Zen and the Art of Online Learning
Concurrent Session 4
This session will commemorate the passing of Robert Pirsig, and the implications of his iconic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” for online learning. Specifically, the presenters will discuss online learning with respect to engagement, quality, change, shelf life of information and how Pirsig addresses each of these issues.
Beginning in 2008, the presenters, George Otte (The City University of New York), Gardner Campbell (Virginia Commonwealth University), Phil Long (The University of Texas, Austin), and Chuck Dziuban and Patsy Moskal (the University of Central Florida) initiated a discussion theme around “Questions you shouldn’t ask about online learning.” Metaphorically, our group evolved into “the grey breads and a girl” making presentations at EDUCAUSE, The EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) and OLC Accelerate conferences over those years. We had intended to retire the panel, but the passing of Robert Pirsig has motivated us to pay tribute to him and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” through the lens of online learning. This presentation will extract the following four lessons from “Zen and the Art…” and show how they speak to educational transformation and online learning. This will also serve as our tribute to an icon of American philosophy.
Bricks, Thumbs, Coins, and Grades: Zen and Transformative Learning Online
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, we read these words from our narrator as he describes his teaching: “He’d been innovating extensively. He’d been having trouble with students who had nothing to say. At first he thought it was laziness but later it became apparent that it wasn’t. They just couldn’t think of anything to say.” For most teachers, these are distressingly familiar words in the face-to-face setting Pirsig describes in his novel. In the online environment, where authentic social and cognitive presence can become even harder to establish, one finds unique difficulties in trying to reach the goal of insight-rich transformative learning. The first presentation describes the ways in which Pirsig’s narrator helps a passive, restless, even hostile group of students gradually become an intrinsically motivated, thoroughly present group of learners, and explores analogous ways in which the mutually transformative learning encounter between teacher and students, as well as among students themselves, might be effected within the online environment. In other words, to paraphrase one of the narrator’s most haunting question, how can you awaken online the mysterious internal goal of each creative learner?
Zen and the Art of Online Learning Research: “Slip Slidin Away”
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Phaedrus contends that quality is recognized by a non-thinking process and argues that because definitions are a product of rigid, formal thinking quality cannot be defined precisely. He freaks his students out by saying that even though quality defies definition they know what it is. In a contentious exchange, he finally offers this definition: clarity, authenticity, suspense, unity, economy depth, proportion, brilliance, vividness sensitivity, emphasis, authority flow and precision. Ultimately, Pirsig is saying that quality is a perceptual phenomenon that disintegrates the moment metrics are applied to it. We will address 20+ years of research on the impact of online learning and how the issue of quality has roiled throughout the initiative at our University.
We will discuss these issues through the lens of several constructs. For instance: Gibson’s claim that education has become post geographical, Lakoff’s notion of an idealized cognitive model and prototype theory, Shultz’s contention that we learn from being wrong, Mullainathan and Shafir’s scarcity concept, Floridi’s prediction of the coming infoshpere and Johnson’s idea that good ideas come from the adjacent possible, a slow hunch and liquid networks. Using these as a framing mechanism, we will speak to how we have addressed quality in online learning research by using a data to information to insight to action model, realizing that data have no voice of their own.
Pirsig and Changing Our Idea of Change
We’re fond of saying that change these days is the one constant, not seeing how the paradox has flipped on us: less remarkable than all the talk about change is how little has actually changed. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Pirsig explains why. He says tearing down a factory or a government changes nothing if the system of thought that produced it is left intact. And the history of factory design bears him out: it took over a generation from electricity’s supplanting of the steam engine for factories to be redesigned, not around a central turbine, but redistributed across a factory floor, each station with its own power.
We are at the same place with online instruction, even and especially if we think we’re past the longstanding obsession with comparability. We still think in terms of the classroom and instructor, just putting “online” in front of those words. Have we really considered how much can change with the radical redistribution of time (e.g., how asynchronicity can mean layered simultaneity as well as flexibility) or an even more radical multiplication of connections (with peers and experts, with kinds of content and media, with aspects of the “real world”)? To see past the habituated is the real challenge. As Pirsig noted, “What makes [t]his world so hard to see clearly is not its strangeness but its usualness. Familiarity can blind you too.”
The Pace of Change & the Lifespan of Truth: Learning as a Life(saving)-Skill
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the alter ego Pirsig’s narrator ruminates on cycle repair problems and his approach to solving them. They aren’t, he tells us, “complex enough really to require full-scale formal scientific method.” But when you come across one that is head-scratchingly difficult, then you “crank up the formal scientific method.” Phaedrus, the narrator’s former alter-ego, was astonishingly good with coming up with hypotheses and coined a law for his discovery “The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite.” But therein lay the wall – if you can’t ever test all the hypotheses necessary to conclude an experiment has the scientific method failed?
Worse, he observed that the “time span of scientific truths are an inverse function of the intensity of scientific effort.” Truths of the 20th century were much shorter than the last because the pace of scientific activity was faster. The whole structure of reason handed down to us by our forebearers is increasingly inadequate. “It begins to be seen for what it really is – emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless and spiritually empty.”
This is perhaps the signal issue of our day in learning and indeed in the future of work. There are too many truths to learn and their shelf-life is growing ever shorter. How do we teach, what do we teach, and when our ability to reach learners is ever expanding online, are we teaching them anything at all of lasting value? Vannevar Bush confronted the rapid growth of scientific knowledge after WWII and proposed a technological solution, the Memex. Business has struggled to contend with the changing pace of product development that once followed the S-curve but now appears to be increasingly logarithmic. Online education, because of its geographical freedom, is ideal for a future where iterative education and (re)training is becoming the norm. But are we exacerbating inequity, diminishing hope or offering opportunities for rebirth?
Discussion and Audience Engagement
Historically these sessions have sparked thoughtful onsite discussion and individual follow-up. We propose to start an ongoing, interactive discussion with the audience at OLC Accelerate, continuing via a Google document, capturing ideas, questions, and solutions centered around the discussed themes. In addition Peter Shea has shown interest in the discsusion as a paper based on this session for publication in the Online Learning journal.