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.


why cyborgs are education

In writing my way through the drafts of what I hope will eventually be my dissertation proposal, I keep coming up against what appears to be a glaring absence, a hole in my work. When I talk about what I’m doing, the hole gets reflected back at me: politely but quizzically, a frequent “yes, but…” response.

The name of the hole is education.

I’m in a doctoral program in Educational Studies. I identify as an educator: I’ve been at this professionally since I was 22 years old. I’ve been a high school teacher and a special ed teacher and a travelling ESL professor and a sessional lecturer in academic writing. I’ve done educational project management and educational program development, written curriculum, designed rubrics. I’ve worn all kinds of different hats in my work life, but almost all of them have been in some sense or other education-related.

Then I enter a Ph.D in Education, and I stop.

What I’m writing about? Subjectivities. Cyborgs. Identity in social media. Technologies and reputation and social capital and cultural capital and money all circulating within social media networks, all of them shaping us just as we shape them by tweeting about our breakfasts. It’s big and messy and interesting and I haven’t even gotten to the part where I talk about knowledge or learning. It’s philosophy and sociology, with a nice smattering of psychoanalysis thrown in for good measure. I can’t blame anybody for asking where the education is.

It’s there, though, I’m convinced of it.

In the opening lines of The Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway claims that her cyborg is faithful to its origins “as blasphemy is faithful” (1991, p. 149).  The next time somebody asks about my research’s location within the field of Educational Studies, I’m going to claim blasphemy. My research emphasizes – and critiques – the theoretical underpinnings of current educational practices, though its scope is not contained within notions of classroom or curriculum. And any work wherein education intersects with technology is vulnerable to visions of post-institutional worlds and DIY education. Yet as Haraway points out, “blasphemy has always seemed to require taking things very seriously” (191, p. 149). I have two children on the cusp of entering the public education system: there is not much I take so seriously.

Haraway called The Cyborg Manifesto “an ironic political myth” (1991, p. 149). I aim to make my exploration of the branded cyborg subject an ironic educational myth, one that visions possibilities for the public trust of education through a more detailed understanding of social media.

My almost five-year-old son did his first dinosaur podcast this past weekend, with his dad. Charlottetownosaurus, Episode One. Because if you are Oscar and you’ve been busily devouring all things dinosaur for almost two years now, you’ve accumulated a great deal of knowledge to share with the world. And because when you’ve accumulated knowledge or ideas or just plain passion for something, whatever it is, sharing it and getting feedback from other people on it? Matters. Even if you’re not yet five. He found out his babysitter listened to it and tweeted me about it and you would have thought he’d won an Academy Award.

He has been in full-time preschool now since September, in the daycare attached to the French school he will attend come next year. He went in with only a cursory vocabulary in French: now, he’s almost comfortable in the language. He’s certainly comfortable correcting my stilted Anglo pronunciations, and I grin at him and try again to match the sounds that suddenly, wonderfully, roll off his tongue.

His teacher’s experienced, and kind, and I think she’s good at what she does. But even after six+ months in a French class with only ten kids, this boy who’d happily eat and sleep dinosaurs all day long and has picked up five-syllable Latin terms just from having books read aloud to him still doesn’t know any dinosaur names in French. Nor the words for fairly familiar concepts like “herbivore” and “carnivore.”

Not a deal-breaker.  Not a personal criticism of his teacher, whose (underpaid) job it is to teach themes of seasons and foods and holidays, to organize and facilitate (rather beautiful) crafts with the kids, to read stories at circle time (which Oscar inevitably interrupts because he wants desperately to tell about the things he knows).

She is a good teacher. She makes homemade play-doh. He is learning from her.

But he is not learning that the things that drive him and the things that he can do are exciting and engaging, things to be built on. He’s not learning that his interests are valid or worthy of creative attention. He’s not learning how to participate in a produsage or prosumer world, where consumption and creation blur.

And that’s okay, I think. He’s not five. And he’s learning some of that stuff at home. And learning to take turns with the play-doh matters, absolutely.

But in terms of his subjectivity, his sense of himself in the world and the stories he belongs in, school – in this traditional model of learning to engage on externally-set terms – makes me a little sad.

He’s a pleaser and a connector, by nature. That’s where the interruptions at circle time come from, however misguided: he’s a kid who will offer up every last thought he can think of in hopes of gaining the engagement and attention of another human being. When that happens, and a positive reflection of himself shines back at him, his world’s complete.

We all need to learn to deal with our worlds not being complete all the time. I work hard with Oscar on a daily basis to help him see – and seize – moments when others might be open to engaging, and when they’re just busy with the damn dishes and getting him a glass of milk, thank you very much.

But humans who need to connect aren’t well-served by systems that externalize what happens to us, that are structured to emphasize compliance and passivity over the scramble to share all the wonders that flit through our brains. It is human to clamour, but it is particularly hard to pay attention to clamour in systems where the audience for the clamour is smaller than the number of clamourers. School is an anti-clamour system at least in part because there are almost always more students than teachers, and human engagement does not thrive in that climate of division, nor on demand.

Human engagement can survive division, however, if it is not required to physically respond to multiple demands at once. Particularly if it has some agency over what it engages with. Clamour, I would argue, is alive and well.

It’s online, in social media.

My Twitter feed is full of people scrambling to share the wonders flitting across their brains. I learn from some of it. I am moved by some. I tune some out – but I don’t need to hush anyone for demanding anything of me, because they’re not. They’re just putting their stuff out there, in a forum where others can engage or attend if they want. That kid who was always waving his hand around in preschool circle time, the one the teacher probably wanted to throttle? He may have grown up to be one of the richest resources out there in his field, connecting and sharing and repackaging what he knows, just in case you want to know too.

He’s a cyborg, and social media is the world’s biggest circle time.

And so that gap between my emerging dissertation and education? I don’t think it’s there. I have a lot of work ahead of me to try to understand what it means, subjectivity-wise, to engage and live and learn in the clamour, but I hope eventually to be able to show that the clamour is not the enemy of learning, only of a model of schooling which need not be the alpha and omega of the field of education.

That would be an ironic educational myth, indeed.


the man who sold the world

We passed upon the stair, we spoke in was and when
Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend

David Bowie, The Man Who Sold The World, 1970

(Of course Bowie makes me think about identity.)

I need a word.

A year or so ago, long before I started this theoryblog lean-to on the side of ye olde cribchronicles, I started groping my way towards exploring something, trying to capture something I’d never heard named. I assumed it had been named, somewhere, probably a few times over, but was both amorphous enough and fast-moving enough to have refused reification, mass currency under a single title.

I called it brand, half tongue-in-cheek. I’ve always found brand a vulgar word, flagrant and blatant in its commercial intent. The online universe – especially in the education and narrative blog circles I run in – is not always so open about its own embeddedness in the capital exchange process. I chose the word to provoke, to try to force that conversation.

But mostly I chose it to keep me honest.

It forced me to look at my commercially lilywhite self and own that I am as embroiled and invested in online circulations of capital and power as the trashiest review pimp out there. Because you cannot use social media and not be embroiled. As you connect and share and have your work recognized by others, your social capital is amplified. As your social capital is amplified, your capacity to leverage it increases, often exponentially. You don’t have to: the monetization of the sphere is not obligatory. But ignoring it doesn’t mean it’s gone away.

I wrote three posts in quick succession on the subject. In the last one, I said it like this:

be it beauty or ideas or humour, it matters not. if you put it out
there and it works, it builds reputation. reputation can be leveraged,
sometimes into capital, sometimes into opportunity, sometimes
simply  into connection. we all have our eyes on a prize; we are
none of us pure, without want.

branding is what is read on to you, how you are perceived, what
you signify in the eyes of everybody else. it is not you, but a version
of you. it is an act, and a group act, one that does not exist without
a network of some sort to reflect and amplify it. it is ephemeral, a
wisp on the wind. it is not about content or truth.

it is about image and perceived capacity.
(own it,, June 8th, 2010)

I think of all of us out here using social media in our myriad of ways as branded selves, branded cyborgs whose online and offline lives blur. Within the walls of the academy, where the branded cyborg is my dissertation topic, I tend to use the words digital identity or digital subjectivity to describe the idea, depending on which discipline I’m addressing. I see them all tied together in Butler’s idea of the performative: that subjectivities are created by the constant and ongoing citation of the (gendered) societal norms that circulate in discourse. What makes me different from you is how I perform myself – online or off – in relation to those norms.

And what makes me a branded cyborg is that the circulations in which I reference and identify myself include the spheres of social media and concommittant capital. And some version of me – my brand, or my digital identity – continues on performing me in circulation even when I’m not there. Ahem. That’s all. But that’s not an easy thing to explain.

It’s hard to name a social aggregate, an “it” in circulation. As Bruno LaTour puts it in Reassembling the Social, “…Social aggregates are not the object of an ostensive definition – like mugs and cats and chairs that can be pointed at by the index finger – but only of a performative definition. They are made by the various ways and manners in which they are said to exist” (p. 34).  The performative definition of a group draws attention to the means necessary to keep it up, and also to the contributions made by the fact of it being studied or analyzed.

Goody. I need a word to cover the performative definition of performativity in the world of social media.

Amber Case (here at TEDWomen) is a cyborg anthroplogist, which basically means she studies human life as a product of humans and technologies, or objects. She calls the ephemeral us-ness that others interact with online our “second self.”

I’m wary of this term. The idea of a second self ignores the fact that the identity distinctions between online and offline life are increasingly minimal and blurred and often meaningless: tomorrow, for instance, I’ll travel to another province to hang out with a bunch of bloggers, word made flesh. The transition from screen narratives and flurries of Twitter conversation to clinking glasses will not be particularly jarring: in fact, because the group of us interact far more regularly than most of us do with friends we know only in the flesh, the awkward stage of polite catching up will be largely bypassed. We are intimate, because we are regularly online together. Are you listening, Sherry Turkle?

Nathan Jurgenson of cyborgology – who adeptly critiques the binary implicated in the second self idea here – calls it a Profile, an aggregate sum of all the data out there about you. I think we’re on the same page conceptually. There’s something fluid about the word: its connotations are less laden than that of brand, or identity. Yet to me it suggests something flat, surface-like, easily tied up. Does it allow for complex performances of digital identity? Does it represent who we are when we’re not there?

I need to talk this out. Last time I asked – when I asked who you think you are online – I got an extraordinary collection of responses and discussion. This is part two, the simpler question, really: what would you call this you I know out here, your online doppelganger, your disembodied you? Profile, brand, second self, digital identity…what works?