MOOCs as ecologies – or – why i work on MOOCs

Finally a few minutes with me putting down my new guitar attachment, the cottage plans and the general fun of having a two and a five year old and a partner doing her phd to talk about some of the interesting work coming up. I haven’t been engaged in much of the debate around where the ‘massive open online course’s (MOOCs) and am going to try to not get too chippy here. Actually, I’ll get that out of the way in the pre-amble.

  1. No. MOOCs wont do everything. I would never do an ‘academic writing’ mooc, nor would i do one for beginning singing. Some things need lots of feedback and guidance because there’s a very well established “RIGHT WAY” that you should understand before you go breaking the rules.
  2. I, at least, don’t know what i’m doing yet (assuming i ever will) with MOOCs. Criticizing the concept because i haven’t done it right yet is like hating “friend of the devil” because you heard me play it on the guitar.

So what are we trying to do when we teach?
In my last post I was talking a little about how the learning experience is heavily impacted by how we feel about knowledge. I used the example of the new food plate (which has replace the food pyramid) for two reasons. First, it shows how the things we would like to think of as ‘true’ tend to change over time. It’s also a really good example of how we tend to ‘bureaucratize’ what we know in order to be able to market it. We all know that there are people who are vegetarian, who can’t eat wheat or milk, or who, for some reason or other, don’t fit into that generalization about food. There is a vast, wide ranging field of opinions around food and eating, and the food plate represents the a sort of broad concession. And while I agree that following the ‘food plate’ is better than eating chips and soda for breakfast, it doesn’t exactly invest us with the power to make our own decisions does it?

So what are we trying to do when we teach?

A. Are we trying to pass along the arcane habits of academic writing or do, re, me… these are things that have accepted standards, the knowing of which is necessary for some things. This is accepted knowledge we can point to.
B. Are we trying to encourage people to come to know something… about themselves, about the world. This is the kind of thing that will be different for everyone.
C. Are we trying to do B by acting like it’s an A thing? Are we trying to have people come to know about themselves or the world, to have an opinion or get their mind around a concept by pretending that there is a ‘true’ way to do it.

To go back to our food plate example. The food plate is an A type piece of knowledge. It says ‘eat this way’. I, however, would say that there is no ‘right way’ to eat. Different things work for different people. We all have different bodies, different budgets, different families, different lifestyles and different climates… all these things impact what we should, can and will eat. Eating is, by our chart here, a very B type activity. What the government can’t do, though, is have that ‘tell me about yourself’ conversation with every single person, so they resort to the C approach, they shove some of what we know into a chart and send it out across the country… into schools. We take the network of knowledge, shove it into a graphic, and send it out. This also makes things much easier to assess whether someone ‘knows how to eat”… but i’ll leave that to my next blog post.

Why MOOCs
My first post on ecologies for learning comes is from 2007. In it i describe how a coffee shop that i spent alot of time in at university ended up being the place where i learned the most. I was thinking of that coffee shop as a metaphor for Edtechtalk, which, six years in, continues to be an ecology in which teachers come to learn every week about themselves, about others and about how people feel about issues and technologies in the field of education. It is a place where that B style learning takes place. There are many people in those discussions who are considered experts and others with very little experience, but there is no ‘right way’ of what and how to learn established there. It’s messy and sometimes difficult and I can’t imagine how you would measure it, but most people agree that they learn lots.

And it’s a community. I can’t just tell it what to do. I can’t say “look, I want to focus on this particular topic over here for the next ten weeks in order to further my understanding of that field.” It resists being directed not out of spite, but just because it’s not that kind of thing. Imagine trying to tell all of your friends that instead of heading to the movies, you’d like them to sit around for six hours and read Foucault. For ten weeks. Well… maybe your friends, but i don’t think i could get away with that here… So… MOOCs

There are times when you want to focus on a certain thing and when other people want to learn about a certain thing. This is why we have schools and courses and stuff. There is a demand to learn something, and other people fulfill that demand. The problem is… I want things to stay like they do with edtechtalk. I want people to be able to come to the ‘course’ and get out of it what they want to get out of it, and possibly come to conclusions very different from mine. But, at the same time, I want to keep on the topic long enough to understand how i feel about it.

During our PLENK2010 course last year, this is exactly what happened. After about five weeks of writing blog posts, I finally understand how I felt about the idea of “personal learning environments“. As you can tell from the comments in the blog post and the ones previous to it… not everyone agreed with me. And that’s just as it should be… for most things.

MOOCs provide an ecology for sustained engagement with a topic without resorting to bureaucratizing knowledge

That’s only for experience learners
In two blog posts… David Wiley positions the challenges to MOOCs very nicely here and here. I encourage you to see George Siemens’ response over on his connectivism blog… I am only going to take up one part of David’s comments. David seems to be suggesting that it is the job of an teacher to both present a structured view of a domain or field AND present it in the way that bear the most resemblance to an INDIVIDUAL learners existing knowledge network. In his words…

Hiding inside the word instruction is structure. This is what teachers are supposed to do, I believe – present a structured view of a domain. Even though there is more than one way to invision the structure of the network, that doesn’t mean that novices are ready to deal with that level of abstraction right away. They need a help. A great teacher is someone who manages to present the view of the structure which bears the closest resemblance to a learner’s existing knowledge network.

This could only be possible if… 1. Every learner had the same knowledge network (or, say, life) 2. The teacher had an unlimited amount of time to figure out what each individual learner had going on in their head (assuming this is even possible) 3. The thing that people needed to know was very easy to pin down.

I would contend that as we can’t modify the learner, or the time, what we do is MAKE the knowledge easy to pin down… and break it in the process.

If the MOOC challenges anything, it challenges the idea that a teacher can decide what people need to know, how much they currently know and what they should get out of the learning process. You can’t. You just can’t do it, not consistently, not over time, not for the majority of your students, not for millions of teachers. The solution presented by the MOOC is that the learner should begin to take control of how and what they are to learn.

I don’t think that the MOOC favours “sufficiently prepared” learners. It actually really irritates and confuses lots and lots of people who are considered VERY prepared learners. And, well, i guess I’ll find out how that works out when we do our “MOOC on Basic Skills for university” in the fall. It’s specifically intended for the people I think David is talking about. Success in a university is partially about knowing what some things mean (see the videos we’re making). They need to know what a syllabus is, what a professor is, what social contract they are getting into. But the path of their success is something that will be very individualized. I can’t tell 30 people, at one time, what is going to make them the most successful. There are broad generalizations that are helpful… going to class is better than not going to class… but they really need to find their own strategy.

The learner needs to develop their own path. MOOCs, hopefully, provide enough structure, an ecology even, in which they can do that. At least… that’s what I’m trying to do.

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16 thoughts on “MOOCs as ecologies – or – why i work on MOOCs

  1. Like you, Dave, I am somewhat perplexed by David Wiley’s complaints about MOOCs. His complaint about the acronym is just silly. If MOOC bothers him, then he should call it something else, and may the best acronym win in the arena of public discourse.

    The complaint about MOOCs not being an answer to the problem of global education answers a question that—as far as I can tell—only Wiley has asked. I don’t recall anyone positioning MOOCs as THE answer to anything. Indeed, one of the implied epistemological assumptions of a MOOC is that there is seldom ONE answer to any interesting question, and if there is, then the question likely did not require either a teacher or a course; rather, it required a reference, preferably online. The working assumption of MOOCs is that the teacher-as-reference is being replaced by Google and other search engines. Rather, teachers are becoming guides, concierges, and curators, and MOOCs are fine spaces for such roles. Of course, MOOCs are not the only spaces available, just one.

    The most serious complaint Wiley makes is that MOOCs favor “sufficiently prepared” learners. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that he is correct. Then I challenge him to give me an example of a class that does not favor the sufficiently prepared learner. One of the commonplace complaints of teachers at any level from kindergarten to graduate school is that their students were not adequately prepared by some earlier teachers for the current coursework. Well, of course MOOCs favor sufficiently prepared learners. All classes favor sufficiently prepared learners.

    But perhaps Wiley is referring specifically to learners sufficiently prepared to handle technology and independent learning. I agree that a certain proficiency with web browsers, computers, and Web 2.0 tools helps anyone in a MOOC; however, millions of people have mastered Web 2.0 technology without formal instruction. Using a point-and-click system is no where near the challenge of mastering a pencil to form Roman letters or Kanji figures. As for independent learning, the biggest obstacle that I see is the expectations of those who already know how to learn and who, therefore, have to unlearn before they can manage a MOOC.

    In the end, though, my biggest issue with Wiley’s thoughts about MOOCs is the hint of essentialist epistemology that I sense in his argument. For me, Wiley is working out of the assumption that knowledge is a collection of nuggets that a teacher can transfer from herself to her students. I find this reductionism untenable. To my mind, knowledge is always a function of dynamic, complex networks, forged through the interactions of individuals with their discourse communities and their worlds. Knowledge is a fluid pattern that emerges through the dance we have with others and with the universe. It is not a chunk of information that a teacher writes on the blackboard for the students to write in their notebooks.

    Two of the best concepts for understanding this dance comes from Deleuze and Guattari: cartography and decalcomania, but this gets me into a much longer discussion. I won’t clog up the talk now, but I’ll pursue it at my blog Communications & Society. Thanks for the space here.

  2. People graduate from university and go out into the world. In the past, positions in university cities were fought over while the rural areas remained under-serviced because professionals did not want to lose access to information or opportunities for discussions with academics.
    It was hard for women who married someone with a position and raised children to remain intellectually equal with a husband who had access to workshops, conferences, continuing education funding, etc.
    Even for long-service professionals, younger employees begin to receive more opportunities for developmental experiences to prepare them for emerging leadership while those nearing retirement slowly become marginalized.
    MOOCs are a solution to the disparity in opportunities to be stimulated by emerging theories and networking with academics around the world who are interested in a common body of knowledge. The more we learn about neuroplasticity, the more we realize the consequences of denying stimulation to the human brain. It’s a health issue, an educational issue and a fairness issue that the academic community can address through MOOCs.

  3. Beginning to take control and assuming that learners can effectively take control of their own learning are two different things. For sure, teachers can’t decide what learners should know, how much they know and what they should get out of it…but this doesn’t mean teachers should completely back off and not teach skills, especially meta-skills about learning itself, that students can acquire. I think there’s a fine line where an implication of a MOOC can call itself education vs learning.

  4. Even though I agree with Wiley, I will say that I hope things go well for the University Skills MOOC this Fall. If nothing else, I think it is worthwhile experiment.

  5. MOOC = Mass Open Online Courses
    I am an engineer.
    From this I assume all masses will learn the same thing.
    No harm as long as for engineering and positive sciences.
    Today people should learn skills to make better living in the USA
    iBut Dave Cornie goes to Aristotales, Socrates philosophies.
    I am really perplexed .
    To day USA needs skills to make living .One needs a college degree to make better living.
    Today 2,4000,000 colleges graduates are jobless out 3,000,000 graduated, did ylou know that .
    Sure Socrates is also needed after our stomachs are satisfied.
    As an engineer I propose 10.000 online courses developed by the best universities in the USA and let all universities and colleges share those courses and give students degrees
    of their own . It is being done in Ontario .

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