Apparently, my projects for the next couple months are converging (teaching, textbooks, and more MOOCs)

Everything seems to be converging for me right now. In my online Computers and Writing class right now, we are all signed up and engaging in the MOOC “E-Learning and Digital Cultures,” which is a) sort of a meta-experience in it’s my online class taking a MOOC and talking about that MOOC in my online class, and b) is sort of like using a MOOC like a textbook. Meanwhile, in scholarship news, I am going to be giving a couple of talks about MOOCs in March and, at the CCCCs, I’m going to be doing a poster session about using iBooks Author to make a self-published version of an iPad book based my self-published textbook. Anything I can do to combine and overlap projects is a good thing.

I was thinking about this convergence the other day initially in response to a couple of Chronicle of Higher Education pieces.  First, there’s “The Object Formerly Known as the Textbook,” which more or less suggests that MOOCs might indeed be the replacements of “textbooks,” albeit unter a name like “courseware” or “learning experiences.” It kind of rehashes a number of things, including some of the same kinds of things I wrote about back here in October.  Second, there’s this article on free textbooks, “Pay Nothing? Easier Said Than Done.” If the question is “can you make money by giving away the content of textbooks, then the answer is clearly “no.” But it isn’t terribly difficult to give away textbooks online, though I agree completely with the sentiment here about getting them to count:

Some professors who write free textbooks “almost become celebrities in their own field” with books that are widely used, said Mr. Ernst, of the University of Minnesota. But writing open textbooks does not usually factor into tenure and promotion decisions, said John Gallaugher, an associate professor of information systems in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College and the author of a widely used open textbook called Information Systems.

“By giving my text away, I had an enormous impact on the field,” he said. “But that isn’t going to move me from tenured associate professor to tenured full professor. If there’s no career incentive and no financial incentive, then it real­ly relies on faculty altruism.”

First, I certainly did not become some kind of “celebrity” in my field by posting my textbook online.  Second, it wasn’t so much “altruism” as much as it was “I have nothing to lose-ism” that drove me to post my textbook online. If a publisher wanted to publish and sell it, I’d probably take it down. But I do agree that an open textbook is not likely to figure much into the tenure and review process (even at EMU, where we count lots of different things) and that’s kind of a shame. If that were changed, I suspect a lot more people would publish open textbooks.

But let me circle back to my online class and the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC. My grad students and I are all signed up and the idea is to participate there and to also participate as part of my class too, which means discussing it on the class web site and also blogging about it. So as much as anything else, I’m modeling for my students.

There are some clearly different approaches happening with E-Learning and Digital Cultures compared to the MOOCs I’ve taken or poked around with before. For starters, there are no “talking head” lectures– at least not as far as I can tell. The class is divided up into two blocks of two weeks each and a last week where students who want to earn a certificate produce a “digital artefact” of some sort. The details on that and how it will be assessed are still a little sketchy to me, but that’s something I’m sure we’ll get to later on.

I am assuming that the folks teaching this class– Jeremy Knox, Sian Bayne, Hamish Macleod, Jen Ross, and Christine Sinclair from the University of Edinburgh– are trying to both to do something different from what’s been done on Coursera MOOCs before and trying to live up to their own manifesto on online teaching. Instead of modeling a class on a lecture hall– the “stand and deliver” videos featuring our wise professor and interrupted by quizzes, the multiple-choice tests and finals, etc.– this group is attempting to create a MOOC that is more of “an experience” akin to the way that folks like Dave Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and others talked about MOOCs before Coursera and EdX and Udacity and the like got involved.  Siemens blogged here about trying to make a distinction between “connectivist MOOCs” (or “cMOOCs”) versus the well-financed Coursera et al’s efforts (“xMOOCs”). Here’s a useful quote:

Our MOOC model emphasizes creation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning. The Coursera model emphasizes a more traditional learning approach through video presentations and short quizzes and testing. Put another way, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication. I’ve spoken with learners from different parts of the world who find xMOOCs extremely beneficial as they don’t have access to learning materials of that quality at their institutions. xMOOCs scale, they have prestigious universities supporting them, and they are well-funded. It is quite possible that they will address the “drill and grill” instructional methods that is receiving some criticism.

Knox et al seem to be attempting an alternative to the “drill and grill” approach, though it remains to be seen if they’ll be successful.  40,000 people have signed up for this MOOC, and I have to wonder if many/most of them will understand the dispersed learning experience. And I have to wonder if this dispersed kind of learning is ultimately scalable, especially if there is a goal to deliver some sort of accreditation/credit at the end– or, more crassly, profit. If 40,000 (or however many) people are dispersed too far from some “center,” is it still a class? Would it be something anyone would pay for?

“Block 1″ of the course is about “Utopias and Dystopias,” an approach that I guess gets at some of the issues in an accessible way but an approach that also reinforces pretty simplistic thinking. I think Alex’s critique on this is pretty accurate and it certainly isn’t the approach I would have taken. Though I guess Knox et al had to do something that would start a conversation with thousands of people.

Besides, I’m an inherently optimistic person when it comes to technology so I am not all that persuaded by “robots are going to rule us” kind of arguments. This first week featured four short videos to discuss the “utopia/dystopia” thing, and this one was my favorite.  It’s called “Inbox.”

There’s also some readings that I think are so-so. They’re on point, but I have to say that I am a little skeptical of articles about “current trends” in things like digital culture or Internet research that are ten or more years old. I read Daniel Chandler’s “Technological or Media Determinism” and thought it was okay in introducing the basic premise, but I also thought it was frankly kind of boring.  The same in some ways with Lincoln Dahlberg’s “Internet Research Tracings: Towards Non-Reductionist Methodology:” I couldn’t get the link to work and I skimmed it via a “Google cache” page of some sort.  I’ve written previously about David Noble’s “Digital Diploma Mills” and don’t even get me started on the bullshitty argument that is Marc Prensky’s “digital native” schtick.

And for the most part, the discussion forums are like drinking from a firehose. Or maybe a better analogy– a more charitable one, too– is the discussion forums are like the articles in the Sunday newspaper. I can never read all the articles, so what I do is skim the  headlines for something interesting and dip in here and there on the discussions. It’s not entirely satisfying, but it is not without some merit too. It is always cool in these things to see so many different voices from places that are not here.

So a decent start so far. I’m curious to hear more about what my students have to say about it, too.

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