Note: I have many more ideas for writings about education than I actually ever complete or share, due to my inclination to make everything part of a bigger and bigger picture, as well as my perfectionism. I am experimenting in the next three weeks with writing a post every weekday in less than an hour to force myself to put ideas out there, learn to write smaller things, and to see if I like this medium. Friendly feedback (including disagreement) is welcome and appreciated.
This summer I signed up for two MOOCs – “Massive Open Online Courses.” I signed up partly out of curiosity and partly out of fear: curious to see what this purported revolution in education was like up close and hopeful that I might get some ideas for using online resources in my own courses, but also afraid of a vision where one superstar “teaches” 100,000 students at once online, and a whole lot of other folks lose their jobs.
I picked two courses – a physics course from MIT out of edX and a programming course out of the University London and Coursera. I chose the physics course because it aims to teach problem solving and was the closest one to my own teaching goals; it also was one of the only courses that was not primarily video based. The programming course, “Creative Programming for Digital Media and Mobile Apps” was for my own interest and also to see what seemed to me to be a more “conventional” MOOC, if there is such a thing.
Initially I thought I might just take a peek and then drop out of the courses, but I found them far more compelling than anticipated. I will write more in later posts about the specifics of what I found intriguing, but today I will focus on an under-discussed topic: the physicality of learning, both online and in person.
In May, before I decided to try the MOOCs, I wrote out some goals for the summer, many of which involved my own writing. When I got sucked in to the MOOCs, I was determined to keep up my original writing goals, and hence was spending much more time on the computer than I do during the school year. By the end of June, I had a lot of shoulder pain and my fingers were numb.
I have an injury from surgery than didn’t heal quite right and I cannot sit for long in a standard chair. I’d worked out a system using a laptop stand and a recliner that seemed to work pretty well during the school year, but (as I now know) I ended up typing with my shoulders too high to sustain the load of so much repetition.
I am on the mend now, working with a physical therapist; at the moment I am standing, with my laptop on a stepstool and three textbooks to get it to eye level, and I have separate keyboard and mouse that are sitting on an old stereo speaker. I’ll see how this configuration works, and the details are not that interesting, but I keep thinking about how hardly anyone enthusing about universal online education talks about the inevitable repetitive strain injuries.
Then I think about how crucial physicality is to my own teaching. My students move around – they come to the board, they get manipulatives, they work in groups, look at each other’s work, rearrange themselves, etc. I notice when they are limping or look sick or upset, and I sometimes send them to the health or counseling services. I also notice when they are engaged, frustrated, or puzzled, and I make teaching decisions based on this, typically non-spoken, non-typed, information.
No one is suggesting (fortunately) MOOCs for preschool: that’s laughable. Preschool teachers need to take kids to the bathroom, make sure they nap, help them develop gross and fine motor skills, and otherwise attend to the physicality of young children. But somewhere along the line, as kids grow up, the mainstream discourse on education in math and other “heady” subjects becomes completely separate from the body; yet older kids and adults still need to rest, move, and go to the bathroom.
The kind of teaching I do — interactive, in-person, with only twenty students in the class – is not the norm for college classes, and certainly wasn’t the norm for my own undergraduate education at a large state university, where even as a senior I sat virtually immobilized with hundreds of other students in large lecture halls with uncomfortable chairs and desks that folded out from underneath. It’s a fairly low bar to make an online course better than a large lecture, partly because of the physicality – you aren’t trapped, the videos can be shorter, you have control over when you watch what, and you can interact with others when you have a question or comment – but to me that low bar says more about how bad large lectures often are, rather than how good online courses are.
As someone with a chronic illness, I know that for sick people, being able to teach or learn online is often the difference between being able to work or go to school or not. I think of my time on an online forum for people who had similar surgeries to mine as my first online course (self-directed, no teacher, no grades), and it has been highly effective; when I go to in-person support groups, every time I find myself teaching others things I learned in my ongoing “course.”
One of the most exhilarating things about the MOOCs I tried was that the other students are from all over the world. I don’t have many opportunities to physically be in the same room with people from Rwanda, Brazil, India, Ghana, Pakistan, Thailand, and Argentina all at the same time; MOOCs transcend the limitations of geography and bodies.
Some of these thoughts are not so specific to MOOCs or even to online education, but my health issues and crises of the last few years have led me to start with the body, even when thinking about math. I think originally part of why I was drawn to math was because I liked being all in my head, but that is not really an option, for any of us.