Part XI: The didactical foundations for a FPU, long term aims, and conclusions

graphMOOCs2The material concept with its hardware facilities conceives of a residential campus with classrooms, laboratories, an auditorium, a library, exhibitions and galleries, dormitories, a museum, an astronomical and/or solar observatory, a refectory and cafeteria, etc. It should provide state of the art educational technology forming a networked community, based on an open-source ideal, and with free access to MOOCs which will enables students to learn from professors and its courses at any world university.

MOOCs are a recent development in distance education, and their effectiveness remains to be demonstrated. But it is hard to believe that new technologies might not, in a way or another, become a fundamental infrastructure of new learning methods. What must be emphasized is not just their technical capabilities, but the pedagogical and didactical approach that should stand behind it. x-Moocs, i.e. a professor centered online course are a format that prevailed because it reflects the traditional lecturer to scholar approach. But other forms of online learning with interactive engagements might well change this with time passing by. For example, a department may entirely abolish the traditional format of courses held by a professor. The university may select the best online courses available on the internet worldwide and collect them together in a program which will furnish the same skills and know how that a conventional diploma, bachelor, masters or Ph.D. delivers. Each course could have its set of online lecture. The online lectures can be discussed, with exercises solved in the classroom collectively with the help of the facilitator physically present. The facilitator’s main function would therefore not be that to deliver contents, but to help the students to assimilate and discuss offline that which was previously taught online (and eventually complement it with his/her own content). The assimilation could also express itself with other online courses created by the students themselves, in form of an y-MOOC (you-MOOC). An y-MOOC distinguishes itself from the x-MOOC inasmuch that it is not created by a renewed academic authority which has been authorized by a university, but nevertheless may present new knowledge, understandings or didactical and pedagogical approaches that were previously not known or considered. Everyone of us has some expertise to share with the world, even though that might not imply the possession of a degree or hierarchical position in the system.

A variety of different approaches emerged in the last years which suggest new ways of learning and that could perhaps become the backbone of a FPU .

“Blended learning” mixes traditional classroom activities mediated by technology (student with a tablet or laptop, or small groups working together on devices). Students learn in part through online delivery while still attending a “brick-and-mortar” school structure.

“Peer instruction” is a method which replaces lectures with small group discussions of conceptual questions, followed by whole-class discussions, with mini-lectures between questions. Students first think about and answer these questions individually; then discuss the explanations for their answers with their neighbors and come to agreement.

“Flip teaching” (or flipped classroom) is a form of blended learning in which students learn first from video lectures and what used to be homework (assigned problems) is done in class with teacher offering more personalized guidance and interaction with students, instead of lecturing.

The SOLE method of Sugata Mitra which is based on several forms of blended learning, flip teaching, and DIY U style. It encourages students dynamic interaction to work as a community in groups in order to answer assigned questions or even self-posed questions through online material or else. Again, it was conceived only for children, but there is no rational reason to believe that it can not be applied to adults too, and that colleges and universities must remain stuck to a century old model.

The “barcamp”, or “un-conference” modality might play a role in a future higher education environment also. A barcamp might be defined as an alternative way with which people could communicate their ideas, projects, studies and even dreams. It works as follows. In the beginning all the present people convene in a hall and everyone is allowed to present in a minute his or her session. And “everyone” means just that: everyone. There is no hierarchy of sages, teachers or professors. Also a perfectly unknown could rush in and present a speech. You can propose for instance to discuss with those who like to attend “the future of the MOOCs”, or instead of presenting your own project you might ask for solutions, as “how to find funds to publish a book on hand surgery?”, or discuss how far “didactical and pedagogical optimism is justified?”, and so on. Once you have presented your session, and if among the present there are at least some who rise up their hands showing interest, you get assigned a room at a specific time. The same procedure repeats itself for all those who present a topic. Finally, several sessions have been programmed on the spot, without any previous intervention and or approval by a commission. On a board, in less than a half an hour a huge program of sessions have been set. Then everyone attends those which are considered the most interesting. What follows is not a talk held by the proponent of the session, but only a brief introduction, after which an informal discussion is opened to all the present. And I’m wondering if such a form of communication might also work in a FPU? The idea is that the classical seminar format might be occasionally replaced also by an “un-seminar”. The traditional seminar is not going to die, I believe it will continue to play a role. However, in several situations a barcamp styled seminar might be a better solution. Because seminars are used to convey information. Instead an un-seminar can function as a platform to ask for information. One might have an idea of a research project and wants to hear what other students and faculty members might think of it. Another wants to set up a reserach group and looks for members participating. Another just wants to share opinions and impressions on a new discovery, and so on. What I mean, is that the barcamp, un-conference or un-seminar format might be a great tool for communicating among university members about ideas, projects, findings, news, etc. That would also foster a real socialization and eventually new forms of group work, which are not forced and imposed from above as it is actually.

Spontaneous cooperation should replace the conventional group think and teamwork philosophies. Nowadays almost everyone agrees that young generations should learn more to engage in a collective activity and become fit for teamwork. There seems to be nobody who is in principle against community work and all around we hear that learning to socialize with others and adapt to a team spirit in order to form working groups which strive for a common goal, is one of the most urgent skills the market and future societies need. And yet, several group leaders, teachers, professors and managers express their dissatisfaction for a lack of real progress in this respect. Still too many students and employee conceive schools, universities, research centers and industries as places where to work lonely on the given workload with too weak interaction with colleagues and fellow students. Students are assigned to working groups and asked to collaborate towards a common goal and frequently different forms of encouragement united with forms of coercion are applied to enhance participation and ‘esprit de corps’. Almost all companies proclaim on their websites to value teamwork as a top priority and working method. It has become a fashion, almost a compulsion to highlight one’s conviction in it. Nevertheless, despite many efforts, a cohesive team remains an exception not a rule, reality looks usually very different than the proclaimed intentions.

It will not be the obsessive preaching and continuous call to teamwork that will bring it to life, The question is not if teamwork is desirable, on which all agree, but how it is supposed to be achieved. This is much less obvious and straightforward. It should be clarified what really kind of teamwork we are talking about? A synergic unity of people struggling for a goal is not a modern human activity but old as humankind. It has been extensively applied for thousands of years and meticulously elaborated throughout all cultures and times in the military, in order to drill soldiers to obedience, conformity, and reverent submission. Of course no one would ever admit to conceive of teamwork in these terms. But truth is probably much more subtle. As the century old educational concepts which reverberate in our minds are unconsciously permeated and molded by a Taylor industrial mindset, so is our conception of teamwork which, without having awareness of the underlying cultural influence, relies mainly on a militaristic idea of group efficiency.

If we look instead at this problem with the lenses of the inner inherent freedom of the human being, it becomes not too difficult to understand were the problem lays. Spontaneous cooperation should be based on three basic pillars. First the freedom to ask the question and/or pose the problem. Rarely students are free to learn, investigate and research for the answers they have in mind. The exercise, the homework, the knowledge to be achieved is pre-assigned by the teaching force. Whereas it should be the other way around. Secondly, an individual aggregation freedom to a group or project according to one’s own interest or skills, or even to disengage from group work entirely, should be respected. Again, in standard academia the contrary is true: usually students are not free to chose in which group they may work. They are thrown into one or another set of people who are working on something they may not be interested in, and asked to be nevertheless collaborative. Thirdly, everyone should be free to chose his/her degree of effort in the participation process. This means that everyone can decide how much to be collaborative. I’m quite sure that the best way to incentivize collaboration is that not to force it on the members of a group. Whereas, nowadays one can see that, in order to foster group dynamics, some professors ask their students to asses with grades the other’s group members contribution and group effort. I’m skeptic that that works really.
Therefore, a spontaneous collaboration must be based on a freedom to ask questions, on the freedom to aggregate and the freedom to participate. This could open the way to the synthesis between a team spirit and everyone’s own personalized one-on-one mentoring combining it with self-directed experiential learning.

But the baby should not be thrown out with the bath water. Also some forms of standard lecturing and teaching methods might have a place. The result should be a social learning environment based on a passion-driven educational learning framework. And all these aspects and properties of a FPU should not taken separately from each other but interact inter-dependently as a whole living and learning organism. A FPU can not only adopt some ideals, but also some principles of the administrative structure of democratic schools (or Sudbury Valley schools). Regulatory norms, codes of behavior, conflict resolution and problem solving approaches must be considered. Students and facilitators should have equal voice and right of vote in meetings about appointments or dismissals of staff and facilitators themselves, or any other smaller matters. Whereas committees could be created to solve specific social or bureaucratic issues.

Could these things work? Only future will tell for sure. These are so far the main trends, and frequently the distinction between the one method and the other is not always clear. But what really matters at this stage is to look forward, to begin to have a vision of the future, to experiment, eventually by trial and error methods, with failures and defeats, but at least with an attempt to go forward instead of remaining stuck in the present. The main scope, aim and target should be the liberation of the inner spirit, of the individual potential, of the real Soul in us.

Finally few words about the long term aims. On the long term things should go towards a university which could give students a preparation and qualification that can nevertheless be recognized also outside of it. Something the outside world recognizes and yet has been acquired through a completely different learning paradigm. And it should demonstrate that it is possible to acquire the same quantity and quality of knowledge, and even better, that leads to very different and much more integral perspectives. The level of understanding and competence in a specific subject like physics, biology, medicine, etc. of a student coming from a FPU should be the same and even more integral than those coming from ordinary academia. It is not simply about a university which offers some course as an appendix, as an added chunk of knowledge to students of present conventional universities, but a complete self contained academic structure. Because what is wrong with present university faculties is not so much what they teach but how they force people to study it. A mature full-fledged FPU should be a living example which shows the world that things can be done otherwise and better than in the present learning formats. In this sense it should offer the possibility to students who express the desire to enroll in a faculty, say in some faculty of arts, science, medicine, engineering, philosophy, history, or whatever, the same or similar academic skills. When they graduate, they will have the same or even better preparation with a waster and deeper understanding, and that they can also use in the rest of the world, which might look upon it first with skepticism, but with time will recognize it.

Once this is established and works, this can be proposed as a platform, a laboratory of universal education that the world can look at as an alternative to their present strictly materialistic and intellectual educational systems. A platform where other students, teachers, professors around the world can be invited to experience how it is possible to uplift the present division between learning and self-learning, understanding and intuition, knowledge and inspiration.

Conclusion

This present proposals has to be considered only a sketch, a rough idea for a FPU blueprint, they have no pretension to be neither ultimate nor exhaustive, even not necessarily correct. Apart from the fundamental principles that wanted to express the spirit of a free and progressive education, the details will be elaborated with time, and especially will be dictated by experience. The main aim of the author is just to arise some curiosity on the subject trying to advance some preliminary thoughts. If this will also lead to an action and a change, then the objective of this ‘manifesto’ will have been amply fulfilled.

Those who have read so far and are already engaged with modern alternative forms of pedagogy, might have recognized several aspects and receipts for a progressive form of education already outlined elsewhere. However, the word ‘pedagogy’, usually refers to education in primary schools, sometimes secondary schools, but never to high schools, college and university. If humanity wants to progress towards a society of free minded people and original and creative thinkers, this division must fall. That is one of the reasons why we are still, and have remained for too long, in the stone ages of education. But this is also the fascinating part of all that. Since it means that much more than a reform is necessary and that a revolution is possible. Everyone interested in contributing to this ‘adventure of consciousness’ is encouraged to participate.

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