Monday, June 3, 2013

Is There Only One Right Answer?: A Challenge to the Teaching of Math and Science in Higher Ed



Many current promoters of MOOCs and other distance education models argue that higher education can be taught in a much more efficient way in fields like computer science, math, biology, and chemistry. According to high-tech educators, the main reason why these important disciplines can be streamlined is that there is only one right answer to questions and tests, and so a computer can easily grade these courses.  On a most basic level, they claim that 2+2 will always equal 4, and thus, there is no need for creativity, critical thinking, or interactive discussions.

The problem with this logic is that it removes the STEM disciplines from any social, personal, or ethical context.  In other words, students learn that math and science are impersonal, value-free fields founded on established, unchallengeable truths.  While it is clear that students do need to learn basic formulas and concepts, all knowledge needs to be seen in its social and historical contexts.  In fact, not only do we want students to think critically about the information they learn inside and outside of their classes, but we also need to train scientists and engineers to be innovative and creative.  Moreover, with the increasing importance of issues like alternative energy, cloning, stem cell therapy, and climate change, science and math should be approached with ethical concerns front and center. 

Purveyors of MOOCs like to say that online classes will not be any worse than the large lecture classes that dominate the undergraduate curriculum, and they have a point when they make this argument; however, we do not need a race to the bottom: what we need is to re-commit universities and colleges to spending resources on undergraduate instruction.  Whether our goal is to compete in the global high-tech economy or train future citizens and responsible adults, higher education cannot be focused on simply transmitting and testing simplified facts and calculations.  In fact, it is surprising that many of the most ardent promoters of MOOCs are themselves innovative computer scientists who think outside of the established box.

While China sends its students to American universities in order to build a creative class, it is ironic that the U.S. is seeking to dumb down its own curriculum. As I often tell my students, it is rare in life that you are confronted with one right answer or a simple multiple-choice test.  Reality is far too complex for the reductive model of education that is often tied to MOOCs and a reductive vision of the STEM disciplines. 

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  1. As a STEM educator, I've never once heard that ``On a most basic level, they claim that 2+2 will always equal 4, and thus, there is no need for creativity, critical thinking, or interactive discussions.'' from any other STEM educator. Sounds like a humanities-originated stereotype of science & math education from someone like Chris Edley.

    There has been a huge amount of research over the past 20 years that indicates human interaction and critical discussion is essential for learning science and math. See Carl Wieman's work.

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