MOOCs are Not the Enemy. Sorta.

So. I stood up in front of a whole room of academics and theorists and grad students with funky glasses this weekend and said the word “MOOC.” And nobody threw a single tomato, which surprised me.

My presentation for Theorizing the Web 13 at CUNY was entitled “MOOCs are Not the Enemy: Networked, Non-Imperialist MOOC models.” Or in simplest terms, “cMOOC is for cyborg.” Ahem.

The Cliff Notes version:
My base premises are these: privatization is bad and colonialism is bad and globalization is as shady as it’s always been and there are lots of totalizing systems at work in higher ed these days, old and new. But talking about these things through the lens of MOOCs increasingly seems to devolve into binary arguments against one totality while half-defending another, until it feels like the proverb about the seven old blind men and the elephant. A MOOC is a snake! cries the one holding the tail. No! It’s a sail! shouts the one with the ear in hand.

More Than is Dreamt of In Your Philosophy, Horatio
Both the elephant and the MOOC defy simple metaphors, because they’re huge. MOOCs make visible the intersection of a snarl of complicated axes of change and power relations in higher ed, so reifying them into a single axis – even if it’s the dominant one – leaves too much of the picture out. A MOOC is a course that is massive and open and online in some way and beyond that, for the moment, I’m agnostic.

Not because I’m not aligned: I am aligned. But because I think the conversation is too important to foreclose. There are a host of valid criticisms of MOOCs of all kinds, even the ones I really enjoy, and I want to be having those conversations and talking about the forces driving different MOOC models and driving change in higher ed. A lot of these forces scare the shit out of me, for the record. But I think – as I’ve heard other people say (I’d thought it was Cathy Davidson but I can’t seem to find a link) – that MOOCs are a symptom of these forces rather than the problem in and of themselves.

So dismissing MOOCs outright, or insisting on talking about all MOOCs as if they were one hegemonic thing rather than a still new and shifting collection of phenomena, shuts down the possibility of doing something more with them.

It gives the conversation over. I’m not ready to do that. I don’t want to give over – yet, at least – to the idea that anything about MOOCs is inevitable.

Beyond the Borg Complex
To be sure, we can’t be in higher ed today without being to some extent subject to the changes being wrought by privatization and globalization and the undermining of the narrative of public ed and the public good. These logics constrain budgets, shape policy, affect how what we do is taken up and the roles available to us.

The most dominant MOOC models embody a lot of these forces and logics. So they inspire vitriolic response: we don’t  want to be the kind of subjects they seem to impose on us.

Or some of us don’t. In the ongoing Shirky/Bady back & forth about which end of the elephant is more equal than others, Bady pegs Shirky’s “it’s happening anyway, might as well adapt” response as a form of what Sacasas calls the Borg Complex, a determinist “resistance is futile” fatalism combined with a neoliberal identity approach.

But that conversation is still a binary. And leaves Bady to some extent defending the traditions of that other totalizing system, the conventional patriarchal and elitist mythology of “schooling” that many open online educational efforts exist to challenge.

I end up nodding hopelessly at the beautiful prose of the both of them and thinking about narrative escalation in pre-World War I Europe. With all this grandiose buildup, the Triple MOOC Entente and the Triple MOOC Alliance carve out increasingly opposed territories until I wonder if Archduke Ferdinand’s been shot yet and the bloody inevitability can just start, already.

Or we could explore MOOCs from a cyborg perspective.

A cyborg is not Borg
The Borg is an all-swallowing collective that cannot be resisted, a totalizing force.

Haraway‘s cyborg, on the other hand, is what might be termed a networked individual, illegitimate offspring of what Haraway calls the “informatics of domination,” but still subversive to the very forces that created her. S/he is an ironic hybrid of human and technology who breaks down binaries that otherwise seem naturalized and totalizing. The cyborg recognizes in technologies the possibility of “great human satisfaction, as well as a matrix of complex dominations. Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves.” (1991) The cyborg is complicit, a part of this digital world. But s/he is never entirely subject to its terms: s/he is not without agency.

The cMOOC as cyborg
So on the plane down to Theorizing the Web, as I finalized my slides, I decided that the first c in cMOOC stands for cyborg.

(I mean, I know it *actually* stands for connectivist. That’s as it should be. MOOCs were founded on the connectivist principles that knowledge is distributed and generative, and I think for MOOCs to actually capitalize in any sense on the affordances of digital technologies and not merely transfer traditional approaches to learning into the online space, those two concepts are important lodestars. And the original MOOC was built not only on George Siemens‘ and Stephen Downes‘ work developing connectivism but was actually a course ON connectivism and connected knowledge: the cMOOC model is connectivism incarnate.)

Because I’ve had the (sometimes admittedly discombobulating) pleasure of working with and in and around this grassroots model of MOOC for a few years now, I have a vantage point that many of MOOCs’ detractors don’t: I have lived experience of a model of MOOC that isn’t corporate, or colonial, or – most importantly – totalizing. And I think cMOOCs and other networked online learning opportunities and efforts that attempt to destabilize some of the institutional or corporate or globalizing tendencies that dominate much of the MOOC conversation (and many MOOCs themselves) may offer a cyborg approach to massive, open, online learning: it may offer a model of subversion.

cMOOCs, even as cyborg, are neither a perfect model or a panacea for all the challenges higher education faces. But  they emphasize participatory, networked, distributed approaches to learning that challenge and subvert many of our inherited cultural concepts of schooling. They encourage learners to generate knowledge, in addition to simply mastering it. They are a way to re-vision the conversation in terms that neither deny the possibilities of technology and networks nor give over entirely to the logics and informatics of domination.

They are MOOCs that undermine some of what MOOCs seems to be coming to mean, and in that, I think there is both power and potential.

current/ongoing/historical cMOOCs & their open/online/hybrid kin:
(including even a Coursera course that tries very hard to subvert its own conditions of production)

#etmooc (Educational Technologies MOOC – ongoing and amazing, just entering topic 4: check it & join in)
#moocmooc archives (two separate week-long MOOCs on MOOCs)
#ds106 (not a MOOC, but an ongoing, open, public course in digital storytelling via University of Mary Washington)
@dukesurprise (a for-credit Duke course with an open, public component)
#inq13 (a POOC or Participatory Open Online Course through CUNY on inequalities, with an East Harlem focus)
#edcmooc (a Coursera course in Elearning & Digital Cultures offered by University of Edinburgh that runs more like a cMOOC)
The MOOC Guide – Stephen Downes’ master resource of most cMOOC-ish offerings from the beginning
#change11 archive (the mother of all cMOOCs: 35 facilitators each took a week to explore change in higher ed)

There are lots more, I’m sure – happy to add if people want to send examples.


hybrids & subversives: the cyborg as teacher

I began teaching online in 1998, the same year I encountered Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1991) for the first time. Her cyborg – partial, ironic, always hybrid – offered a model for identity that helped me navigate that new environment. The cyborg’s emphasis on breaking down (and de-naturalizing) binaries enabled and encouraged me to grapple with some of the institutional and technocratic power relations that shaped our online learning context, in ways that have continued to influence my understanding of my educational practice and my research to this day.

The cyborg teacher is a hybrid, both an instrument of the schooling system and yet subversive to it: the cyborg teacher is a learner too. Teaching from the cyborg point of view helped me frame my digital classroom not as “less” or “more” than conventional learning spaces, but instead as a site for building ties of curiosity and affinity. It helped me escape the concept of the virtual and approach my online work very much as real; human and technological, both.

Now, fifteen years down the road, I see the cyborg particularly as a metaphor for networked identities. These are the kinds of selves cultivated when people integrate online social networks into their personal and professional practices not just as consumers but producers: when they blog, tweet, filter, curate, and share ideas within networks of shared interests.

In a time when our technological platforms are primarily corporate-owned and even mundane daily practices like bank card usage expose us to constant digital surveillance, the cyborg strikes me as a particularly important figure. A teacher by example, she collapses the binary distinctions our media narratives are so eager to create about social technologies.

The message of the cyborg, as I see it, is that we are complicit, part of this digital world. But we are not necessarily subject to its terms: in an age in which human agency can seem dwarfed by the innumerable invisible digital systems we interact with, the cyborg – illegitimate offspring of the very things she subverts – stands for me as a figure of hope.

Learning in the Open: Networked Student Identities

This weekend, I gave a short presentation at a great little student conference hosted here at UPEI: Difficult Dialogues: Exploring Relationships Between Identities and Power.

(When I say “short” I mean I was still talking when the poor timekeeper started waving the STOP sign in front of my face: it’s been awhile since I tried to encapsulate ideas into fifteen minutes.)

I made a few quick alterations to the slides after the presentation thanks to the really good questions and conversation that emerged, and in hopes of making the ideas reasonably clear on Slideshare even without an audio track. This is the first time I’ve really taken up this particular thread on the intersections between “student” and “networked learner”, so thanks to everyone at Difficult Dialogues for engaging with and supporting these ideas as I begin to work them through.

Learning in the Open:

It’s what I didn’t say that’s more interesting, though
The fact that I ran over time is apt, given how it mirrors my own current overwhelm as a learner.

The presentation troubles some of the categories of student that academia comes with, and how differing forces and logics govern the two spheres and the way learning is practiced within them. But I didn’t go far enough. While I’m a living, breathing advocate for the benefits of networked learning, it may be the problems with it that are the most instructional.

The keynote for the conference this weekend was S Bear Bergman, who gives one hell of a talk on sex, gender and trans identities.  And while what I do may not intersect on the surface with Bear’s work as a thinker or a presenter, ze reminded me of something I know but have failed to transfer over to my analysis of learning and learners.

We are always signalling and reading 
Engaging with each other as humans is a process of reading codes and signals.

(Okay, not entirely perhaps: I won’t wade into the “we are all texts” ontological discussion here.) But if our material and discursive signals  to others aren’t readable or legible within the frameworks by which they comprehend the world, we tend to be rendered Other: either seen as transgressive or simply not seen at all.

In identity terms, visibility and speakability are necessary for legitimacy, for non-erasure. Only in the past few years have the identity signals and codes performed by queer and trans people begun to become readable and speakable on a scale that extends beyond those communities and makes those identities visible within the broader society. And slowly, slowly, mutually constituted with the very possibility of this legibility of trans people, society’s concepts of sex and gender are shifting.

Signalling networked learning
So perhaps it is with networks, though with far less advocacy, pain, marginalization and struggle, let me be very precise. But I believe learning – whether in online social networks or straight from the canon, bound in leather – involves being able to read and make sense of the codes and signals being given off by those you interact with, particularly those you expect to learn from. These are what I refer to when I talk about “legitimacy structures” within academia and networks in the final slide of the presentation above.

Screen shot 2013-02-10 at 4.15.47 PM
They are, in a sense, literacies. They’re what I’m stumbling towards when I talk about the networked or digital literacies that MOOCs – if they connect people – help develop.

I’ve been struggling to say what I research lately. Is it social media? Identities? MOOCs? Networks? My research is a process of trying to grasp and make visible a few ideas and realities from the midst of a flood. It’s about filtering and reflection and constant observation of moving targets. My sense of focus doesn’t shift so much as the ways in which it’s likely to be understood change all the time.

Part of the problem is filtering: I’ve realized recently that in my dissertation work I’ve failed, so far, to build a robust framework through which I can filter the seven hundred vaguely-related-to-the-Internet-and-learning-and-identities ideas that I encounter out here every day in my brilliant network. I meander in circles, fumbling to re-word and re-work things, trying to translate or adapt concepts I encounter and figure out whether they fit into the big picture of what we’re doing out here in this world of networked practice. Sometimes they do. Often they are rabbit holes. Seldom can I tell the difference in advance.

But what I learned at the conference on the weekend is that the filters and structure aren’t the whole challenge: how to translate and signal what I’m learning to two different audiences is also a process I’m going to have to address overtly. Because there are power structures that support and prop up societal views of knowledge that make networked knowledge and practices appear invisible or illegitimate.

For the many networked learners who are also formal students, this can be a very real problem: it can negate or frame as transgressive what is simply different. And within fields of knowledge and the academy in particular, it makes pressing contemporary conversations about online learning into polarizing and misleading soapboxes about what counts as real.

The fact that networked learners DO have signals and codes by which we connect and speak, though? Is a very important – and useful – fact. Because signals and codes – like all things that are read – can be learned.

The lack of face-to-face is not a void, only a lack of literacy
Whether networked learners are formal students within the academy as well, or no, many of us regularly come across sincere – and often deeply-thought-out objections – to the idea of online learning in general, and to its lack of the ineffable quality of authenticity in particular.

I think there are multiple axes of thought behind these objections, some of which lie in determinism or digital dualism or nostalgia or overt privileging of the physical over the virtual. But even among many participants of the MOOCs I’ve engaged in so far this winter – #MOOCMOOC, #etmooc,and #edcmooc – I see a strain of genuine hesitation to fully embrace networked learning as legitimate, or at least as AS legitimate as face-to-face learning.

And I think it’s a literacy issue. These people are, for the most part, highly traditionally literate – many are teachers and academics – and they are, to their great credit, game to give networked learning a try even if they’re not entirely sure it’s valid. But they are new to the game, and they haven’t yet put in the longterm immersion and reflection usually required to build literacies in a new environment: they can’t yet read the signals and codes by which we interact.

Because networked learning is not about technologies, or a lack of the human touch: these are simply common and understandable misconceptions given the narratives that circulate in our culture on the subject. Rather, if it’s truly about networks and not just mass broadcast, it’s about engaging with humans; about performing networked identity via the codes and signals that we digital selves share openly.

Just because that may not be visible doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But those of us to whom it is visible…we have a job ahead to continue to assert and translate and help make our identities readable and legitimate in the field of knowledge.

Connected Learning: Getting Beyond Technological Determinism

Life lately has felt like one of those dreams where you’re in a cab with your third-grade teacher on the way to a conference presentation you forgot to prepare for and then suddenly the cab morphs into a giant recycling plant and everything is spinning and…

What? You don’t have those dreams?

I have them when things get busy. It’s like a grand exercise in convergence: everything blurs together.

From the midst of the blur, though, there’s a thread I want to try to untangle from the early weeks of #etmooc (Educational Technology and Media, a collaboratively-hosted connectivist MOOC) and #edcmooc (E-learning and Digital Cultures, my first Coursera effort, offered through the University of Edinburgh). I’m taking both at once, in admittedly a bit of a peripheral way.

But the ideas are starting to bounce off each other and amplify…and then weave back together around this thread of technological determinism. Or, as I like to call it, the spectre haunting networked culture.

Technological Determinism 101
We live in a culture saturated with the idea that technologies are, effectively, things in themselves, in spite of the fact that they arise from and are utilized and therefore given meaning within particular social and cultural contexts. We tend to see technologies in terms of their “thingness” – their shiny gadget glory – rather than in terms of the affordances or action possibilities they enable in different societal situations. This separation of thing from context and possibility leads  to determinism, or the belief that machines have the capacity to act on us and do things to us in and of themselves.

Determinism has a long and fairly star-studded history: from Socrates’ laments about what writing would do to memory through Marshall McLuhan and down to Nicholas Carr’s present-day ideas about Google making us stupid, lots of smart and famous people have forwarded rather deterministic views of the technologies of their times, during those times. Determinism tends towards answers in times of change. Could be why it’s popular?

Now, I’m not saying all determinist conclusions about technologies are wrong. What I am saying is that the way determinism gets to them creates problems. Determinism tends towards a reductionist view of what technologies are and do, assuming direct cause-effect relationships between technologies and what they make possible. Determinism also tends to attribute social phenomena that occur around given technologies to the technologies themselves, rather than what they stand for or enable or afford. Therefore, it renders the perspective on those phenomena forever skewed and tech-focused, so long as the determinist lens is still in place.

What’s wrong with that? Lots.

Technologies Don’t Connect People: Networked Relationships Connect People
The current American gun control debate is perhaps the most dramatic lens through which to illustrate the ways in which technological determinism makes for stupid arguments. On both sides of the fence.

Determinism is, in effect, a world view; one that reduces societal phenomena to “technology x did thing y.” The rest of the factors involved in the conversation get obscured or intentionally dismissed: the power of the technology to act is assumed, even when the determinist is arguing against the statement being put forward. Thus the anti-gun-control maxim “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” isn’t knee-jerk anti-determinism but actually determinism at work. It effectively controls and reduces the conversation to an assertion that guns get up by themselves and commit murder, and then smacks that down.

Now, maybe some people actually believe guns act like the brooms in Fantasia, multiplying and sweeping all by themselves. Most arguments for gun control and gun bans don’t actually operate that way, though. Those that do are determinist, and not very convincing, IMO. Guns and their availability absolutely DO lead to increased numbers of deaths, but no, generally not without people to pull the triggers.

What determinism does, though, is keep the conversation focused around a simple if specious cause-effect assertion and away from the whole host of demographic factors and identity factors and cultural factors that put people at risk from guns and support the arguments for restricted access. Determinism dismisses complexity and reinforces the idea that societal equations are simple, even when it’s pressed into service against simple equations few people are actually making. Culturally, we are trained and conditioned to accept technological determinism as common sense. So the very presence of determinism makes an important conversation hard to have, because effectively…the parties aren’t IN the same conversation, much of the time.

What does this have to do with networks and the admittedly less urgent issues around connected learning and the MOOCs I’m hanging out in? I think determinism and its prevalence as a cultural worldview are a very big part of what make the whole purpose and point of networking essentially invisible to those who aren’t immersed in it.

And I have #edcmooc and #etmooc to thank for converging to point that out to me.

Tech Utopias and Tech Dystopias are All Determinism
The very first week of #etcmooc boldly opened the conversation about digital cultures from an exploration of both Utopian and Dystopian perspectives on digital technologies within cultures, as well as a great foundational reading arguing against determinism. Part of me is tickled by this, because it’s making for great imagination fodder in the tweets and discussion, but I also note that the flights of (really artistically compelling) determinism represented by the best Dystopias and Utopias tend to reinforce the same worldview . Like the “guns don’t kill people” mantra, Dystopian and Utopian narratives frame thinking about technologies in their own binary good/bad terms. So it’ll be interesting to see if and how the class actually breaks down those binaries as we carry on, or if we get stuck there, endlessly debating whether digital culture is Utopic or Dystopic.

For my part, I think digital culture – and particularly networked culture – is neither. It has elements of good and bad, but good or bad is, from my non-determinist’s lens, the wrong question to even be asking.

But I do think determinism gets in the way of many of the conversations I try to have about networked culture, as a teacher and a scholar and a blogger whose work is largely about framing this complex set of practices within various non-networked contexts.

How the Add-On Perspective Misses the Point
I saw this again last night, when I tuned into George Couros‘ #etmooc discussion of connected leadership. George is an actively networked Division Principal who shares his learning and his educational practice, and who advocates for encouraging this type of connection across educational communities and between stakeholders.

In the backchannel chat on Collaborate, there was a lot of anecdotal discussion of the differences connection – ie building networked professional profiles via social media – has made for many of us, as well as a particularly skeptical response from one participant who kept saying things along the lines of, “but we didn’t have social networking sites when I was a kid, and I turned out fine.”

In my life outside of MOOCs, I meet a lot of people with these kinds of positions on social media. Many of them are my loved ones, my good friends, my colleagues and teachers. Many of them have also never really tried the things they dismiss so easily, so kudos to the dude in the #etmooc chat for being willing to engage in the networked environment of the MOOC long enough to make the point, at least.

But it is a point that tends to miss the point. It’s a point that assumes social networks are an add-on, an extra…essentially a tech toy or a diversion from the “real” work or “real” sociality that makes the world go round. This is digital dualism, but it’s also determinism at work. It hears all this enthusiasm about connection as about the social networking platforms themselves – “yay blog!’ or “yay Twitter!” – and not about the connections and actions and forms of identity that those networked environments make possible.

Determinism reduces conversation about social networks to a conversation about platforms and tech, not about people and the ways in which they intersect with those platforms and tech to create new possibilities. It effectively mutes those latter parts of the conversation; refuses them admittance. It insists that a conversation about technologies’ effects is a conversation about the technologies themselves.

Twitter is not a Ferrari
Subtle distinction, maybe. And one that we’ve been acculturated to miss: enthusiasm related to technologies WAS mostly about the tech platform itself, back in the mechanical and even early digital ages. If I’m excited about driving a Ferrari, for instance, it’s likely not the fact that I’m off to see Grandma or wide open spaces that is actually the focus of my excitement, but rather the Ferrari itself.

Now, Twitter is no Ferrari, but early – and pervasive – geek culture stereotypes tend to perpetuate this narrative of the hard-on for the thing in itself rather than what it affords. And those of us who don’t self-identify as geeks – I’m one, for all my immersion in the digitally networked sphere – are trained to recognize this narrative as Other and thus reject it.

Thus to those who’ve never really used a social network other than FB, where you’re pretty much talking to people you know, the chatter about how marvellous being a connected educator or scholar or simply human can be probably sounds a lot like “yay Twitter!” They look at us, and think, “man, those people get TOO excited about 140-character-limits on expression” and we all go about our merry business still completely misunderstanding each other.

Does Connection Minimize Technological Determinism?
The narratives we have around technologies and society and their intersections aren’t hugely visible to most of us. And they tend to shift with use: I have yet to see anyone deeply embedded within networked culture – whether as an educator or a momblogger or a poet – who has a determinist view of technologies. This isn’t a matter of chicken-egg…over nearly seven years, I’ve watched even people who started out quite convinced that their online lives were an add-on utterly separate from their real lives and that blog platforms were fun in and of themselves move to deeply embedded networked identities.

But many don’t start. And I’m thinking maybe being able to recognize technological determinism and address it directly might give those of us who find value in networked connections and connected learning an important tool for building better conversations about this, and therefore better connections.