REAL AND VIRTUAL LEARNING

An interesting (short) interview with Keith Devlin, Mathematics Professor at Stanford University, on the subject of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  Devlin recently finished teaching “Introduction to Mathematical Thinking” to more than 62,000 students, aged 16 to 70.  Devlin describes the new forms of teaching that the virtual classroom encourages.  He does not offer a traditional lecture, for example, but invites students into a kind of intimate proximity with his own writing, thinking, ideas.  Students peer over his shoulder as he works through problems.  For all of the technology at work in delivering these courses, it is a relatively low-tech approach that approximates a one-to-one encounter with a mentor.  It also hints at the field of alternative teaching models that the MOOCs are generating.

These courses have the potential to change our approaches in the non-virtual classroom as well.  This will be especially important in Britain, where large lectures remain the norm and fees for this learning environment are on the rise.  If our students can enroll in MOOCs free of charge, taught by some of the world’s leading scholars, what justification do we have for continuing to offer such an outdated pedagogical model?  And charging extraordinary sums of money for it?  MOOCs (I hope) will force us to think more carefully about how we teach.  We either need better arguments for lecture-style learning (I’m not convinced that any really exist) or we need to focus on what real-time, on-campus learning can offer that this first generation of MOOCs cannot.

In related (visual culture) news, MOOCS seem to have produced a new video genre: the MOOC trailer, complete with a green screened Stanford campus.

TEACHING AND TECHNOLOGY

A good Chronicle article from UCLA philosophy professor Pamela Hieronymi on the difference between technology and teaching as a “tsunami” of online education heads our way.  Key point(s):

As we think about the future of education, we need to sharpen our understanding of what education is and what educators do. Education is often compared to two other industries upended by the Internet: journalism and publishing. This is a serious error.

Education is not the transmission of information or ideas. Education is the training needed to make use of information and ideas. As information breaks loose from bookstores and libraries and floods onto computers and mobile devices, that training becomes more important, not less.

[…]

But the core task of training minds is labor-intensive; it requires the time and effort of smart, highly trained individuals. We will not make it significantly less time-consuming without sacrificing quality. And so, I am afraid, we will not make that core task significantly less expensive without cheapening it.

MOVING PICTURE WORLD

A fantastic new resource for researchers and teachers of early cinema has just appeared online. The first twelve years of Moving Picture World have been digitized and added to the Media History Digital Library’s “Early Cinema Collection.”  From the MHDL:

Moving Picture World was one of the most influential trade papers of the early motion picture industry and the period film historians call cinema’s “transitional era” (lasting roughly from 1908 to 1917). During this era and inside the paper, you can watch the transition from short film programs to feature films and witness the transition from the dominance of Edison’s Trust to the rise of the “Independent” film companies that ultimately became the Hollywood studios. 

The first issue includes some “novel uses for cinema,” instructions for making latern slides, a review of The Teddy Bears (Edison, 1907), and a full-page ad from the Miles Brothers (mentioned just last week): “Conversation gets you nothing.  Real Johnny-on-the-spot service is what you want!”

The project was funded, in part, by Domitor and its members.  For those who are interested in contributing, MHDL is still raising funds to digitize MPW through 1927, its last year of publication.

TEACHING MY HOME MOVIES

I just finished a week of amateur films and home movies for a new course I am co-teaching entitled “Cinema and Revolution.”  We screened/discussed key films from the post-war American avant-garde (including Brakhage, Mekas, Levine, Menkin) alongside a set of home movies.  I wanted students to think about the differences between these two amateur modes, their different expressions of contingency and history, and (perhaps most interesting) their very different conceptions of “home.”

The lectures were nevertheless overshadowed by an unexpected encounter with my own family history.  About two weeks ago, a collection called “The Amateur as Auteur” arrived (ordered way back in January).  I took a quick look and decided to add the “Stewart Family Home Movies” to the screening list for the week.  The films were made between 1936 and 1939, by a film enthusiast named Archie Stewart.  I knew the Stewarts were from upstate New York, but did not know anything else about the family or their provenance.  As I prepared for lecture, I caught two names that I had missed during my first screening session: Newburgh and Orange Lake.

(Stewart Family Home Movies, 1936-1939)

It seems that I inadvertently assigned my own home movies.  My mother was born and raised in Newburgh, New York.  Her childhood home is on the shores of Orange Lake.  I spent my summers swimming in that very lake and looking out towards Pine Point, the peninsula just behind the unhappy little girls (who must now be in their eighties).

The discovery forced a slight adjustment to the lecture plan.  I spent a good deal of time discussing (via Susan Sontag) the affective “surplus” of home movies and those strange, personal histories inscribed, lost, refound upon their surface.  The home movie, like the twilight, elegiac art of photography “testifies to time’s relentless melt.”

OPEN SOURCE EDUCATION

MIT recently introduced plans for a significant expansion of their distance/virtual education program.  From the press release:

MITx will endeavor to break down barriers to education in two ways. First, it will offer the online teaching of MIT courses to people around the world and the opportunity for able learners to gain certification of mastery of MIT material. Second, it will make freely available to educational institutions everywhere the open-source software infrastructure on which MITx is based.

It will be exciting to see how other institutions engage this resource and how a free, open-access approach to online education influences the for-profit models that dominate the market.