Education for a Digital Age?

Do MOOCs inherently help develop digital literacies?

I’ve been thinking about this…and I think they can – even in xMOOC format – IF they are built on platforms that enable peer-to-peer networking.

I sat down to do an experiment for this week’s #moocmooc – a kind of short video essay exploring some of my thoughts on MOOCs and their capacity for developing digital literacies in the form of decentering (gasp!) teachers – and 28 hours later, after life and meetings and childrearing and my own occasionally stunning levels of technical idiocy interfered and I decided to conflate Tuesday’s video assignment with Wednesday’s peer pedagogies assignment, kinda, I emerged with a $*&($#&%$*)! video essay that is nearly 28 hours long.

Okay, 11+ minutes.

Apparently I *don’t* think better out loud. I *do* think better in the round, though, so I’m going to try another experiment right here, and rather than expanding in my usual prosaic format about my ideas, I’m gonna try to condense them. And then open them up for critique and improvement.

You can follow along while watching the video (alas, this version doesn’t feature my cat Clementine, as two cutting-room floor drafts did, but does feature sound, which another sleek 9 minute run-through did not. Please to enjoy the fruits of my, uh, compromise. Ignore the fact that my head bobs around a whole lot. This was Take #23 or something.)

Key Ideas & Assumptions:
1. The early MOOCs DID develop digital literacies, inherently.
I always thought of MOOCs as helping to develop digital literacies because my first MOOCs were all connectivist, and focused on the generative knowledge of networks, and the principles of aggregation, remix, repurpose and feed-forward: in them, learners worked to expand on and connect with the ideas of others by creating and sharing ideas of our own.

2. Then xMOOCs came along.
The big xMOOC startups seem to have been taken up as if the transformational thing about them is that they’re massive But really, massively-scaled education was tried back in the 20th century with TV broadcast models and never really lived up to the hype (side-note: a lot of educational TV initiatives evolved into what became known as “distance learning,” which I worked in back in 1998 when it was morphing to online ed). Broadcast education at scale has never been particularly effective. Or revolutionary. And the capacity to educate at scale is not inherently digital.

3. Ergo, if MOOCs are simply massive (& open in the sense of registration), that is NOT scaling education for the digital age.
That is, in fact, what Cathy Davidson calls scaling what’s broken in education. Taking a transmission model of teaching and broadcasting it via the internet does not create digital literacies, or citizens of the Internet.

4. But if MOOCs are built on platforms that enable (and preferably coax or encourage) the digital affordance of networked participation, connecting peer to peer, they *will* teach at least one key digital literacy. Especially if they’re big.
Traditional models of education have the teacher at the centre, providing knowledge, structure, care and validation (hopefully), among other things. Learning and value can come from this, but the model has become hegemonic and leads people to approach learning situations as if they are vessels to be filled, rather than active, central participants in their own learning. But at scale, with 20,000 students, teachers can’t humanly fulfill the validation needs, in particular, of learners to know whether they’re learning and making sense. The more students, the harder that is. So what networked MOOCs at scale do is decenter teachers. Not devalue. Just decenter.

5. Unlike broadcast models of scale, networked platforms need not leave learners hanging for validation, though. Peers can and will step into collaborative validation and knowledge-building roles if they have the means to connect and share.
At first, being in any course where you’re not performing directly – and predominantly – for the teacher is disorienting. Gradually, however, so long as the facilitator still provides structure and serves to lead continued movement and step in where thorny spots or challenges become evident, this freedom to lead and explore within peer networks can be pretty heady. The extent to which a facilitator encourages this depends on the content and assessment structure of the course; if it’s a mastery-based course with testing at the end, peer-generated knowledge may not be a goal. But peer networks of shared idea validation, like free-form networked study groups, have a place in almost any learning model. Even xMOOCs.

6. So if the network capacity is present, even conventional delivery of content – whether xMOOC or cMOOC or anywhere on the spectrum in between – can implicitly help learners to learn to look to networks rather than lone teachers or facilitators. 
And this IS a key digital orientation towards the world and the practice of learning.

So maybe, with millions of registrants around the world, MOOCs *can* be a key part of education for the digital age, by help learners unlearn the passive “schooling” model of transmission education that many still seem to struggle to shed. But ONLY if they utilize networked platforms that enable and encourage communications and connections between learners.

That’s my two cents. There’s something hopeful here, I think.

What do you think #MOOCMOOC? This is – even at Take #23 – just a draft of a thesis. Have at it. :)

the MOOC is dead, long live the MOOC

It’s a brand new year, people. Four days in, and my brain is still rife with metaphors of new-fallen snow and fresh starts and resolute setting of goals.

But for all the rhetorical power of these conceptual flights of potentiality, I am stuck with the distinct feeling that the old year bloody well followed me home and sits lolling about on my desk, laughing at my attempts to clean slate and begin anew.

“Wherever you go, there you are,” an old friend used to say.

Where I am is still last year’s business. In fact, if 2012 really *was* the Year of the MOOC, I’ll be cozied up with last year for the next three months straight.

The night before New Year’s Eve, I joked on Twitter about Dave & I buckling down to work on the MOOCbook before the zeitgeist of the old year passed.

This morning I opened up my poor neglected blog and discovered the draft of this post, begun in July and last touched in late October, titled, in fact, “the MOOC is dead, long live the MOOC.” Apparently the joke is on me.

That’s the thing about MOOCs. They’re so everywhere that I can’t even keep track of what *I’ve* thought about them in the past couple of months, let alone the other copious buckets of ink spilled on the topic.

The whole damn thing has gotten so vast. And I feel as though it’s anathema to the current professional climate to ever admit one is overwhelmed, especially early in the new year, when one is supposed to be washed clean of all that baggage.

But there it is. Wherever you go, there you are.

Looking around at the broad higher ed/edtech scene, I suspect talking about MOOCs in productive ways is getting harder for everyone.

When there’s a clamour of voices, identifying the places and positions people are speaking from, let alone what’s left to be said, can be an assault from all directions. Trying to research MOOCs and write speculatively about what they may imply for higher ed is a lot like working in the midst of a big ol’ maelstrom. Mostly composed of verbiage.

Traditional models don’t suffice. Good research tends to try to be clear about which shoulders of giants it stands upon, and which gap in knowledge it aims to address. MOOCs are still such a moving target that the gaps in knowledge and direction aren’t really yet clear. And news reporting thrives on a heady mix of sensationalism and actual change, both of which are beginning to wear thin.

Because the biggest obstacle to effective conversation about MOOCs is that none of us IN the conversation – even the biggest names – appear to be clear yet on what MOOCs are or can be, or on where they begin and end.

As Dave put it in his inaugural appearance in ye olde fancy Wall Street Journal, “Nobody has any idea how it’s going to work.”

I’d go a step further, beyond the business model aspect of the conversation. I think the challenge with MOOCs, at this juncture, is that nobody has any idea what they are. This makes talking about what they *can be,* let alone their effects on what *is* in contemporary higher ed, rather a challenge.

Roger Whitson nailed it back in August after the first #MOOCMOOC experiment, with his Derridean claim of “il n’y a pas de hors-MOOC”  or There is no-outside MOOC; there is nothing outside the MOOC.

We *know* what we mean when we talk about higher education, or at least, we believe we do. We have a broadly agreed-upon societal understanding of where the perimeters of that conversation lie. In fact, the perimeters of that conversation have traditionally lain more or less where MOOCs begin.

But where do MOOCs end? If we are talking about experimentation with learning online, on any kind of mass scale, are we then talking about MOOCs? How do we distinguish one possibility from another?

A year ago, MOOCs themselves were a rather small experimental niche; a loose but vibrant network of learning focused around principles of connectivism and openness and distributed, generative knowledge. Then Sebastian Thrun opened up the AI course at Stanford: to those for whom MOOCs were familiar, the term fit.

George Siemens called the AI course a MOOC back in August, 2011. The media gradually caught up, because there was no other equivalent term. When Thrun founded Udacity and the hype began to build, the word “MOOC”  followed. And the rest, as they say, is history. Rather accidental history.

One of the most fascinating things about the proliferation of MOOC buzz is the way in which it’s made visible the networks by which media and higher ed make knowledge today.

But here we are, wherever we go. MOOCs mean video lectures. Or they mean distributed, aggregated means of making new knowledge. Or they mean democratization, or disruption, or whatever other Christ-on-the-cross people want to hang their futures on.

So how do we talk about the Internet happening to education without getting hopelessly mired in Wittgensteinian language-games? How do we begin to sort out and advocate for what we want MOOCs to be, when conversations about them tend to immediately point out that participants are speaking from entirely different reference points and hopes and belief systems?

I wish I knew.  That’d be a heady way to start the new year. Instead, all I know is too much is being conflated under this bubble, as if everybody just woke up and noticed the internet might actually be relevant to higher ed. In that sense, I almost hope the 2012 narrative around MOOCs *is* good and dead, much as I doubt the calendar shift simply erased it.

But I also know that this messy, paralytic conversation remains one of the liveliest things I’ve ever participated in professionally, in almost twenty years in the field of education. The idealist in me says that if we don’t know where MOOCs end, then maybe their possibilities are still grandly open.

For me personally, the value of MOOCs has been primarily in belonging: in finding ways to connect and learn and share within otherwise too-broad networks. In that spirit, then, I’ve signed up for two new (connectivist-style) MOOCs this month – #etmooc and the second #MOOCMOOC – in the midst of the book-writing and thesis-researching on the subject.  I’m hoping the more active engagement will help rejuvenate my own sense of the meta-conversation, and where to speak from.