from the archive: culture shot: MOOCs turn and face the strange #moocmooc

Culture Shot: MOOCs Turn and Face the Strange. Remarks to Students about MOOCs

This is a revised and updated version of a presentation I prepared for Culture Shots, a series of 10 minute addresses to students, sponsored by the English Dept at BSU. Originally written in November, 2011, it was updated in summer, 2012, to reflect the popularity of xMOOCs such as those delivered thorough Coursera.

In high school, in the early 1970s, I had a handle on rock and roll. I knew what it was. I collected albums. I read the Rolling Stone. I thought my taste was pretty far-reaching, from CSN & later Y, Pink Floyd, Beatles (just then breaking up) to Todd Rundgren, Stones, Led Zepplin (but not “Stairway to Bloody Heaven”), Yes, of course, and Steely Dan (and I even knew where they got their name. You can Google it now, but then, you had to be in the know), and, most proudly, Zappa. I dissed Boston, hated anything disco – and disco was so new on the horizon that to be an early hater of disco was to be a prophet.

But in 1973, after graduating, I saw a poster of David Bowie for the Aladdin Sane album. Typically, I had missed the real start of things with Ziggy Stardust, and came in one album late to the show. But seeing that image of Bowie, and listening to that album, like hearing Roxy Music a few years later (Again, I was late to the show. Virginia Plain was released in 1972, but I didn’t hear it until a party attended by five or six French students in early 1974), then the Sex Pistols and Gen-X and XTC a few years after that, then Laurie Anderson’s O, Superman in 1981: Each time, it was like landing on another planet. The music, the scene, each time fell out of the rock and roll purview I had carefully fashioned in high school. I had no model for this. No paradigm. It was scary to turn and face the strange.

Of course, I was mistaken about how knowledgeable I was about rock and roll in the first place. You always are. It takes a shake up, a turn, to light up the territory and show you the landscape you overlooked.

The advent of the Massive Open Online Courses is similar to these musical ruptures. I mean the real MOOCs like Change2011, not the wanna-be-pseudoMOOCs on Coursera. The real thing is where the shake up is. The punk-pop Coursera simply follows the classroom model of manage and deliver that real MOOCs are designed to undercut.

MOOCs are still experimental, and still rough around the edges, but fast maturing. One pseudoMOOC I took during the summer of 2011 tried to domesticate the MOOC, wrap it up in traditional clothing. I’m not sure how that went in the end because I stopped participating when the discussion became tediously hung up in definition wars. “A MOOC isn’t a course because a course has a predefined structure…” “No, it’s not a course because the focus is on student interaction …” Fine. Knock yourself out. Missing was the focus on doing something – on participants making things. That’s why I left. I had heard the discussion before and knew how it all turned out.

Because MOOCs aren’t really about adhering to familiar concepts and definitions. They are scary. Strange. I like them because they are. They force a reconsideration of the conventions of teaching and learning.

It’s not enough to just like MOOCs, however. A harder argument to make is that MOOCs are pedagogically effective because they are strange – and that’s the argument I’m making here. That the strange rather than the familiar provides a better spur and situation for learning. To learn, you gotta be shaken at your boots.

But the shake up also shakes out loose parts.

The shake up of the MOOC, it’s my hope, will shake out educational designers – one loose part.

The strangeness of the MOOC, I hope, will shake out outsourcing to learning management platforms like D2L – another loose part.

The seeming chaos of the well-curated MOOC will shake out the educational management types. It can send them apoplectic.

I also hope the strangeness of the MOOC will ice the current move to privatize state education – but that’s too much too hope for.

MOOCs are part of the Open Education Movement. Free learning. Not so much learning object clearinghouses, although they can be looted by smart MOOC moderators to let students to put them to their own uses.

Stephen Downes gives us a loose and pedagogically sound way to get a handle on how a MOOC proceeds. His is the equivalent of the c 1976 punk DIY manifesto:

This is a chord.
This is another.
This is a third.
Now form a band.

Stephen’s DIY, and my starting point, is

Feed Forward

Your job as a student on a MOOC is to learn. How you do that is up to you. You are responsible not only for what you learn but how you learn it. So substantiating what to do in each point will vary. But the principle is this:

Aggregate stuff. Go read, view, listen to, look at, play with stuff that addresses the topic. And aggregate what you find. Pull it together. Maybe annotate it. Bookmark the aggregation, or make a list. Two things are happening. You’re reading the content, but you’re also organizing the content as related.

Remix. Make notes on the stuff you found – that’s a remix. Or reorganize it. Again, you’re doing things with the stuff you’ve aggregated. Material things. Do things with digital or other materials.

Repurpose. Create something by using the stuff you’ve aggregated. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering, or even highly original. Just something that wasn’t there before constructed with some of the stuff in front of you.

Feed Forward. Share. Put it out for others to use, re-use, consider, build on, or ignore. You can re-use your own stuff, too. That’s what I’m doing here: re-working an oral script into a blog-version, mainly so that it can be shared.

Missing in my re-mix is the teacher’s pet of the Professional Education set: Reflect. That’s good. That’s intentional. It’s another loose part. Reflection is an educational panacea. We teachers add it to the mix so we can assess that you students have read the book or done the project – that’s all. We don’t consider whether the reflection actually serves you as a learner – We just assume it does. Reflection, ill-timed, might get in the way of learning. You wanna reflect? Do so. That’s up to the you, anyway.

Missing, in fact, is teacher-led evaluation and assessment full stop. And that’s good. That’s your concern as a student, and removing evaluation from the procedure places it back on your plate. Assessment doesn’t need to be part of the pedagogy, and you don’t need to be burdened with our assessment procedures. That’s a management issue – not a learning issue.

For me, as a teacher, the shaking loose of evaluation is a sea-change, one of those ruptures, like Bowie and punk. A few years ago I was of the mind that to really learn something meant not only being able to do it but to understand that doing. Reflection seemed to provide a validation of that. But now, after participating in three MOOCs, I’m no longer interested in assessing that supposed inner understanding. Reflection isn’t accurate, anyway – no more than a memoir is an accurate account of what happened, or what or how we thought. It’s a post-event construction to explain what we think we did, what we think happened. Over the last few years, I’ve changed my standards. Being able to do something is great. Show me how you learned something by sharing what you leaned. Sharing becomes the evaluation.

Is this learning by doing? No, because you are not necessarily doing what you will be doing later in your life. You may be well out of your area of expertise, current and future. You might make a video – not because you need to know about video or will be expected to do video in future. No, you make a video to learn something about the subject you’re studying. Leaning about planting a garden? Make a video about planting a garden.

Is this community service learning? No. It’s not ethical to ask students who are paying with their time, attention, and effort to volunteer their learning to a community who doesn’t fund education properly. Let the businesses start funding education better and we can talk about community service.

Will the MOOC solve the Crisis of Education? No – and it doesn’t promise to. It’s not meant to. MOOCs are about people learning, not about managing learning. The Crisis of Education is a managerial crisis that I hope MOOCs, as part of the OER movement, will shake out.

MOOCs can reduce much of the administrative bureaucracy, perhaps most of the administration. Under a MOOC, the administration’s role collapses into certifying students – something administrators should be good at and excited about doing.

Learning, like writing, is an indeterminate activity. Management likes determinate activities. They like pop music, and cringe when something challenges that.

What MOOCs can mean is a sea-change for universities. Let us the teachers go back to our role as curators. Let you the students learn, and let the managers certify what you have learned.

In the short term, running courses as massive, open, and online will gain some press and notoriety. Gaining real expertise and respect from other universities – and that is the validation we should be seeking, not internal validation by our system managers – will depend on how we handle MOOC-like courses long term.

See also
What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs, Tony Bates

Broadcast Education: a Response to Coursera, Sean Michael Morriss, at Hybrid Pedagogy.