Halfway through #edcmooc, whatever it is

A couple of Fridays ago (I originally started writing this post about a week and a half ago), I went to the reading group that my colleague Derek Mueller is sponsoring/hosting right now. It’s been a good bit of outreach with small but enthusiastic groups of grad students and faculty, often faculty from other programs in my department. This last time, we talked about Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”  I can’t pretend to say that I completely grasp what Derrida was talking about in this essay, but in the nutshell, it’s one of the essays in the early Derrida that signals the beginning of poststructualism.  Among many other things, Derrida is talking about the paradox of “the center” being both within the structure and outside of it, the problem of finding language to describe this condition, and that all thinkers are borrowers (“bricoleurs”) in how we put ideas together.  It’s early writing/thinking that speaks in part to deconstruction.

These reading group gatherings have been interesting discussions in part because faculty from other programs often don’t quite get why people in composition and rhetoric would be interested in things like poststructualist theory or object-oriented ontology or what-have-you. Part of what we talked about during this talk was essentially how poststructualism has influenced things like post-process theory, writing as an “assembly” process, etc., etc. But one of the things that occur to me as I think about all this in relation to the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC.  Because it seems to me that part of the problem here is these folks are trying to disrupt educational structure while being within it, we’re at a loss to find language that describes what this is (a “course?” a “meeting?” a chance to interact?), and both of these in turn raises problems and questions about just what it is we’re doing here. Other than clearly composing an elaborate bricolage.

Week 2 built off of the dystopia of week 1 with the them of “looking to the future,” only the future is still looking kind of dystopian to me. As someone pointed out (I think one of the instructors), dystopia makes for much better stories than utopia, and that certainly is true in the videos. For example, both “A Day Made of Glass” and “Productivity Future Vision” might as well be called “cool stuff rich people will get with new technology.” Then there are the other readings, which for me are an example of the problem of the multiple levels of audience/purpose of the course.  On the other end of the complexity spectrum, week 2 included Rebecca Johnston’s “Salvation or destruction: Metaphors of the Internet,” which again plays off of this reductive binary between dystopia and utopia (but does so by a discursive analysis of newspaper editorials),  and the difficult (but interesting) paper by Julian Bleecker, “Why Things Matter: A Manifesto for Networked Objects– Cohabiting with Pigeons, Arphids, and Aibos in the Internet of Things.”

One of the few texts that was specifically about education/pedagogy issues was Gardner Campbell’s “Ecologies of Yearning,” which was the keynote address at Open Ed ’12. I think Alex Reid has a good blog post about this here, so I’ll just point to that. Though I’ll return to Reid’s reading of that talk in a moment.

I guess these selections are okay, but given that this is supposed to be an “introductory” course and one (at least in part) about “E-learning,” I’m again disappointed in what’s here.  As I mentioned, the videos are the kind of thing I might show in a first year writing class because of their simplicity and “red herring”-esque dichotomy.  In other words, this “dystopia v. utopia” thing is an obvious false choice. Interestingly, in the Google Hangout discussion forum with the instructors a couple of weeks ago, one of them said that they were trying to generate exactly that kind of conversation: that is, they knew they were presenting a false dichotomy and wanted to play off of the conversation generated by that false comparison. The problem is that’s an approach that works with 25 (or 50 or maybe even 200) students but not with 40,000.  Along with these too simple encounters, we’ve also got texts (like Bleecker’s and Campbell’s) that are far beyond an introductory level course. Bleecker is giving my MA students a lot of fits, frankly.  I suppose the goal of these various different levels of reading is to encourage different levels of interaction, but to me the effect is just to confuse the focus of the course.

And there is still very little presence from the instructors/professors/organizers.  Clearly, this has been a conscious and careful choice: they are trying to disrupt the teacher-centered, “sage on the stage” model of a lecturing talking head delivering knowledge via a video. Instead, what we have here is a collection of readings, some basic framing guidelines for discussion, a final assignment (more on that will be coming in the next week or so), and a space for the discussion forums, which are of course quite a mixed bag. The instruction team has done a couple of Google Hangout live forums where they talk about things having to do with the previous week, but other than that, they are not really “there” a lot.

Interestingly enough, one of the better discussion threads is in the general discussion area and it’s called “Where are the professors?” (I presume the only way to see that is to actually be in the class, but if you’re curious, there’s nothing wrong with registering for free and then going to have a look). The topic of the role of the professor in a MOOC is being debated and a couple of the instructors– Christine Sinclair and Sian Bayne– are pretty clear in responding that they are attempting to avoid the “guru professor” mode and are purposefully trying to present themselves as being more of a “connective MOOC” rather than the so-called “xMOOC” which is the commercial model of Coursera.

An admirable experiment. But from my point of view, there are at least two problems here.

First, the connective/knowledge generating MOOC strikes me as an awkward fit within the Coursera framework, especially since I am certain most people who signed up for this class were expecting something with a bit more leadership and focus. I know that’s what I was expecting/assuming when I built participating in this MOOC into my graduate course.  If I knew this was just going to be as decentered (and atypical of Coursera MOOCs) as it is, I might have picked a different one for our class to follow.  Second, because of a lack of a “center” here with no professor (or professors) keeping the group on task with some kind of lecture or regular interaction and because of the size of the group, this all seems a lot more like a “learning opportunity” akin to a conference, an emailing list or messaging board, or a call-in radio show. Which is again an example as to why I don’t think teaching scales.

I think this all begs the question: just what is this MOOC, anyway?

Let me quote at length Reid about his reading of Campbell’s talk:

The central double-bind for digital literacy education–whether it is FTF, traditionally online, or open and online–is between the demand to reinvent/be creative and the expectation of meeting traditional standards. Gardner relates a story of one academic who responds to the idea of open online education by saying “it may be learning, but it’s not academics.” If that is true, it’s because academics is tied to certification, and certification is tied to reaching specific, predetermined goals. I don’t think anyone wants to do away with the practice of certification, especially for certain professions. In fact, the badges movement looks to expand the micro-certifications of academics (e.g. the course credit) into extra-institutional learning experiences. My inclination would be that we need to move in the opposite direction, distancing learning from certifying. But I don’t see us doing that, in part because higher education is a research and certifying machine far more that it is a teaching and learning one.

“Listening to World Music” and “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” and every other Coursera MOOC I had looked at prior to this were designed primarily to fulfill the certification goal. The potential with these certificate/testing-oriented classes is they can provide reliable certification in the sense that students take quantifiable tests that produce predictable and measurable results. The problem with these classes is they don’t seem to be very valid in the sense of being a credible demonstration of knowledge. I am a certified graduate of “Listening to World Music;” so what? Duke University’s “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” might be good enough for “ACE CREDIT,” but it’s not good enough to be considered valid credit at Duke.

On the other hand, there is something very valid (or at least “authentic-feeling”) about the learning experience possible in a course like E-Learning and Digital Cultures or the various “cMOOCs” that were the open learning/”edupunk”  experiments that predate Coursera et al by several years. I know I have had tremendous learning experiences from similar experiences– conferences, mailing lists, cooking shows, books, and all kinds of other things that are not formally “educational.” Almost everything (beyond the basics) I learned about writing has little to do with a teacher/student relationship and almost everything to do with the experience of writing and being around other writers and readers.  The problem is though there’s no reliable way to measure what someone has or hasn’t learned from these learning opportunities.  As Gardner put it, it might be learning but it isn’t academic.

For me, this is the difference between learning and education.  MOOCs might be great for learning, but not so great for education.

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