considerations come into play as well, including online courses’ ability to accommodate larger student populations, saving a considerable percentage of the classroom space that is so tight in many educational institutions. Adding to the debate, are faculty fears that any objections they make to the new layout will be overridden by the State (A bill to this effect is already under consideration in California).

Let me now go back to Tom Friedman’s Op-Ed, where he shifts from his message to describe the man who drove him to the conference:

You may think this MOOCs revolution is hyped, but my driver in Boston disagrees. You see, I was picked up at Logan Airport by my old friend Michael Sandel, who teaches the famous Socratic, 1,000-student “Justice” course at Harvard, which is launching March 12 as the first humanities offering on the M.I.T.- Harvard edX online learning platform. When he met me at the airport I saw he was wearing some very colorful sneakers.

“Where did you get those?” I asked. Well, Sandel explained, he had recently been in South Korea, where his Justice course has been translated into Korean and shown on national television. It has made him such a popular figure there that the Koreans asked him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a professional baseball game — and gave him the colored shoes to boot! Yes, a Harvard philosopher was asked to throw out the first pitch in Korea because so many fans enjoy the way he helps them think through big moral dilemmas. Sandel had just lectured in Seoul in an outdoor amphitheater to 14,000 people, with audience participation. His online Justice lectures, with Chinese subtitles, have already had more than 20 million views on Chinese Web sites, which prompted The China Daily to note that “Sandel has the kind of popularity in China usually reserved for Hollywood movie stars and N.B.A. players.”

There is no question that Prof. Sandel is a successful and great teacher. The description of his activities covers two separate elements: his upcoming teaching of the joint 1000 – student “Justice” course as the first humanities offering on the MIT-Harvard edX online learning platform and his “pop-star” treatment in South Korea where, among other honors, he was asked to lecture in an amphitheater to 14,000 people and the presentation of his lectures on Chinese web sites with an estimated 20 million viewers.

The MIT-Harvard edX platform that was recently launched is based on existing, faculty approved courses in both universities. As such, they can count towards a degree, whether they are being delivered online or in person. The objective of the platform is to expand it to be used in other universities. It is at the discretion of the faculty in every university to use such a platform either directly, by making use of the same courses, or indirectly, by posting their own courses on the platform. In either case, the courses have to be approved by the faculty to count for credit. The universities have access to the identities of their students so they can follow their learning goals, assisting and modifying the various aspects in order to optimize learning. Faculty will have the option to either act as “teaching assistants,” as Friedman’s Op-Ed implies, or to use the platform to assist their own teaching.

Prof. Sandel’s experience in South Korea and China are a different issue. In those cases, nobody has control or knowledge of who the students are. If some testing is performed and a certificate is given, the identity (name) of the student will be known only by the computer. The lecture and the associated tests are uniform for every participant. Since there are no prerequisites, and no prior knowledge is required, Harvard, MIT or any other university cannot use these courses to accredit these students without losing their reputation and their ability to charge students $50,000 tuition. These students now become part of the “general public,” whom the MOOC courses aim to educate on issues of national concern. Hopefully, this will have a positive influence when these students are asked to contribute to the collective decision-making process through voting. Public education can and should be available as a life long activity. As such, the technology presents new and expanding opportunities to educate the general public, ultimately contributing to better collective (political) decisions, and benefiting us all.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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