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MOOCs?

I used to have this dream where I was standing in a classroom the size of a school hall which was filled to the four walls with eager, demanding students gazing up at me as the ‘dispenser of all knowledge and bringer of good futures’. I would look to my left and there, coming through the door for as far as the eye could see, were streams and streams of such students, pushing and shoving and needing to get into the room.

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MOOCs hadn’t been thought of then, but if I had been able, in the dream, to hand out a url, I might not have woken up in a cold sweat wondering how on earth I was going to cope.

And this dream wasn’t so far from reality. At the time I was working for a training centre in South Africa which had opened its doors to students who needed to pass the school leaving exam in order to get on with their lives. Their education (I use the term loosely) had been disrupted by the social and political circumstances (convenient euphemism) that had prevailed for some time and were to prevail a while longer.

But this post isn’t a quick nostalgic look back at that experience: it’s a reflection on teaching MASSIVE classes and what it’s like doing it. Classes varied in number between 120 and 150 students.

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I was teaching (loosely used term again) the equivalent of GCSE ESL English literature. There was no time for all the niceties like exploring and researching and pair work and interesting discussion leading to informed opinions and such like. The syllabus had to be got through and pretty sharpish.

Today’s work – Richard Lovelace’s “To Althea from Prison”. So, with my middle-class, white South African frame of reference and a nod to the teacher training I had received, I opened with the almost de rigeur schemata-activating question: “How many of you have actually BEEN in a prison?” says I, inwardly rolling my eyes at such an absurd notion. Fully two-thirds of the class raised their hands. WTF? NOW what? Middle class, white South African frame of reference being all there was for me to cling to in the face of such a situation, I asked the next stupid question, “What for? What were you in prison for? Errol?” (Errol sat near the front and I knew his name.) Errol looked at me and smiled wryly to himself. He knew I had been rocked back on my heels by the previous answer. “Stealing a goat.” Unable to stop myself, I almost screamed, but it came out as a whisper, “Why?” He looked at me squarely now, “Because I was hungry.”

I wonder if a DELTA assessor would have passed me on the lesson that followed? Not a bleeding chance. But be that as it may. I also wonder, in the context of the current adaptive learning debate and the approaching tsumani that are MOOCs and their like, whether in fact, rather than teachers becoming obsolete and somewhat “last century”, perhaps having a real live human teacher to talk to may become a distinct privilege.

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