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Apples, Matt Damon, and Online Education

A teacher's mental journey from apples to the consequences of students learning online in their spare time

A teacher's mental journey from apples to the consequences of students learning online in their spare time

And the answer to our educational problems is…Matt Damon!

The other day, when I was in the teacher’s lounge, I saw an apple in a history teacher’s mailbox, and it made me think of Matt Damon. Not right away, of course. First, I thought about apples on teacher’s desks. These days the only apples kids bring in are pictures on the front of store-bought greeting cards that might or might not be taped to small, shrink-wrapped containers of chocolate-chip cookies.

Thinking about how much education has changed reminded me of college, when as a freshman I watched School Ties with some random passers-by on the big screen TV they put in the student lounge.

School Ties is set at an elite prep school 1950’s, back in the days when you could still make anti-Semitic comments without having to worry about anybody pointing out what a towering bag of poop you were. It was also Matt Damon’s first real Hollywood role. Although he played the aforementioned bag of poop, in real life, there seems to be a general consensus that he is a standup guy and a counter-cultural system-jammer.

This is probably because his first major Hollywood success came from the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, which he wrote and starred in with his best man-friend, Ben Affleck. In that film, he plays a streetwise, certifiable genius who sticks it to the establishment by eviscerating a pretentious Harvard barfly with one of the most memorable lines in cinematic history: “You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f---ing education you coulda got for a dollar-fifty in late charges at the public library.” This is a hilarious piece of irony, because Damon himself actually went to Harvard where he was an English major. (He did, however, have the good sense to drop out and chase his real passion of film, though, so I suppose we can forgive him.)

From the apple to School Ties to Matt Damon to Harvard, I next thought about the middle of last year when somebody shot me a Facebook link to “Justice: What's the Right Thing To Do?" with Michael Sandel—the first course Harvard has ever made available to the public online. It's a really good introduction to the origins and pathways of ethical discourse in America and quickly sucked me in. Sandel’s Socratic teaching method made potentially dry material relevant and engaging, and I ended up spending evenings and planning periods plowing through the 12-part course.

Partway through, I emailed the link to my colleagues. The very next week I was walking by a math classroom and saw that one of the honors classes was taking a break from number-crunching to watch the first episode. Encouraged, I began to play bits of “Justice” to some of the students who would sit in my room at lunch and found, to my surprise, that they were actually fairly interested.

I next began to wonder about the direction in which education is inexorably moving when Harvard puts top courses online for free. Was this a good thing? Where would it go? Did online education have the potential to outstrip the classroom experience? Are students really well-served by soundbites and the intriguing, but generally not particularly demanding, world of 18-minute TED Talks? People can now learn almost anything they want online for free—does this mean my job is in danger?

These questions and more have pinged around my head this past year, and heck if I’ve found a satisfying answer for any of them. I do know that as long as my school gives me a laptop and access to a projector, I intend to use the Internet to the utmost—TED Talks and all—to engage my students in the time-and-space collapsing conversation that is art-creation. I also know that at the end of last year, a sophomore named Heather, whom I did not really know, stopped me in the hallway and said, “Hey Mr. Barkey … you know that Harvard course you were showing in your class at lunch that one day? Well, I’ve been watching it at home in my free time, and it’s really, really good.”

Did you catch that? An overscheduled high school sophomore at a demanding college preparatory school took a Harvard course in ethical discourse just because she wanted to learn. How do you like them apples?

Josh Barkey is a high school art teacher in North Carolina.

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