Virtues and Vices of Online Learning

The idea of “reopening schools” is hopelessly politicized.  School are “open,” even though teaching and learning have moved online.  Unfortunately, school “reopening” is a political football.  There is a legitimate debate about school safety and the well-being of children, staff, and teachers.  But the political environment does not foster careful thinking about teaching and learning.

It is obvious that learning can happen online.  Americans learn online every day.  Youtube videos teach us how to do home improvements or how to play guitar.  Useful apps teach foreign languages.  Business training involves videos and interactive websites.

Some people don’t like this.  Some are nostalgic for the routine of sitting together in classrooms, hanging out and chatting in the halls.  Of course, not everyone is nostalgic for this.  Face-to-face schooling also includes loneliness, bullying, and stress.

Schools are not simply places for learning.  Public schooling is an essential part of the economy and the social safety net.  Schools allow parents to get to work.  They provide breakfast and lunch for poor children.  They are places of refuge for kids who need social and emotional support.  They are also connected to the rituals and routines of American life: football games and marching bands, holiday concerts, and so on.

But the traditional classroom is not essential for learning.  Learning is an individual activity which requires effort, concentration, discipline, and motivation.  John Dewey explained, “learning means something which the individual does when he studies.  It is an active, personally conducted affair.”  Social supports help.  But the learner must do the learning, alone with a book, a piece of music, or a math problem.

A recent article interviewed college students who complained about online learning.  One student said she lacked motivation.  Another said, “I just feel like I’m turning in work and not really learning anything.” 

Those same problems occur in the face-to-face environment.  Teachers have long complained about unmotivated students who go through the motions and don’t learn.  The issue of motivation and engagement is not an online problem.

The bigger problem is that schooling is viewed as a necessary evil and not as something valuable in itself.  Whether online or in person, if you don’t view value what you are learning, you will be unmotivated and disengaged. 

Working adults encounter the same problem when completing mandatory training courses.  Whether online or face-to-face, if you don’t want to be there, it is hard to learn.  On the other hand, if you are curious and interested, you will learn whether online or in person. 

For curious learners, online learning can be very effective.  One advantage of asynchronous courses is that you can rewind or fast-forward videos according to your own needs and interests.  This is much better than suffering through a boring lecture in a crowded classroom. 

Or consider the difference between in-person discussions and written discussion forums.  In-person discussions typically group students in a circle to encourage oral communication.  Skills of speaking and listening can be developed in this environment.  But often the circle is dominated by a few loud talkers, while other students sit passively. 

Online forums that encourage written communication are more inclusive of the quiet and reflective student.  The level of discourse in written discussion forums is typically much higher than in in-person discussion.  When students write online posts, they have more time to reflect. 

By now, our technologies are flexible. Oral discussion can occur online through programs like Zoom.  Written communication can be practiced in the classroom.  Both skills are important.  Each can be learned in either environment. 

At the end of the day, neither modality is inherently better or worse.  It all depends on the way the teacher structures the activity and on the motivation and curiosity of the student. 

Teachers and students still have a lot to learn about online education. As with most things, there are pros and cons, virtues and vices.

But online learning is not going away. And if we work at it (if we try to learn to do it better…) we will get better at it.  We won’t learn to improve if we keep complaining and waxing nostalgic for the old routine.  Nor does it help to let politics get in the way of thinking carefully about what it means to teach and to learn.

The Adventure of Virtual Education

The transition to virtual education is a new adventure for students, parents, and teachers.  Adventures are difficult and risky.  But that’s their allure.  If it was easy, it wouldn’t be inspiring.  Adventures also involve uncertainty.  This calls for curiosity and creativity.

On the first day of class I asked my students in Zoom how they were feeling.  Some reported anxiety.  But a couple said it might be fun to learn this way.  Let’s build on student’s youthful energy and squeeze something zesty out of our anxiety. 

One teacher explained to me that she feels like an explorer in virtual space.  There are new tools to master.  Old ideas must be reorganized and re-evaluated.  What was once taken for granted is now up for grabs.

Conservative souls will always resist change.  But nimble spirits enjoy the unprecedented and unimagined.  Dynamic minds are ready to adapt.  We find joy in riding the waves of change.  This is the genius of the artist, entrepreneur, and explorer. 

Education is dynamism. It is an art of transformation that cultivates change and nourishes development.  Random change is not good.  It must be guided. Some truths remain perennial.  But evergreen truth is not a fence or a prison.  Redwoods thrive because they bend in the storm.  New growth adapts to new soil.

Boredom and complacency are deadly diseases.  They ruin businesses, marriages, and classrooms.  Repetition dulls the senses.  Bored teachers are, well… boring. 

Most teachers enjoy new challenges.  We are thrilled by each year’s fresh crop of students.  Even though we’ve walked these trails before, new students help us see old terrain with fresh eyes.  Each step takes us somewhere else.

The idea of education as adventure is an old one.  Plato described education as a journey.  It leads us out of darkness and toward the light.  To learn is to wander beyond the familiar.  It takes patience and tenacity to explore, invent, and discover.  It takes courage to leave old habits behind and blaze new trails. 

Alfred North Whitehead celebrated education as adventure.  In his book, The Aims of Education, he insisted that educators embrace the fresh and the new.  He said, “knowledge does not keep any better than fish.”  He described education as an act of the contagious imagination.  The metaphor of passing a torch shows how this works.  Civilization depends upon the torch passers who spread the light.  We also need better torches and new ways to enlighten. 

This process occurs in the service of life.  Whitehead said, “Education is discipline for the adventure of life.”  We might simply say, education is adventure and life. He describes the history of the world as an adventure motivated by “zest.”  Zest can mean both energy and flavor.  A life without zest is dull and tasteless.

Each human culture is a unique adventure of the human spirit.  Art, science, and religion are so many different ways of making meaning and finding flavor.  Whitehead warned that when a civilization loses its taste for adventure, it begins to decay.

There is danger in any journey.  Adventures are unpredictable.  Sometimes we fail to arrive at our anticipated destination.  But even failure can be enlightening.  After all, Columbus got lost on his way to India.

The word “adventure” is related to a word that means to happen or occur.  Philosophers use the word “adventitious” to mean accidental or unintentional.  And for Christians “advent” signifies a time of hope for the birth of something new and wonderful.  Education as adventure is open to the unintended.  It is hopeful about the future.  It courageously embraces the birthing process.

This brings us back to the current transformation.  No one could have imagined the strange birth of online learning from out of a pandemic. Difficulties remain, especially the digital divide. But problems are opportunities.  Let’s set our creative imaginations free.  Let’s stop dreaming of the way things used to be.  Stop complaining about the need to get back to normal. 

The old normal wasn’t perfect.  Why go back, when we can move forward? Let’s cook up something zesty and nutritious.  Learn to bend with the wind.  Find joy in transformation.  And embrace the fact that history will view us as pioneers who explored the great frontier of virtual education.

Education is the solution to climate change, Syrian refugees and ISIS

The Fragility of Civilization

Fresno Bee, April 2, 2016

  • Climate change, religious extremism are related challenges
  • Recent events expose fragility of civilization
  • Education is needed to preserve civilization, history

The archeological record is reassuring. We build things that last thousands of years. The Parthenon and the Coliseum provide consolation for our mortality and give us reason to hope.

fiala2(2)But malice and indifference could destroy much of what we take for granted. The rising seas of a warmer world could inundate major cities, leaving them lost, like Atlantis beneath the waves. And human destructiveness has already been unleashed against the monuments of ancient civilization themselves, as we’ve seen in Syria.

The climate news is ominous. NASA reports that Greenland and Antarctica are losing billions of tons of ice per year. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is at 403 ppm and rising. That level of CO2 last appeared 2.5 million years ago, when Earth was warmer by 3 degrees Celsius and sea level was 5 meters higher.

Climate scientist James Hansen warns that climate change may be faster and more severe than previously predicted. Rapidly melting ice could raise the sea level by several meters within 50 to 150 years. Superstorms may be generated by permanent changes in ocean currents.

In a recent paper, Hansen and co-authors warn, “It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.” In a video explaining his conclusions, Hansen warns that his predictions may mean “the loss of all coastal cities, most of the world’s largest cities, and all of their history.”

The human toll of superstorms and flooding coasts is difficult to imagine. The loss in terms of human history when coastal cities are inundated will be incalculable. Cities like New Orleans may be forever lost beneath the tides.

The human dislocations of a warmer, wetter world will be significant. Poor people in developing countries will have difficulty adapting. Environmental refugees will flood our borders, looking for sanctuary. Some argue that Middle Eastern refugees inundating Europe are fleeing drought, as well as political persecution.

Even if we overcome apathy about climate change and avoid the deluge, malice remains a threat. The fragility of civilization was exposed recently when Syrian forces recaptured the ancient town of Palmyra. Hundreds of thousands have been killed in the Syrian war. In Palmyra, ISIS’ sinister ideology turned against the archaeological record.

Statues and reliefs were smashed. Monuments were toppled. The Roman Arch of Triumph was blown up. Torturing and beheading human beings is evil. Iconoclastic attacks on historical artifacts expose a sinister strand of nihilistic extremism.

Somehow all of this is interconnected. The oil economy is part of the history of colonialism and militarism. This has created backlash and religious extremism. Globalization gives us global capitalism, global terrorism and global warming.

Some wise pundits may connect these dots in more detail. But beneath all of this is a flaw in human nature. We are not rational. Nor are we good. We fail to plan for the long term. We succumb to stupid ideologies and get-rich-quick schemes. We singlemindedly pursue our agendas, indifferent to the consequences. Power, profit and political inertia prevent us from doing what is right for each other and for Earth.

The solution is as obvious as our fatal flaw. Education is the cure for the twin diseases of indifference and wickedness. Indeed, education is an act of preservation and conservation. We need to learn more about science, history, politics, religion, art and ethics. We need to criticize greed, hatred and indifference. And we need to understand the fragility of civilization.

It is difficult to imagine civilization crumbling. Our achievements seem permanent. But historical and geological education reminds us that none of this will last forever. Civilizations rise and fall.

If we don’t take care to preserve the accomplishments of civilization, they will fall faster, brought down by stupidity, arrogance and selfishness. Of course, human beings will adapt. Life will go on – albeit in a different form – once ISIS is destroyed and the oceans rise. Our grandchildren will remember New Orleans and Palmyra as lost gems. But they will rightly blame us for failing to protect and preserve what our own ancestors so painstakingly created.

Misguided War on Liberal Arts

Candidates short-sighted war on liberal arts

  • Political attacks on philosophy prompt a philosopher to reply
  • Liberal arts education is a key to progress in troubled times
  • Citizens benefit from training in critical thinking and moral educatio

Fresno Bee, November 27, 2015

Last month, Jeb Bush suggested that a liberal arts degree was a waste of time. “That philosophy major thing,” he said, “that’s great, it’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working at Chick-Fil-A.”AP_jeb_bush_2_jt_150218_16x9_992

Marco Rubio made a similar point at a recent debate. He said we need “more welders and less philosophers.”

But in these troubled times, we need more philosophical reflection and less heated rhetoric, more careful analysis and fewer glib one-liners. A broad liberal arts education teaches us to think. Good thinking is essential for citizens of a free, self-governing democracy.

Consider the question of war against the Islamic State.Sen. Rubio describes this as a “clash of civilizations.” He said, “They do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East – they hate us because of our values. … They hate us because we have freedom of speech, because we have diversity in our religious beliefs. They hate us because we’re a tolerant society.”

Claims like these deserve critical scrutiny. Is this really a clash of civilizations? How can we know why someone hates us? And what should we do about it? To answer those questions, we need philosophers, historians and students of religion and culture.

The study of the world’s religions sheds light on the idea of a clash of civilizations. Muslims, Jews and Christians share common roots and a long history of intolerance and warfare. These traditions share an ideal of holy war, crusades and jihad. They also contain a common hope for peace, shalom or salaam. Understanding the similarities and differences among these traditions develops through broad historical, cultural and philosophical inquiry.

A liberal arts education also helps us understand the value of religious toleration. Secular systems of government evolved in recent centuries as a response to ongoing religious violence. Theocratic regimes are throwbacks, seemingly at odds with the general logic of historical progress.

But does history have a logic? And are we wise enough to figure out what to do next? Historians warn against such broad generalizations. Consider this: the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the Middle East among European powers was hammered out 100 years ago. A century of European and American intervention has left us with a mess. Perhaps we are not as wise as we think we are.

Jeb Bush has urged an all-out war against the Islamic State. But in order to decide that war is justified, we need a substantial amount of philosophical reflection. We need to ponder – among other things – the justice of the cause, the question of proportionality, the issue of how noncombatants will fare and the plan for postbellum peace.

NO MATTER THE TRADE OR PROFESSION, WE NEED CITIZENS WHO UNDERSTAND THAT WAR, TERROR AND HATE DESTROY UNDERSTANDING AND KILL HOPE.

Understanding all of that requires training in ethics, political science and history. To make sure that our soldiers fight morally appropriate wars, we need better liberal arts education – not less of it.

Indeed, a liberal arts education is likely part of the long-run solution for the war on terrorism. The root cause of war and terrorism is, after all, bad philosophy. Extremism, demagoguery, ignorance and moral blindness are cured through education. The best cure for bad ideas is better ones.

A broad liberal arts education produces critical, virtuous and responsible citizens. Science grounds us in facts about geography, biology and the physical world. History provides context for understanding current events, while reminding us that progress can be made. Music, literature and poetry deliver transcendent joys that unite us despite our differences. The study of the world’s religions shows us that there are diverse paths to a meaningful life. Ethics teaches us to distinguish good from evil. And philosophical training reminds us to be curious, courageous, compassionate and modest about what we know.

Good education helps to create good people. In order for society to function, we need welders – fast food cooks, lawyers, and even politicians – who are honest, trustworthy and kind. No matter the trade or profession, we need citizens who understand that war, terror and hate destroy understanding and kill hope.

It is true that there are very few paying jobs for full-time philosophers. But welders, cooks, and politicians – indeed all citizens – benefit from philosophical insight and broad education. We need better thinking and more enlightened citizens – more liberal arts and less hot air.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/article46737230.html#storylink=cpy

Good Citizenship Takes Commitment

Citizenship and The Constitution

Fresno Bee, September 4, 2015

 

No one is born a citizen. Our Constitution allows so-called “birthright citizenship.” But no one is born understanding the Constitution. Real citizenship requires active commitment to the values of the community.

That’s why civic education is important. Some states have instituted mandatory civics test, requiring high school students to score 60% on the U.S. Citizenship test, the same score required for immigrants to qualify for U.S. citizenship.

In California, State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson and Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court Tani Cantil-Sakauye are leading a new civic education initiative. The chief justice explains, “The strength of our democratic institutions relies on the public’s understanding of those institutions.” Civic Education Partnerships have been created in six counties, including Fresno.

Of course, knowledge about the Constitution is not sufficient. Citizenship is deeper than factual knowledge. It includes a set of values and active commitments. Can those values and commitments be created by education?

I talked about this with John Minkler, a retired educator who is one of the leaders in Fresno County’s Civic Education Partnership. Minkler’s passion for civics is evident from a bumper sticker on his car that reads, “E Pluribus Unum.” Minkler points out that we carry this motto in our pockets every day. Take a look at your coins. They proclaim, E Pluribus Unum – “out of many, one.”

This is the basic idea behind the social contract: we join together to form a community. Individuals reap benefits from belonging to the community. We also have obligations to participate in the life of the community.

Minkler worries, however, that the social contract has eroded. One problem is materialistic individualism. We are often more focused on self-interest than the common good. A related problem is an educational system that focuses on test results and obedience rather than engaged citizenship.

Many have become disillusioned with political life. Young people are especially cynical. Studies show that millennials are less politically aware and committed than older adults. They vote less and don’t trust the political system.

Critical scrutiny of our system is wise. Democratic government requires vigilant citizens. But cynical disengagement is self-defeating. If you believe you can’t change things, then you will not work to change them. And then – lo and behold – things don’t change!

Minkler explains that citizenship develops from involvement in the community, which teaches that individual commitment matters. Minkler has long been an advocate of service-learning. He says that service-learning helps disengaged kids develop the spark of citizenship, as they discover that their effort and commitment actually matters.

Teachers and schools already have a difficult task of developing college- and career-ready graduates. Creating good citizens is yet another difficult task. We can’t expect the schools to do this alone. That’s why the idea of a Civic Education Partnership is important. In Fresno County, the Civic Education Partnership includes educational leaders, business and community leaders, as well as members of the legal profession.

To support this effort, the Ethics Center at Fresno State is co-sponsoring a Constitution Day event at Fresno State on Sept. 17. In case you forgot, Sept. 17 is the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Around the country, that day is celebrated as Constitution and Citizenship Day.

The event at Fresno State will focus on the question of how civic education connects youths to our constitutional system. Speakers will include former Assemblyman Juan Arambula, Fresno City Council Member Esmeralda Soria, Lorenzo Rios, CEO of Clovis Veterans Memorial District, Justice Rosendo Peña, Jr. from the California Fifth District Court of Appeal, Deborah Nankivell, CEO of the Fresno Business Council, and Minkler.

Citizenship involves understanding the Constitution and the basic principles of democratic government. It also requires commitment and engagement. Communities are not abstract ideas created on paper documents. They are living entities in which diverse individuals work together within a framework of common values. No community is perfect. But communities are improved when citizens understand their rights and responsibilities, and when individuals actively participate in the shared life of “we, the people.”

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/article34140597.html#storylink=cpy