Artifacts and Learning

ModelCropFor some reason, this is the item that immediately came to mind when I read Kimberly, Alma and Joycelyn’s invitation last week.  For those of you unfamiliar with post-Soviet retro kitsch, this is a lovingly rendered model of an early space ship, procured at a flea market outside Moscow about fifty years after the vessels that inspired it were first launched.   Thinking about how this Sputnik  “represents my work” brings up obvious resonances with one of my favorite courses – Soviet history.  The space program and the Soviet Union’s commitment to using technology to master the heavens as well as the earth, and to remake “man” along the way, is one of the main themes of the course.  And the drama and global interest in the early chapters of the space race remain compelling for 21st-century learners.  Like the Russian Revolution and World War II, the space race is something most people think they “know” something about, but are often surprised when that “knowledge” evolves considerably with a bit of study, encouragement, and reflection.  So the model Sputnik represents my work because it is anchored to particular historical context, created in a different historical situation, and invites learners of all ages (in a third historical context) to engage with the intellectual, material, and cultural legacy of one of the great proxy struggles of the Cold War.

When I started reading Ivan Illich, I was pretty sure I would need to find a different artifact. (Once again our reading for this week completely captivated me!  Every week I think that this course has maxed out its potential to get my happy, creative, “I love my job” juices flowing…and every week, I’m wrong.  What a great feeling!)  I found much in “Deschooling Society” that made me question how accessible the artifacts of education are, and wonder how best to make “educational equipment” more accessible for self-directed learning 24/7.  And I could (should?) write a whole separate post about Illich’s perspectives on the student-teacher relationship – I’m still struggling with what often seems to be a reductive understanding of learning as “skills.” ModelDogsCropShortBut in the end, I’m sticking with my little wooden sputnik.  For as any learning web would quickly discover, the model is both more and less than what it appears to be.  Using a combination of careful inspection (Why are there little wooden dogs inside the model? Why does the model look a lot like an egg?)unpaintedWoodenEgg and skilled consultation with peers and other educators (Which space ship is this supposed to be? Why is that important?), we realize that although the model falls way short of historical accuracy and museum-quality craftsmanship, it represents a grand vision, and a salient moment when the learning webs of a forward-thinking cohort of scientists forever altered the way humanity sees life on Earth.


Imagination vs. Information Transfer


photo(17)Disclaimer:  I have the attention span of a flea and a “to-do” list that makes me itch for time alone with a real book today….

Last week’s session with Janet Murray kept me happily engaged through the snowstorm and well into the weekend.  But among the many ideas that emerged from the discussion, Jocelyn’s reminder that we still await real change from social media gnawed at my distracted musings as I shoveled piles of electronic paperwork, tried to carve out a few hours to write, and prepared for my teaching week.

As I’ve mentioned in class several times, my honors seminar students are blogging this semester about the weekly readings and using blogs to build out their term research projects.  Learning to blog with this group has been a heady, inspiring experience for me, and the class seems more engaged with the course content and each other and more self-motivated to excel than any group I’ve worked with in the last several years.  I believe that the blogging medium has a lot to do with this (thank-you, Gardner!).  When the class meets in person everyone has already posted about the reading and commented on each others’ posts.  The quality of the posts and of the in-class discussions is much more sophisticated and nuanced than I normally expect – even from honors students.  In fact our class discussions are so rich that the students asked if “we” could have notes on them.  So now we have a collective google.doc for every session with an assigned “synthesizer” and 10 invested recorders. If the synthesizer misses something or anyone in the class has something to add, they start typing on the doc or copying a link or image into it.  People consult and modify the doc long after class ends, and I post finished product as a PDF on the motherblog the next day.

Back to Jocelyn and real change.  I feel like blogging has transformed the learning environment in my seminar in all kinds of (mostly) wonderful ways.  Thumbs up.  Bring it on.  I’m hooked.  But the reason I’m hooked has everything to do with the potential this format offers for enhancing an inherently social dynamic of learning and finding meaning in what you learn.  Like many others, I’m concerned about the advent of the MOOC era (ok, I’m a Russian historian, so “concern” for me really means “certain this will end badly but suffering is what we do best and prevailing is our destiny”).  I appreciated Nathan’s thoughts on online learning last week, and the other Amy’s note about the difference between knowledge transfer and kinds of soft skills that are both essential to effective education.  MOOCs feel like “real change” to me, but not of the kind we’d necessarily hope for or welcome.  As a fellow Russian historian recently noted, MOOCs may have much to offer in an ancient and venerable tradition of autodidactism.  If the goal of the “delivery system” is to convey information and the goal of the student is to assimilate it and “get credit” for doing that, then MOOCs might be ok in some contexts some of the time.  The danger lies, I think, in confusing or conflating this kind of “teaching” with the more complex kinds of learning and discovery that humans pursue.  The latter depend heavily on social relationships and social context. (Joshua Sanborn’s post lays this out beautifully.) The “real change” I’m looking for in using on-line tools and social media will intensify and expand the quality and nature of the interactions I have with students and their ideas. My hope is that “real” social change of the kind Jocelyn asks for might ensue. I love that our class invokes the digital imagination, and hope we can resist the reduction of higher education to information transfer.