Need-to-Know News: ‘Exclusive’ MOOCs, Brain Stimulation to Enhance Learning, & Teacher Training Secrets from Singapore

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“News of the Week”, image from iStock

The ‘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. 

1) Harvard University to Offer Exclusive MOOCs
This week Harvard University announced a MOOC with a twist, HarvardX for Alumni “an online education opportunity exclusively for Harvard Alumni”. A slick video on Harvard’s website promotes the program ‘Alumni X’ [though the website calls it HarvardX for Alumni] as an opportunity to ‘reconnect with other graduates’, and ‘continue the journey as a Harvard graduate’. The first course begins in March “Explorations in Learning”, a survey course studying the intellectual riches of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, according to Harvard’s website.

Insights: The idea itself is not offending, it’s using the word ‘exclusive’ and MOOC in the same sentence that is—it’s a gross contradiction. HarvardX for MOOC for alumni is the antithesis of what MOOCs stand for.

2) The New Thinking Cap:  Transcranial Electrical Stimulation

“Dr. Cohen Kadosh’s pioneering work on learning enhancement and brain stimulation is one example of the long journey faced by scientists studying brain-stimulation and cognitive-stimulation techniques.” Wang, 2014

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“The electrodes are placed in a tightly fitted cap and worn around the head” screen shot from the image in ‘Can Electric Currents Make People Better at Match’, WSJ

The Wall Street Journal published a story this week about a researcher working at Oxford University, Dr. Cohen Kadosh, who is studying the effects of transcranial electrical stimulation (tES) on cognitive function. Dr. Kadosh studies how electric currents to the brain can improve math skills in adults and children as young as eight-years old. I find this disturbing for several reasons. Though there is a long history of using magnetic and electric currents to treat various neurological disorders, Kadoshs’ work with electrical currents at varying strengths on parts of the brain thought to control learning, takes this technique to a new level—cognitive enhancement by ‘playing’ with the brain. There are safety and ethical considerations associated with the research. For one, Kadosh uses test subjects that include children and the elderly. He determined that the “procedure has the opposite effect on the young and elderly”, and discovered he “could temporarily turn off regions of the brain known to be important for cognitive skills.” Wow—what if it’s not temporary? There are other ethical implications. For instance, would it be considered ‘fair’ if a student receives tES treatment before writing an SAT test and out-scores those without treatment—the students that study the old-fashioned way, hitting the books for hours on end?

How it works:
“The electrodes are placed in a tightly fitted cap and worn around the head. The device, run off a 9-volt battery commonly used in smoke detectors, induces only a gentle current and can be targeted to specific areas of the brain or applied generally. The mild current reduces the risk of side effects, which has opened up possibilities about using it, even in individuals without a disorder, as a general cognitive enhancer.” (Wang, 2014)

Insights: Though transcranial electrical stimulation research is considered promising given its reputed potential as a therapeutic tool, using children for experimental techniques for brain research is inappropriate, even irresponsible. At what lengths should we go to enhance learning by manipulating how the brain functions?

3) Singapore’s Rigorous Teaching Training
Students from Singapore scored in third place on the reading and science literacy skills and second in math skills in 2012 on OECD’s PISA test given to 15-year-old students around the world. Though it’s unfair to compare countries’ results given the host of factors that are non-comparable from country to country, it’s nonetheless worth examining practices of teacher training approaches in other countries.

An  article published this week in HechingerEd gives us a glimpse into the teacher education in Singapore. Summary:

  • Teaching is a sought-after profession in Singapore and viewed as a prestigious career
  • Admissions staff at the National Institute of Education [the institution responsible for training all teachers for the country] only considers applicants in the top third of the graduating class
  • Once students graduate from teacher’s training, they must serve in the classroom for at least three years under the guidance of a mentor
  • K-12 schools offer ongoing training for all teachers and have courses geared towards beginner teachers

Insights: Replicating a teacher training program of another country’s into one’s own obviously won’t work, but examining broad themes is. It appears one barrier to improving teacher training, in the United States at least, is the perception of teaching as a career, which in the US is not considered prestigious, nor is it a sought after career. Though it is culture specific, and it does suggest an opportunity.  According to a report published recently in Education Next, the United States is making progress in raising the prestige level of teaching with efforts that include an emphasis on recruiting highly qualified teachers for science and math [STEM] positions, and programs that highlight teaching as a selective and prestigious assignment such as the Teach for America program.

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Stay tuned for more updates on education news by checking my Twitter stream, @onlinelearningi.

2 thoughts on “Need-to-Know News: ‘Exclusive’ MOOCs, Brain Stimulation to Enhance Learning, & Teacher Training Secrets from Singapore

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