Just the right touch
They say that with just the right touch, applied at just the right moment and in just the right place, an entire world is transformed. Until recently, academe was seen as an impregnable ivory tower, overlooked by predators because nobody ever thought it had any money. So, imagine its shock and chagrin upon waking one morning to find the barbarian hordes massed outside its gates… mon dieu, the MOOCs are here! Be this some especially odious strain of Scythians, storming out from some sinister void marked on ancient maps with the warning “There be dragons”?
Higher education has proved ill prepared to entertain the company of such malodorous and disruptive house guests. Especially now that the guests seem bent on rudely evicting their hosts, hoping to hijack their time-honored model of education and replace it with something automated and coldly, ruthlessly corporate. But in this case, the corporate genius for wreaking creative destruction in the cause of profits is playing fast and loose with forces and consequences it does not comprehend.
It may be that MOOCs are popular with many students because they’re cheap. But in Europe, they’re not very popular, because higher education in Europe in a lot more affordable than it is in America. So then, it is about the money… but let’s consider why MOOCs don’t work at any price.
MOOCs are modeled on some appallingly bad assumptions, among them the idea that learners will somehow teach themselves, without interaction with the teacher. But more so, MOOCs are also premised on a flawed model of information, being that however and wherever information is presented, whether in a textbook, a lecture, or a video, it’s all spaghetti code.
Which is what? Spaghetti code is information that is linear, and which the learner slurps up (by reading it or by hearing it) one sentence at a time, like a strand of spaghetti. Like pasta, spaghetti code is mostly empty calories; people typically retain but a very small fraction of what they’ve read or listened to. Plus, it’s the devil to untangle and pick through for nuggets of insight (which accounts for the common spectacle of learners furiously underlining and highlighting the essential points of whichever text they’re slogging through).
But information is not meant to be linear. That’s not how it happens in the human mind. In the synapses of the brain, information radiates everywhere with connections to other information, and the human mind operates naturally by association. By associating information with other information, it becomes charged with meaning, and when that happens, the learner learns, and welcomes new information into the realm of the familiar. The underlying flaw of linear thinking (like logic) is that it ignores most of these connections, and reduces knowledge from omnidirectional to the linear and two-dimensional.
Like fine Italian cuisine, learning cannot be confected and imparted by an assembly-line process. Learning must be premised on the inter-relatedness of all knowledge; information standing alone by itself is sterile, and has no meaning. It only acquires meaning when considered in relation to other information, so that meaning can then transform knowledge into understanding.
Without the guiding mind of the teacher, the learner is generally at a loss to draw those connections among information, and to elicit their meaning. This can only be done by the teacher mentally engaging the learner. The teacher elicits understanding from the learner in the same way that people learn by doing. Active, reciprocal engagement between teacher and learner is the transacting, the doing of learning, and such engagement cannot occur between an inquiring mind and a textbook, which can offer no reciprocity and therefore no true communication—without which, there is only ingestion of information, without the intellectual digestion and nourishment.
Without engaging the expert hand of the teacher in weaving the fabric of understanding, the learner left alone with a textbook in a MOOC may be very hard–pressed to make the connections and develop the insights that make for true learning.
An Old Idea Whose Time Has (Finally) Come
A new (but quite old) learning technology has at last come along to mitigate the madness of corporate education, and restore the nutrients of the learning process that are being stripped out by its attempted automation.
WisdomMapsâ are a new riff on an old idea. The idea in question, “mind maps”, was actually pioneered more than 2,000 years ago in ancient Sumer, and popularized more recently by Leonardo da Vinci some 500 years ago. But at the same time, it’s a cutting-edge, radically different, and terribly exciting way to accomplish true learning. It’s new in terms of what it can do for learning today—global learning, at all levels, primary school through Ph.D. It’s a shame that it seems to have gotten lost in that 500-year interim, since had it been adopted by mainstream education a long time ago, we would certainly be seeing a big improvement over the learning outcomes that everyone’s now scrambling to fix.
The central idea behind WisdomMaps is that all information is inter-related. It’s a bit like chaos theory, which holds that the beating of a butterfly’s wings somewhere over north Africa can give rise to a hurricane in the Caribbean. Admittedly, the connection can seem pretty obscure, but there is a relationship, and the key to discerning that relationship is to bring more and more information and insight to bear upon it. The purpose of a WisdomMap is to lay out all that information and insight visually, so that the learner can look at it and see right away how everything fits together, and how any one thing is related to everything else. What we’re talking about here is the unity of knowledge, and seeing it is the stuff of wisdom.
With WisdomMaps, the learner is better able to retain information than when they’re presented with a tangle of spaghetti code that suffers from too little organization and too many empty calories. WisdomMaps allow information to be presented in concise language, and organized in a way that is much easier for the learner to retain and access in his mental filing cabinet.
WisdomMaps are maps of every little path through the thicket of the information universe. It allows the learner to explore knowledge of all kinds, to their heart’s content. And when they find their passion, so to speak, they provide an immense wealth of additional information and multimedia resources, far beyond the scope of textbooks—there being no limit to the amount of information and multimedia resources that WisdomMaps can hold and link to.
But most of all, this new take on mind maps conveys a vivid and coherent understanding of what information means. It does this by building into its maps a patented “relational ontology”, a set of links that serves to relate information to other information in terms of shared meaning, shared concepts, and parallels and analogy, and in terms of reasons, means, and effects. This is how information is made to relate to other information, and build unity of knowledge. In this way, mind maps can be said to form the beginnings of a new knowledge universe based on what things mean–an extraordinary departure from the rote rigors of linear learning.
Mentoring: the Critical Difference
We regard our teachers as mentors, “guides on the side” who personally counsel the learner, answer their questions, and guide the development of their mastery of the subject matter. Learner-mentor consultation takes place by email, phone calls, and by scheduled sessions that utilize web cams and software for online meetings to facilitate face-to-face (after a fashion) discussion.
With the mentor at their side, the learner is encouraged to go wherever their curiosity takes them, and to encounter all kinds of new interests along the way. A learner whose only interest is to learn about running a surf shop is going to realize that he’ll want to acquaint himself with the history of surfing so he can talk things up with his customers. This in turn leads him into the history of Hawai’i, which much to his surprise, he finds utterly fascinating. He realizes too that he’s going to need some understanding of business: managing a small business, getting it financed, doing the accounting, perhaps a bit of business law. And he should probably want to know more about the ocean (now that’s something to get lost in).
Any of these immersions in these by-the-way subjects could awaken a strong and abiding interest—perhaps even whet the learner’s appetite for some really serious study, perhaps even a career. Point being, WisdomMaps let the learner’s course of study be guided by their own curiosity and their own interests—not by administrative fiat. Chances are, they’ll eventually bump into most of the required core subjects anyway, but they’ll do so on their own terms and in a way that relates to their own interests. And when that happens, their engagement with the subject will be more enthusiastic than if you lead an unthirsty horse to water and try to make him drink (good luck with that).
We at Polymathima are dedicated to true learning, and we intend for our planned Polymathima University to become a place where anyone can come to learn, and where anyone can come to teach, without the costs and hindrances that complicate higher education today.
We hope to tap into the robust global market for American higher education, and to enhance the quality and choices of higher education for learners. We intend to become the source where colleges can come to select mind-mapped courses for their own teachers to teach, much as one checks out a book from a library. Similarly, students at colleges everywhere will be able to augment their learning by taking our courses from whichever college teaches them, and then transfer the credits for those courses back to their own colleges. Our library of WisdomMaps courses will grow and enable colleges everywhere to access an increasingly broad array of courses, and enable a community college to offer the curriculum of an Ivy League institution.
But for many colleges, Eldorado is elsewhere. The best colleges in the United States are scrambling to come up with ways to deliver online courses to global markets–to somehow surmount the language barrier and personalize the instruction, and to successfully monetize those courses. Given that the global educational market is worth some $3 trillion a year, their enthusiasm is understandable. But developing a successful model for globally-distributed online learning, as their experience to date has shown and as we have discussed above, has proven to be a daunting and elusive proposition.
We believe that we have answers. Because our courses will display multi-lingually in any of the world’s commonly recognized languages, our technology represents a way to tap the explosive demand in global markets for an American college degree. It enables an American college to offer courses in any subject, in whichever languages its students want, and to earn regular if not premium tuition rates from its foreign enrollment–without the language barrier, and without students being required to come to the United States to study.
In a word, we believe that WisdomMaps stands to democratize higher education for learners and teachers everywhere, and that it can at last enable America’s most valuable (and value-adding) activity, its higher education, to supplant the cynical model of Goliathan corporate education with the vibrant intellectual creativity and innovation of true learning and the knowledge economy.