Even in Education Everything Old is New Again

“There are more people In the world than ever before, and a far greater part of them want an education. The demand cannot be met simply by building more schools and training more teachers. Education must become more efficient. To this end curricula must be revised and simplified, and textbooks and classroom techniques improved.”  (Skinner, 1958)

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It’s been over fifty years since the article “Teaching Machines” appeared in the Science Journal from which the opening quote was excerpted. Author B.F. Skinner would be pleased to read some of the headlines in the education sector this week, one in particular “College in a Box” (Kahn, 2014) which describes how textbook publishers such as Pearson have developed enhanced textbooks and put them on their online platforms such as MyMathLab. These enhanced ‘books’ feature interactive quizzes, tutorials, immediate feedback, and tutorial videos based upon students’ responses. Pearson’s new spin on the old textbook would likely meet Skinner’s definition of efficiency. Coincidently, the instructional method used for Pearson’s textbook programs is programmed instruction; a method Skinner developed and applied with his teaching machine. Skinner’s machine consisted of a program, developed to deliver a self-learning experience for the student that included presenting of content, related questions for students to answers, immediate  and corrective feedback.

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Skinner’s teaching machine, a mechanical invention to automate the task of programmed instruction

The expression (also a song) comes to mind, ‘everything old is new again’.  We don’t need to look far into the education sector to find more examples of traditional, which some may consider old, instructional methods repackaged and presented as new. We see this with MOOCs offered through institution-affiliated platforms that feature recorded lectures delivered to students, multiple choice assessments and certificates awarded upon successful completion of institution-established criteria. A new twist on traditional methods.

‘Old’ Instructional Methods
In doing research recently about influential educators and educational psychologists of years past—their philosophies of education, corresponding instructional methods, influence, etc. I see glimpses of these educators’ philosophies in many new methods and education models—with Pearson as described, with Coursera’s model which according to their website uses Benjamin Bloom’s Mastery learning as its pedagogical premise, or essay-grading software that touts immediate (and formative) feedback to students as one of the most useful instructional benefits.

In this post I’ve created a photo post that illustrates the old and new concept with a selection of images on four instructional methods. Included is the corresponding scholar, an image of the method implemented in the past, and today. For description of each image, roll the cursor over the photo; text appears.

The Four Methods Illustrated: Old and New

1) Programmed Instruction: B.F. Skinner (1904—1990)
2) Experiential/occupational learning: John Dewey (1859—1952)
3) Mastery Learning: Benjamin Bloom (1913—1999)
4) Discovery learning: Jerome Bruner (1915 —  )

Closing Thoughts
In discussing the instructional methods in this post in terms of old and new, I’m more making an observation than a heavy hitting point. But, it did come to mind when writing, that if one wants different results, as many seem to want when it comes to education, that they perhaps should be trying different methods, not the same methods slightly repackaged, and then expecting different, (presumably better) results.

References

Three Actors that Contribute to Student Success in Online Courses: The Institution, Instructor and Student

This post examines three actors that are essential to student success in online courses: 1) the institution, 2) the instructor and, 3) the student.

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Actors Contributing to Student Success in Online Courses

What contributes to student success in a course delivered online? To consider the question from a different perspective one can pose the question this way—who is ultimately responsible when students are not successful—when they fail the course for instance? Is it the student for not having the discipline for online learning? The instructor for not providing support, or the institution for not providing services to support the online student? These are questions worthy of examining at a philosophical level, though in this post I examine select behaviours and strategies associated with the three actors involved in the process of students learning online, 1) the institution, 2) instructor and 3) the learner.

What Contributes to Student Success?
Before examining the three actors roles in the learning process it’s helpful to identify the factors contributing to student success in online environments including the skill set required. It’s also instructive to acknowledge that there is an underlying expectation that students enrolling in online courses are self-directed and capable of managing the tasks associated with online studies. Yet research and feedback from educators reveal something quite different; many students are unprepared to learn online, lack the basic skills, and are not capable of assuming responsibility for their learning. Online course work requires that students use a range of skills including accessing resources, people and content within a network, analytic and synthesis skills to distill relevant information from an abundance of information and resources (Kop, Fournier, & Mak). Though as mentioned, it’s not uncommon to find students lack some, if not many of these skills.

Not only are students often unprepared, but institutions often fail to prepare faculty and instructors for online facilitation. A starting point in boosting student success is identifying the behaviours associated with each of the three actors.

1) The Institution: Student Support Services via the Institution 
One characteristic of institutions offering successful online programs is their ability to support the unique needs of distance students through a student support services function.  As online programs evolve and mature we now have numerous programs to examine and study. Though each unique, there is a common theme—a focus on the students by acknowledging their diverse needs and challenges of studying online. Below are select examples.

Services for online students need to be customized, re-tooled from those provided to traditional students. Services should include technical support, academic advising, online community programs and clubs, library services and career planning.  Some institutions have gone further and developed programs that offer personalized academic support, SUNY Empire State College for example offers a peer tutor program. This program is unique, it’s not a subject matter coaching program, but a mentoring program where the goal is for tutors to help students identify and implement strategies that promote independence, active learning and motivation.

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“Creating College Success” from Rio Salado College,  an Award Winning Program

Rio Salado College developed an orientation program “Creating College Success”. It’s a one-credit course delivered fully online. The goal of Rio Salado’s program is similar to that Empire State’s—student self-sufficiency in academic environments.  Penn State World Campus, one of the first universities to deliver online degrees has a comprehensive roster of services for virtual students. One service that all institutions should consider is offering extended hours for technical and academic help via email, phone, or instant messaging.

Western Governors University is one that offers not only academic and technical support, but wellness services through its Well Connect program where students can call a toll-free number any time of day or night for support including personal counseling, legal and debt counseling, new parent transitioning support and more.

2) The Instructor:  Course Design and Instructor Support 
There are two areas that fall under the instructor support: 1) course design, and 2) instructional support.

Course design plays a significant role in students’ potential for learning online, given that students engage with course content, instructor and peers through the course platform. The way in which course content is presented on the course site, the instructions for assignments or activities are written, even the structure and order of the tabs on the course home page (course interface) have an effect on how the students engage with the course, will potentially affect students’ learning. Professor Robin Smith, author of “Conquering the Content: A Step-by-Step Guide to Online Course Design” (2008) describes course design this way:

Design features incorporated in [the] system course development and the learning guide, will create an environment in which students are confident of their pathway, and the only challenge is the course content, not the navigation of the course or figuring out what must be done in order to complete the course…this focus on course design, will free you [instructor] up to spend the semester teaching and interacting with students rather than answering questions about course navigation or specific directions about assignments.” 

The instructor’s role in online courses will vary depending upon the nature of the course, but more importantly instructor behaviours will be a function of the level of students educational background and students’ skill level in the areas mentioned above (collaboration skills, technical, etc). To assess what level students are at when entering the course, ideally the instructor does so through involvement in discussion forums, course introductions, synchronous activities, etc. that allow the instructor to get to know students. Instructors also can do so by reviewing student work early in the course so he or she can provide detailed feedback, challenge the student, suggest external writing support as needed, etc.

The goal is that the instructors focus on challenging students academically in the course via feedback and interaction; individually and as a class. Support for technical, research, or basic academic skills should be provided by the institution, via support services. Institutions should also offer professional development courses, workshops or resources to support online instructors and faculty in course development and instruction.

3) The Student:
The student is ultimately responsible for his or her success in the learning process; it is up to him or her to leverage the resources of the institution and the support of the instructor. There is an effective tool however, a leader readiness questionnaire, that many institutions make available on its website which identifies the skills and tools students will need to be successful with their online studies. Also the concept of giving the responsibility of learning to the students, is another method to encourage success—letting students know they are ultimately responsible.

Below are links to several learner readiness questionnaires provided by various institutions, one is licensed under the creative commons share alike license which makes it available for use to anyone.

In a follow-up post I review tools and resources available on the web that support the development of the skill-set students need for online learning. Readers may also find a previous post, Five-Step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning helpful— it outlines behaviours associated with successful outcomes for online students.

Conclusion
Supporting student success in online course work begins with the institution—ideally with a strategic plan that includes a system for provision of administrative services, academic counseling, and support specific to online students, as well as professional development and comprehensive resources for faculty and instructors teaching online. Yet to maximize the value of the support offered by the institution and instructor, the learner needs to own the learning, and know the responsibility for success ultimately rests with him or her.

Resources:

An Essential Read for Online Education Decision Makers: “Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education”

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By Gary Miller, Meg Benke , Bruce Chaloux, Lawrence C. Ragan, Raymond Schroeder, Wayne Smutz & Karen Swan

“Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education” published in 2014 by Stylus Publishing in association with The Online Learning Consortium (formerly Sloan Consortium) is the first book in a planned series about distance education.

Overview The book is current and relevant; “Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education: Meeting the Challenges of Technology and Distance Education” is an invaluable if not essential resource for leaders and decision makers in online education, though anyone involved with the development or implementation of an online learning strategy for a higher education or K-12 institution will find it an excellent resource. The themes are familiar—e-learning effectiveness and quality, support for faculty success, student success and retention, and the impact of online learning programs has on an institution’s traditional programs. What sets this book apart and makes it exceptionally valuable is the diversity of perspectives from the authors—seven leaders in distance education representing five higher education institutions and the Online Learning Consortium.

The book aims to guide and support leaders as they make decisions about online learning including how to overcome barriers and implement change. The purpose of the text is to provide readers with new perspectives on online program implementation and skill development for approaching education transformation proactively. 

Each author brings experience and a perspective to the topic of online learning that gives readers insight into a variety of models and organizational structures for setting up their own online education programs. Organizational structure and culture, influence on traditional institutions are discussed at length, as are standards of quality for online education including the framework for the Five Pillars of quality online education.

Highlights The book is divided into sections categorized by three principal themes: Part One: “Leading Change: Making the Match Between Leadership and Institutional Culture”, Part Two: “Ensuring Operational Excellence” and Part Three: “Sustaining Innovation”. Each features three or four chapters dedicated to a topic that addresses current and real challenges institutions face as they seek to adapt and transform within the constraints of institutional culture, policies and administrative issues. Each offers instructive insights and practical alternatives for consideration. Below I’ve included highlights of one chapter from each section.

In Part One, Chapter Two:The Impact of Organizational Contextoutlines in detail five very different programs of online education in higher education institutions. The five examined: 1) The Pennsylvania University World Campus, 2) University of Illinois at Springfield, 3) Empire State College, 4) Rio Salado College and 5) the American Public University System.  The leaders’ views are examined within each of the programs’ institutions on the leadership challenges, culture shifts, attitudes of faculty and impact of business models. The leaders’ responses in comparison with each other is instructive and enlightening.

In Part Two, Chapter Six: “Supporting Faculty Success” suggests that the skills and competencies required by faculty are contextualized to the culture, practices and administrative structure of the online initiative of the institution. I agree with the authors— culture and administrative structure pose a significant barrier in many instances. There is gap between what is needed and what most institution  provide in the way of support and skill development for faculty and instructors teaching online. This issue, the chapter emphasizes, is central to effective online education delivered by an institution.

The challenge for the institutions is to understand and address the needs of the online instructor and create appropriate programs and support services and policies that help develop the competencies necessary for online teaching success (p. 109)

In Part Three, Chapter Ten: “Policy Leadership in e-learning” discusses the multiple challenges e-learning growth has had on policy at the federal, state and institutional level. Policy remains a barrier and threat to the growth and success of e-learning the authors’ state, and they outline five policy issues that pose real barriers to online education now, that have emerged within the past ten years. The five identified and discussed are: 1) tuition, 2) transfer credit, 3) state and campus budgeting and allocation, 4) federal and state financial aid, and 5) student support services.

Closing No doubt, one can see the value this book holds for leaders of e-learning education.  What’s also helpful to the reader is the organization of the book, which makes it  unnecessary to read it from beginning to end; readers can choose to read chapters of interest and relevance. Though I suggest that all chapters are relevant to anyone involved in online education programming.

Resources:

Need-to-Know News: #MassiveTeaching Mess, University of Texas Online Courses, Pearson’s SOOCs

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.  This post was updated on July 22, 2014 to reflect clarification on the type of online courses offered by The University of Texas at Austin.

1) Massive Teaching Mess
Much has already been written about the most bizarre MOOC on Coursera to date, “Teaching Goes Massive: New Skills Required” (#massiveTeaching) developed by University of Zurich’s professor Paul-Oliver Dehaye. The MOOC has been labeled as a pedagogical experiment (though some say also a psychological), and the professor called  a “lunatic”, “brilliant” and/or “stupid” (via student comments within the course forum).

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“Teaching Goes Massive” (screen shot) on Cousera. Course content is no longer accessible, even to previously enrolled students  (most courses provide access to content after course is complete)

I was an enrolled student and found the course odd from day one. First, there were no course goals or focus questions provided whatsoever indicating what direction the course would take. After numerous student comments, Dehaye posted his version of course goals:

Learning Goals
– Pedagogical
– Technical
– Legal
– Business
– Societal

Brief to say the least. In fairness to Dehaye, he did state from the beginning that the entire course was an experiment, and that several experiments would be taking place within the course, “The other experiment which has been running from the start is the “Structure the Discussion Area” experiment…” and “A third experiment, which is only just starting, was initiated by courageous course participant _____ here” (excerpt from course-generated email from Dehaye on Day 2). What happened next was the catalyst for the publicity of the course, Dehaye removed all of the course content from the course site. It disappeared, no videos, announcements, no links—nothing. Then there were strange Twitter messages posted by Dehaye, and finally a of day or so later Coursera removed Dehaye from the course sending this message to enrolled students:

“We understand that the course included experimental components designed by the professor that have resulted in some course interruptions,” the statement read. “We are working with the university to make arrangements so that the course can continue to its conclusion in an appropriate manner.” Coursera

Takeaway: I agree with what appears to be the consensus, Dehaye did not do much to further constructive discussion about MOOCs, privacy or pedagogy in higher education. Though George Siemens generated quite a bit of discussion by congratulating Dehaye in his blog post. However, it was unclear what kind of statement or message Dehaye was trying to send. It had potential to be effective, but was lost.

2) University of Texas at Austin Online Courses – Correction

An earlier version of this post misrepresented the course offerings of University of Texas at Austin by suggesting the course “Topics in Globalization” would be available for credit via the edX platform.  The school is not offering college credit via its MOOC courses on edX, but is offering courses for credit on their online platform via UT Austin’s University Extension program.  Several courses are available on this platform that are for credit, that include American Government, Psychology Live and US Foreign Policy. For a full list of courses click here.

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Screen shot of University of Texas at Austin’s web page featuring information on the offerings of its online courses. Visit  online-education.la.utexas.edu

3) Pearson’s SOOCs
When reading the article on Pearson’s blog, “Will SOOCs eat MOOCs for breakfast?”, I started with a good chuckle given the cartoon featured in the opening. After reading the full post though, I wasn’t sure if the entire article was a continuation of the joke, or if it were serious. But apparently Pearson is serious. The idea of SOOCs, the article suggests, evolved during the this year’s EdTech Summit in Europe.

An evolution on the idea of MOOCs is the “selectively open online course” (or SOOC) – simply, a MOOC with an entrance requirement designed to reduce the “unwanted diversity.” This could be proven competency (e.g., pass an entrance quiz), a credential (e.g., have a degree), or membership (e.g., be in the university’s alumni network). The theory is that a more uniform student body will lead to improved peer-to-peer collaboration and higher learner outcomes.

It goes on….

Higher quality is also likely to increase learners’ willingness to pay for an online course, which in turn will increase a university’s willingness to invest in better professors, facilities, and/or pedagogy. The Harvard Business School, long a stalwart of pedagogical innovation, has taken bold steps to build its own SOOC…

Takeaway: This article (sadly) highlights the misconceptions and lack of awareness that still exists about online learning and higher education. Never mind that closed, online courses have been offered at public and private higher education institutions for well over ten years, and that the mere name SOOC, contradicts the concept of ‘open‘. Sigh.

You can keep up to date with developments in education and related sectors by following me on Twitter, @OnlineLearningI 

Need-to-Know-News: Move over edX — Make Room for Unizin, University of the Future, & Tech Lessons from Teens

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

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1. Big Changes for Universities with Unizin
Launched this week, Unizin is BIG news in higher ed. Unizin is a membership-based consortium for universities that provides its members with a digital, cloud-based platform and IT services specific to higher education institutions. It moves the discussion far beyond MOOCs; and though MOOCs have sparked discussion in higher ed, they’ve not moved the direction for the traditional model of higher education very far. Yet Unizin may be the platform to bring about the positive effects of technology applied to higher education institutions that MOOCs have yet to do. The platform includes a Learning Management System (Canvas), has capabilities for learning analytics, and facilitates the sharing of resources and content between universities and faculty. For member institutions, each will have control over their own content, and have access to the tools and services to support digital learning for residential, flipped classroom, online courses/degrees, badged experiences for Alumni, or even MOOCs.

Insights: Why it’s a BIG deal. Unizin is a proactive approach to the pressures facing higher education institutions. It not only puts universities in control, but provides a vehicle for individual institutions to achieve economies of scale, by joining forces and sharing cost burdens for licenses, services for infrastructure, and leveraging input and even content and knowledge between institutions. After reading the in-depth analysis of the Unizin deal over on e-literate by Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein, I can see great amount of strategic planning, thought and expertise behind the consortium, which I won’t go into detail here, but encourage interested readers to refer to.  What I will say is that one of the founders of Unizin, Brad Wheeler, CIO for Indiana University, sees the opportunity and need for a robust digital infrastructure platform for higher education institutions of which they are in control of. He outlines a viable strategy that aims to keep institutions relevant, while preserving its values by describing four different models in the paper, Speeding Up on Curves. It’s well worth the read.

Finding Path to Scale  — take advantage of the economics to get there, (don’t go because it’s fun), strategies have focused on independence, recently dependence, but to get there, it’s interdependence that is the path to scale.  Brad Wheeler: The Path to Scale, Vimeo

2.  University of the Future? What the Students Say
Laureate International Universities, commissioned Zogby Analytics to survey students at higher education institutions within the Laureate’s network around the world, about their attitudes and visions of the university of the future. The questions focused on course design, scheduling, job preparation, placement, internships and more.  The results are surprising. The survey included 20,800 students from 37 institutions in 21 countries, making it one of the largest international survey of student attitudes.

Highlights:

  • Students see flexibility. More than 52% of the respondents believe that courses will be offered at all times of the day or night, and 44% believe that courses will be offered without fixed schedules to accommodate students who work or prefer learning at non-traditional times.
  • Collaborative learning. More than 54% of students predict that courses will be primarily collaborations between students with an emphasis on group projects. Additionally, 43% believe that students will be able to access personalized instruction or tutoring online.
  • Focus on Jobs. 61% of students believe that courses will be designed by industry experts, and 64% predict courses will be offered in multiple languages. More than 70% think career-oriented skills (not just subject matter) will be emphasized.

Insights: When considering the strategic goals of Unizin, and Brad Wheeler’s paper Speeding Up on Curves in conjunction with the visions of the university of the future, you can see a match. This as a positive sign for Unizin given it’s focus on building on infrastructure to support the models for educating students that bends the traditional one, and goes beyond the MOOC.

3. Ditch the Email: How to Use Tech Like a Teenager
The Wall Street Journal published a great article this week about tech and how we (adults) use it. Did you know that only 6% of teens exchange email daily, according to the Pew Research Center? And that many of the new apps out there do a far better job at managing clear and efficient communication? Apparently true. There’s Facebook messenger, iMessage, WhatsApp and Kik.

Also, teens are far more privacy savvy than we give them credit for—over 58% of teen social-media users say they cloak their messages, according to Pew.  Parents (adults), it seems, don’t know it all after all.

That’s it for now. You can keep up to date with developments in education and related sectors by following me on Twitter, @OnlineLearningI 

What Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Global Village’ Tells Us About Education Technology in 2014

imgresThe Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (1989) published posthumously, is one of Marshall McLuhan’s best works. It’s quite remarkable how this book published over twenty years ago, provides the reader with a contemplative perspective on the role of technology in 2014. While reading, I found myself thinking about educational technology quite differently—thinking more about the effects, nuances, and implications technology has beyond education. Effects on relationships, learning (and teaching) in the context of our culture and long-term implications for society in general. The book is about far more than education, it delves into technology and its influence on communication patterns, family structures, and entertainment. The book prompts reflection and forward thinking at the same time.

McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher and educator of communication theory, and considered a public intellectual of his time. His work on media theory is still studied today. The Global Village was a culmination of his years of work on media, a collaborative effort between McLuhan and long-time friend and colleague Bruce Powers. It summarizes McLuhan’s lifelong exploration and analysis of media, culture and man’s relationship with technology.

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McLuhan designed the tetrad as a pedagogical tool to of examine the effects on society of any technology/medium by dividing its effects into four categories and displaying them simultaneously.

McLuhan and Powers introduce a framework for analyzing media via a tetrad. A tetrad is any set of four things; McLuhan uses the tetrad as a pedagogical tool for examining an artifact or concept (not necessarily a communication medium) through a metaphoric lens, which according to McLuhan translates to “two grounds and two figures in dynamic and analogical relationship to each other”. You can see how the idea can stretch one’s cognitive processes. The framework began to make more sense to me when reviewing the tetradic glossary at the end of the book which examines twenty or more ideas and artifacts through the tetrad framework, including periodic tables, a clock, cable television, and the telephone.  McLuhan designed four questions to explore a medium under analysis using the tetrad framework:

  1. What does the medium enhance?
  2. What does the medium make obsolete?
  3. What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes?

Wouldn’t it be challenging in a media and communications class, or even in an education theory class to have students apply the tetrad structure to current technological tools and applications? How might the iPhone be viewed? Or Twitter? Though provoking to say the least.

The more I read of McLuhan’s work, and about McLuhan himself, the more I believe this man was a genius. He predicts not only events, but how media tools and advancements in technology affect society as a whole—that no one could have imagined or even considered in the 70’s and 80’s. Yet McLuhan could almost see into the future, see how our society is shaped and influenced good and bad by technology.

Worthwhile [short] Clips to Watch on McLuhan’s Views on Technology

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‘Technology is not just a happenstance…’ video clip via marshallmcluhanspeaks.com

Further Reading:

Three Bold and Fresh Ideas for Education in ‘Teaching as a Subversive Activity’

“The function of the What’s-Worth-Knowing Questions Curriculum is to put two ideas into clear focus. The first is that the art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge…The second idea is that question asking…has to deal with problems that are perceived as useful and realistic to the learner.” Teaching As a Subversive Activity (p 81)

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by Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, first published in 1969

“Teaching as a Subversive Activity” puts forth ideas about education that are radical, controversial, bold and fresh. It suggests eliminating syllabi, formal curriculum and textbooks from education settings. It introduces ideas of student-centered learning over teacher-centered teaching, and leading students to learn by asking questions, not by teachers giving lectures. The book was first published in 1969—considered radical among educators then, and today.

Hands down it’s on of the most challenging, thoughtful, practical books I’ve read about transforming education. I read it on the heels of “A New Culture of Learning” the book by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas published in 2009 (my review here). The books complement each other well; Brown and Thomas write about learning in a digital age though don’t provide specific strategies. Postman and Weingartner do. The principles in “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” are applicable and relevant today just as they were forty-five years ago—how to change education where students learn how to think, to detect ‘crap’, and to learn how-to-learn that continues beyond high school and higher education.

In this post I highlight and share with readers three themes from the book, still relevant in today’s digital culture: 1) facilitating ‘crap detection’, 2) What’s-Worth-Knowing? and 3) bold proposals. There are more than these three within the book’s 218 pages, and I plan to address at least two in future posts. One readers may find interesting is the authors’ perspective on teacher education—the methods associated with teaching content. Postman and Weingartner suggest that content and method, are considered separate processes in teacher education programs, which is according to them, the wrong approach. This idea is compelling. Look for this post in the weeks to come.

Overview
To provide some context for the book, I found it helpful to dig more into the background of Neil Postman, one of the co-authors. He’s an American educator, author, critic of media and culture. Postman is known mostly because of his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (1985), a book about the corrosive effects of television on culture and politics. He’s written several books on education, technology and children’s development.

Postman’s style of writing is blunt. The subtitle of “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”, ‘A no-holds barred assault on outdated teaching methods—with dramatic and practical proposals on how education can be made relevant to today’s world‘ gives the reader a glimpse into not only the content, but the authors’ tone. I adapted to the writing style; I tried to view the remarks about education not as criticisms but as a perspective. Though some readers of the book have dismissed the ideas because of the harsh criticisms of education practices, sometimes teachers (one can read the book reviewers comments on Amazon to get an idea). Saturday Review Magazine captures the implications of the authors’ tone and the books content in its review of the book featured on the back cover:

 “It will take courage to read this book…but those who are asking honest questions—what’s wrong with the worlds in which we live, how do we build communication bridges across the Generation Gap, what do they want from us? These people will squirm in the discovery that the answers are really within themselves”

The Three Themes

1) Cultivate learners to be experts at “Crap Detecting”
Crap detecting may sound harsh. Though what the authors suggest is that “schools serve as the principal medium for developing in youth attitudes and skills of social, political and cultural criticism“, where schools cultivate students that are discerning, can view problems from multiple perspectives, identify what’s valid and not, and most importantly why it is so.

Is this not an essential skill for all youth in a digital age, determining what information is ‘crap’—information that is not valid or worthy of examination, yet determine what is relevant, deserves consideration, sharing and building upon (remixing)? I’d say so. The authors use a quote from an interview with Ernest Hemingway to emphasize their point:

Isn’t there any one essential ingredient that you can identify [to be a great writer]?” Hemingway replied, “Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.”

It seems to us that in his response, Hemingway identified an essential survival strategy and the essential function of the school’s in today’s world.  page 3

I can’t add much more to that—relevant in 1969, and in 2014.

2) The Inquiry Method — What’s Worth Knowing?
In “A New Culture of Learning”, the concept of inquiry based learning is the fulcrum of learning in the digital age. The premise is that only when students are interested in following a path of inquiry, based on something they are passionate about, will they be motivated to learn. It’s up to educators then to harness the passion and leverage the abundance of resources to guide their learning.

This idea of inquiry learning is not new. In fact Postman may have been one of the first educators to fully develop and implement the method in a public school setting. Postman started, along with another educator, a model school dedicated to the inquiry method. The program named the “Program for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study” was located within the New Rochelle High School in New York. The “open school” experiment survived for 15 years. 

Two chapters discuss the inquiry method and go in great detail; chapter three, and an extension the questioning technique in ‘Whats-Worth-Knowing?‘ described in chapter five. The latter chapter stimulates much thought. Authors challenge the reader to imagine a classroom without syllabi, textbooks, and curricula. Then suggests:

 “…suppose that you decide the entire curriculum consists of questions. There questions would have to be worth seeking answers to not only from your point of view but, more importantly , from the point of view of the students.”

The next challenge—on a blank page that exists within the book (it really does in the hard copy), authors instruct readers to take a pencil and list questions that might be starting questions to use with students. Though authors warn, these are starting questions given that:

“…the ecology of the inquiry environment requires that the students play a central, but not necessarily exclusive role in framing questions that they deem important”

It’s a provocative exercise. I came up with six questions, though after reading the rest of the chapter, I cut it down to four.

3) Bold Proposals
I won’t cover all of the strategies, proposals and ideas presented by the authors for education transformation, given the detail of each, and for the sake of your time. There are many.  But here is where the practicality comes in where “A New Culture of Learning” left off. As I said in my previous post, “A New Culture of Learning” didn’t provide practical solutions, or ideas for application for the new ways to learn. This book does. Some seem preposterous, some not. But perhaps it is time for preposterous ideas, though one’s perspective will determine just how preposterous the ideas are. In future posts I’ll discuss ideas put forth in the book for educating teachers and about pedagogy. In another I will share a summary of the authors’ ideas for inner city schools, classroom learning and teacher roles.

Conclusion
“Teaching as a Subversive Activity” is on the top of my list of best books for educators. If read in conjunction with “A New Culture of Learning”, one can gain an in-depth view of what education transformation really is, or what it could be, and what’s needed—which is dialogue and action that is bold and fresh.

Further Reading: