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This is an idea I have visited before, but in a slightly different context, but it circles around the ideas of cost (of education) and value (in this case mine as an instructor). Many artists I “know” in the virtual world make a living selling their knowledge, many offer online courses. I have never taken one, but as I “travel” in cyber space, their clients seem pleased with what they are getting for their money.

When I raised this issue before it was because an online learner had shared something they had learned with (presumably) a friend, who was not paying for the course. At the time I observed that I assume people who take my classes will share what they are learning, so I wouldn’t have a problem with this kind of sharing. Lots of others were upset by this, they pointed out that students pay the college, who it turn pays me for my expertise and teaching. It would be like people taking my college class for free – or me not getting paid. This is true. But I also feel that I have no control over the knowledge/skills I share with my students, and I know they share skills and ideas with each other. In a creative field, we as faculty encourage them to do this, so in essence I am not paid by everyone who receives knowledge from me. Of course what is really at the heart of this whole thorny problem is that knowledge here is a commodity, sold to the student. In my case the student also gets the credentials from the school to “prove” that knowledge. You could make a strong argument that in fact it is the credential they are buying, not my skill at all.

My credentialed knowledge cost me a LOT of money, and while I learned some cool stuff in college, I think arguably I could have learned much of it on my own in libraries and in my studio, although it would have been less enjoyable that the very personable interactions I enjoyed with many of my professors. I am still paying for my degree, and the degrees of two of my three kids,( the third starts in the fall semester – so her bill is about to come due also). I have smart kids, they got some scholarship money, they work part time jobs, but educating my kids is threatening to send me careening out of the middle classes. I am not alone.

This is not to say that I believe paying for education is a bad thing, I don’t. I was happy to pay for mine, and for that of my kids. But once the cat is out of the bag, well the knowledge was never really all mine in the first place. Now I teach online versions of two of my classes there is nothing to stop my students downloading my lectures and sharing them, of course the recipient of their sharing won’t get the credential of my grade, but maybe they don’t care about that.

I was thinking about the Renaissance too, about an apprenticeship – which was paid for, and the transmission of credentialed (master craftsman) knowledge to an apprentice. So paying for knowledge has been around in my field for a very long time. Except I strongly feel that much of the real learning then and now has little to do with the official subject – say how to correctly gesso a panel, and more to do with that elusive personality factor, and to the chaos of a classroom. The payment of a fee doesn’t help me connect with my students, that’s mostly chemistry (and hopefully some great lesson planing on my part), it just allows them to claim the credit for their work at graduation.

I wish I lived in a world where money were a less pressing issue, I’d be happy to give away everything I knew for free, once you teach someone something it is addictive, the rewards for seeing someone learn don’t come in my paycheck – that paycheck just (barely) keeps the world off my back so I can keep on sharing what I know.

24 tiny net boxes under construction

So I am primarily an artist, and not only am I an artist, I am an artist who is drawn to involved laborious repetitive tasks as a marker. I joke about this all of the time, I was thinking about it this week as I was spending about 10 hours a day sewing tiny little two inch cubes out of net curtain by hand for a new project I am working on the studio. Obviously while my hands are engaged in this activity my mind isn’t always fully present, but it is mostly on the task at hand, so I don’t screw it up and have to repeat it. My life is really mostly lived in my hands, where I work.

So what does this have to do with teaching? I am sure you are asking yourself – if you have not already become so bored by the slow beginning that you are getting ready to leave. Well part of my teaching is in Studio classes, with this “new” generation of students who supposedly came with keyboards in hand. (A subject I am not even going to touch in this post except to say I am equally or more tech savvy than many of my 21st century students). What I am about to say is by nature a generalization of my experience with many students – not all students are any if these things – BUT most of my students have very little experience with stuff, materials and stuff. And they don’t have much patience with it either – as it doesn’t have an undo button but requires you instead to start all over again! What am I thinking asking them to do these things, these manual things?

The answers in a studio class come from experimentation – you cannot read the answer somewhere, you have to try it. I can make recommendations for possible places to begin, but only the act of making will tell you if this is the right answer for you and your work. Google can recommend a type of glue, you can read a bunch of blogs, but until you actually DO something you’ll never know if it will work. Boy do my students hate that. They think all the answers are out there. And really, waiting for paint to dry – are you crazy? Heaven forbid it will be the wrong kind of paint after all that waiting and they will have to START OVER!

In my lecture classes students are amazed that I have information IN MY HEAD! Why should they memorize stuff they can just Google? What is the benefit (or reward) for storing all that stuff in my head? Thank heavens that image search browsers suck – or I’d never be able to convince them to learn to identify images for exams by memorization!

So to go back to the beginning of my thought ( I should maybe have warned you that artists are not generally very linear thinkers). I am wondering is it a generational thing, or a personality thing, that I am slow in this way? Is there something about learning in a connected online way that reduces attention? It seems to me that my students, with their smart phone lifestyle are not patient. They don’t know how to wait for a slightly out of focus idea to unfold. They struggle with critical thinking because a search engine can’t bring them an answer. They don’t seem to have very good crap radars, they believe the first Google search will be accurate and correct. I wonder if they are losing the ability to debate.

Lest you suspect me of disliking this generation – I don’t. I find them funny and smart in their own ways, (and I have three kids) but I wonder about scholarship. Who will want to take the time to be with one tiny idea long enough to be an expert when all of us Luddites who read books (the paper kind) and store knowledge in our heads are gone. And art? who will make it, will we even need objects in the real world as time goes on?

So some time ago I started teaching online, and it has been a rocky transition. There are things about online that I really love, ways to link outside of the lecture and the text to others wisdom, to video and papers and blogs, places I might find a spark that ignites deep learning in my students. But it is also a struggle to put me in that course, so there is a direct connection, face time. I decided I need to learn more about online learning and so have decided to bite the bullet and register for my first MOOC. So for the next few months I’ll be blogging about what I learn about online learning and the potential for technology, and about myself as a teacher. I hope with everything I have going on in the studio I will be able to get something valuable out of it. And also that I won’t look or sound dumb – not having a background in education!!

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