Post No.: 0292
In my humble opinion, academic course environments are the best environments to learn and to get your views, ideas or beliefs tested. This is because the focus is on everyone discussing within the context and intention of learning (because we voluntarily sign up to these courses to learn) rather than to preach or assume that we already know it all (otherwise we’d position ourselves as the teachers rather than the pupils). This also makes for the best environments for discussions.
We sign up with the attitude that we don’t know everything – and that’s why we take these courses in the first place – hence we’re more likely to listen, learn and discuss with an open mind.
It seems silly to need to mention that if you want to truly learn something then study a course from a regulated source! But it’s because so many people nowadays think that they can learn enough via social media, which has contributed to a growing amount of shared misinformation, as well as fervent and vehement group polarisation because so many people believe that they are sufficiently informed and correct because of what they’ve been exposed to online. Social media isn’t all bad but fewer people these days think ‘I don’t know the answer because I’ve not studied it’ because they think they have, via what they’ve been fed via social media.
A lot of MOOCs (massive open online courses) have free options for all to study and are highly accessible for anyone as long as they have a reliable computer and internet connection. There are paid options for unlimited access and/or extra lessons if one wants. Most have self-paced options nowadays if the timing of a class is inconvenient. General features include videos, reading materials, discussion topics and tests. I’ve already mentioned the FutureLearn, Udacity, Coursera and edX online course platforms a couple of times before, and these have been my furry favourites in no particular order.
They’re globally accessible, thus increasing the diversity and number of people whom participate and bring their varied and interesting backgrounds, experiences and views into each class, which reduces biases (albeit if one takes courses presented in the English language, for instance, then one should be aware that there could possibly be an ‘English-speaking’ bias). These global-reaching MOOCs potentially connect us to a whole world of teachers and fellow students in an academic context, which is great for being exposed to lots of different views from all around the world and making the world seem small and interconnected.
We typically enter as complete laypeople but progress and come out as better informed – by people (e.g. professors, teaching assistants and relatively more senior students) far more knowledgeable and qualified on the subjects-at-hand than other layperson informants, who generally try to dominate the stage in other types of forums or environments (such as in the pub or amongst a closed social network group).
Discussions on course forums with other people who also understand at least the basic foundations of a subject are far more edifying than discussions on general social media platforms too, where many people aren’t there to learn or even really there to listen but are there to ‘show that they’re right and anyone who disagrees with them must be stupid, wrong or are spreading lies’. So some advice for forums, blog comment sections and social media in general is to post comments, read, absorb and reply like a collaborative student would i.e. as if one is there to share and trying to learn something new because no one knows everything, and as if trying to work together towards a solution or consensus. Don’t post like one has an agenda to push, as if one knows it all, or like there is always ever only one correct answer. (Course forums aren’t immune to confirmation bias and echo chamber cliques forming though so one must still be vigilant here.)
Discussing face-to-face has its advantages, but writing on online class forums (with moderators and enforced codes of conduct) has its advantages too because nobody can speak over another person and people can calm down and consider their responses carefully and in their own time, writing as much as they want without being interrupted. So quiet or shy people have a chance to air their views too, not just loud or brash people.
Courses also get you into the habit of listening on rather than prejudging what a teacher or other person will say next, because subjects that at first you may have assumed are straightforward, personally resolved and you think you’ve ‘probably heard it all before’ frequently turn out to be actually quite complex if only you continue to listen on. Indeed, there’d be little or nothing to teach and a course offering likely wouldn’t exist or last for long if the subject it taught was perfectly straightforward and a mass-media education sufficed.
We also wouldn’t value formal educational courses and qualifications if they weren’t a far tougher test for our knowledge and beliefs than just pub or workplace gossip, for instance. It’s the best place to get your knowledge and beliefs tested by scholarly and experienced people who understand logic, proper reason and care about hard evidence; which contrasts with a layperson public who have merely read and heard ‘a few things’ via social media or via casual conversations, where people may primarily argue based on emotions and weakly-formed ideas (e.g. people who don’t like the current immigration figures or laws yet cannot tell us the immigration figures or name a single relevant law!)
Views also get tested via graded exams and essays too. Formal institutional or academic education and being tested go paw-in-paw – testing is a critically vital aspect of effective learning. Although most participants would rather a teacher or teaching assistant mark essays – arguments and propositions are typically peer-assessed in MOOCs due to the nature of how many participants there often are taking a course. Regardless, these are times we need to carefully reason and flesh-out our stances and support our beliefs with citations and evidence, thus limiting the room for merely emotional arguments, jibes or weakly-formed ideas. Critical essay writing gets us into the habit of critiquing all sides of a story and not just presenting the side we want to believe in, and this is a great habit for life in general because most things in real life are more complicated than a one-sided story.
Misreadings or misunderstandings are checked and corrected via exams (or quizzes, if this sounds less intimidating!) too – people don’t normally get that opportunity when they misread or misunderstand something they’ve read or heard from the mainstream media or through a self-directed education (and then they might pass on these misunderstandings onto others who know no better, and so forth during causal conversations or social media posts). Few people slowly re-read information to check they’ve not misread or misunderstood something unless they know they’re going to get tested on the material. Due to the number of participants involved in MOOCs again, exams are very often multiple choice tests; but the quality of these for assessing knowledge depend more on the wording of the questions and options than the fact that they’re multiple choice. ‘Select all the correct options’ questions are much harder to randomly guess correctly, and some courses, such as those with mathematics, include blank user input boxes and therefore answers cannot be merely, say ‘1 in 5’, guessed at.
I therefore personally believe that everyone should be taking up the accessible educational opportunity presented by MOOCs until virtually the days we die – to get better clued-up on subjects one might have publicly-vocal opinions about or an upcoming vote regarding, instead of lazily trying to get informed via under-regulated general social media sources, where it’s often the blind leading the blind, or self-interested parties spreading self-serving propaganda, and where we’ll only get to superficially understand enough of something to be dangerous. (Post No.: 0169 looked at the dangers of a ‘mass media-directed’ education in more depth.)
To combat potential specific lecturer biases and variable quality issues – taking a few different courses on a similar subject can help. Taking several courses from several different institutions from around the world on roughly the same subjects will also help reduce the chances of other biases such as a general European perspective versus a general North American perspective, or a criminal perspective versus a healthcare perspective. And once you learn something properly or get introduced to it, you might want to learn even more as the pieces of the puzzle come together to make the full picture of the world clearer and clearer. And as you take more and more courses from different institutions and on different subjects, you’ll be constantly exposing yourself to the risk that something new you’ll learn will put into question something or even everything you thought you believed in before, and this is a good continual test of your beliefs.
An extremely common problem though is that it’s very easy to sign up to free courses but relatively very few people have the self-discipline to actually complete them! So don’t be like that – plan your learning schedule, don’t take bites that are too big at a time, pace and space out your learning sessions, think about how the things you’ll learn will improve your life, and stick with it. Woof!
Therefore free (at the point of) access to knowledge evidently does not alone equal knowledge because people still need to put in their own efforts to actually personally look it up and digest it, or even simply enrol, which most people seldom do or will. MOOCs have been going on for many years now yet most people who are able to haven’t even participated in a single course, and for me that reflects in the misinformed views many people hold in society. We cannot force people to read and learn things even if the information is freely available for them to access. And being merely interested in a subject is not a guarantee of knowing the facts (e.g. food influencers care deeply about the food they eat and their health, but enough of them hold misleading beliefs, reinforced by their echo chambers and filter bubbles facilitated by social media, regarding what’s necessary for a healthful diet). We must use more reputable sources of information and cross-reference them with other independent and reputable sources, such as sources who or that teach rather than primarily attempt to sell (although some lecturers will try to promote their own books too – but they generally never constantly push them in your faces in my experience).
Lots of people complain to others about lies or a lack of correct information given to them (e.g. by politicians) but people shouldn’t be so suggestible or lazy because nowadays there are free educational courses to learn about subjects and to get the right information, and to be exposed to more balanced, nuanced and sophisticated arguments and views. But too many would rather rely solely on passively absorbing social media news. After one’s regular school education and perhaps college and university education – I believe that habitually studying MOOCs or short courses should become a way of life, just like regular exercise. Enough are available for free for those who want to learn for an intrinsic sake and/or cannot afford to pay, or for a relatively small price one can receive a certificate to show to employers (who should find self-disciplined, lifelong learners particularly attractive as employees). Some course platforms offer financial help for those who need certificates but cannot afford them. So not being well informed is arguably largely one’s own fault now because of these opportunities to learn from home or wherever one happens to be.
Woof! Please reply to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below if you’ve ever completed at least a single online course so far?