temporarily embarrassed millionaires

(This one’s long. Sorry.)

Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress (2004), quotes John Steinbeck as saying:
“socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but temporarily embarrassed millionaires” (p. 124).

This expression has stuck with me for nearly a decade.

When I first read it, it sent me back another decade or so to a small book I read when I first went back to school after teaching in the Arctic.

A little red book, but not THAT little red book. Still, a book that brought ideas of communal action and adult education home to me, in a very literal way.
Myles Horton
and Paulo Freire‘s We Make the Road by Walking is one of those dialogic educators’/theorists’ conversations captured as texts that education faculties were very fond of teaching from in the late 90s. It was my intro to adult education as a field and an ethos, and in a sense, a reintroduction to my own Maritime history and sense of place.

It was my introduction to the idea that education need not be a lofty enterprise separate from the lived experience of being somewhere, and from somewhere.

With the death of Fidel Castro last weekend – and even my own FB feed making evident the vast difference in the narratives Canadians and Americans have been sold about Cuba over the past nearly sixty years – it feels maybe *too soon* to be talking about socialism and public education and communal action.

But with the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency this month – to which my FB feed had a more coherent response of pretty broadly-distributed OH SHIT – and his appointment of the Amway-adjacent & public-school-attacking Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, it feels maybe too late NOT to be talking about public education and communal action, at least. (I can take or leave the socialism, depending on the interpretation. It’s the totalitarianism and cults of personality I’m wary of.)

And here we circle back to the temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

(Bear with me. I swear all these synaptic connections cross.)

One of the interesting parts about coming of age as an adolescent and (semi)conscious citizen of smalltown PEI, Canada, in the 80s was that – in spite of lacking both social media and cable TV – I inhabited two equally-confusing places simultaneously: my own latter-day Avonlea, with its dour social mores passed on relatively unchanged since their airing in Anne of Green Gables, and Reagan’s America.

I lived in both.

I was a kid of the 99 Luftballons era. I listened to the words…and I wrote poems about nuclear disarmament to the United States President. I did not write to my local mayor, or to Trudeau Senior.

As the twelfth-grader is to the ninth-grader in the classic high school pecking order, so the US is to Canada on the world stage of power and Mother Do You Think They’ll Drop the Bomb? I learned to understand that whatever risks nuclear weapons posed to my possible survival in that brief window of the reheated Cold War, when I was twelve, it wasn’t a matter of President Reagan *wanting* to blow me up in any personal rendition of The Day After.

(I realize now he’d likely have been hard-pressed to find PEI on a map.)

But in a place tacked onto the edge of the continent and economically downtrodden for the better part of a century or more, you gradually figure out that you’re not at the centre of anyone’s calculations about the world.

What this has to do with Horton & Freire is all about education, to me.

(NOT education as a simple, linear path to success and prosperity for the marginalized…or those who think they are. That’s a complex mythology that tends to serve up false expectations and disappointment, at best, across cultural, racial, geographic, and economic marginalization. Not that there are necessarily better answers, only that the playing field Simply. Does. Not. Level. On those fronts, read Sara Goldrick-Rab on the costs that education exacts from those least prepared to pay, and Tressie McMillan-Cottom on the link between for-profit schools and increasing inequality.)

I’m thinking more in the vein of adult education.

In We Make the Road by Walking, one of the threads of conversation between Horton and Freire – the one that stands out most in my memory – is this question of whether systematized education can be transformational for marginalized people(s), or whether it replicates all the inequalities baked into society’s/societies’ existing systems.

Horton and Freire, lions of educational practice and leadership in their own Appalachian and Latin American contexts, have differing perspectives on this, with Horton asserting that change within a system gets co-opted by the system itself, while Freire suggests a “one foot *in* and one foot outside” approach to systematized learning.

My own career has been more in the vein of Freire. I work for an institution, however precariously.

But in the context of these strange days of Trump’s pre-presidency, I find myself drawn to concepts that go beyond the boundaries of institutions as ways of trying to rethink education and communal action and where we all go from here.

Concepts and initiatives like #4YOS – four years of individually-pledged, distributed service as means of fighting hate in local, concrete ways. Efforts to make communities stronger, more inclusive places.

For myself, I’m particularly interested in how we fight the strange cocktail of victimization and entitlement that hate leeches onto and deploys in its service. I’m interested in how media and social media are part of the problem, and what we do about it.

I’m also interested in the not-solely-American concept of the temporarily embarrassed millionaire. The person – whatever their economic circumstances – clinging to idealized privilege in the rearview mirror with their cold dead hands. Sure that Trump’s gonna make them a contender again.

I went looking for historical models for what to do about this mess, systemically. And Horton was the first person I thought of, because the temporarily embarrassed millionaires have always – somehow – made me think of Horton.

Horton and Lilian Wyckoff Johnson, a teacher and professor, established the legendary (and interracial) Highlander Folk School in the mountains of Tennessee during the Great Depression. It was both an educational and political space, for organizing and training labour unionists while conserving and enriching the local cultural values of that specific geographic place. Highlander later served as a site for Civil Rights and social justice organizing, and ultimately had its charter revoked under accusations of communism. It re-incorporated as the Highlander Research and Education Center, and continues to do work in local leadership training, environmentalism, and economic justice.

Highlander operated outside systematized, institutional, formal education.

Part of me thinks whatever we’re going to do now, we don’t have time to wait for systematized, institutional, formal education to address the blossoming of outright bigotry that Trump’s election seems to have released on both sides of the border (I mean the US and Canada, for those of you used to the word “border” meaning Mexico). The system can catch up later if it wants.

But Highlander had a Canadian equivalent that fewer people outside my neck of the woods know about.

It was called The Antigonish Movement, a Maritime adult education, cooperative, and microfinance movement of the 1920s and ’30s that led to the development of local credit unions that still dot the landscape around Maritime Canada. Its vision was as education-focused as it was economic: it was a vision of human emancipation. And for all it was a relatively radical movement for its time, it had its roots in two stalwart institutions of Maritime Canada: the Roman Catholic Church and the extension department of St. Francis Xavier University, located in a tiny little rural industrial town called Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

The Antigonish Movement centered around the endemic poverty and marginalization people in these small rural towns experienced.

Geographic marginality is often a marginality of benign neglect rather than overt oppression, at least where the ongoing benefit of systemic white supremacy operates. But – and particularly in the economic context of the 1920s and ’30s, before Canada had any form of social safety net – benign neglect can nonetheless result in grinding, structural, seemingly inescapable poverty. And this experience – among others – can produce temporarily embarrassed millionaires, who feel victimized by their lack of what they perceive as their rightful status, but are disinclined to examine why.

The Antigonish Movement was about examining why. It was formed to fight the “weird pessimism” of constant outmigration from the Maritime provinces and its attendant social attrition and decay among those who remained. It was about working collectively to change that.

It was about the idea that the “local economy could be revitalized if the right type of learning was cultivated in ordinary people: especially critical thinking, scientific methods of planning and production, and co-operative entrepreneurship.”

The Antigonish Movement had three key structural components: mass meetings, which Extension Department members organized with community members from villages and towns around the entire region, study clubs, wherein community members gathered together in local homes to study materials available on economics, cooperative principles, and business organization, and the School for Leaders, wherein members of the study clubs could attend six-week programs at the university in Antigonish, to prepare people for action and minimize business failures.

In the late 1930s, at the peak of the Antigonish cooperative influence, there were 1100 study clubs around the Maritimes, with 10,000 participants. Wikipedia says, “by 1938 these study clubs had formed 142 credit unions, 39 co-operative stores, 17 co-operative lobster factories, 11 co-operative fish plants, and 11 other co-ops.” In provinces as small as these, it is impossible to over-estimate the human effect of this level of industry and change.

They used technology as part of this educational change process.

I remember learning about Antigonish back at the time I first read We Make the Road By Walking, and a prof told us stories of Father Moses Coady, one of the great lights and voices of the Antigonish Movement, using radio to broadcast to communities and villages throughout the Maritimes.

I thought about that as this post germinated the other day and I began to wonder what a modern-day Antigonish Movement would look like, could do.

The original was about collaboration and cooperation to address poverty and people’s lack of understanding and agency regarding their own circumstances. To me, at this current moment, it is our societal lack of understanding and agency regarding media literacies and digital literacies – and thus the stories we tell ourselves about truth, decency, and each other – that is the poverty I know how to address. To ask “why” about.

Media literacies as an educator has been what I *do* for the better part of twenty years. I have a Ph.D in Twitter and social media, more or less. And yet the contemporary media landscape and the fake news and the climate change news and the mainstream media’s failure to consistently label white nationalism by its name all have me overwhelmed.

If I am going to learn and teach against this tide I won’t be able to do it alone.

Could we? Together? In a systemic, local-global organized fashion? Is there value in an Antigonish 2.0?

The mass meetings would be easy, I think.  We would need each other for study groups. We could break out the best of what we all bring to digital and media literacies and dig in hard until we figure we can see behind the curtain for a moment.  We could then start our own local study groups/digital literacies initiatives in our own contexts. I personally happen to coordinate a Maritime university adult ed program – not *quite* an extension department, but hey – that I’d love to use in a School for Leaders capacity, if that part is still relevant.

I believe that education is a process of offering people tools – conceptual as well as technical – to understand their identities and possibilities and those of others within a structural framework that points to various paths of possible agency.

The temporarily-embarrassed millionaires won’t all be interested, nope. But is there something here, in examining the why and how of contemporary #digitalliteracies in ways that help people understand the systems shaping all our lives, that could make a difference?

I’m curious. I’m listening. I invite your ideas and feedback.


What Your New Year’s Facebook Posts Really Mean

So I did that Facebook “Year in Review” thing a week or two ago even though I’m moderately sure it serves up some extra layer of data-mining capacity on a platter to Zuckerberg’s new personalized learning minions. Encapsulated in ten photos, my reductive 2015 in review looked…nice.

Really nice. A lot of travel, a lot of family time, a Ph.D earned, a conversation on Twitter with David Bowie’s son. Some excessive (expletive deleted) snow, but otherwise nice.

It left the rejected papers out. The time my son wore the same socks for four days. My posts about alcohol and fascism and friends leaving town all stayed conveniently out of the frame, presumably because Facebook knows these are not the prettiest things upon which to reflect fulsomely at the close of the year. Or perhaps Facebook only *knows* that because nobody much liked those posts.

All in all, it made me appear more or less like an amalgam of the identities I aspire to. Yeh, yeh.

You already knew that about Facebook.

But I think there’s more going on there. Today, on New Year’s Eve, my Facebook feed is a radiant orgy of Auld Lang Syne recollecting the year gone by in (mostly) tranquility and (mostly) appreciation, with a smattering of don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out, depending on what kind of a year people had & also where they self-identify and perform on the emo-to-chirpy spectrum. It is also, increasingly, a site of exhortations to do better as a society in 2016, a space for calling out the broken social contracts and structural underpinnings that differentiate individuals’ life chances so drastically even in some of the wealthiest countries in the world.

It occurred to me this morning that a thousand years hence, should archaeologists or aliens dig up the remnants of bourgeois North American “civilization,” such as it is, they will be sorely challenged to understand a damn thing about who we were and how we lived without our Facebook feeds.

If we cared about the future, people, we’d be chiseling this stuff into stone.

I got a book for Christmas – thanks Santa Dave! – called A Colorful History of Popular Delusions. Like all good gifts for fledgling academics, it has me thinking about work, even while I appear to be lolling in sloth over the holidays.

The book is a cultural history – without excessive depth, but this is not a peer review – of mass phenomena that overtake pockets of society at various intervals: fads, crazes, urban legends, mass hysterias. It details examples of each of these phenomena, from the tulip craze in Holland through the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, and some of the extenuating cultural factors that generated them.

Two things strike me:

  1. We, as humans, are profoundly adaptable – we have, historically, in matters of weeks and even days, on occasion adjusted the norms and compasses of our societies – in ways that seem almost unimaginable later on – in response to triggers that prey upon particularly cultural powerful fears, aspirations, or repressions.
  2. We, as cultures, are profoundly vulnerable to the narratives that we circulate and enact as members of our societies, particularly surrounding fears, aspirations, and repressions.

What does this have to do with Facebook?

Facebook – and more broadly, social media in general…but Facebook remains for the moment the space of the widest participation across demographics even while targeting ads designed to keep people IN their existing demographics – is the stage upon which the battle over dominant cultural narratives is played out.

Social media is where we are deciding who we are, not just as individual digital identities but AS A PEOPLE, A SOCIETY. Or perhaps, as we haven’t quite acknowledged yet, as almost separate societies within the same geopolitical entities, subject to laws and policies that have differential effects on different bodies and identities. Day-to-day, social media is the battleground for the stories we live by. It is the space where our cultural fears, aspirations, and repressions circulate.

Previously, at least as my book loosely outlines it, these narratives tended to be nursed and cultivated through a combination of institutional and moral edicts, generally protecting whatever the status quo was except in times of upheaval wherein individual voices – or, occasionally, intentional power gambits – destabilized those normative belief systems and identities and galvanized new ones around them, even if only for a brief window of time.

I’m not naive enough to think this means we’re free from our institutions, the media perhaps most outsizedly and dangerously powerful among them in terms of narrative capacity, but as any of us who have had any level of professional media exposure via social media participation can attest, even the media now draw their sense of the tenor of things from social media, even if they insist on repackaging them in binaries in the process.

This is why hashtag activism matters, and why social media visibility is risky and why posting about mass shootings draws out your weird uncle (who otherwise never acknowledges anything you say) in full Gandalf “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” mode, even if Gandalf wouldn’t approve of his from-my-cold-dead-hands politics.

Facebook and the rest of social media are our day-to-day archive of who we are trying to become.

These are our times and they are fraught and sometimes ugly and we move too fast from fad to fad and whiplash to whiplash in the outrage generator that social media creates, absolutely.

Still, I watch people get a little bit more media literate all the time, make the wizards behind the curtain a little more visible, push back against witch hunts in ways that I’m not sure were possible in closed and isolated societies like 17th century small-town Massachusetts.

Sometimes I have hope that maybe this isn’t all just a one-way sinkhole. Sometimes.

Which brings us back to the New Years posts. We live lives of inexorable and relentless change, amplified by the bucket lists and planned obsolescences and precarities and excesses the kinds of lives Facebook seems designed to reflect. A lot can happen in a year of living one’s Best Life (TM), after all, and if one fails to reflect on it all with sufficient attention, one is committing the ultimate sin of those aiming for Best Lives. My thoughts on the pressure to live our Best Lives are not pretty.

But when I see our collective New Years wishes and reflections and updates and hopes less in the vein of the “yay me” holiday update of wonderfulness and more in the spirit of a mass ongoing narrative conflict in which we try to influence our peers’ understandings of what has meaning and value, of what our repressions are and what our fears and aspirations *should* be…I’m less cynical.

Bring on the New Years posts and wishes and wrap-ups. Maybe these little outpourings help us focus on bits of hope as we cross into a new turn around the sun, bring collegiality to spaces and identities that are often fraught. Even if the aliens and archaeologists never see it all, maybe it makes a difference to the rest of what they dig up someday.

Happy New Year, friends. :)

The Old School – Sexism, Social Media, Campus Culture, and Identities

Mostly, when I write and talk about social media, the riskiest thing I’m doing is destabilizing a few people’s dearly-held concepts about the ways in which scholarly influence operates and circulates within academia.

This past weekend, though, I had the privilege of doing something that felt much more dangerous – I talked about the culture of sexism and sexualized violence on campuses and in society at large. In a keynote, on a campus where last year’s student orientation chant about non-consensual sex hit Youtube and made national and international news. The audience, mostly from Maritime Canada higher ed institutions, were lovely. Designing the talk was terrifying.

Not because I was talking particularly outside my field: I wasn’t. I talked about it all through the lens of social media, as both a symptom of and contributor to the problem. I talked about #yesallwomen and about the UCSB shooting and Men’s Rights Activism sites and about how social media amplifies all aspects of who we are and what we think and believe, and reflects society’s power relations as much as it also actively tries to shape them. I talked about how the stories we tell ourselves about technologies are often deterministic, even scapegoating, focusing blame on gadgets rather than on ourselves. It was a culture talk, a structure talk, and a history talk, in addition to being a social media talk. I was proud of it.

And it went well, though I can’t entirely credit my carefully-crafted navigation of the semiotic landscape of gender and power. It worked in part because I didn’t actually have to introduce the topics of conversation or carry them into the arena for discussion: I followed on the heels of the very sincere and very illustrious Wayne MacKay, whose bio features his Order of Canada and the fact that he chairs committees and councils on cyberbullying and sexualized violence on campuses and is a lawyer and professor and former President of my undergraduate institution.

(My bio, on the other hand, pretty much mentions that I have a Twitter account. To thine own self be true.)

It wasn’t punching above my weight that felt dangerous. It was the in-between space of the topic: the fact that what is sayable about the reality of gendered identities and sexual politics these days is fraught and limited. The fact that – and this is at the core of everything I tried to say – they have ALWAYS been fraught and limited. The fact that as a 42 year old grown woman with a big-ass vocabulary, using the word “patriarchy” in a public conversation – online or in person – still makes me nervous. Because I don’t much enjoy being diminished and abused, full stop, and while correlation may not be causation, I tend not to stick my hand back on the stovetop after a burn.

When high-status white males lend their voices to framing these conversations, it’s easier. Their very presence does the discursive work of legitimating the topic, making it a Very Important Thing and not an attack from the margins. In the case of Saturday’s conversation, it also helped that we were addressing college and university student services professionals who live and walk the talk of diverse, inclusive campuses far more adeptly and viscerally and vigilantly than many in higher ed. But Wayne and the gentleman who opened the day also introduced terms like misogyny and rape culture to the conversation, leaving me free to deepen that conversation rather than spend my hour trying to justify having it in the first place. Their acknowledgement of sexism and sexual violence as problems within campus cultures was key.

But the very identity positions that enable white Boomer males who sit at tables of power to speak of sexism and sexual violence without being seen as accusing also allow them to reify frameworks that neutralize and distance these phenomena, whether they mean to or not. Talk of hookup culture and social media and values serves to make this a “kids these days” conversation, not a conversation about the imbalance of power and identities in our culture. It makes the problem new. It makes us – the grownups – less complicit.

Let me be very precise. This is not new…it is old school, in the most literal sense. We are simply forced – by virtue of an immersive and intrusive news culture and the rise of risk management and institutional optics – to talk about it.

I talked about this in terms of stories. Stories are the ways in which we understand who we are, and our stories of culture and technologies right now are failing to give us any tools we need to develop productive identities for the world we’re in.

I told a story about obscene phone calls. When I was nine or ten, my mother and I had a caller who harassed us for months before the threat of being traced finally got rid of him. Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 9.32.07 PMEarly on, before my mother banned me from answering, I heard the deep, heavy breathing on the other end of the line. I suspect he said more to my mother, because I remember the sharp staccato of her voice, fearful and indignant. I knew from my friends that if we’d only had a man in the house he could’ve gotten on the line and scared the caller into going away. I decided that when I got old enough to get my own phone line I’d put it in my initials, not my name…because I was female. I also began cultivating the deepest, most rumbling voice I could. I wanted to be heard.

Of course, by the time I got old enough to have a phone line of my own, call display had largely wrecked the obscene phone call market and its capacity to assert power and create fear without actually facing personal consequences. The heavy breathers had to go underground and wait for the Internet, for underbelly pockets where they could congregate, no longer isolated, and reflect and amplify each others’ fledgling desires to exert power without consequence, to create fear in vulnerable others. The desires are not new. The technologies of our time regulate and constrain the identities we get to try on for size.

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 10.13.55 PM

Mount Allison women’s rugby, 1993

So do our cultural artefacts, and our frames of reference. I  told a story about the chant that scandalized Canadian higher ed last fall. I said that while I shared Wayne’s dismay at the fact that it was part of orientation in 2013, I didn’t share his shock: I knew the words. Twenty years ago, at the university where Wayne was later President, I learned that chant at a rugby game.

The student leaders interviewed last fall about the chant said they’d never really listened to the lyrics. I had. I’d heard and understood, just as I understood the rest of the songs that made up the raucous rugby identity: I just didn’t know what the hell to do with any of it, because I did not know if I could object and still belong. The rugby club was the first mixed-gender space I’d found where I did not feel diminished by the fact that I did not interact like a *lady.* Rugby didn’t take itself too seriously, and I thought I had to not take myself too seriously, either. So I sang along and I drank along and I tried to straddle the cognitive dissonance of it all, and mostly I failed and felt prudish and then tried harder. I did not even know it was supposed to be different. I did not know how to get outside it. It was called a tradition and it appeared to be the water we swam in and so I joined in and perpetuated it because I wanted that sense of belonging and I had no role models for a different discourse. And that is not new, either…but in the smallest ways it is shifting. Because peer-to-peer media don’t just de-isolate the heavy breathers, but those on the other end of the line. They allow outpourings like #yesallwomen as much as they allow forums for MRAs and PUAs. They allow those of us who work on campuses to connect and engage and try to set different frames of reference for campus identities, different examples, different discourses for belonging. They will not magically solve anything. But used well, they can be the kind of signal that enables people – male, female, whomever – to begin to be able to think about objecting, and changing traditions, without having to give up hope of belonging.

Or so I said Saturday. In the end, that talk didn’t feel nearly so risky in the delivery as I’d feared and I was heartened and for a minute I even thought, “maybe it’s not so hard to have this conversation after all.”

Then George Will popped up in The Washington Post yesterday. And I laughed at my naivete and realized this conversation has barely begun.

You’ve probably seen the article by now, deriding “the supposed campus epidemic of rape: aka “sexual assault.” Note the scare quotes. That’s the tone of the whole piece: “micro-aggressions” and “survivors” get the same contempt. The article conflates the recent trigger warning kerfuffle with an overall moral panic about how progressivism has made everyone on campuses “hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations.” Will asserts that victimhood is a coveted status on American campuses, one that now confers privileges.

I won’t bother to explain that it is not a privilege but a human right to assert that one is not just a sexual object, even when one is treated that way. I won’t bother to explain that when one DOES assert this right one is often treated to the very questionable privilege of being publicly excoriated and shamed by people like Will himself.

(I will bother to explain – to all of us, even the most active in peer-to-peer communications – that when the surge of people talking about structural grievances like racism and sexism and rape threats and able-ism and the right to speak from identity positions we do not happen to fully understand, share, or agree with begins to sound like victimhood as privilege, we might want to hold that judgement. Because yes, identity and power politics are messy and conflated right now. Yes, it can make some of us with actual structural privileges in the matrix of societal domination feel unfamiliarly – even unfairly – silenced in arenas we are unaccustomed to, and yes, some people will navigate these new discursive regimes in ways that are sensationalist or distasteful or whatever. This is the price of a performative public sphere. Nobody gets to be neutral).

But the privileges of victimhood are not the conversation Will is actually in. He’s in the conversation about who has the right to do what to who; the conversation about what we uphold as unwritten codes of whose bodies and actions and decisions count. This is smack in the middle of Todd Akin “legitimate rape” territory. This is about the privilege to exert power without consequence, to maintain stability in the categories of who counts as a vulnerable Other. This is an old conversation, but one we didn’t have to have publicly for a long ol’ time because respectability politics is powerful, silencing stuff and belonging has long been the price of speaking back.

So I’d like to thank George Will for prompting me to take my keynote from Saturday public. Again, let me be very precise. This issue is not new, and the only privilege here is the privilege that Will is daring us to wrest from him, in Charlton Heston “from my cold, dead hands” style. He may dismiss the #survivorprivilege hashtag that arose in response to him. But he cannot silence it. And as someone who has worked on higher ed campuses for the past fifteen years, I see that as a positive beginning.

the post-MOOC-hype landscape: what’s REALLY next?

My #mri13 keynote panel talk last week was on “the post-MOOC-hype landscape.” It was supposed to be about what I think we can do in the current “we have a lousy product” hype gulch before it all gears up again to bend the ear of NYT readers all over academia. And Silicon Valley.

The short version (see slide 4) is this: there are currently two solitudes in the MOOC conversation, and it’s not a cMOOC/xMOOC divide. One solitude – the mainstream media discourse – is essentially a unicorn, in the sense that its promises are fantasies of salvation and solutionism that have very little to do with the actual practice of higher education. The other – the practitioners’ discourse(s), broadly represented by the various interests around the table at #mri13 – is a Tower of Babel. Still, this solitude, loosely and cacophonously affiliated as it is, nonetheless leans towards discussing MOOCs in terms of learning. And in the wake of twenty-odd months of hype in which the dominant public narratives about higher ed have been all glorious revolution or ghastly spectre, I think it’s time to seize this (likely momentary) lull in unicorn sales and try to talk about MOOCs as learning. We need to make ourselves familiar with what the post-hype landscape of higher ed looks like, and address the issues and opportunities it’s left us with. In learning terms. On as many public platforms as we can. In stereo.

In other words, challenge the empty narratives that your administrators or your faculty have been sold. Find ways to talk about why what you’re doing matters. Change the narrative from unicorns back to what education is about: learning. End story.

Maybe I got it wrong, though.

In the revisionist history of my own mind, the “post-MOOC-hype landscape” is now forever linked to the unplowed freeways of the post-apocalyptic ice-storm-in-Texas landscape that stormstayed plenty of conference attendees in Arlington for the weekend. I got out, though dramatically. I pretty much hopped off the panel stage and into a taxi van with Dave, Mike Caulfield, Emily Schneider, two gregarious business dudes from Montreal, and a most intrepid driver, who happened to have grown up in India and had never seen snow in his life. The seven of us, strapped into our seatbelts over a set of summer tires that God never intended for ice, bumped steadily over a barren landscape of exit bridges and frozen plains speaking – at one point in the drive – in English, French, and Urdu all at once.

One of the Montreal business dudes managed to educate us all about bee death while also inquiring which language Dave & I make love in. (Apparently, folks, French comes highly recommended.) The other Montrealer, born on the subcontinent, sat in front and instructed the driver in their mother tongue on how to keep us the hell out of the ditch. A giant flashing billboard along the way proclaimed TRAVEL NOT RECOMMENDED. It reminded me of nothing so much as a scene from Mad Max.

But there we were, squished together.

It seems to me as good a metaphor as any for where we are with MOOCs and higher ed.

That second solitude – those of us whose research and practice focus on MOOCs right now – are like the seven of us in that little van. We’re a random collection. We don’t all know each other. We speak different languages and have different ideas about which ones are good for what. And we’re all of us inching forward in a space rendered unfamiliar by a freak storm – in one case ice, in the other, hype – that nobody’d expected in that particular context.

I got it wrong in the sense that the real ‘what’s next?’ may not be grappling with the unicorn narratives.

I think ‘what’s next?’ is working out the conversation IN the metaphorical van. Some who see MOOCs as learning focus on the pursuit of its ever-more-finely-honed measurement. Others are more inclined to dismiss measurement as irrelevant to the networked synthesis of ideas that forms the backbone of their approach to education. A hundred more do something in between. We don’t necessarily know how to talk to each other. It became evident around the Arlington bar tables last week that the chasms between practitioners’ varying versions of learning and knowledge are so deep some aren’t even really aware that the rest of us are IN the van.

That blindness – which we all, me included, probably suffer from to some extent – is dangerous. It’s dangerous because people keep trying to shove the future of education as a public enterprise into the van, without asking questions of what counts as education and of who benefits – and loses – if it becomes seen as a consumer commodity.

I don’t believe data has the sole answers to these questions. Conversations about theory and Big Data being post-theory kept emerging in Arlington, and have flowered further in the blog-to-blog flurry of discussion that’s circulated since we all escaped the Texas ice (Martin Weller & Mike Caulfield have written posts that make great bookends on the issues the End of Theory raises; Tanya Joosten & Jim Groom, among others, held court on the issue at the bar). But the elite university data scientists are notably absent from this networked conversation.

There are more solitudes here than my slide deck lets on. And like the unicorn narratives, Big Data tends towards being a totalizing vision.

Ontologically, the networked approach to MOOC learning and the AI-rooted machine learning approach are very different animals. They always have been, and the fact that we’re even all in this little van together bumbling through the post-hype landscape is as much a linguistic accident as anything: one NYT article and two very different conceptions of the Internet happening to education got hitched together on one wild ride.

I think there’s potential in that: there’s a lot about what analytics can tell us that interests me. But algorithms are not neutral, in my worldview. The Big Data researchers bring institutional clout and status to the conversation along with what struck me, in many cases, as an almost entirely un-self-conscious absolutism in their approach to knowledge and learning and the capacities of correlative data. And that raises issues about the future and direction of higher education and learning, far more than unicorn narratives ever did. When I say the MOOC narrative needs changing, I don’t mean it needs to become a monolith – it won’t. Part of its power is that many new stories of learning and education can nest themselves within it. Nor do I particularly expect to change the data scientists’ narrative on MOOCs and learning – except when they try to argue knowledge as truth over my prime rib dinner. But in the post-apocalyptic, supposedly post-hype landscape that was Texas, the biggest ‘what’s next?’ I actually came away with was the question of whether those of us most deeply invested in MOOCs at the moment can learn to live and work together in any real way.

As George Siemens said in the opening to the very first #mri13 session, these are issues of power. Educationally, ideologically…hopefully not apocalyptically.

Hang on tight, kids. The next van ride’s aimed for Charlottetown, for #mri14. It almost NEVER snows here in July, I promise. ;)

in the wake of MOOC hype, what shall we talk about?

So, the Typhoid Mary of education disruption, Sebastian Thrun, has admitted that venture capital interests are not well-suited to the complex structural realities of public education, and moved on to professional and corporate training.

Ding dong, the MOOC hype is dead.

(Yes, Audrey Watters and Mike Caulfield are both quite right: this doesn’t mean venture capital is moving out of education’s purview, nor can educators just “shrug off lousy educational practices because they occur outside the walls of formal education.” Agreed. But the professional training end of education has always been a business: it’s never had the same public and societal responsibilities, nor scope of systemic challenges.)

Yes, we need to talk about venture capital’s incursion into education, even at the corporate training level. And we also need to talk about what it means to pitch the promise of education as social mobility in a society where the promise of jobs is actually pretty scant. We need to talk about academic labour in higher ed’s increasingly adjunctified system. We need to talk about the ways in which institutional higher ed both supports and penalizes students, by nature of its systemic structure. We need to talk about pedagogies for utilizing the internet to teach cheaply and widely. We need to talk about the fact that Udacity was allowed to conduct its Silicon Valley-style “fail fast” experiment on public (and largely minority) students at San Jose State. All of these are connected conversations, broadly.

But if the “solution” of venture capital MOOCs is off the table, maybe we can stop getting mired in the plate of shiny red herring it pretends to offer to all these real issues, and actually work on them. Maybe across some of the fault lines the hype has created.

To me, Thrun’s change of course changes the whole discussion, because it forces the flaming hype of MOOCs as replacements for systemic education to separate into the multiple conversations that have been conflated under that rhetoric for more than a year. Udacity’s about-face may not prove the VC model for education won’t work, but it sure lays out the fundamental disconnects between shareholder accountability and messy public education real nice.

Let’s talk about that.

Yesterday’s news might even mean we stop talking about MOOCs at all, since Thrun’s putting distance between his new initiatives and the word (Rolin Moe looks at this and the whole Udacity announcement in far more complexity here). Makes sense. By definition, corporate training is structured to be neither massive – even in possibility, as it’s bounded by the corporation’s limits of who belongs and who qualifies – nor open.

Then, those of us interested in what massive and open can mean, learning-wise, can go back to whatever we decide to call networked open online learning, aka the MOOCs outside the venture capital model. As George Siemens said this morning, “Make no mistake – this is a failure of Udacity and Sebastian Thrun. This is not a failure of open education, learning at scale, online learning, or MOOCs.” Or, in Martin Weller’s words: “Does this mean MOOCs are dead? Not really. It just means they aren’t the massive world revolution none of us thought they were anyway.”

I come to bury hype, not to praise it.

…And in terms of what I think MOOCs are, here’s a taste of a small, semi-open one I’ve really enjoyed being a part of this past week.

I’m one of the facilitators and participants in the #wweopen13 MOOC on Online Instruction for Open Educators. I’m teaching a short conceptual-ish introduction to the idea of networked identities, for people interested in teaching online.

What do identities have to do with teaching online? I think of identities as being at the centre of networked participation, and the ethos of participation that Lankshear and Knobel emphasize as one of the key “new literacies” for moving beyond just tossing paper-based educational materials onto a computer. Networks are at the centre of online interaction.
(This isn’t to say we don’t have networks in our f2f worlds and lives – families are, broadly speaking and in the extended sense, networked systems that we’re webbed into).
But to the extent to which online engagement differs from f2f, it’s the networked aspects of identity and the ways in which digital technologies shape networked identity that can make an online learning experience very different from just transporting a paper syllabus to screen. In online networks, we rely on identity profiles and practices to understand who is present alongside us and whether we want to engage with them. Others read our identity signals to make the same decisions about us.

Yet the institutional structures and norms that dominate our society and particularly our education system do not foster networked identities. In the midst of all the pressure for educators to somehow prepare students for this mythical “21st century” we seem to be both living in yet still casting as the eternal and exotic future, the whole fact that schooling practices are broadly structured to create herd identities of compliance and uniform mastery rather than networked identities of differentiation is…well…not surprising. But definitely a disconnect.

Here’s the slideshow from my live sessions this week, exploring my ever-expanding “key selves” of digital identities as well as some of the benefits and challenges of identity work as a connected educator, and a cameo from Freire.