Vitamin Ed: Can It Be Extracted?

Mmm. Taste the learnination.

Mmm. Taste the learnination.

There are a couple of ways to enjoy a healthy, balanced diet. The first is to actually eat a healthy, balanced diet made up from fresh produce across the range of sources, which requires you to prepare and cook foods, often changing how you eat depending on the season to maximise the benefit. The second is to eat whatever you dang well like and then use an array of supplements, vitamins, treatments and snake oil to try and beat your diet of monster burgers and gorilla dogs into something that will not kill you in 20 years. If you’ve ever bothered to look on the side of those supplements, vitamins, minerals or whatever, that most people have in their ‘medicine’ cabinets, you might see statements like “does not substitute for a balanced diet” or nice disclaimers like that. There is, of course, a reason for that. While we can be fairly certain about a range of deficiency disorders in humans, and we can prevent these problems with selective replacement, many other conditions are not as clear cut – if you eat a range of produce which contains the things that we know we need, you’re probably getting a slew of things that we also need but don’t make themselves as prominent.

In terms of our diet, while the debate rages about precisely which diet humans should be eating, we can have a fairly good stab at a sound basis from a dietician’s perspective built out of actual food. Recreating that from raw sugars, protein, vitamin and mineral supplements is technically possible but (a) much harder to manage and (b) nowhere near as satisfying as eating the real food, in most cases. Let’s nor forget that very few of us in the western world are so distant from our food that we regard it purely as fuel, with no regard for its presentation, flavour or appeal. In fact, most of us could muster a grimace for the thought of someone telling us to eat something because it was good for us or for some real or imagined medical benefit. In terms of human nutrition, we have the known components that we have to eat (sugars, proteins, fats…) and we can identify specific vitamins and minerals that we need to balance to enjoy good health, yet there is not shortage of additional supplements that we also take out of concern for our health that may have little or no demonstrated benefit, yet still we take them.

There’s been a lot of work done in trying to establish an evidence base for medical supplements and far more of the supplements fail than pass this test. Willow bark, an old remedy for pain relief, has been found to have a reliable effect because it has a chemical basis for working – evidence demonstrated that and now we have aspirin. Homeopathic memory water? There’s no reliable evidence for this working. Does this mean it won’t work? Well, here we get into the placebo effect and this is where things get really complicated because we now have the notion that we have a set of replacements that will work for our diet or health because they contain useful chemicals, and a set of solutions that work because we believe in them.

When we look at education, where it’s successful, we see a lot of techniques being mixed in together in a ‘natural’ diet of knowledge construction and learning. Face-to-face and teamwork, sitting side-by-side with formative and summative assessment, as part of discussions or ongoing dialogues, whether physical or on-line. Exactly which parts of these constitute the “balanced” educational diet? We already know that a lecture, by itself, is not a complete educational experience, in the same way that a stand-alone multiple-choice question test will not make you a scholar. There is a great deal of work being done to establish an evidence basis for exactly which bits work but, as MIT said in the OCW release, these components do not make up a course. In dietary terms, it might be raw fuel but is it a desirable meal? Not yet, most likely.

Now let’s get into the placebo side of the equation, where students may react positively to something just because it’s a change, not because it’s necessarily a good change. We can control for these effects, if we’re cautious, and we can do it with full knowledge of the students but I’m very wary of any dependency upon the placebo effect, especially when it’s prefaced with “and the students loved it”. Sorry, students, but I don’t only (or even predominantly) care if you loved it, I care if you performed significantly better, attended more, engaged more, retaining the information for longer, could achieve more, and all of these things can only be measured when we take the trouble to establish base lines, construct experiments, measure things, analyse with care and then think about the outcomes.

My major concern about the whole MOOC discussion is not whether MOOCs are good or bad, it’s more to do with:

  • What does everyone mean when they say MOOC? (Because there’s variation in what people identify as the components)
  • Are we building a balanced diet or are we constructing a sustenance program with carefully balanced supplements that might miss something we don’t yet value?
  • Have we extracted the essential Vitamin Ed from the ‘real’ experience?
  • Can we synthesise Vitamin Ed outside of the ‘real’ educational experience?

I’ve been searching for a terminological separation that allows me to separate ‘real’/’conventional’ learning experiences from ‘virtual’/’new generation’/’MOOC’ experiences and none of those distinctions are satisfying – one says “Restaurant meal” and the other says “Army ration pack” to me, emphasising the separation. Worse, my fear is that a lot of people don’t regard MOOC as ever really having Vitamin Ed inside, as the MIT President clearly believed back in 2001.

I suspect that my search for Vitamin Ed starts from a flawed basis, because it assumes a single silver bullet if we take a literal meaning of the term, so let me me spread the concept out a bit to label Vitamin Ed as the essential educational components that define a good learning and teaching experience. Calling it Vitamin Ed gives me a flag to wave and an analogue to use, to explain why we should be seeking a balanced diet for all of our students, rather than a banquet for one and dog food for the other.

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