A great deal of education today is fucking absurd. Or, if not a great deal, too much. Because in truth, there should be no identifiable quantity of fucking absurdity present in education at all. Hilarity, improvisation, wit, digression, performance—these lead to critical thinking, to fresh observation, to engagement (and I would love to see some research done on their effect on learning), but fucking absurdity does very little to support learning. Whereas the former all contribute to the therapeutics of learning (and performance is, as Norman K. Denzin puts it, “a way of knowing, a way of understanding, a way of creating critical consciousness”), fucking absurdity instead creates instances of:

  • learning that consists of Powerpoint slides;
  • discussion that consists of rhetorical questions;
  • the colonialism of content;
  • the supremacy of the quiz;
  • learners who don’t want to be in class, teachers who don’t want to be in class, and administrators who don’t know what happens in class;
  • and Pearson.

I live in a house with three undergraduate students. Each of them wrangles with these fucking absurdities every day. Only in rare cases do they feel that their teachers model critical thinking. And yet critical thinking should be at the heart of every course, and all course design.

I’m participating this week in MOOC MOOC: Instructional Design, a mini-MOOC from Digital Pedagogy Lab that inspects and seeks to revise traditional thinking about instructional design. As part of that, I find myself reflecting both on what I find problematic about the overwhelming paradigm of higher education -- that fucking absurdity -- and also how I design courses, and whether I participate in some of that absurdity myself.

When I begin the design of a course, the first question I ask is: what should learners—participants—walk away with? By this, I don’t mean learning outcomes or objectives. I don’t mean “When this course is finished, you will…” I don’t refer to what content learners will memorize, or what tests they’ll pass. Rather, I want to know what will linger in the mind when the learner closes her laptop? What part of the course will pry its way into dinner conversation? How will the learner feel changed, challenged, surprised, or proud?

For many, these sorts of outcomes—utterly unquantifiable—are the stuff of movies about teaching, not actual teaching. They are the standing-on-desks moment, the unexpected, life-changing success at an underfunded high school. But we don’t need to (pretend to) be Michelle Pfeiffer or Edward James Olmos or Robin Williams. The one section of the intro. class we teach doesn’t need to change lives. But it can—and it should—do more than just prepare students to pass a test.

That much many of us would agree on. But what about this idea of a moment in class so indelible that it reaches the learner’s friends, the learner’s partner, the learner’s chiropractor or dentist? Are we willing or unwilling to believe that teaching and learning can be that intimate and immediate?

The advent of online learning has introduced a new level of data and measurement (also, fucking absurdity) into education. With the learning management system (LMS) comes the ability to track all kinds of information about student performance, participation, and more. At the LMS company where I worked until recently, educational research often focused on the activity of learners on pages, watching videos, taking and passing quizzes, participating in or starting discussions in the forum, and other minutiae. It’s possible to track time on page, time in the course, and the “bounce rate” for learners in their courses. In effect, the research being done isn’t about learning, it’s about surveillance, about observing the learner in the way we might a rat in a maze.

Every time a learner looks out the virtual window and daydreams, we can know. What does this do for us and our understanding of learning? In their article, “Our obsession with metrics turns academics into data drones”, an anonymous academic says of measuring and metrics:

“Let me be clear; I’m not suggesting that students are passive in their learning, or should not be at the core of what we do. Nor am I suggesting that we shouldn’t be concerned with helping them to develop a wide skill set before they leave our institutions. But will endless measuring turn them into better, more engaged, students, or simply more cynical ones?”

Learners in this case are very much the objects of the learning process, and not the subjects. Learning is being done to them while they’re observed to see how well the technology is working, or the content… to see, to put it frankly, how well learners are responding to the treatment. The online classroom is the surgical theatre. These are their guts, this is their brain. But where is the person behind edu-physiology? What stimulates them, what stories do they have to tell, what have they brought to the classroom? When we make learners the objects of the learning process, we dehumanize the entire educational endeavor.

Is that what we want from teaching? As learners, is that what we want? As teachers, is that what we want? To ruminate on why the student stares at the ceiling, and to develop tooth-pulling techniques to get their attention? Do we want learners to be data that, if manipulated the right way, will give us insight into how to make learning happen (by which I mean less making a sandwich and more of making someone like you)?

Wouldn’t it be neat if even a tiny bit of Olmos could sneak in?

I can safely say that I have no interest in student metrics. They tell me nothing. If this or that learner didn’t jump into discussions right away, or if they didn’t watch my video lecture, all it really tells me is that they didn’t. It means they might on a different day—when they’re less busy or when their mother didn’t call in the middle of the night—or they might not. If they don’t finish reading my lecture, I know maybe it’s too long, or I’m being boring; or I can use it as a reminder that putting content on a page isn’t the catalyst for the motivation to read it.

What I know I can do as a teacher, and which metrics and data will never help me with, is establish a relationship with a learner. And help them establish relationships with each other. All the rest is up to them.