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.


  1. Hi Robert - I am enjoying your blog.

    My feeling is that what you are writing about here is not so much the skills that students need, but the role of the teacher in supporting students' learning in MOOCs.

    Alec Couros was also concerned about this in his social media and open education MOOC - so he put out a call for mentors - http://educationaltechnology.ca/couros/1877. He recognised that it is impossible for one or two tutors to respond to and monitor the learning of the large numbers of participants that sign up for MOOCs.

    Stephen and George also recognise this, but I think their approach is that they expect participants to support each other.

    My son is in his third year of a music technology degree, and at the beginning of this academic year and last, he has volunteered to be a 'buddy' for a group of 'freshers'. Do you use this 'buddy' system at all?

  2. Jenny, the idea of a buddy system is great. We have a rather large department (2000 students), but it is something that might have a strong impact on our freshman learning communities. Thanks for the information from Alec Couros's MOOC. The concept of mentors is something I have been thinking about for this course.

    I think that the level of the course will determine the amount of mentoring students will need. In the case of #change11, the students already have the capacity to build communities. In the case of Freshmen/Sophomore classes, more will be required. The answer will present when you know the audience that you intend to reach.

    Thanks again.

  3. I like this post mostly because I agree in your point about mentors. But I also think that MOOC´s are suitable in higher education’s for persons able to manage their own learningprocess.
    I joined a MOOC for the first time and I would like to try it before I make a conclusion on the need of mentors. In the future I hope to conclude that it is a good method for knowledge sharing among peers and especially for Life Long Learning among K12 teachers.

  4. I expect that a large range of approaches to teaching and learning are required. The so called edupunks who are able and bolder will probably do fine in self-paced/designed PLEs. They are those with a combination of curiosity, aptitudes and attitudes that allows them to dive right in. They build on prior learning and can move independently. Others, less confident and less skilled will learn better with a guide at their side. While I present these as dichotomies, it is probably mix and match as well as a matter of degree that depends on the situation, topic and learner.

  5. Tai, thanks for your comment. You have given voice to one of my stumbling blocks, the relative preparedness of the students. I have not heard the term edupunk before, but it seems a fitting title. More to consider.