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.