Friday, 29 November 2013

Essays, capitalism and feminist critiques of MOOCs

Imagine marking 100 years of essays

Contrary to stereotype, writing by students has improved in the digital age--or so claims research by a Stanford prof reported in the Globe.  Recent essays in comparison to a sample of essays from a century ago are longer and more sophisticated.  Students get more writing practice--mostly on smartphones--and even a mini-keyboard is a lot easier to use than a fountain pen was, the researcher suggests.

Reasons for the improvements suggested:  Authentic audience.  When students write to communicate with friends or online, possibly global, acquaintances, they care more about what they say and how.  Writing for the teacher alone is just an exercise, not an authentic communication.

Who says capitalism is good for the poor?

The Fraser Institute is in the midst of new initiatives on the education front.  Its annual school rankings have spread to several provinces, and now they are hitting out on new fronts--technology, merit pay and student workshops.

The cover of their take on technology ("Technology and Education: A primer") sends a mixed message.  It shows a smiling young girl holding a tablet.  The content of the tablet is "1-5 Times Table Chart."  Why would you need a digital tablet to simply show that 1x1+1?

A school opening release calling for teacher merit pay hardly registered in the mainstream press, outside of a business editor and the National Post.

The Fraser folks also target teachers--offering workshops like "Is Capitalism Good for the Poor?" and lesson plans for using their global map of "economic freedom."  They offer to pay for substitutes and travel funds for teachers to attend.

Students are directly targeted as well with day-long infusions of "Why Do People Behave the Way They Do? An Introduction to Economic Reasoning."  These are "free, fun, one-day seminars consist of a mix of short lectures, games and activities that introduce economic principles," with separate programs for junior and senior secondary students.

Feminist challenge to MOOCs

MOOCs are the newest "solution" to provide access to post-secondary education.  The acronym stands for Massive Open Online Courses.  They can draw tens of thousands of participants.  At least, thousands sign up but few complete them.

Enthusiasts claim these will open up education on a global basis, overcoming barriers of access for millions. Critics are skeptical. The developers are trying to figure out the revenue stream and the path to an IPO.
A group of feminist faculty members have created an alternative approach to the centralized expertise approach of MOOCs.  They are calling it a DOCC, "distributed open collaborative course."
Anne Balsamo, a co-facilitator of the first DOCC says "It recognizes that, based on deep feminist pedagogical commitments, is distributed throughout all the participants in a learning activity."  It does no just reside with one or two individuals.

The problem with "Designed in California"

Apple ran a huge ad campaign that promoted its products as "Designed in California."  Critics identified the immediate problem.  Its message really is that the production of its products is outsourced to exploited workers in Asia, while its profits are hidden in company revenues reported in other countries to avoid taxation in the U.S.  All that is left for California is designing products.

You might think Apple would at least give a break to schools in California.
When the Los Angeles school district decided to spend $1 billion to give iPads to students and install broadband in all the schools, they didn't think about keyboards.  They now need to spend $38 million more to buy wifi keyboards.

Why do they need keyboards?  A new set of standardized tests is being introduced in California and keyboards will be used by other students taking the exams.  The touch screen keyboard on the iPad could obscure part of questions which students using other machines would be able to see.

This was originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of Our Schools, Our Selves, the education journal of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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