Reimagining Online Education

Steven Mintz, Inside Higher Ed, Dec 19, 2015
Commentary by Stephen Downes
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"As long as aviation pioneers tried to mimic birds, controlled, heavier-than-air human flight proved impossible," writes Steven Mintz. "Along somewhat similar lines, it is only by breaking decisively from traditional face-to-face models that it will be truly possible to create the kinds of immersive, social experiences in online education..." Fair enough. Fair enough. But while the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning described here looks a lot like nothing more than a a bird with more features. It's still a course, and it still "scaffolds, supports, and mechanisms for monitoring student progress." The poor bird is too overweight to get off the ground. Mintz says we need to rethink "motivation, learning acquisition, the student experience, and assessment." I agree, but let's actually rethink these things.



  • Motivation - is best addressed by focusing on areas where the person is already motivated rather than creating artificial motivation-enhancing devices such as games and leader boards.

  • Learning - is not "acquired" or "discovered" - it is grown through authentic experience in meaningful environments (yes, including simulations, but simulations preparing for real experiences)

  • The student experience - isolation, pace and confusion are not addressed by creating a whole artificial community, but are better addressed by tapping into existing real-life communities

  • Assessment - is not best managed by testing and assignments (even if they address all aspects of Bloom's taxonomy) but by actual performance in authentic tasks and environments


Education doesn't more features. It needs authentic propulsion and sound aerodynamic design. Sadly, most educational professionals don't study aerodynamics, they study ornithology.

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