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If Connection is a Must for Learning, then Let’s Burn the Austen Books and Shakespeare Plays

Michael Caulfield writes as one of many “connectivist” advocates in education who place a high priority on the formation of social bonds in the classrom — what are often called “personal learning networks.” The amount and duration of connection in a class is seen as the indicator of its success.  Caulfield uses connectivist ideas to embrace “cMOOCs” (connectivist Massively Open Online Courses) and to criticize “xMOOCs,” which focus on content and skills in massive broadcasts and which don’t worry about communication between students so much:

xMOOCs have a community problem.

Sure, you can get an answer to a math problem at 2 a.m. from a student in the Czech Republic, and that’s pretty cool. But whereas cMOOC communities persist and do meaningful things in the world, in general xMOOC communities are less robust. They don’t persist. They connect students as students, but not as colleagues.

It reminds me of this old diagram from Jon Mott and David Wiley comparing Open Learning Networks to class networks based on a CMS:

cms v. OLN

Which could easily be updated as


The point, obviously, is that when you finish a cMOOC, your relationships with members of that course don’t end. You don’t keep in touch with all 10,000 people, of course, but people in a cMOOC often cite the valuable relationships they fostered in the cMOOC as one of the big takeaways. These people end up part of their permanent Personal Learning Network, as members of their twitter feed, as tumblr or blogger friends, as emailable resources, etc. On the other hand, much xMOOC social connection seems to die at the end of the course, and not persist in any useful way.

But is connection between students and interactive curation dominated by the construction of new knowledge by students (see Whitney Kilgore) really so necessary for quality learning to occur? If so, then we’d better get a bonfire on to burn the Jane Austen books and Shakespeare plays.

A book, you see, is a non-interactive broadcast medium, and so is a Shakespeare play. Nobody expects the audience to hop up on stage and collaboratively intervene when Hamlet starts talking to a skull in order to interject new lines, add thematically-appropriate humor and curate resources regarding popular culture references to Horatio. Similarly, nobody reading Pride and Prejudice expects to be able to stop Jane Austen midchapter and interrogate her, requesting a slightly different arrangement of the scene. Yet literary books and Shakespeare plays are held in great esteem by teachers. In fact, educators complain that our students don’t read enough books, which definitely don’t have a small-c in front of them. Are those teachers wrong?

No. Those teachers just recognize that while books and plays are not collaborative and encouraging friendships between students, they have a role to play in our educational system. It may sounds Neanderthal in the current educational environment to say this, but in engineering, medicine, anthropology, mathematics and other classes, students can form stellar “Personal Learning Networks” that model interactivity out the wazoo, but if they don’t know how to stitch a finger or sort sherds or add two numbers together, that doesn’t count for much. Extroversion doesn’t save lives or build bridges. Knowledge and skills manage that trick, and that’s why knowledge and skills should remain at the center of education. The alternative is a book burning.

One thought on “If Connection is a Must for Learning, then Let’s Burn the Austen Books and Shakespeare Plays”

  1. Guardian says:

    Depending on the type of learner, both are necessary. For the autodidacts, yeah, all you really need is the source material and you could pretty much teach yourself. For the majority of us that aren’t, we really benefit from teacher instruction and interaction, and to a fair degree, from other students. This MooC crap though, is finding a solution to the higher education problem in the wrong place. The reason higher education is more expensive in the US isn’t some technological problem (after all, they haven’t digitized higher education in Europe and it’s loads cheaper), it’s a funding problem. These guys are just trying to make a buck off our collapsing public institutions. Quite sick imo.

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Psst... what kind of person doesn't support pacifism?