Thursday, August 15, 2013

Too much cake

I wrote recently about self-service learning and how MOOCs offer a convenient complement to formal education. The analogy of the self-service cafeteria where learners can compose their own blend of short courses is very attractive and I believe that we are seeing the emergence of a much more varied and flexible ecosystem for learning combining the benefits of short, just-in-time online courses with longer formal courses and programmes. You choose the option that best fits your current lifestyle and needs.

However there is a danger of letting everyone compose their own education by piecing together dishes from a gigantic buffet. What happens if you only choose the cakes and miss out the vegetables? This is the theme of an article in the Washington Post by Robert F Bruner: Commentary: Without structure, learning crumbles. He's worried that the new educational buffet will mean that people will only learn what they want to learn and thus will miss the less attractive but essential details that put everything into context. It's a bit like the problem of personalization on the web. If we can tweak our preferences so that we are only exposed to news and information that we agree with we will simply live in a bubble, unaware of other points of view or sheltered from unpleasant information. Our own preferences are not enough. Someone has to ensure that we have a balanced diet.

"Too much dessert and not enough broccoli. Students who simply follow their appetites will eventually find some educational candy: courses that may gratify an immediate interest, but don’t really build one’s capabilities. Like a healthy diet, a great education consists of a balance of intellectual nutrition. Eat your vegetables. They are good for you."

How do we make sure students "eat their greens" as well as benefitting from the flexibility and diversity of today's learning environment?


  1. Hi Alastair,

    Great piece, and I fancy a portion of Learning Crumble now :-)

    I thin this highlights the fact that although the buffet approach is good, learners still need help and advice to understand the goals (hard to know precisely what they are if you don't know the subject) and help and advice on, perhaps, how best to undertake the journey to those goals. One way to do this is to help people learn the benefits of 'their greens' and how to go about building their education on firm foundations. The need for this emphasises why MOOCs et al cannot mean the removal of teaching staff - even if some people want to predict this - because without the guidance, people are very unlikely to be able to build the portfolio of knowledge they need for anything other than the most trivial activities.
    Having said that, of course, it also means we need to consider what it is that needs learning - so much information is available we can pick up new skills and knowledge while creating things for the first time, and the real fundamental skill we need is how to do this efficiently, well, quickly, routinely, and to be able to recognise that there may be other/better ways; allow ourselves to be able to invent new processes, new knowledge, as part of working in an environment where access to the old is at the click of a mouse...


  2. Thanks for your comments Pat. Some people are able to help themselves wisely and can plan their learning but most people need guidance. As you say the teacher's role will be crucial to help students learn to learn and to be able to make good choices in how to manage their learning in the future. The demand for study guidance will grow as the educational landscape gets more complex.

  3. Just received a comment from a colleague via e-mail that I would like to add here:

    "Interesting reading about the risks of freedom of choice in flexible learning. Paul Trowler wrote about this in a book from 1998, Academics responding to change. So this is not a new discussion but is equally important now as it was then. The key question to ask here is - how do we university teachers deal with this issue in our pedagogical planning of courses and degree programmes?"