2003 February 12 – More on Weblogs in Education

(entry last updated: 2003-02-12 07:32:42)

Wow! I’ve already gotten some comments on my late-night posting. I have at least one point that I need to make more clear: speaking as an MIT alum at both the undergrad and graduate level, I would never assert that life at MIT is all about grades. You can’t really survive here if you don’t want to learn anyway.

But grades are embedded into the institution; the faculty have to generate them, the students expect them and the university employs them as indicators of performance, health and progress – students AND faculty (we get graded, too, via course evaluations). At MIT, at least in my day (I never thought I’d use that expression seriously <G>), it was vital that you understood grades, because survival in classes required gaming the system – you might also want to learn the material for yourself, but you definitely had to figure out what was going to be on the exam if you expected to survive.

There’s even a book on the subject (no, not the Paper Chase, although there’s a particular resonance given the locus of Dave’s efforts) – The Hidden Curriculum by Benson Snyder. It’s old, perhaps, but it was a revelation to me as an undergraduate. Written by someone intimately familiar with both the MIT and the Wellesley educational experience, it contrasts the two to develop several important themes, one of which is that courses operate at two levels – the overt curriculum, which is embedded in the readings, syllabi, etc; and the hidden curriculum, which are the specific tasks that must be achieved in order to pass the class.

What gives the hidden curriculum traction is that grades are awarded, and are considered by a host of individuals and institutions. And the knowledge of that leads to a certain conception of competitive behavior that both sides of the process exploit. Derek pointed out that weblogs might be a great way for students to turn in their weekly papers – true, but what about the last student to post his/her paper – is it fair to assess that paper on the same basis as the others, knowing that this student had the opportunity to learn from everyone else’s earlier posting? If not, how would you revise the assessment process – looking at timestamps? Would you really believe them?

Now, there are mechanics that can be used to work that problem, but that’s just the first one that comes to mind, and it explicitly identifies the key problem – grades make us work competitively, while weblogs make us collaborative. Shoehorning the two together in the face of institutional pressures to develop grades (and to make them mean something – for admissions, hiring, etc.) is going to be an uphill battle.

Which is not to say that it shouldn’t be tried – but it’s going to be interesting to see how this very real clash of cultures is going to be worked through. The opportunities are great – but some anticipatory strategic and organizational thinking will probably help everyone out a lot.