Open Learning (M)OOCs supporting the Digital Economy. Draft thinking

As you might imagine, I did not choose the term ‘digital economy’ that is in the title of this post. It is the result of some boundary stretching that I’m experimenting with this fall. I have too activities, one a SSHRC grant on the digital economy and the other a presentation at an ‘innovation forum’ where I’m going to be talking about open learning as a support for innovation. It is partially a response from me to critiques that most of the Open Course work has been restricted to the ‘edtech’ field and also an effort to experiment with the medium of open learning. If i find a way to feed the family supporting open knowledge negotiation, all the better 🙂

These are the responses to the six questions posed in the SSHRC grant that I”m working on with @bonstewart @gsiemens and @sandymc. This is very much draft thinking, so don’t expect me to believe all of it tomorrow, but any feedback you might have on it would be very welcome. I find it valuable for me to put out these ideas before i review them too deeply, sometimes the stuff i throw away resonates the best… and sometimes not 🙂

Question Strand 1.
How do MOOCs reflect effective practices within the digital economy?

The MOOC models several practices that are critical to an effective digital economy. The fluidity of content and direction in a MOOC is brought upon by the necessities of being able to respond to potentially divergent student communities and emergent practice during the course. The negotiation of knowledge in a network, among a large group of people, with potentially divergent or even contradictory results is one of the most exciting qualities of a MOOC. Being able to perform as a responsible individual among a divergent, decentralized group is critical for the success of any student in a Massive open course.

Fluidity is a key practice in the digital economy. We have seen successful companies in the digital economy market their work and their company as ‘in beta’. This is, for the successful among them, more than a simple bow to common usage. There is a very real sense in which keeping a given product fluid and responsive can be at the heart of a successful product or service. There is a sense of entrenchment that is a carry over from the pre-digital era and participating in a MOOC can be a good way of deconstructing that entrenchment.

The negotiation of knowledge amongst a network of peers can be one of the ways in which groups of people manage to converge in the larger types of groups that tend to be successful in the digital economy. It is a common practice for different groups and companies to band together to find collaborative ways to achieve success. It can also be a very necessary skill for an individual to have to be able to learn the massively divergent types of things that can be necessary to work in the digital economy. Topics as broad as international trade, technical server requirements and effective project management over space and time can make the learning community essential to success.

Being able to create a space for identity, to be able to exist and interact online among peers is a key strategy for success in the digital economy. The potential increase of reach for the products or services of a given company are expanded exponentially with the inclusion of an effective working network. In order to have a space in that kind of network it is important for an individual to know how to create that digital identity.

What are their implications for knowledge-making and what it means to know today?

The traditional approach for reaching out to find out the state of ‘what is known’ in a given field is to make a call, much like this SHRC application, and have professional researchers go off by themselves and come up with separate and potentially similar proofs from traditional research. They accomplish this by perusing existing research and researchers and drawing conclusions either from existing research or by combining existing research with a new and innovative research enquiry.

With the MOOC research can be conducted on the fly on a given topic by having those researchers engage with the discussion on education directly. One is drawing, potentially, on the same resources, but instead of knowledge being competitive and closed (with all the duplication that that implies) it is open and negotiated. If there are duplications, they get merged, if there are divergences, they get tracked or eliminated as necessary. Knowledge becomes something that is in constant negotiation amongst experts in real time.

What economic opportunities and challenges does the open model of participation bring into focus?

Assessing the opportunities and challenges of the open model of participation brings to the fore the question of why we are doing knowledge work in the digital economy. The economics that are challenged by the open model are those that are founded in the brokering of existing knowledge. They are the purveyors and guardians of the established canon. The opportunities are related to what we might be able to do with the knowledge that can be created out in the open. The one, knowledge for its own sake, the other knowledge to support creativity and innovation.

There are several critical economic challenges that the open model presents to traditional ideas of economic opportunity. It deconstructs the concept of ‘withholding’ knowledge in order to acquire capital. It starts from the premise that knowledge gets better them more open and shared it becomes. The middle-man withholder/publisher becomes obsolete as the true creators of knowledge and consumers of knowledge come together to negotiate the knowledge between them. This does not, necessarily, imply the abolition of intellectual property, but it does problematize the issue.

The opportunities centre around the potential for innovation and creativity offered by putting knowledge out in the open for negotiation. We can take draft research or ideas and use them as part of a larger knowledge discussion that is being negotiated online. The potential is that everyone has a better chance to innovate, create and bring new ideas to the table. It reduces duplication but makes it more difficult to make a direct tracing from participation and work to definable return on investment.

Question Strand 2.
In terms of discourses, literacies, and prior knowledge, what digital skills are privileged and rewarded within the MOOC environment?

The MOOC environment is distributed, iterative and self-guided and this forwards the specific skills that allow a participant to navigate these challenges successfully. In a distributed environment a participant needs to be able to create an identity that can be the locus of knowledge building and they need to know how to blend that identity in with others at need. The iterative nature of the MOOC environment definitely privileges those with existing technical literacies but it also privileges those who are well acquainted with the breadth of the topic being considered. The self-guided nature of a MOOC, necessary in a course that may have thousands of participants, requires that the participant have the confidence and be comfortable with the discourse associated with being an autodidact and a self-starter.

Being able to create an identity in a distributed environment requires the development of several digital skills. The simple skills of blogging/micro blogging, commenting and engaging in a other forms of interactive discourse are key to the initial development of voice. These are underwritten by the ability to quickly being able to scan and filter through potentially vast amounts of other people’s work in order to be able to find the work that can most challenge/complement your own work in order to further your own development of identity, both a distributed network identity that marks a participant as a product of the network they participate in as well as making the work of sufficient interest for others to want to include the participant in their network.

Dealing with a constantly changing environment can put a great deal of strain on a participant. A normal course provides many now transparent points of scaffolding that allow for an otherwise safe place for a participant to experiment. In a MOOC, these scaffolds are stripped away, leaving a participant with more confusion and uncertainty to deal with. Having a basic understanding, therefore, of the topic at hand can be critical to the success of a given participant. It allows them the identity necessary to be consistently interesting, as well as the currency to be able to trade in what can be a back and forth economy of knowledge.

While the ability to be a self-starter is easily folded into simply being aware of the content of a given field and having the ability to create an identity through interactive tools it actually represents a separate series of skills that can be heavily embedded in traditional concepts of gendre and class. The willingness to consistently take an open, declarative position on a given topic, to cross-examine and criticize the work of others and challenge authority so critical to the success in a MOOC are often a discourse heavily identified with privilege. This can be a particular issue when a MOOC is popular across many different cultures that work on very different ideas of respect for power, authority and knowledge.

What factors limit participation?

The factors that can limit participation are varied and often different in different contexts. There are a more or less unlimited number of technical factors – connectivity, skills, technology flaws – that can make participation in a MOOC more or less untenable. Factors associated with prior knowledge of the topic can make participation in a MOOC more or less impossible for all but the most dedicated participant. Either a corporate or a personal connection to intellectual property can also be a heavily limiting factor to participation in an open course.

The technical issues around a MOOC more or less speak for themselves. The lack of universal broadband makes for significant inequalities for those wishing to participate in an open online course. A complete absence of technical digital skills are going to create a broad sense of frustration that are going to make participation limited. Technical challenges of all sorts, from web hosting challenges, computer viruses and other potential problems make participation very difficult.

The ebb and flow of an open course seems to be partially founded in people sharing their own practice amongst each other. When a given participant lacks the range of experience from which to draw to create an identity that can be shared, to comment on others people’s work or to draw connections from the material being explored can heavily disadvantage a given participant. While it is possible that a combination of peer mentoring and communities of beginners may help alleviate this challenge it is a real consideration for using MOOCs with new learners.

The question of intellectual property haunts any discussion of openness. For many, who have a binding contract with an employer or with a publisher, for instance, the activity of sharing their work can be a legal minefield. They are constantly challenged to walk the line between contributing to the network and meeting their legal obligations.

How can the MOOC model help engage and develop an effective digital citizenry?

The MOOC model can help develop an effective digital citizenry by supporting skills/literacies development in an environment that is founded on the kind of network negotiation of knowledge and ideas that fosters innovation and creativity.

The digital skills that are the foundation of an effective citizenry are far better developed during the process of contributing to actual work being done in a given field. These skills can become embedded in the practice of knowlege negotiation in a field and can continue unimpeded after the MOOC is finished. Also, these skills are supported and modelled through the work of hundreds and thousands of other participants thereby mitigating the chances of the bias of a single instructor forcing a participant into the box of a single kind of digital communication technology.

The negotiation of knowledge in the open, the permission to be part of the creation of the curriculum for a given course puts participants and citizens in the position of believing that they can be part of the process of innovation. When this is combined with the changing the ‘purpose’ of knowledge from simply creating something that can be traded to becoming a tool in the process of creativity, you could create a citizenry ready to compete and win on the national and international marketplace.

Author: dave

I run this site… among other things.

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