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.


39 Comments if Foucault ran a MOOC

  1. Neil

    I’m not in your field, so excuse me if I get some facts wrong. But what you seem to be saying is that one of the lessons learned from the Foucault lectures in the 1980s is that bigger isn’t always better. (as evidenced even by a huge blogging conference we both just attended with 5000 participants). While I have never been involved with a MOOC, I have taken an online course, and while it was interesting, it cannot compare to the intimacy of sitting in a lecture room with others. If some of these MOOCs have thousands of participants, how will the personal interaction take place? Will participants be able to segment themselves into smaller groups? We both know that having a twitter conversation with more than four people becomes a chaotic mess. I think it is terrific that the internet opens up so many educational opportunities to others, but will there be a two-tier system developing between those who learn online, and those who can afford to get the individual attention that comes from attending a brick and mortar college.

    Note to Bon: Did I get this subject right? I had to read the post twice.

    1. bon

      Neil, you’re bang on.

      increasingly, it’s scale that fascinates me: its benefits and limitations. what happens when the relationality on which your role has been built (as facilitator, as blogger, as…whatever) can no longer be sustained in the same one-to-few environment on which it was built. scaling is no joke…i think it’s what terrifies ppl about online ed.

      me, i love teaching online. but i’ve never taught thousands at once.

  2. Vanessa Vaile

    the title made my day even before I started reading… then it just got better. a day, I admit, fraught with mooc and connectivity frustrations, and so much in need of bettering. I’d even been thinking (yet again) about the (perennial) problems (issues, challenges, whatever) of establishing networks in larger online groups.

    History. I also remembered the larger lecture halls and in European universities. In some ways, online networks and ed tech have been moving in the direction from early on. Making a list of them could be an interesting exercise. Few, if any, would have all the characteristics, but I suspect a surprising number could have unexpected ones.

    I see the connection challenges play out in the fantasy Coursera I’m taking. The students want connections, work on forming groups, making them for themselves. Admin lets them post notices and urls in the formum. They are not integral to the course but more like bulletin boards in the student lounge announcing extra-curricular activities off-campus. No feeds and students are asking *why not?* … a good sign but if less than realistic about nature of walled learning spaces. There also seems to be less tendency for groups to connect, not to mention less encouragement or organization to facilitate it. No Daily.

    Two-tiered may be inevitable, just like the redistribution of the higher ed workforce my colleague deplore and fear. If so, let us hope that the tiers will be permeable.

    1. bon

      you’re quite right about the nature of walled learning spaces, Vanessa…here’s the piece that puzzles me: why are these walled? seriously. i mean, i get that there would need to be some centralization in order to keep it all from being utterly discombobulating at that scale, but not scaffolding/centralizing students’ contributions seems to me such a huge loss. though i suppose in the content-delivery course it may just seem pedagogically natural. and then there’s the valuable brand territory of proprietary spaces…

      okay. i see why they’re walled. i just don’t see any *good* reasons why. ;)

  3. John Russell

    Nice post. Small, historical points: the College de France has always been an open institution, where an appointment requires all chairs at the College to give public lectures (not just a requirement of Foucault’s chair); when Henri Bergson had a chair at the College (1900-1920ish), his lectures were packed in the same manner – people came from all over the world to attend (as with Foucault and I’m sure others); Foucault rarely “had the time to follow those inclinations to set up an Off-Broadway discussion group with interested learners in the lecture herd” in any meaningful way. Foucault long lamented the size of his lecture courses and tried many tricks to reduce the size – like changing the time to early in the morning(in general, he may not have liked crowds; a prof of mine in Vermont met Foucault hiding under a table at a function in Foucault’s honor). By most accounts, he sought out those “Off-Broadway” discussions as much as possible, but after 1980, he was too popular to be able to do so as much as he’d like. Which is another moral for MOOCs – while that connection with amazing scholars may be highly desired, it doesn’t scale very well.

    1. bon

      absolutely, John…the open lectures at College de France weren’t unique to Foucault but rather an intentional and ideological feature of a very different higher ed system than the one many of us are familiar with.

      and no, connection doesn’t scale very well. which is which MOOCs are probably best if they aren’t necessarily envisioned with a luminary at the centre, but scaffolded as network structures, IMO.

  4. Teddy McWilliams

    This gives excellent, much needed context to the current state of MOOCs and points out the existence of a simple sacrifice that MOOCs afford in order to be Massive: lack of equal professor time “Off Broadway.” However, the alternative to students staying staying connected with the professor’s content would be have an organized way of segmenting the class’s topical interest. If each topic proceded to have a conclusion driven conversation, then the professor could peruse the conclusions of each conversation. I would be surprised, although very pleased, if we learned that this took place at College de France, it might have. However, the connected technology we have now makes implementing this type of engagement quite easy. Hope to make use of it soon.

    1. bon

      interesting point about conclusion-driven conversations, Teddy…they’re outside my experience. how does one structure a course to emphasize them? and do they require that the course be previously-agreed upon content? do they work for an exploratory course in the emergent domain?

  5. Wendy McKenzie

    Similar to the system of the College de France in the University of the West Indies, the large lecture hall at the St. Augustine Campus was Open, an attendance was never taken and questions were not asked before one could have entered the lecture hall. Lecturers therefore engaged with large numbers daily.
    The presence of a knowledgeable other at the centre adds to the synergy within any environment. Online lectures or discussions embraces constructivists concepts which encourages scaffolding , reflection, critical thinking and can lead to knowledge creation. As in the case of Coursea through peer evaluation there is yet another opportunity for learning, this is supported by blogs, facebook accounts and forums which further adds to the synergistic learning environment.

    1. bon

      Hi Wendy…here, I think you raise one of the key challenges MOOCs need to grapple with.

      The knowledgeable other is important. MOOCs are a way to access knowledgeable others. Do we focus on one knowledgeable other at the centre (traditional pedagogy) or try to network knowledge in some way?

  6. Suzanne Aurilio

    I absolutely love this:

    “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.”

    And have been thinking the same kinda thoughts.

    Thinking outloud…it seems to me that bigness is almost always of lesser quality on some dimension. I’d love for someone to challenge me on this, just for the sake of it. I cannot for the life of me find an instance of an experience, service or product which, as it’s “grown” has not also become less than its former state.

    By grown I’m referring to the trend in higher education to expand class sizes primarily for economic reasons. It’s within this climate that a concept like a MOOC has gained attention.

    My fear is that the forward thinking behind MOOCs will be intellectually price-dumped. The quality inherent to connectivity will be lost in the massification process. It’s all very neoliberal.

    You know, photo booths are making a comeback in LA nightclubs. The generation that was supposed to have been by definition digital, are, the article says, longing for a sense of materiality and authenticity. That could be a harbinger for an eventual exodus from onlineness.


    1. bon

      i’m inclined to see ties between neoliberal pressures and the push to massiveness, too, Suzanne…now you’ve got me thinking about whether i can come up with any examples of mass scale without loss of what we might call quality. makes me wonder if quality is *just* what Bourdieu would call restricted capital…so that if a band does become big, as in my example above, they no longer appear “Authentic” because of massification? is broad appeal antithetical to being seen as having real value? to whom?

      this will end up being a dissertation chapter, i can see it. ;)

      1. atomic geography

        “Real value” seems a slippery concept to me as you allude to in your following question “to whom”. Quality is frequently paired with function, each changing as the other changes. As MOOCs become mor massive, their function will change, and what constitutes quality will change. The redefinition of qulaity ten becomes a factor in ftre functional changes.

        At any rate, cities are something that depend on large size to exist, and seem to improve in network connectivity as they become larger. It seems there mus be a limit to this, although I don’t know if anyone has established what that would be.

        Interesting article with lots of connetivity!

        1. bon

          “real” anything is definitely slippery, and good point about cities.

          hmm. i’ve been thinking in terms of the effects on an individual’s relationality within their network when their scale suddenly blows up, as MOOCs have…they can no longer attend to all connections in the same way. with MOOCs, scale has some of the same effects on connectivity, at least from the professor/facilitator’s position…which is in part where i think a lot of resistance to online ed in general comes from (among other things).

          but cities…their size…are benefited by massiveness, just as networks are. more chances for connection. so it’s more like a MOOC or a node is the cool neighbourhood within the city that then is altered by being discovered and inundated?

  7. dkernohan

    Brilliant, brilliant post. Thank you.

    I wonder if MOOCs go even further back than this. At Cambridge (UK) in the C16th, the entire contractual requirement of academics was to deliver public lectures. They were not expected to run tutorials, mark essays, even publish. Just to lecture at the appointed time to whoever turned up.

    1. bon

      yep, David, i think it’s the whole history of early universities, at least so far as i’m aware. certainly the German model into the 20th century at least…the “professorship” was in part a status thing within the learned world, not just a matter of bureaucratic tenure.

      interestingly i’m seeing a lot of discussion pop up about how MOOCs are creating/reinforcing celebrity status amongst professors/facilitators…again, maybe we’re unwittingly adapting an old model most of us have forgotten?

  8. KeAnne

    Interesting as always, and I have to love any Monday that includes reading about Foucault.

    I love the idea of MOOCs in bringing stellar content to the masses. It really opens up amazing possibilities to the autodidact. However, the scale issue is a huge worry b/c it threatens to send MOOCs along the same broadcast path we’ve been discussing about blogs & the decline of produsage. I’m not sure how to fix that, though, and I’m not sure if it’s fixable. I’ve been thinking of how you’d have to shift the pedagogical model to have both reach and depth. While reach is (re?)creating the cult of the professor, fixing the depth/quality problem almost requires the professor to become decentralized and no longer in control. I wonder if the UK college model of lecture by big professor and discussion done with TAs in groups could apply.

    1. bon

      i think there’s room for good broadcast MOOCs, to be clear – for the xMOOCs to serve a niche for people’s interests & desire for continuing ed, at the very least. and so long as they’re not pedagogically awful, by which i mean entirely transmission-focused, i have no problem with them…even if they ARE entirely transmission-focused, my problem is partly just that they will be what people think MOOCs and online ed more generally *are*, thus making it harder for the rest of us who want to do more with the possibilities. but i think they have a world of promise to offer many people, here and around the world.

      they just don’t seem very high to aim, and yet, like you say, KeAnne, both reach AND depth seems almost impossibly high. the TA model might work with predetermined content…would it work with exploratory, emergent content? in a course like MOOCMOOC? hmmm. it might, actually. even if everyone went in absolutely different directions…

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  12. @drgaryackerman

    So… how is a MOOC different from a book? From Foucoult’s observation of the difference between talking at someone and talking to someone, there seems little difference.

    What we have all known for out entire lives as students (and teachers) is still true: A good teacher can make the book come alive and help us find meaning and connection to it. So is the job of a teacher today to help students finding meaning in and connection to the MOOC.

    1. bon

      For me, the differences between a MOOC and a book are many: heck, the differences between MOOC and MOOC are enough for me to struggle to wrap my mind around. ;)

      But let’s assume a book is like a traditional lecture course syllabus: the difference between a book and a MOOC, for me, would be a) in the potential for emergent materials and ideas to be explored in a MOOC, as timelines and gatekeeping for book publication are sidestepped, b) in the capacity for decentralization of the facilitator so the course can be multi-voiced rather than gathered around a single perspective, and c) in the networking and connections made between students.

      I guess these are all more cMOOC in nature…but even with Coursera or EdX, I’d say there’s a real difference in interacting with a static text and interacting with a group of learners and a facilitator. Otherwise we wouldn’t need courses at all, except for credentials. And things like continuing ed wouldn’t exist.

  13. Sebastian

    Very nice look on the whole MOOC affair. Foucault, thanks to the emerging biopolitical discussions, will forever be connecter with the term “Security” for me, which results in quite some interpretations regarding the MOOCs: How to secure knowledge gathering? How to secure participation with an actual involvement? And I guess, the main problem at the moment: how to secure interaction, in a sense of making sure that people can interact but also in the sense of securing the network, so the participants feel secure enought to actively participate?

    Disappearing in the masses is just too tempting with such crowds…

    1. bon

      Sebastian, good questions. Funnily, right after I read this, I was involved in a Twitter #moocmooc discussion about encouraging participation where someone mentioned the necessity of synchronous events built into the MOOC structure so that people can connect and “feel secure amidst the chaos.” I think connections and scaffolding connections *is* a really important part of helping people feel like part of the network.

      As for securing the network itself…hmmm. I’m instinctively wary of walled gardens cut into the broader structure of the internet. Not sure if that’s fair. In truth, in my teaching I use an LMS for some activities, because I think the secure space can be valuable to encouraging students. But I think the “real” participation of public networking is also key to making courses more than just *my* syllabus, for students…

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  19. Stephanie Barbé Hammer

    Really smart and careful argument. Reading you in January 2013, I’m struck by how much the usual arguments don’t understand — as you say — what is new and what is not, and consequently the one-way static lecture format is, i think, a very real danger. Foucault would get this, and really academics ought to involve themselves actively in the development of online education, or else it really will be a one sided mess.

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  21. Rolin

    Just finding this…amazing how quickly the MOOC hysteria blows over artifacts, leaving you behind if you miss a week’s worth of blogging and bellyaching. Anyway, thought this was a great insight on history. Since you’re onto Foucalt here, have you put the critical theory lens to the MOOC, whether it be the c or x variety? His work is paramount in the crit theory and crit pedagogy world, and I’d be interested to see if he was reflexive about what he was doing in terms of scale. I think the crit lens is going to be an important one to look at the xMOOC in particular…interesting to see that the history of the model includes the philosophical father.

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  25. Pat

    I wonder if it is the myth of access and interaction, you think you’re getting it, and academics think they are offering it.

    Maybe people just like free stuff

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