Educators and Ed entrepreneurs: A Ballad of East and West

Driver not Wanted

Sebastian Thrun of Udacity

George Station posted over on Google Plus about Tom Whitby’s experience at the recent iNACOL Virtual School Symposium.  To summarize, Tom was turned off by the vendor-centric approach to online and blended learning, and argued that more emphasis should be placed on educators.  In particular, he emphasized the importance of training educators in online and blended learning tools and approaches.  In his commentary, George emphasized Tom’s experience of being shut out of the conference’s conversation as policy wonks and technology vendors directed the discussion.

George and Tom’s exchange reminded me of some comments made by Sebastian Thrun during Q&A after his presentation to the Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning. At minute 52 of the recording, he replies to an instructional designer who excitedly asks him for a job.:

“I want to point out an oddity that drives me crazy, which is, you’re one of the first people in the educational sciences who has contacted me.  For whatever reason, we have what might be an amazing departure from past learning and the schools of education in the world haven’t yet reacted.  But then it reminds me of the fact that it’s only recently that we established professors for film.  Film had to be around for 80 years before it could be respected by academic disciplines and academic circles.  So maybe it takes 80 years before the educational field says oh, that’s interesting.”

I should say that I find Thrun generally humble and agreeable in the online videos I’ve seen, and Udacity, for me, is the most interesting of the current MOOC platforms precisely for its philosophy about learning.  (I am enrolled in a Udacity course right now and will blog about that at another time.)  That said, I was somewhat irked at this exchange.

First, Thrun’s comment implies that it’s the responsibility of education researchers to reach out to him, rather than his own responsibility to seek out learning experts to staff his organization in order to deliver the best product and content possible.

Second, Thrun’s comments make it seem like education researchers and practitioners have never heard of online education, even as he’s speaking to a roomful of them.  Perhaps he was playing to the crowd, as many people who teach online or study online education probably do feel excluded from traditional education discourse.

The exchange struck me as a vivid illustration of what Tom pointed out was a huge divide between educators on the ground and the reformers, policy-makers and entrepreneurs who are so much in the spotlight right now.

I am not so cynical to suggest that MOOCs are education “by and for venture capitalists“.  However, I do feel that both sides are locked into silos at the moment.  Ed entrepreneurs see educators as an entrenched interest group.  Educators see the entrepreneurs as motivated by profit at the expense of learning outcomes.  And never the twain shall meet!

Tom admonished ed reformers to focus on training and developing educators to use new technologies for online and blended learning.

“We need to prioritize educating the educators about blended learning. Effective blended learning has not been around as long as most teachers have been around. It is reasonable to assume that being “bitten by the digital learning bug” will not be enough to transform a system. Teachers are taught to be classroom teachers. Online teaching uses much of the same pedagogy, but very different methodology.”

My institution is making significant investments in precisely this area of educator development.  Our consortium offers small grants to faculty trying out blended learning approaches.  Our institution established (at long last) a Collaborative for Learning and Teaching and hired someone who previously worked for NITLE to run it.  The CLT offers lunchtime workshops on pedagogy with plenty of blended learning content.

The problem is that these efforts are piecemeal, not impacting curriculum or practices at anything greater than the course level.  I have received three of the grants for more ambitious projects (webinars for grant-writing, OERs for ethics education and, still pending, a series of virtual workshops on MOOCs) but have had only sporadic uptake.  In fact, when I finally met the president of the consortium he was bemused that I was trying to involve five institutions in my most recent project.

Udacity, Coursera, Khan Academy, et al. are simultaneously enticing and infuriating because they operate outside the constraints and entrenched interests of traditional institutions.  In order to be able to engage or compete, traditional institutions will have to realign their incentive structures.

Right now, there’s a segment of instructors beholden to the publish-or-perish tenure system.  Another segment relies on teaching evaluations for their continuing livelihood, which makes them inherently risk-averse.  A large swath of educators are contingent labor, and outside the reach of incentive structures or professional development.   Getting these groups to apply their teaching experience in the online space requires significant readjustment of incentive structures, employment models and institutional hierarchies.

That’s a really long (sorry) way of saying that educators aren’t being engaged by edtech reformers, but in many cases, institutional limitations mean that educators aren’t engaging the reformers either.

photo credit: jurvetson via photopin cc


About Claudia Scholz

Higher education professional in Atlanta, GA specializing in faculty development and research administration.
This entry was posted in Higher Education, Teaching & Learning and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Educators and Ed entrepreneurs: A Ballad of East and West

  1. Pingback: Reblog: Three Good Reasons Why Educators Should Embrace Ed Tech Entrepreneurs « higher education management

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