I have been following the ruckus around Prof. Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto in a desultory fashion for some time now. He caught my attention with his protest against being forced to use certain words. I am old enough to recall the furor over the introduction of the term ‘Ms.’ – I remained neutral then and remain neutral now on its use because its use neither irritates nor arouses me to any great passion. I can adopt this attitude as the word was not forced. You could use it or not use it. But the power of the state is beginning to encroach on language from many directions now, one being the use of human rights legislation to force people to use invented pronouns for those who self-identify as transgender. I say, by all means describe yourself in any way you wish, and ask, yell at, argue with, plead with others to use your invented words. People can then respond in kind. But do not add this to a growing list of human rights. I have listened to arguments in favour and remain entirely unconvinced. But, this is getting off topic. My eyes alighted on the video linked above as a result of a this original controversy, but I watched it because the idea of a new sort of university intrigued me.
Now, Jordan Peterson seems unaware of Coursera or Moocs, or even Canada’s Athabaska University, or for that matter the extensive array of online courses offered by the school where I teach as a contract lecturer, the University of Guelph – which uses a commercial software package called Courselink.
All of these, however, suffer from a defect, or to employ the use of an older version of a word, a ‘want’, that is a ‘lack’, best expressed in one of my favourite Biblical sayings: you cannot put new wine into old wineskins. All these technologies for online teaching strive to put this new form of learning, online learning, into the old wineskins that defined teaching in front of a classroom filled with students. The worst of these I have seen are standard classroom lectures filmed and put up online – complete with references to text books to purchase at university bookstores, and chalk on chalk boards hardly visible for the online viewer. The best I have seen incorporate white boards where you can see the words or diagrams being produced and the prof’s head in a box in a corner talking, or even live video podcasts. I do not like live as that defeats one of the aspects of the new wine: students can access this at a time convenient for them, not at a pre-set time (this is an old wineskin).
So, Jordan Peterson in this interview was somewhat vague on the format and the technical aspects but I hope it entails a complete rethinking and movement away from the old wineskin of an instructor standing in front of rows of chairs filled with students. In any case in the modern classroom, many of these students are busy texting, or surfing the net, unlike past students who dozed and dreamed and even slept.