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.

Coming to know – the path of the rhizome

A couple of weeks ago google told me this week that someone had cited my 2008 ‘Rhizomatic Education‘ article. It was my first academically published article and, looking back at it now, I can see some of the embers of the ideas that i’ve been mulling around lately. I wrote the article at the prompting of two of my favourite sparing partners online – @gsiemens and @lawrie. They are both central nodes in my online network and people I am always very happy to see when i run into them, online or off. They both encouraged me to take ‘that rhizome idea’ and crystallize it using the academic publishing mill. Both as a means of putting my own stamp on it (though, admittedly, lots of other people have done very interesting things with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome) but also in an effort to put some serious thinking into something that i had been babbling to people about for a while. It was always meant to be a first volley, a chance to set some ground work for talking about what it means to come to know.

This week i read the blog of a kindred spirit, Mary Ann Reilly, who’s post opens like this

For several years now, I have been considering how the rhizome might function as a metaphor for learning and a model for education. I tend to agree with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (2002) who in writing about the tree as the long standing metaphor for knowledge and learning said, “We’re tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles. They’ve made us suffer too much” (p. 15).

In their stead, Deleuze and Guattari offer the rhizome. Rhizome? Yes. You know rhizomes: think ginger. A rhizome is the horizontal stem of a plant, usually found underground. From the plant’s nodes, it sends out roots and shoots. The rhizome is all about middles. The tree is a symbol of hierarchy.

Her rhizomatic classroom is going to be a scary place for many… it requires leaving the students to make a great many decisions that could, under the wrong circumstances, exacerbate problems of discipline, socio-economic disparity, literacies… if not handled just so. Simply put… it sounds exhausting. “In the rhizomatic classroom, thinking resembles the tangle of roots and shoots, both broken and whole. Problem framing and decision-making rest with all learners: teachers and students. ” And, at the same time, I wish Oscar and Posey were in that classroom. And it describes the way i teach. Trust me… lots of people find it frustrating.

Turn the button with your left hand
Hello, my name is Joe
I have a wife and a dog and a family
I work (all day) in the button factory
One day, my boss came up to me and said,
“Hey Joe, are you busy?”
I said, “No, heck no!”
“Then do this…”[turn this button with your left hand] link

This is the bleakest view of what we call education. It is a way in which we indoctrinate future generations with the ideas, rules and truths of the past. We take the things that we ‘know’ and we hand them, like tasks on a giant machine, off to students to ‘do’. It is a cold and marrowless view of the world, destined to improve test scores and kill creativity.

A Rhizomatic view of knowledge is inherently anti-hierarchal. It doesn’t allow to tell someone else what to know, nor does it like being in the position where the ‘right way’ established by someone else can be identified. The machine from our Joe model doesn’t exist. There is no giant platform upon which we can simply move buttons or secret special information, the knowing of which makes us knowers. There is only us, connected, and the tenuous bits of knowing that shoot off in various directions.

food plateThe machine way of knowing is, to me, just a shorthand we made up. Its a framework for talking about the world, the same way that language is. And it can be a useful framework… if you’re trying to pass along a simple piece of information. A good example of that might be the food plate. It’s replaced the ‘food pyramid’ as the new, true way of eating. It is the new ‘knowing’ from the powers that be. “They” have told us that, really, there was a bit more dairy maybe in that earlier ‘pyramid’ and the ‘plate’ metaphor is way more ‘eating like’. This is the ‘theory state’ of all the things we know. It’s a combination of all the different ideas published in journals by real people, an intersection of the different rhizomes of knowledge shooting off from a industry. It doesn’t work for the lactose intolerant, for the glucose intolerant, doesn’t make sense to the paleos, or the vegans… but it’s still ‘right’. Take a majority view, distill it to a picture that can spread the word that chips and pop do not a dinner make, and you’ve got something you can teach.

(and, of course, pyramids are tough to clean)

Sometimes the plate can be a nice starting point. An introduction to the language of knowledge in a given field. And, maybe most importantly, it’s MUCH much easier to test. The rhizome part, the underneath connection of the ideas of all those researchers, the voices of those who can’t or won’t comply with the majority view… that lies underneath. It resists being defined, is almost impossible to test for, and like the damn japanese knotweed in my back yard, impossible to get rid of.

The challenge
I’ve been trying to get to the third of my rhizome articles for over a year now. I’ve been trying to distill the balance between certified knowledge and rhizomatic knowledge so that i can talk about what it would really mean to teach this way. It is, essentially, the difference between ‘food plate’ and the subtleties of diet. People need to understand the underlying language of an industry before they can engage in a debate about varying degrees to which given ideas are useful. And, at the same time, i think its silly to wait until people have gotten a doctorate before we reward them for thinking that way.

In the process of coming to know… we need to have some sense of what the words are… and then we need to be able to follow the paths that the rhizomes have made. You can start at the food plate… and then follow down the paths of knowing to a discovery of the fact that you feel awful because you are glucose intolerant. Or, as @robpatrob has discovered for himself, the paleo diet.

I want my kids on the coming to know path… to understand the surface and dive in after the messiness underneath. What i don’t know, is how to make an education system look like that.