if Foucault ran a MOOC

In the mad hype these days about MOOCs – which are Massive Open Online Courses, for those of you either not in higher ed or currently aboard the Mars rover – I find myself that dreary voice in the back of the class repeatedly piping up Hey dudes. MOOCs are not just whatever you decided they were when you encountered the word yesterday. MOOCs have a history.

I know. It probably comes off horribly. We in North America tend to be rather ahistorical, these days.

But when you are tied to a thing and its history and then that thing blows up in scale and the silly word that was coined in your living room is in the NYT and the thing you researched two years ago is everybody else’s New Big Thing and it means utterly divergent things to everybody and yet you’re all in the same messy conversation and nobody’s really sure what’s happening, well, you can only speak from where you are.

Which, in my case with MOOCs, is history.

(Or at least historical. The jury is still out on the rest.)

It’s like being one of those annoying groupies who was around before a band got huge and sold out to The Man and I find myself chirping, I knew MOOC back in the day, you know. When he was Authentic.

Yeh. Shaddup already. I got it.

That is not the history of MOOCs I want to talk about. The one where they started in Canada and are based in connectivist principles that model the operations of the internet, and blah blah blah. I have a different story for you.

It’s about what MOOCs – all of ’em, but maybe especially the xMOOCs and Coursera and all the big ones tied to the elite institutions; the ones currently leaping on board and those about to leap – have to learn from Foucault.

I know. Foucault’s star in academia has been eclipsed of late by the resurgence of focus on all things quantifiable and measurable and ostensibly efficient, but I want to wander, at least briefly, down the road of assuming there’s value in stepping beyond the New & Improved! TM sales mentality that seems to accompany our collective contemporary approach to all things educational.

Because here’s the thing. Most of what we’re on the precipice of exploring in higher ed with MOOCs is not actually new.

Foucault, for instance, had a MOOC in 1970. Or at least a MOC.

For the last fifteen or so years of his career, Foucault taught a massive, open course. Every year. That was one of the terms of his chair at the College de France. He was everything MOOC except online.

The politics of France in the late ’60s when Foucault’s chair was decided upon were such that it was perceived as elitist and unthinkable to keep Foucault, one of the country’s great philosophical treasures, from the people. Thus his seminars and courses were free. They ran from January to March each year. The public had the right to attend: two lecture halls were generally filled for every address he gave.

As technology became available, the lectures were recorded. These have since been compiled and sold as books.

Of course, travel and books are NOT actually free. And presumably there were many in France at the time who – due to constraints of money or time or distance – were nonetheless unable to access their national philosophical treasure, no matter their right.

Still, enough people showed up that it was, apparently, something of a pain in the ass for Foucault. Not because he didn’t want to talk to lots of people, but because talking at lots of people is not the same as talking to them.

He opened his 1983 lecture series – his second-last – on January 5th of that year by stating that “it is often rather difficult giving a series of lectures like this without the possibility of comebacks or discussion, and not knowing whether what one is saying finds an echo in those who are working on a thesis or a master’s degree, whether it provides them with possibilities for reflection and work” (Government of Self and Others, page 1).

He goes on, then, to acknowledge that “in this institution, where the rules are very liberal, we cannot give closed seminars, reserved for just a few auditors…All the same, what I would like, not so much for you but selfishly for myself, is to be able to meet. Off-Broadway, outside of the lectures, with those of you who could possibly discuss the subjects I will be talking about this year, or that I have talked about elsewhere and previously” (Government of Self and Others, page 1).

The thing about histories is that they help us understand what is NOT new about what *seems* new so we can understand:
a) what actually IS new.
b) what is valuable in the difference.

From Foucault’s MOC experience, it becomes clear that the idea of massive and open courses isn’t particularly new at all, though it is rather foreign within the North American academic tradition. The key differentiating aspect of MOOCs, then, is that they’re online.

Being online means they can spread and scale and disseminate knowledge incredibly widely, sure. But 2000 or 200,000 people only really begin to take up the online potential of MOOCs when they connect and network. When they go, as Foucault put it, Off-Broadway to discuss and participate: when the possibility of comebacks between professor and student becomes a reality.

This is the piece that I hope the various institutions currently grappling with the question and challenge of MOOCs take to heart: just using the internet to open another giant free lecture hall? Does not a new learning opportunity make. If MIT and Stanford and the lot are doing it out of their deeply socialist commitment to all citizens having the same access to their learned luminaries, well then, the College de France model may suffice.

But it didn’t suffice for Foucault, in terms of his own growth as a thinker and a scholar.

Now, his whole chair existed for the purpose of those lectures. His funding ensured that he had the time to follow those inclinations to set up an Off-Broadway discussion group with interested learners in the lecture herd.

Do the MOOCs that extend the brand of elite institutions enable and support their faculty in engaging with learners, in making MOOCs more than simply MOCs or massive one-sided conversations, however edifying?

Because that’s what the history of massive course delivery suggests is valuable. And that’s something that the historical MOOCs – the smaller, non-institutional Canadian versions that pioneered the term – were built on: the capacity of the Internet to connect people, in networks.

I suspect if Foucault ran a MOOC today – whether xMOOC or connectivist MOOC or any other model yet to emerge – that’s what he’d be advocating.

Listen up, higher ed.