“Hannah Arendt and I….”

Being mentioned in the same context as Hannah Arendt is a kind of landmark moment for a writer. Arendt’s keen intellect and clear writing on complex, abstract subjects make her a revered intellectual figure. I was linked in a blog on education, Juvenile U., from the Hannah Arendt Center. It noted a piece I did, MOOCs lead Duke To Reinvent On-Campus Courses, on how a Coursera MOOC was reshaping its teachers’ real-world university philosophy courses.

The reference was not a happy one. The blog post focuses on how education is being conflated with knowledge dissemination, and it dislikes what the professors I cite are doing with their classes:

What we see here is that the mass appeal of MOOCs and their use as a way of replacing lectures is not being seized as an opportunity to make education more serious, but as an excuse to make college more fun. That professors at two of this country’s elite universities see it as progress that classes are replaced by murder mystery games and scavenger hunts is evidence of a profound confusion between education and infotainment. I have no doubt that much can be learned through fun and games. Children learn through games and it makes all the sense in the world that Finland allows children in schools to play until they are seven or eight years old. Even in primary or at times in secondary school, simulations and games may be useful. But there is a limit. Education, at least higher education, is not simply fun and games in the pursuit of knowledge.

The post’s author is not being entirely fair; the students are still getting the lectures, because they have to watch the taped lectures on their own time. My gloss on what is being done in class is a bit of a disservice to the exercises, which are meant to help students work through the implications of what they are learning, with live feed back. In theory, that should reinforce the lessons and make them stronger.
MOOCs dissatisfy almost as many people as they please. They are not yet revolutionary, though they are having an impact on some kinds of education. I wish I had seen this post when it was published, almost nine months ago; I might have gone to the conference it was highlighting.
Maybe someday I’ll be mentioned in the same breath as Hannah Arendt (and if I’m lucky, it won’t be to point out that “Michael Fitzgerald is about as far from Hannah Arendt as Homer Simpson…”).

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