The announcement of MITx and edX last spring set the Institute buzzing. Everywhere people were talking about how to do online education in their discipline and whether it was a good idea and what had already been planned and even implemented. MIT metamorphosed overnight into one big educational think tank for . . . well, whomever is going to profit from online education in the long run. I suppose most readers of this Newsletter think that media-based education is inevitable and that we may as well get in there early and do it intelligently. But sometimes it feels like a solution for which we are being asked to develop a problem.
Some humanists at MIT have eagerly joined this race to someone else’s finish line; some are skeptical about whether there are platforms sophisticated enough to carry what we do.
Some of us wonder whether the originators of these X initiatives even thought about liberal education in the humanities at all, or if it was added as an afterthought – although we will be allowed in to join the party if we choose to adapt our methods and our subjects to the needs and plans of teachers of science and engineering.
Setting aside the enormous question of assessment – which will be an issue for any narrative question or any complex synthesis in any field – just asking whether what we humanists do can be done online is, I suppose, an opportunity to clarify what we teach. Why does it seem so intractable to transmit humanistic learning to the thousands around the world hungry for education? We, too, have lecture classes in which we model the intellectual processes we value. We teach students how to think; but surely, you say, they learn to think in their science and engineering classes too.
Is the difficulty in translating humanistic thought to online modules as simple as the distinction between passive learning and active learning, as obvious as the difference between rote learning – memorization – learning facts and sequences – and learning how to frame questions without answers or to strike out obliquely in new directions? Is it, as my philosopher friends say, the difference between knowing that (water is wet or gravity pulls) and knowing how (to ride a bike or make a pie)? Certain labs will be a problem in online education, learning “how” to interact with the material world. Already the pioneering MITx team has seen that students prefer to watch problems being worked out on screen rather than being given finished solutions – a preference for access to the process rather than final answers.
Jane Austen described her heroine’s education in Mansfield Park this way: “. . . he recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours, he encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgment: he made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise.” To fully comprehend this passage, one wants to dissect what Austen meant in 1814 by “taste,” “judgment,” and best of all, “useful.” But even reading superficially, one can see that she is describing a personal interactive process geared to a specific mind. And indeed, teachers of literary texts must take into account where the student is coming from – intellectually, culturally, developmentally, philosophically – in order to help move that student forward in his or her thinking. The social practices in humanities classrooms resist standardization because in order to help their students progress, teachers have to know them as intellectuals clearly enough to help them to articulate their opinions, refine their critical skills, and guide their thinking into new paths. They must help students formulate their ideas so that they are recognizable to others. It is slow work and requires sustained and individualized – and above all interactive – attention. We do not so much transmit information as teach our students how to relate to the world, to their own experience, and to language in new and sophisticated ways.
The subject I teach – literature – is not entertainment for leisure hours. It alters and expands what one knows about life and the world, offering new ways to think about meaning, another vocabulary for responding to the significant questions of life. Stories and poems expand one’s experience and understanding about what is important and why. What matters ultimately in human life? What does one value and why? What do others value? How does age (or gender or race, etc.) change what one values and why? What is the nature of happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment? Such questions have no universal answers and their specific content varies with history and cultural context – although there are continuities that transcend time and place. Literary texts suggest ways to think about these things by means of images, analogies, metaphors, juxtaposition, vocabularies, diction, style, pace, tone, and so on, in addition to plot and character. But interpretations of these formal characteristics are made by particular people with particular histories. Our materials do not have the same uniformity as those of science. One cannot transpose the materials so easily. They are context, author, and interpreter sensitive.
In our classes, group discussion often opens up what we have read together and adds layers to it. Students see that by engaging one another’s minds, they can turn up the general illumination, move the conversation forward and get somewhere new. In literature classrooms, I have often had to restrain my MIT undergraduates trained to eliminate false premises, and reorient them to listen to one another for what is true or at least heading in the right direction.
We generally do not try to take apart one another’s reactions, but rather try to appreciate the complexity of resonance and suggestion, and to build upon one another’s insights. After multiple interpretations to unpack the connotations of key words and articulate the nuances of meaning, what emerges is more than the original text; indeed, what the class creates is a new work. Class discussion provides the opportunity for each to go beyond the initial experience of reading and the multiplicity of association in the room permits a creativity not available to any student alone with a text. This kind of communal discussion, this immersion in the meanings of a text, can be transformative because it shows students what is possible in reading deeply, not just what is in a particular text.
Nor do we yet understand the physics of learning – why one learns from some people and not others (regardless of who is a “better” teacher); how we humans communicate with our eyes and expressions and gestures and posture and body language, our decibel levels and intonations, as much as with our words. Learning happens differently in relationships than it does alone in front of a screen. Groups assembled online are not as fully participatory as in face-to-face exchanges in real time. The forms of sociality promoted by online interactions permit the projections of personas without the same authenticity of response that one is held to in live conversation. Everyone can feel the difference between a live performance and listening to a recording. As a performer, I am aware of the alchemy of presence – how different it is to play for real people rather than to perform in a studio. One can put so much more across when one is in the same room; and how flexibly and creatively one thinks when students are listening!
I suppose we ought to begin by asking what education is for. Increasingly it is for credentialing, although not long ago we talked of educating people to be informed citizens in a genuine democracy and for enriching their lives. Neither purpose appears to be on the table anymore. I also fear that this initiative will alter our residential practice willy nilly in the name of teaching the hungry millions. Online education will be used here on campus for remedial purposes or to convey core concepts that some students may take longer to grasp. And so we cudgel our brains to think of online modules that might make sense for literary education. One of my colleagues suggested that we might teach punctuation this way – an excellent idea. But what will it mean for those forms of teaching and kinds of content not intrinsically suited to such an approach? Will they be valued more or less?
edX may not be a simple add-on option – at least not in the Humanities. The question of resource allocation in such subjects has not been considered.
Subjects in literature and culture taught in the Open University in the U.K., the global pioneer in “distance learning” for nearly half a century, place huge demands on their tutors. They not only grade and comment extensively on individual papers but, thanks to the University’s asynchronous online tutorial system, are available more or less around the clock to guide, counsel and conduct dialogue with actively-learning students; to answer online queries, to fill in background and context, and to explain at length what individual students might not understand. No professor at MIT or Harvard is going to commit that kind of effort to individual tutorials, nor is it feasible given the numbers involved. Will this existing “best practice” be ignored in the stampede to quickly think up ways to use online teaching? And what might we lose if we commit ourselves, our time, and our resources to online education without considering these basic questions?
1. What happens in face-to-face classroom experience that cannot be duplicated online and is worth preserving?
3. Will this effort change what we try to teach?
4. What are the real costs of adequately personalized interactive teaching online and of its assessment?