Yes, Virginia, There Is Knowledge Transfer

Because I have pointed out what I believe to be some limitations of MOOCs, some seem to have leapt to the conclusion that I strongly dislike the idea. Not at all. However, some of the Chronicle discussion seemed to be setting up the format as the salvation of higher education – which clearly MOOCs are not. But it’s not insulting to proclaim that you can’t turn a screw with a hammer, or that you can’t sweeten cookie dough by adding flour. Hammers and flour are imminently useful; they’re just not appropriate for every single situation. This is my only point about MOOCs – to me they seem imminently useful; they’re just not appropriate for every single situation.

Having said that, I have to deal with one of the comments left by a reader on Dave’s recent post.

In the end, though, my biggest issue with Wiley’s thoughts about MOOCs is the hint of essentialist epistemology that I sense in his argument. For me, Wiley is working out of the assumption that knowledge is a collection of nuggets that a teacher can transfer from herself to her students. I find this reductionism untenable. To my mind, knowledge is always a function of dynamic, complex networks, forged through the interactions of individuals with their discourse communities and their worlds. Knowledge is a fluid pattern that emerges through the dance we have with others and with the universe. It is not a chunk of information that a teacher writes on the blackboard for the students to write in their notebooks.

This kind of writing is the reason normal people hate academics.

Let’s be clear. The overwhelming majority of learning that happens in this world is the kind of knowledge transfer the commenter claims cannot exist. What time is it? Who won the game last night? Do you know where I left my keys? Are there any tissues left in that box? Where would you like to go for dinner? Who’s your favorite author? What’s the weather supposed to be like today? When will Brandon Sanderson release his new book? Is there any pizza left in the fridge? Ad infinitum…

Each and everyone of these questions represents a lack of knowledge. Each one is directed toward someone we believe possesses this knowledge. By asking, we are asking them to transfer their knowledge to us. By responding, they do so. There is no swirling cosmic dance of emergent fluidity. There’s a simple question, and a simple answer. And knowledge is transferred in the process. End of story.

The fact that academics are incapable of recognizing that 99-some-percent of all the learning that happens in the world is pure and simple knowledge transfer is what leads people to believe that we live in ivory towers disconnected from reality. It can represent only one of two states: (1) we completely fail to see that this is the nature of most learning, even though we claim to recognize the value of “informal learning” (i.e., we’re clueless), or (2) our floccinaucinihilipilification of such mundane, everyday occurrences places them beneath our concern (i.e., we’re snobs). Either way, our critics would have a valid point.

Now – is there some learning that requires more of a Paskian conversation than a simple question / answer couplet? Yes, of course. But should the existence of this extreme minority cause us to declare the majority to be either nonexistent or uninteresting? I certainly hope not.

BTW, if you need help preparing your counterargument to this post, might I recommend you use the Educational Research Title Generator?

P.S. My wife just said, “Wow. If people really believe the stuff in that paragraph, the elite graduate schools are doing a great job transferring knowledge.” LOL.