Yum! Into the Learning-blender

On a lark I Googled the word “McLearning” and was rewarded with a visit to the web page of an education processing company. The opening statement on the page notes the likelihood of a “further shift towards a multiple learning channel paradigm” while offering to “leverage the most effective content delivery format,” allowing its customers “flexibility in determining the best learning modalities for training on-demand and blended learning.”

Blended learning… Hardly are those words out, as Yeats says, when I think of another blended product and the company that sells it. Beef Products Inc. makes something called “processed beef,” a kind of ammoniated bovine slurry. Its factories form the “product” into standardized patties, which it then freezes and sells to schools to feed to their students in hamburgers.

Not too long before this e-visit I saw an English teachers’ web page with a blurb for a book called Literacies, the Arts and Multimodality. The use of literacies, skills, competencies and other such plurals is always suspect (“When skills came in, skill went out.”–Jacques Barzun); so is the use of multimodality, a term borrowed seemingly though inexplicably from statistics. It is hard to be sure what the word means outside statistics, but one giveaway of purpose if not of meaning was an explanation elsewhere of the concept’s value in “distance and internet-mediated learning.”

I have thought for some time that education “theory” is moving towards an acceptance of and preference for methods of teaching that will be equally “good” when used by a live teacher and by a screen. This movement coincides with the movement towards the kind of learning that can be “delivered” “multimodally” and evaluated by standardized tests. I am afraid that the result will be a kind of junk learning that we should be resisting not welcoming.

Many explanations suggest themselves for this trend. One is that people are not put off by processed learning any more than they are by processed beef. Another is that in times of scarcity, haste, or mistaken priorities, people will look for feeding and education on the industrialized cheap even if regular diets of McLearning and processed beef are bad for them. A third is that the push towards an “accountability” based on “objective” testing is taking finesse and subtlety out of teaching and learning, whose victims come to find a better diet unpalatable and reject it when it is presented to them.

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