The Australian

By Justin Burke

I HAD a maths teacher during high school with an unorthodox lesson plan. During each class, one student was required to ignore the entire lesson and look at an art-filled book, and to catch up on the maths in their own time.

“Maths is important,” he would say. “But lots of other things are important too.” It blew my mind.

It occurs to me that it’s not the sort of experience you are likely to get with a massive open online course (MOOC).

In this newspaper last July, Sean Gallagher and Geoffrey Garrett described MOOCs as the iTunes of education. On iTunes, I typically download the things I already understand and know I will like.

So if MOOCs are indeed the future of education, it’s worth considering some of the important things we might lose.

I had the opportunity to reflect on the unique qualities of the face-to-face classroom experience when I recently began tutoring undergraduates at my alma mater, the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

At the USSC, I had my mind blown repeatedly during my master’s degree. In the nicest possible way, the course challenged many of my ideologically flavoured notions about how the world worked, through good old-fashioned scholarly reading and debate.

In quiet moments, I still mentally puzzle over OPEC, oil and energy security, topics I had never previously thought about.

So when I fronted my first tutorial with 20 undergraduate students, eager to learn about “Americanism and anti-Americanism”, I did so with the hope that I might blow a mind or two.

A few barriers quickly became obvious.

One of them was the age gap. I remember Reagan, but few of the students had become politically conscious before George W. Bush’s second term in office.

Another was the changes in people’s media consumption. As an arts journalist, I love to use pop-cultural references to add colour and life to the social sciences. But in our media fragmented world, young people don’t watch the same TV or film at the same time anymore.

Amazingly, no more than a handful of students confessed to reading printed newspapers, though there was no doubt they were up to date with the latest news online.

That said, without relying on PowerPoint or videos, I tried to delve into the assigned topics each week and get a discussion started.

One thing I feel confident we achieved together was getting past the “Bush the fool/Obama the saviour” mentality. At best, it is incurious. At worst, it perpetuates a stereotype that tertiary educated people should automatically be left wing in their politics. I firmly believed teachers have an important responsibility not to casually or explicitly reinforce this.

Some weeks were better than others. On one occasion - dead on my feet from other commitments - I misattributed the global financial crisis quote “if money isn't loosened up, this sucker could go down,” to Warren Buffet, then to Hank Paulson. (It was George W. Bush.)

My students pulled out their iPhones and laptops, and good naturedly fact-checked me on Google for the remainder of the class. (I shamefully recall dropping subjects in my undergraduate days for lesser teacher-related crimes.)

So, how did I do at the mind blowing business?

The honest answer is: as a teacher - especially a new one - you never quite know.

Are they bored? Are they tired? Is what I am saying too dense or mind numbingly obvious? Or did I plant a seed of a truly, life changing idea?

Mind blowing experiences are not measurable, and in this digital age, the bias of measurable over important is becoming more pronounced.

I certainly never thanked Mr Habib, my high school maths teacher, for the positive effect his teaching had on me. Perhaps now I will.

This article originally appeared in The Australian.