Education for a Digital Age?

Do MOOCs inherently help develop digital literacies?

I’ve been thinking about this…and I think they can – even in xMOOC format – IF they are built on platforms that enable peer-to-peer networking.

I sat down to do an experiment for this week’s #moocmooc – a kind of short video essay exploring some of my thoughts on MOOCs and their capacity for developing digital literacies in the form of decentering (gasp!) teachers – and 28 hours later, after life and meetings and childrearing and my own occasionally stunning levels of technical idiocy interfered and I decided to conflate Tuesday’s video assignment with Wednesday’s peer pedagogies assignment, kinda, I emerged with a $*&($#&%$*)! video essay that is nearly 28 hours long.

Okay, 11+ minutes.

Apparently I *don’t* think better out loud. I *do* think better in the round, though, so I’m going to try another experiment right here, and rather than expanding in my usual prosaic format about my ideas, I’m gonna try to condense them. And then open them up for critique and improvement.

You can follow along while watching the video (alas, this version doesn’t feature my cat Clementine, as two cutting-room floor drafts did, but does feature sound, which another sleek 9 minute run-through did not. Please to enjoy the fruits of my, uh, compromise. Ignore the fact that my head bobs around a whole lot. This was Take #23 or something.)

Key Ideas & Assumptions:
1. The early MOOCs DID develop digital literacies, inherently.
I always thought of MOOCs as helping to develop digital literacies because my first MOOCs were all connectivist, and focused on the generative knowledge of networks, and the principles of aggregation, remix, repurpose and feed-forward: in them, learners worked to expand on and connect with the ideas of others by creating and sharing ideas of our own.

2. Then xMOOCs came along.
The big xMOOC startups seem to have been taken up as if the transformational thing about them is that they’re massive But really, massively-scaled education was tried back in the 20th century with TV broadcast models and never really lived up to the hype (side-note: a lot of educational TV initiatives evolved into what became known as “distance learning,” which I worked in back in 1998 when it was morphing to online ed). Broadcast education at scale has never been particularly effective. Or revolutionary. And the capacity to educate at scale is not inherently digital.

3. Ergo, if MOOCs are simply massive (& open in the sense of registration), that is NOT scaling education for the digital age.
That is, in fact, what Cathy Davidson calls scaling what’s broken in education. Taking a transmission model of teaching and broadcasting it via the internet does not create digital literacies, or citizens of the Internet.

4. But if MOOCs are built on platforms that enable (and preferably coax or encourage) the digital affordance of networked participation, connecting peer to peer, they *will* teach at least one key digital literacy. Especially if they’re big.
Traditional models of education have the teacher at the centre, providing knowledge, structure, care and validation (hopefully), among other things. Learning and value can come from this, but the model has become hegemonic and leads people to approach learning situations as if they are vessels to be filled, rather than active, central participants in their own learning. But at scale, with 20,000 students, teachers can’t humanly fulfill the validation needs, in particular, of learners to know whether they’re learning and making sense. The more students, the harder that is. So what networked MOOCs at scale do is decenter teachers. Not devalue. Just decenter.

5. Unlike broadcast models of scale, networked platforms need not leave learners hanging for validation, though. Peers can and will step into collaborative validation and knowledge-building roles if they have the means to connect and share.
At first, being in any course where you’re not performing directly – and predominantly – for the teacher is disorienting. Gradually, however, so long as the facilitator still provides structure and serves to lead continued movement and step in where thorny spots or challenges become evident, this freedom to lead and explore within peer networks can be pretty heady. The extent to which a facilitator encourages this depends on the content and assessment structure of the course; if it’s a mastery-based course with testing at the end, peer-generated knowledge may not be a goal. But peer networks of shared idea validation, like free-form networked study groups, have a place in almost any learning model. Even xMOOCs.

6. So if the network capacity is present, even conventional delivery of content – whether xMOOC or cMOOC or anywhere on the spectrum in between – can implicitly help learners to learn to look to networks rather than lone teachers or facilitators. 
And this IS a key digital orientation towards the world and the practice of learning.

So maybe, with millions of registrants around the world, MOOCs *can* be a key part of education for the digital age, by help learners unlearn the passive “schooling” model of transmission education that many still seem to struggle to shed. But ONLY if they utilize networked platforms that enable and encourage communications and connections between learners.

That’s my two cents. There’s something hopeful here, I think.

What do you think #MOOCMOOC? This is – even at Take #23 – just a draft of a thesis. Have at it. :)

16 Comments Education for a Digital Age?

  1. Angela Vierling-Claassen

    Really like this laying out of the issue. Key then is the capacity for connection. I wonder if another key is instructor helping to build narrative out of chaos — the connections can build the learning, but sometimes we need the narrative to hang things on. Then others learn to help create and expand the narrative, following example of instructor perhaps. Narratives overlap and contradic, eventually becoming noisy themselves, so we need to build another higher layer of narrative and so on.

    1. bon

      This is my hope, premise, and assumption, yes. Both that capacity for connection is a key digital literacy (or more properly, perhaps, orientation on the world) and that massive courses with network capacity *can* be important in the experiential learning of that literacy/orientation, simply because scale begins to decenter the teacher. Without networking, I think you just lose people. Even *with* networking, you lose people. But those you don’t may begin to pick up on the idea that there’s more than just the teacher’s pat on the head to learning. Which to me, while small, seems maybe the most revolutionary thing about MOOCs’ possibilities.

      (okay…that’s probably an exaggeration. still.) thanks for the comment! :)

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  3. Jennifer

    My 11-year-old plays Minecraft, right? And I do not play Minecraft. And Minecraft comes with no instructions. So he plays, and then he watches YouTube videos about Minecraft created by teenagers, and he gets ideas from these so he goes back to playing and tries them out, and then gets stymied and watches more videos.

    That’s a kind of MOOC, isn’t it?

    I wonder if he is teaching himself a different way of learning, or if this kind of learning will for him be limited to gaming. I wonder if he’ll extrapolate out. I’m trying to facilitate that : )

    1. bon

      my six year old just started playing Minecraft last week! he’s building a lovely cave under the mountain with wall hangings. Minecraft is NOT what i thought it was.

      his dad is learning with him, though on a separate device and is trying both the survival AND the creative world, where O is only allowed to work in the creative world right now. he loves it.

      the model you’re talking about…i think of that more as the internet, intrinsically-motivated networked learning in general, than a MOOC. mind you, i said in my last post that i don’t know where MOOCs end, so the definition is open.

      a MOOC may be what us grownups need to get us back to the kinds of networked learning we had beaten out of us? hopefully you and he together will work to facilitate that extrapolation. i think it’s a good thing.

      1. Jennifer

        Yes … I was just coming back to say I think this is internet-based, self-directed learning. Still valuable, but not a MOOC : )

      2. Will Richardson

        This is what I’ve been thinking about a lot…the intersection between the loose structures of the cMOOC that you talk about and the structures we create ourselves when we learn online. At the end of the day, do we need *any* structure provided in a course sense to learn? Is the structure just the halfway house between the learning we have had beaten out of us and the contemporary world where we learn Minecraft on our own? If we did a better job of developing networked learning dispositions and skills in our Minecraft aged kids, would we even need the loose structure of cMOOCs? (Would we want those structures is a different question, of course.) I wonder what the role of a “teacher” is in all of that.

        I also wonder if at the end of the day an education may not be “accredited” by some formal body that looks at the aggregation of informal learning and activities we ourselves have structured and decides whether our depth of mastery and participation and contribution merits a “degree” of some type.

        1. bon

          i love the idea of learning building on the kinds of interests and motivations that drive kids to learn Minecraft…though i can see two values in course structures. one, some of us (me) like & benefit from the eventedness of a course structure, which gives us the feeling that something bigger than us is going on and provides both motivation and built-in sociality. two, left to my own devices entirely, all i might know about is David Bowie. and maybe some history, so structures *can* provide some sense of the bigger picture of things out there and this can be valuable, especially if those structures contextualize HOW they tend to be taken up, helping people strategize what they may want/need/like.

          which is not to say i think the disciplinary divides and overall schooling structure of required courses has value. i have retained very little of what i *successfully* (according to the system and assessment measures) learned in school that did not engage me or get scaffolded into what i already knew. i think the whole “they need to know that” argument remains a red herring, at least until we find ways to engage people in these things they need to know. traditional methods aren’t doing it.

          and your point on accreditation…bold. almost the opposite of the push for efficiencies and automation driving so much these days.

  4. Jenny Mackness

    This is a great post and you discuss so many of the ideas that I have been reflecting on/puzzling about for quite a while.

    My own experience of MOOCs is that they are most successful for my learning when I succeed in connecting with a small group for more in-depth discussion, exchange of ideas or working on a given topic/set of ideas. (Nearly all my research work has resulted from connections I have made in MOOCs)

    I have been wondering whether MOOCs promote quantity rather than quality in connections, i.e. many more superficial connections rather than fewer deeper connections. The problem is that once I start thinking like this I am reminded of Stephen Downes’ group vs network’ arguments and the dangers of ‘group think’.

    So when you say that Moocs
    ‘can implicitly help learners to learn to look to networks rather than lone teachers or facilitators’ I agree, but I wonder whether that is the complete story and whether learners still need to be able to find ‘groups’ (for want of a better word) within those networks, for ‘close encounters’ that maybe a network cannot provide.

    Is it close encounters that learners need (facilitator, teacher or peers)? Of course they need both, i.e. close encounters and networks, but are we losing the opportunity for close encounters when we go down the MOOC route?

    Sorry this is a bit of a ramble. I haven’t quite sorted this out in my own head yet.

    1. bon

      great questions, Jenny. i honestly don’t know…this is preliminary thinking for me too, and what i’m trying to trace are the possibilities emerging from all this massiveness. i think i’m making the assumption that networks are becoming – via all kinds of practices and cultural shifts – almost a naturalized way of interacting for people, and thus that even in the most instructivist MOOCs there will be a tendency towards that kind of engagement. and then that networkedness begets more networkedness and begins to affect even the ways people approach their own learning, despite years of schooling and conditioning to the contrary. this is kind of a slow hunch-type theory, i suppose. i don’t think i can prove it, per se…only make a case for it as a possibility with potential benefits.

      you raise an important caution…i don’t want to blindly idealize networked thinking and i know homophily can make for a bit of an echo chamber in some networked communications. at the same time, i thought that the distinction Stephen makes between groups and networks is about groups requiring a certain quality of sameness that networks don’t…networks are inherently open ecosystems, more. so yes, watch out for homophily, but i think one of the things i like most about MOOCs is that they bring me into contact – every time – with people who have very different concepts of what they’re doing there than i do and while i may not gravitate to all those people my network ends up a little more diverse each round.

      and…again, speaking only anecdotally, i do have close encounters within networks. i don’t think network connections all need to be the same in any sense, quality or closeness included. so sometimes i do have close encounters and real moments of being pushed to think something through (this is working its way into being one of them, perhaps!)…much as a good teacher would. and sometimes it IS the teacher who does that. but i don’t need it to be.

      i don’t know. i feel like there’s something you’re digging towards that i’m missing, not quite taking up. please feel free to set me clear…thanks for the comment and the push to make some further distinctions, at least.

      1. Jenny Mackness

        Thanks for such a quick response, Bon.

        I wonder if it’s not massiveness or ‘networkedness’ that are the key points – but openness. Of course they are all interlinked, but openness seems to be essential for networking? As you say:
        ‘networks are inherently open ecosystems’.

        I *am* digging towards something that you might be missing – but its not surprising that you are missing it because I am missing it too ☺ But it has something to do with my personal experience this last year that my most powerful learning has taken place in ‘close encounters’ and that has been a surprise, as this seems to be the opposite to what ‘on the surface’ networks and MOOCs seem to offer.

        This thinking has also been influenced by the research I have been doing with my colleagues Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau into emergent learning, where we have discussed the need for solitude and contemplation in learning spaces, ‘public/private’ space, and factors related to ‘presence’ in the learning environment.

        This research and my personal experience in a MOOC and an online course last year, have resulted in a lot of reflection on the balance between structure/lack of course structure, network interactions/close encounters, personal/public space, balance between activity/reflection, introversion/extraversion and so on. I think these are important considerations because they are also related to identity and learning is all about identity.

        I can see that massive courses are probably here to stay – and that in the cMOOC format the required networking can teach us a lot about how to access information and connect with others, but if learning is about identity, then I’m wondering whether we need smaller closer encounters for this.

        I’m thinking aloud here I’m afraid!

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  6. Vanessa Vaile

    encouraging to find rambling that replays what my mind keeps circling around but not quite nailing down… slippery and more than a bit of a paradox. we also keep bumping into each other, getting closer to whatever it is.

    fyi Gordon Lockhart,, who is still working on his blog comment scraper, polishing, refining code, has also been thinking about how the two models intersect.. and how users (learners) can shape and influence them, make the x’s more c.

    He’ll be scraping comments in blog posts about Intro to Philosophy (#introphil), also University of Edinburgh, is, like #edcmooc, building more networking.

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