I suspect if some of my younger friends were to see some of the videos and chats coming out of Connected Courses – I’m thinking of the ones that talk about co-learners and collaboration and such – they might respond, “hippies,” with a sneer in their voice. I don’t think the sneer is warranted but, to make sure, I want to talk about something that’s implicit in these discussions, but which has not been made sufficiently explicit:
Education depends on the authority of the teacher and on the student’s willingness to, yes,
submit to respect that authority.
Just how that authority operates varies greatly depending on the age and maturity of the students – first graders and graduate students have different needs and make different demands – on the nature of what’s being taught, say physics on the one hand and fiction writing on the other. With authority comes responsibility, of course, and trust can develop only where there is a mutual understanding of the limits and affordances of that authority.
Learning is Tough
Why do I raise the issue? Because education is often difficult – if it isn’t difficult, can it really be education? – and may require that students do things that don’t make sense at first. But, if they do them, they will in time learn: Yes, this makes sense. So THAT’S how it works.
I remember back in my graduate school days when David Hays was tutoring me in cognitive networks, which involves diagrams like this, which depicts a bit of the conceptual structure underlying a Shakespeare sonnet:
We met once a week. I choose the concepts I wanted to work on and produce the diagrams. We’d discuss them. Often a diagram that seemed just right to me would strike Hays as being somewhere between wrong and superficial. We’d discuss it, he’d suggest a different approach, and I would adopt that approach as best I could. It took me three months or so to come up to speed, but once that happened I began making contributions to the overall model rather than simply learning the formalism.
Now, it would have been easy for me to object to Hays’s objections right from the start. Yes, the model I was learning was one he’d developed with his students, but still, these kinds of models were quite new at the time (early 1970s) and fairly complex. I could have run Hays ragged by rejecting his criticisms; but then I wouldn’t have learned how the model worked and so wouldn’t have been able to make contributions.
The Open Internet
In my experience one of the trickiest situations that arises in internet discussions – whether in web venues or on list serves – is where people have significantly different levels of understanding in some area, but no one has recognized institutional authority in the venue where the discussion is taking place. In that situation it is often quite easy for a persistent novice to run an expert ragged and thereby fail to benefit from the expert’s knowledge.
The novice doesn’t know what’s going on and so makes an objection, asks a question or makes a comment that’s perfectly reasonable from his point of view. The expert replies in a way that’s reasonable from her more knowledgeable point of view, but the novice doesn’t get it and so makes another comment, or question, whatever. So far, so good. That’s how things are supposed to work.
But at some point it becomes obvious that, for whatever reason, the novice really isn’t getting it, but is unwilling to accept the expert’s judgment. At this point the novice may simply being trying to win the argument – and, of course, in the case of trolling this happens all the time, but the troll isn’t interacting in good faith. What can the expert do?
Not much. Simply declaring your expertise isn’t likely to go over well, not even if you point to your degree, your job, your publications, whatever. It doesn’t matter. You can’t force the novice to accept your expertise.
On the open internet the only authority you have is the authority others are willing to grant you. They will size you up however they wish and there’s not much you can do about the judgment they reach. In my case I don’t have an academic post, nor any other kind of post. I have a lot of experience and a pile of publications, both academic and not.
While it’s easy for someone find that information I can’t carry it around with me like a sheriff’s badge. And if a conversation has gotten to the point where I’m tempted to start listing that stuff, then it’s most likely gotten to a point where asserting my legitimate expertise will come across as a power play – which it in fact is – and so will just make things worse.
If you are teaching within an institutional context, things are different. You are the teacher and the novice is a student. The student pays tuition; you hand out grades. You can abuse your authority and, for that matter, a student can refuse to respect your authority. But the institutional context means that neither of you can just walk away – an option available on the open internet.
Now, Howard Rheingold is in a particularly interesting situation vis-à-vis this dynamic. On the one hand, he has taught at Stanford and Berkeley. In those situations he carries the authority of those institutions–and they, of course, have granted him their authority on the basis of the work he’s done in the course of his career, his writing and consulting.
But he also teaches through Rheingold U. Students come to him because of his personal reputation. And, while at this point his teaching at those prestigious schools is an aspect of his reputation, I suspect that it’s a relatively minor consideration for students coming to Rheingold U. In any event, at Rheingold U he doesn’t have the authority of either Stanford or Berkeley. All he’s got a Rheingold U is Howard Rheingold. There he IS the institution.
Rheingold U isn’t quite the open internet. Students pay a modest fee and Howard commits to interacting with them individually and in good faith. But it’s more like the open internet than Stanford is.
It may even be a brave new world.Addendum 10.14.14: Karen LaBonte has some reservations about the overt ideology – let's just call it that for a second – of this Connected Courses course. Her concerns are somewhat different from what I'm expressing here, but there is an overlap. Check out "Talkin' Trust" over at her blog, All Hands on Deck.