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(William Johnson for The Globe and Mail)
(William Johnson for The Globe and Mail)

A LOOK AHEAD

Classroom of 2020: The future is very different than you think Add to ...

The president was eventually reinstated, but within a week of her return the University of Virginia announced its intention to join Coursera. Mark Edmundson, a
University of Virginia English professor, was provoked to write an op-ed in the New York Times defending in-person classrooms. He argued that a great teacher must be able to judge where students are at intellectually in order to help them learn. “Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition,” he writes. “There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.”

On July 17, the University of Toronto announced that it had joined Coursera and would “launch a new suite of online courses that will be accessible to anyone,” according to a press release. Fault lines in the online education debate appeared almost immediately.

Clifford Orwin, a professor of political science at the
U of T, argued in The Globe and Mail that classroom experience is at the heart of education, but he drew a distinction between education and instruction. “Widget-
making (however complex the widget) may well be teachable online,” he concedes, before defining education as the formation of the whole person. “My theory of education is simple: you have to be there. … The electricity that crackles through a successful classroom can’t be transmitted electronically.”

Cheryl Misak, vice-president and provost of U of T, clarifies that Coursera isn’t a replacement for education offered on campus but is about accessibility. “This will get the University of Toronto into every corner of the world. Anyone with a computer can get access to our fabulous teachers.” Yet the naysayers hold fast. When Orwin was offered an online platform that would make his lectures available to students worldwide, he declined.

What diehard technology resisters fail to recognize, according to their critics, is that the standard teaching format, even employed by the most charismatic lecturer,  doesn’t work very well. Although lecturing has been the primary vehicle for teaching since before he printing press, research suggests that students ought not be viewed as empty cups to be filled with bits of information espoused by a professorial orator.

Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from the University of Colorado, was once the type of professor who taught in this manner. He would reflect on how he understood a given concept and then explain that to his students. But he was also a very good scientist (he won a Nobel Prize, after all), so he approached teaching like an experiment, taking careful note of learning outcomes. It became clear to him that his explanations, while perfectly clear in his own mind, were baffling to his students.

After reading all the academic literature he could find and experimenting with new techniques in class, Wieman came to believe that he had more to offer researching science education than physics. The University of
British Columbia offered him a receptive (and well-funded) environment in which to pursue this research.

Six years after establishing his science education research initiative, Wieman has a clearer idea of what is going wrong in science classrooms. Most students learn science as a set of facts, he explains, without understanding how they are related to the real workings of the world. They memorize formulas and definitions. They learn to test. But they don’t gain an understanding of science as “a set of interconnected, experimentally determined concepts that describe the world.”

No matter the student’s level or major, teachers should focus on equipping them to think about science more like scientists rather than teaching facts to regurgitate in tests, Wieman argues. “This means acquiring the problem-solving skills, habits of mind, content knowledge and beliefs about the nature and relevance of the subject that are like those of practising experts,” he writes.

With the amount of information readily available to anyone with a laptop and the speed with which technical knowledge changes, these “habits of mind” are as important as content, Vogt explains. “The average individual can expect to change careers half a dozen times before they retire. Therefore we need students who are able to embrace change, who are highly versatile learners in a continuous way and who are very confident across a variety of disciplines,” he says. “What you want to do is immerse them in the culture of a discipline. How do experts pursue this field? The content becomes almost irrelevant.”

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