education, learning, and technology – #change11

One of the most interesting thingsĀ I’m doing this year – learning-wise, research-wise, and community-wise – is the Change MOOC.

(For those of you not already signed on for this adventure, dimestore recap: a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. It’s free. Anyone can register and participate. There are set topics, assignments, and timelines, but you do what you want, via blog or FB or the central discussion threads: in terms of both your contributions and the platforms you use to share them, its entirely your choice. There are no gold stars – as yet – or credentials for completion, and no invalid forms of participation so long as you’re respectful of others. It’s a chance, basically, to be part of some coordinated conversations about learning, or whatever the topic, and to make some connections amidst the morass of people IN that conversation. A MOOC usually has participants from around the globe, at least within the English-speaking world. There are close to 2000 people registered for this one, I think.)

MOOCs are catching on these days: Stanford is even offering one. What makes the Change MOOC particularly intriguing is that while Stephen Downes, George Siemens, & Dave Cormier (yep, that Dave) – the godfathers of MOOC – will manage this course, they’re not doing the lion’s share of the facilitation this time.

The course is 36 weeks long. Each week has its own focus, under the overarching umbrella theme of “Change: Education, Learning, and Technology,” or how being connected changes learning. Which, as I see it, is a key site of contemporary cultural shift whether you come at it from the perspective of an educator, a geek, or simply a connected person interested in understanding social media practices more explicitly. Each week is facilitated – readings suggested, an online discussion session hosted – by a researcher or innovator or leader in the particular area being explored: this week, it so happens, is the theme of Digital Scholarship, led by Open University academic and author Martin Weller. Participants are encouraged to “write themselves into the course” by responding to topics, themes and assignments in whatever way they wish. In MOOCs, participants’ input often drives as much or more of the trajectory of discussion and interaction than does the facilitator. It’s networked, distributed learning.

I’ll be facilitating a week on social media identity come spring. I get to take my fledgling research into a classroom-ish setting and explore it with and through the participation of others, many of whom likely will have social media identities to bring to the table. (I’m the second-last week, mind you, so the 2000+ may either have dwindled to 12 by then or blown up to even more gargantuan proportions. We’ll see.)

But even better than getting to teach, I get to participate in the whole shebang. Student, faculty, and researcher all in one. Most of the 36 facilitators are also participants and researchers. Identity-wise, this levelling of hierarchical role separations obviously interests me. But so does the rest of the content.

This week’s Digital Scholarship discussion is particularly interesting. What does the capacity to share ideas outside traditional academic channels mean for scholarship in the 21st century? What will the impact of it be? It’s the impact piece – and the implications for traditional practices – that intrigues me. How do connectivity and the capacity for digital sociality suggest transformations in academia?

One of the readings Martin suggested for the week was the JISC (UK) report (2009) on the Lives and Technologies of Early Career Researchers: as an early career researcher, just starting on my second year of Ph.D studies, I’ve been conducting my own informal experiment over the past year into the subject.

Am I getting more input and feedback into my research and learning via traditional academic channels, or online?

It’s an unfair question, in a sense, because of scale. I’m in a tiny program, the first Ph.D in Education in this province. We are a cohort of three, with three additional students starting up this month. While there are a few broad overlaps in subject area, my peers and I share very little in the way of common focus, experience, practice, or expectation. So the level of face-to-face peer input into my research thus far – lovely and supportive though my colleagues are – has been seriously minimal. Tiny. Whereas from the time I started this blog back in January, the combination of my large-ish online community and my research interest in online identities and practices has made a wealth of sharing and input and feedback available to me, in spite of the fact that the majority of that online community are not in any way academics. They are, however, engaged in the culture of blogging and social media, which encourages reciprocality. Academia is generally still disposed and structured to be wary of reciprocality: it comes too close to plagiarism and treads on cherished Enlightenment notions of individual intellectual enterprise.

However, if I only had an online community of three, I might not have had the same experience. But it is very very hard to have an online community of three. The scale of connectivity in digital spaces and the potential for productive sharing, collaboration, and congruence therein is one of the biggest arguments, in my mind, for digital scholarship. Or at least, the digital engagement of scholars. Which usually ends up being digital scholarship, because people engage on topics that interest them.

As Martin Weller points out, though, there’s a conflict here. Research, in most traditional academic conceptions, relies on concepts of control, even where replicability is not required. New technologies are, from an institutional practice point of view, about letting go of control: giving it up to the crowd. And if academia lets go of its controls, of course, how does it validate knowledge? How does it verify and justify its own structures and practices? Yes, connectivity distributes research ideas far more quickly and broadly than traditional journals. At the same time, yes, crowdsourcing is (perhaps) a more vulnerable system of verification than peer review, Nature magazine’s 2006 experiment notwithstanding.

(Sidenote: have been reading Deleuze on Foucault lately. Foucault spoke about the institutional structures of the 19th century as the structures of a disciplinary society, juxtaposed against what he, Burroughs, & Deleuze called societies of control, in which continuous modulation of behaviours shaped by business principles along digital (or spectrum-based, non-analogical) models occurs. Control devolves from confinement by institution to a self-colonizing practice taken up by the crowd, by the individuals within. I think this has – ahem – some resonance for those of us interested in higher education and MOOCs, I’ll explore it soon, in another post).

The biggest best thing about the MOOC is that it’s a semi-structured opportunity to teach yourself to BE a digital scholar, whether in or out of the academy. To select what’s relevant from the stream. To curate. To share. To work iteratively, publishing ideas that – like this post – aren’t all you could say on the subject, but are at least a start. And letting some stuff go so as not to be entirely colonized, perhaps.

All are welcome, and there are still 34 mind-boggling-packed weeks ahead. Not too late. Think on it. Change MOOC.

I’ll let Dave explain how simple it is, courtesy of our SSHRC research project last year.