Sunday, June 2, 2013

Randy Pausch's Boldest Innovation

A central concern with MOOCs and other student directed learning experiences is that by decentering the traditional gatekeeping role of teachers, such experiences lack an authoritative center for determining the rigor and depth of a course as well judging the mastery of learning outcomes by students. In a traditional one-to-many style of pedagogy, teachers simultaneously perform the roles of content creator, disseminator, and arbitrator of student success. The basis for academic rigor is based on structures such as the credit hour – students meet for three hours a week, complete three hours of homework between meetings, and repeat this cycle for 15 weeks. Upon receiving a positive evaluation from their instructor, such a student can be said to have successfully completed a course. But in a world of many-to-many relationships – a system driven by expansive social and peer interaction – gatekeepers such as teachers and traditional boundaries such as the credit hour see their basis for authority eroded. These shifts bring about the demise of the “sage on the stage,” the classroom lecture, and can result in more collaborative and more experiential forms of learning. The notion of the credit hour and other traditional indicators of rigor face the same erosion.

In thinking about how a many-to-many basis for rigor might work, I was reminded of a few brief comments by the late Randy Pausch in his “Last Lecture” from 2007. Near the end of the lecture, he refers to the importance of helping students become self-reflective, by sharing an experience from one his courses (this section starts at 51:10 in the YouTube video of the lecture). I wonder if this type of peer feedback process might actually be one of Randy Pausch’s boldest innovations.


The reactions of the students in the audience suggest that those who had experienced this form of peer feedback found it both authoritative and persuasive – authoritative in the sense that its legitimacy was recognized and persuasive in the sense that it was influential on future behavior. If there is to be a peer-based, many-to-many collaborative structure ensuring rigor and the mastery of learning outcomes, it must also be deemed authoritative and persuasive by participants. Some ways to ensure authority and persuasiveness might include the following:
  1. The teacher must drive the collaboration. While teachers engaged in many-to-many relationships with students are not the authoritative center of the collaboration, they are responsible for structuring the student experience and stewarding the learning processes that occur.

  2. The collaboration has to be bounded by a mutually agreed upon scope and charter. Compared to traditional one-to-many collaborations, many-to-many forms can appear chaotic or disorganized. In order to drive effective learning, many-to-many collaborations must operate within a set of boundaries – those things we might define as learning objectives, outcomes, standards, or rubrics. As steward of the learning process, the teacher must take responsibility for structuring the learning collaboration within a set of consistent and firm boundaries that include these structures.

  3. There must be incentives for full student participation. Critics of peer grading systems in MOOCs note that such interactions by students many times lack significant investment of time and focus – resulting in peer feedback that is spurious. Both the quality and the quantity of peer feedback within a many-to-many system have to be statistically significant in order to avoid such spuriousness.
Social network theorist Valdis Krebs notes that many-to-many networks result in interactions that are more powerful and influential on participants than are those in traditional one-to-many relationships. Without a doubt, as Randy Pausch suggested, such peer interactions within a learning collaboration can be more influential than anything suggested by the teacher guiding the experience. From what I observed while watching his “Last Lecture,” such interactions were a hallmark of his teaching at Carnegie Mellon.

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