Ghosts of MoocMooc: Past, Present, Future

A MOOC is a Mirror

The Ghost of MOOC Past:

“I suppose I have to catch up,” I thought, surveying the two day’s worth of MOOCMOOC that I’d missed due to late enrollment. I’d done a bit of MOOCing before at Udacity, which let you work at your own pace through pre-existent material, so I figured “catching up” would be simple enough. I dutifully read the suggested materials, introduced myself in the discussion forum, and then discovered that I’d missed a collaborative Google Doc writing session.

As a student who was always of the “read everything, do everything, complete all the extra credit” mentality, I couldn’t help but feel a little left behind when I learned that there was already a part of the course that I’d missed and couldn’t “make up.” Wasn’t the point of online education supposed to be that you could do things on your own time?

I looked over some of the completed Google docs, surveying the history of conversations now past. Well, I would just have to do my best to “catch up…”

Of course, I never did catch up—because there is no “catching up” with a monstrous MOOC whose tendrils wrap themselves around the farthest corners of the internet and whose Twitter hashtag (#moocmooc) produced conversations at a pace that even speed-texting preteens bound for carpal tunnel syndrome could never have followed.

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Metamorphosis MOOC: A Proposal

Due to family commitments, I wasn’t able to be much of an active participant in the MoocMooc activities today, which included a lot of collaborative work in Google Docs brainstorming possible new MOOCs.

However, I did begin a very minimal proposal for a MOOC based loosely on a Freshman Writing Seminar I’m teaching this fall called “Metamorphosis: Identity and Change.” Thus far, I’ve only gotten through the first week of what I imagine to be a four to six week course.

Here’s how I described the original fall seminar in my syllabus:

What does it mean to say that “you’re not the person you used to be” or to claim that you “aren’t yourself today”? Why do we so insistently define ourselves in terms of what we are not (or are no longer)? Are we ultimately who we were, who we are, or who we are becoming? These questions have been at the heart of literary and philosophical thought from their beginnings- but the way that these questions have been posed has changed over time.

In this course, we’ll consider both some of the most ancient and some of the most recent narratives of metamorphosis and we’ll explore what these narratives have to tell us about the nature of identity and its relationship to change. We’ll pay particular attention to the way that narratives of metamorphosis influence our cultural understandings of gender, sexuality, race, and ethics. We will also approach writing itself as a process of metamorphosis. Throughout the semester we’ll return to the questions of how writers transform language and how it, in turn, transforms them.

Since the course is explicitly about transformation, I couldn’t resist the idea of trying to transform it into a MOOC.

Unfortunately, mobile only Internet access prevents me from doing more on the doc (or on this post) this evening, but I’m going to try and fill it out over the course of the next week and will post the final proposal when it’s finished.


Making Memories: Curation, Creation, and Digital Archives—#MoocMooc Day 5 Activity

Photo copyright future15 @ Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License.

Today’s project—making a Storify story that reflects what you’ve learned so far in MoocMooc—got me thinking about one of my research interests: archives.

The Storify stories that participants created were an exercise in curation, a major focus of our Twitter conversations:

Curation gets at the heart of one of the issues that’s been bouncing around the #moocmooc discussion all week: to what degree should MOOC learners be consuming pre-existent knowledge and to what degree should they be producing it? Collection and curation practices inhabit a liminal space between reading and writing, consumption and production. (For more on this, see Jeremy Braddock’s recent book on modernist collecting practices). As such, they seem to provide a way out of binary models of “instructivist” versus “constructivist” pedagogies.

The tendency (if not compulsion towards) curation in new media environments reflects, I think, a lot of our anxiety about the nature of digital data: it feels both too massive and too fragile. While Michael Kirschenbaum’s work on inscription in new media dispels a too-naïve view of digital data as purely “ephemeral,” his work also demonstrates that this data (and its physical inscription on storage devices) often exists as a trace, under erasure, rather than as an accessible whole. Our desire, in MoocMooc, to construct some coherent archive of the traces of the course—otherwise destined for a (half)erasure based more on forgetting than on deletion—seeks to return these fragments to the “whole” MoocMooc from whence they sprung. But, of course, no such whole ever existed and what sense we have of it is a retroactive effect of its archivization. (Derrida says it best: “archivization produces as much as it records the event.”)

It’s been interesting to watch varied #moocmooc curation projects unfold. I’ve even headed a couple of these myself. I think it would be great to take the meta-MOOC mentality to an even more meta level through a post-MOOC collaboratively curated Wiki that would produce the “course” as much as it documented it. Not that it would ever be finished, of course. (I defer to Archive Fever once more “The archivist produces more archive, and that is why the archive is never closed. It opens out of the future.”)

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MOOCMOOC Reflection Photo Assignment

One of the participant pedagogy exercises from today was Valerie’s challenge to put together a photo or video with up to seven items that expressed your experiences with MOOCMOOC so far.

Here’s Andrew McGregor’s response: MOOCMOOC Reflection Photo Assignment.
And here’s mine (with a much lower-res photo than Andrew’s!).

Did you complete Valerie’s challenge? If so, post a link in the comments!

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MOOCMOOC Day 4 Collage Project: Participant Pedagogy in Action

Since we’ve talked a lot about “remixing” material as a way of learning, I’d like you to do a quick, simple remix of some of the Day 4 materials to reflect what you’ve been thinking about today. Choose one element of today’s topic that really interests you—I chose “Student-Teachers/Teacher-Students”—and then, in a Google Doc, collage together elements (text, photos, etc.) that relate to your topic from each of the readings listed below:

“Here’s What to do on Wednesday” from

“Participant Pedagogy: a #digped Discussion from Hybrid Pedagogy

#digiped Storify: Participant Pedagogy

Experiments in Mass Pedagogy from Hybrid Pedagogy

All of these links from today’s “readings” are covered by Creative Commons licenses—please provide a link in your document from each element to the url that it was drawn from. Once you’re finished, please include a link to your doc in the comments section and also tweet out your doc on the #moocmooc hashtag with an @myunnaturalself so I’ll see it. Here’s an image of mine (visit the original Google doc to follow links, comment):


If you’re unsure about how to complete the activity, here’s a video where I screencast the creation of my doc:

I look forward to seeing everyone’s work—have fun!

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In today’s post I mainly want to talk about the video project that formed the core activity for today’s MOOC of MOOCs, share some links to what I believe were the best vids of the day (plus a shameless plug for my own!), and make a case for why chaos, community, and spambots belong together.

But first, a brief note about how Stephen Downes’s HuffPo article on his “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” MOOC helped me think through a lot of the questions I had about time issues in relation to connective learning in my last post. His course used a newsletter to aggregate content and gave students some guidance on how to navigate it:

The idea of the newsletter is to aggregate everything that’s out there related to the course. This is necessary because the course (like the discipline it models) is distributed. People create content on their own blogs, photo accounts or messaging services. The newsletter is one way of bringing these materials together for easy access. Participants are not expected to read and watch everything. Even the facilitators cannot do that.

Indeed, what we have experienced after delivering a half dozen MOOCs is that we have to tell people at the start of the course to pick and choose what they will read, watch or participate in. Again and again, we have to stress that there is no central content to the course, that each person creates their own perspective on the material by selecting what seems important to them, and that it is these different perspectives that form the basis for the interesting conversations and activities that follow.

I think that questions remain about whether there might be some core competencies and knowledge that it would be necessary for everyone to establish first. A useful metaphor for me is that of an academic conference: obviously, I’m not going to be familiar with all of the sources used in everyone’s paper; however, I probably do have some basic, shared disciplinary knowledge with the conference participants.

In fact, I think that the greatest challenges to the democratizing power of MOOCs are issues of competencies and access. In my video project for the day, I talked about the ways in which my own experiences as a MOOC student (particularly @ Udacity) were informed by positions of privilege in terms of education and access, privilege that included some basic rhetorical competencies that some underprivileged learners may lack and which, as Mike James points out, can be particularly debilitating in xMOOCs that rely heavily on crowdsourcing to answer questions:

Martin Lugton’s video also explored connections between institutional and connectivist learning. He uses the metaphor of a “learning ecosystem” to think about how these two modes/nodes of learning could feed into one another in interesting and productive ways:

While lack of shared competencies and knowledge can pose problems, part of what makes the MOOC (particularly the cMOOC or “connectivist MOOC”) so exciting is the chaos involved in the whole process of trying to get your head around the Massive, Monstrous thing—and the ways that you create knowledge (and maybe even coherence) in the process. One of my favorite vids for the day is by Rosemary Sewart and makes an impassioned and convincing case about the centrality of chaos to learning:

Elizabeth Switaj’s Seuss-themed video also treated the spontaneous aspects of learning—particularly in international contexts:

In the background of the video-making and video-watching and chaotic tweeting that formed today’s “class” was an ever growing army of spambots who had discovered the #moocmooc hashtag we use for our Twitter discussions. They even became a topic of conversation for awhile, with @writingasJoe’s “Hint to the #moocmooc spambots: try wearing a blazer instead of bikini if you want to blend in with this crowd” becoming a popular RT:

All of which got me thinking about how dealing with the spambots—and learning to distinguish them from us real folks—was an exercise in community formation. The blazer comment retweeted regularly because we immediately saw ourselves in it (and in blazers).

The fact that #moocmooc had even gotten on the spambot radar became a sign of the course’s success:

The spambots are one of the best examples of the true chaos that attends the internet generally and open online education in particular. As we rallied against the spambots—chiding them for failing to complete the video assignment—the community united against its common foe:

Which brings me to the last video I’m going to post, an interesting consideration of the difference between communities and collectives by Lee Bessette:

Not 100% certain if our attempts to distinguish ourselves from the spambots make us a community or collective, but I’m inclined to think that it has been humanizing—especially considering that we had to learn to post with specificity (and wear blazers!) to quite literally “prove we’re human.”

While the video project—and the tweeting and the spam filtering—was time-consuming, it was also a great opportunity to experience some of what I’m asking my students to go through next semester as they design a course wiki and generate their own new media content. It’s been a lot of fun but has also involved a lot of commitment of time and energy, and I hope that I can sell my students on the use-value—and the pleasure—involved in this type of new media engagement.

Chaos, Community, and Spambots, Oh My!: MOOC of MOOCs post, video edition

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Back to School with Hybrid Pedagogy’s MOOC of MOOCs

I return from my digital summer silence slightly before the start of the school year (in which I’ll be running a student Wiki project for the first time in my Freshman Writing Seminar!) thanks to Hybrid Pedagogy’s MOOC of MOOCs, a meta exercise in thinking through the implications of MOOCs with a special eye towards how critical pedagogy might help redefine the largely traditional pedagogical methods that have defined the truly massive courses offered by Coursera, Udacity, and edX (see my first take on these MOOCs here).

One of the readings for the first day of the one-week class was George Siemens’s “What Is the Theory that Underpins Our MOOCs?” In his article, Siemens argues for a connectivist and integrative approach to MOOCs in which the course is “learner-formed” and concerned with paying careful attention to “what part of the knowledge network impacts other parts.” As someone who is strongly committed to increasing student agency in the classroom, I’m immediately drawn towards such a model for the MOOC.

However, one issue that has always plagued me about pedagogical models that encourage students to build learning networks and sift through vast collections of online resources is time. Simply put, the  lecture-centered MOOC—for all of its drawbacks—offers students the ability to cover material in a short period of time. For many of the non-traditional students who have the most to gain from the explosion of MOOCs, time is money and they often have little of either. How can a progressive pedagogy that seeks to increase student involvement and agency also respond to the material conditions that draw students to MOOCs in general and particularly to MOOCs of the Udacity variety, which market themselves largely on their ability to help students cultivate marketable skills (and, in Udacity’s latest move, to even begin to connect them with potential employers)?

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I Sing the Body Electronic

In a previous post, I conjectured about whether the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) format could support a Humanities class or if the sheer bulk of students would limit the form to those courses that could evaluate student learning with computer-gradable quizzes. (There is, of course, all this recent buzz about the relatively accurate grading of standardized test essays by computers, but hopefully a Humanities course would encourage students to write slightly less formulaic—and thus less easily gradable—work.)

As it turns out, UPenn is preparing to put the Humanities MOOC idea to the test with an upcoming course on “Modern and Contemporary American Poetry.”  According to the site, each video for the course will show the close reading of a single poem in a classroom-based discussion. Students will be expected to submit “short essays” and to participate in discussion forums. Needless to say, I’m eager to know how this works out—logistically and otherwise. Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait until September. In the meantime, I’ll be occupying myself with Udacity’s well-designed  Computer Science 101 MOOC, which teaches the basics of Python programming. If Penn can do for poetry what Udacity’s done for Python, major props will be in order.

“This secret with no mystery”: The Impossibility of Mastery in the Information Age

After a particularly disheartening programming exercise that was part of an attempt to self-teach myself coding, I stumbled upon this Derrida quote from Paper Machine. It’s from a 1996 interview with La Quinzaine Littéraire, in which Derrida spoke about the experience of composing on a word processor:

I know how to make it work (more or less) but I don’t know how it works. […] Not knowing, in this case, is a distinctive trait, one that does not apply with pens or with typewriters either. With pens and typewriters, you think you know how it works, how “it responds.” Whereas with computers, even if people know how to use them up to a point, they rarely know, intuitively and without thinking—at any rate, don’t know—how the internal demon of the apparatus operates. What rules it obeys. This secret with no mystery frequently marks our dependence in relation to many instruments of technology. We know how to use them and what they are for, without knowing what goes on with them, in them, on their side; and this might give us plenty to think about with regard to our relationship with technology today—to the historical newness of this experience. (Paper Machine 23)

I think that part of what is so daunting—and potentially disheartening—about cultivating technical knowledge and skills for digital humanities work is this ever-increasing realization of your own ignorance, of the degree to which your interaction with technology continues to involve “this secret with no mystery” whose existence you’d all but forgotten.

For me, Derrida’s quote served as a much-needed reminder that this is not a situation that we’re really capable of studying our way out of. One can, of course, master the mysteries “under the hood” of a word processor; however, technology has developed at such a rapid rate—and technical knowledge has become so specialized—that the possibility of knowing every programming language, of completely understanding the inner-workings of every component, of “mastering” every element of computing, is increasingly out of reach even for computer scientists. Of course, computers are only one facet of the vast realm of technology that we interact with on a daily basis. It would seem that, in the information age, being a true “renaissance (wo)man” is no longer within the sphere of possibility.

As I struggle to carve out my little space of technical knowledge, I’m finding it useful to remember that this praxis is not only about acquiring skill; it’s also about coming up against a growing realization of how my interactions with information—my interaction with my own research and scholarship even—are mediated by technologies that are so complex and so rapidly changing that “mastery” is, at best, only a relative concept. Thinking about what it means to do scholarship in an age that no longer permits traditional “mastery” is, perhaps, a question that must inform any theorizing of DH.

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Generative Metrics: Could Distant Reading Include Distant Scansion?

Having recently read portions of Nigel Fabb’s Language and Literary Structure, I was struck by how remarkably algorithmic his grid method for determining meter is. (A useful summary of the Grid Theory used by Fabb can be found in this document from UPenn.) Theoretically, there seems little reason why this “algorithm” couldn’t be converted into a proper, computer-executable one. The uses of such a program would seem to be manifold. With the ability to “distant scan” hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands, of poems, one could chart historical shifts in metrical form or even trace the evolution of metrical usage in the corpus of an individual poet. For my own work, the ability to quickly chart metrical variation between versions of The Prelude would be quite useful.

Software has been developed by linguists to test various notions of generative grammar: most notably the Maxent Grammar Tool developed by Bruce Hayes and Colin Wilson. Yet, to the best of my understanding (and I confess that my knowledge of linguistics is extremely superficial), the Maxent Grammar Tool’s usage in generative metrics seems to be largely related to stylistics. For instance, Hayes, Wilson, and Anne Shisko used a modified version of the software to generate a Shakespeare and Milton “grammar” to challenge the importance of the Stress Maximum Constraint in generative metrics, a constraint which essentially states that only the placement of stress maximums (strongly stressed syllables bordered on either side by syllables with relatively less stress) matters in determining meter. It would seem that such software might, indeed, be able to do the type of distant reading I imagine, though its ultimate, complex purposes create a potentially unscaleable learning curve for literary scholars without relatively intensive linguistics training. Doubtlessly, a more accessible program with more limited capabilities could be built.

TEI-encoding, of course, allows for the marking of meter, but it is tempting to imagine how computer-aided scansion could greatly increase the reach of projects that aim to database poetry based on elements of poetic form. Google’s recent work in trying to get computers to translate poetry from one language to another while preserving rhyme and meter would also suggest that distant reading of metrics and other poetic elements should be possible. Indeed, the possibility seems so likely that it is difficult to imagine that a program hasn’t already been produced. Do you know of software—developed or in development—that would be be able to analyze poetry for meter on a large scale? What uses would you find for such a program?