This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Knowledge and Intellectual Skills: Two Sides of Education

Last night, I discovered that Blogger and the iPad don't get along.  My post got cut a little, and so I'm going back to finish up on some of the thoughts.

 One of my jobs is to coordinate teaching labs for microbiology and genetics.  The microbiology class is a skills heavy class.  It may sound silly, but working with a microscope is really difficult for students.  They come into the lab, and many think they know how to use the microscope.  It only takes them a single class to realize that they had been using it incorrectly, or at least, ineffectively.  The reason is that all of the graduate students who teach these labs work as mentors, checking the work and progress of every student.

Consider this analogy:  The first time you had to change a tire, fix a sink, sewed a costume, cooked a dinner, or any DIY project, it took a lot of time.  You either had to keep reading instruction, probably messed up at least once, and most likely left a mess behind.  Now think about the first time you did something DIY, but had someone looking over your shoulder. It may have taken the same time, but your mistakes were caught before they could go to far.  Your mentor gave you alternatives, they showed you the correct way to hold a hammer so you stopped hitting your thumb.  This is the goal of a teacher or mentor, to help students avoid common pitfalls, avoid common misconceptions, generally to avoid having the student "reinvent the wheel." 

There is no need for a microbiology student to build a compound microscope just so they know how it works.  A mentor can help guide them through the steps to learn how to use the instrument.  Likewise, a teacher can help a student learn how to read a scientific article to get the maximum amount out of it, instead of struggling for days and still remaining confused.  Once they start exercising their intellectual muscles, you can release the guiding hand.  They can come back to ask questions and get support, but the learning is then on their terms.

The conclusion I've reached about education is that it is more than just the accumulation of information (knowledge), but also the building of skills.  The MOOC idea does help to build skills, especially in creating knowledge communities, building knowledge management, and gaining confidence in forming and redistributing knowledge. Yet there seems to be an expectation that the students within a MOOC of are of a level where they have already built skills in knowledge discernment, meaning they have the ability to shift through information and find that which is generally considered reliable.  Most of the members of  #change11 seem well-educated and well-informed, as well as possessing the basic skills needed to build a distributed knowledge network.  The question becomes, could you take this model to students just entering college for the first time?  It would require more guidance and assessment, it would require a strong mentoring presence.  Can it be done, yes, but it may end out to be a variant model from what we are participating in.  At least, my gut says it will look different.