The Chronicle Review

Rediscovering the Material World

Keith Negley for The Chronicle

April 29, 2013

While I was hiking the Appalachian Trail this past summer, Georgia Tech, my home institution, announced its affiliation with Coursera and launched itself headlong into the MOOC world.

It occurred to me as I ambled down the trail that day that an intensely embodied experience like long-distance hiking seemed the opposite of long-­distance education. Hiking requires taking not only a careful equipment inventory but also a constant inventory of your own body: checking hydration, sore muscles, arthritic knees, blisters, and an always-too-heavy pack.

I realized that to MOOC or not to MOOC was not really the question. The real issue was how brick-and-mortar institutions could embrace MOOCs while continuing to build on the strengths of local, capital-intensive pedagogical practices—actual in-the-flesh pedagogy in a world of Coursera.

In the months before this announcement, a Georgia Tech faculty panel had, as a result of a strategic-planning proc­ess, decided to focus on a number of undergraduate initiatives that included design pedagogy. Design, like MOOCs, is a hot pedagogical term these days. Once designating a fairly narrow set of material practices, design has come to embrace a broad range of activities, including interactive, game, and even lifestyle design.

Although it does take advantage of the Internet to collaborate at a distance, most design practice involves small, tightly organized teams grappling not just with ideas but also with the physical materials necessary to execute them. So perhaps thinking about the use of design to teach—any subject, including literature—is a way to begin to understand what MOOCs might be missing.

In the fall of 2009, I taught an upper-level seminar on Thoreau. The students, who came from a broad range of disciplines, were asked to read Walden before the semester began, and on the first day I set them two tasks: to collectively timber-frame a replica of his house using only the tools he could have used (no power tools), and to document the process through text, video, and Web-based materials.

Although there are many renderings of Thoreau's famous house, no true plans for its construction exist—only the scattered passages in Thoreau's book, a drawing by his sister, and the conjecture of a number of scholars—so my students first had to design their frame. But before that, they had to understand timber-framing as a practice. And before that, they had to understand 19th-century hand tools and then borrow some axes to cut down some trees.

In other words, they had to develop a number of design skills, articulate a building plan (which would also deal with safety issues), form documentary strategies, and, ultimately, learn how to swing an ax and mortise a joint. We spent the next few months studying the history of building practices, reviewing literature on the relationship between cognition and tool use, and, of course, rereading Thoreau. We also spent a lot of time chopping, sawing, chiseling, and documenting, and we spent time learning that we needed to learn yet another set of skills. The semester ended, grades were assigned—and the work continued.

Our frame was raised the following February by students in the course and volunteers who had joined us over the months. The students ended up with a timber structure, blisters, and a few adze-related wounds, as well as research papers, video interviews, poster sessions, a short documentary film, and presentations at two scholarly conferences.

This experience highlights the value of design-intensive pedagogy. Those students had to design a house but also a syllabus, a research strategy, and various forms of public presentation. Nothing was given; everything was a problem awaiting a solution. It goes without saying that you cannot square a timber with a broadax via the Internet—YouTube videos notwithstanding. The results of their research can be downloaded all over the world, but the class as a practicing design team was resolutely local—fixed and weighted in the front yard of Georgia Tech's Architecture School building.

As pedagogy, the work of the "Thoreau Housing Collective" extended across the institution, as we were joined by volunteers, many of whom just wanted to get their hands dirty. We also conducted impromptu lectures and demonstrations for curious passers-by. Building the house was hard work, but so is design-oriented pedagogy. The Thoreau we came to know demanded a constantly redesigned set of processes that were usually determined by a confrontation of minds, hands, tools, and materials.

So a few summers later, after that long day hiking on the trail, I made camp, pulled out my iPhone, and thought about Coursera, pedagogy, and my institution. My aching body provided some perspective.

As I wandered around the Web for information about Coursera and MOOCs, it was clear to me that a great deal of learning can and obviously does take place online, but what brick-and-mortar classrooms still provide is that moment when people confront a problem in the same local space. We learned Thoreau not just by reading what he wrote but also by doing what he did, and that made all the difference.

Maybe next time, I'll teach a class about bricks and mortar.

T. Hugh Crawford is an associate professor of science, technology, and culture in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology.