Tag Archives: MOOCs

Popularizing; or, Knowledge Not Purchased by the Loss of Dignity

Simplicity in habit, truth in speech,

Be these the daily strengtheners of their minds;

May books and Nature be their early joy!

And knowledge, rightly honored with that name–

Knowledge not purchased by the loss of power!

-William Wordsworth, from The Prelude

It’s hard for me to not feel a little nostalgic when I return to the literary criticism of many decades past, back when texts in the field—at least the most important ones—enjoyed both popular and academic audiences. How long has it been since we’ve had a Seven Types of Ambiguity or a The Mirror and the Lamp, books read and respected equally by literary critics and lay enthusiasts? The crop of books that attempt any popularization of literary study is increasingly sparse these days: something by Harold Bloom every few years, of course, and there’s the recent success of Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines, and How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form. However, few of these command the attention of academics in the field—the expert and the amateur now wander through different valleys.

This separation may be an unavoidable consequence of the hyper-specialization that permeates all of modern academe, including the social and physical sciences, and I’m not suggesting that we invest our energy in trying to turn back the heavy hands of that clock. However, there’s another trend that I think it is worthwhile trying to buck, a trend evident in the subtitles to the “like a professor” books; these are not merely accessible explications of the field and its methodologies, they are “lively and entertaining” and “jaunty” explications. I think that Prof. Foster’s project is a commendable one and I shy away from criticizing anyone in the humanities who still makes a sincere attempt to talk to the general public about what we do. However, something is gone awry when the selling point of our popularizations is that they’re “fun”—and not that they matter.

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Dickinson, De Man, and Disfiguring Coursera

Emily Dickinson

So, as I mentioned in a post ages ago,  I signed up for Coursera’s “Modern American Poetry” course to see how the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) environment tried to handle the humanities and, in particular, the challenge of converting an experience that usually involves discussion between a small group of students and the careful grading of papers written in response to a prompt (with no one right answer) into a “massive” experience.

Since then, I’ve had a chance to think much more about MOOC’s thank to Hybrid Pedagogy’s MOOC of MOOCs and I, along with many of my colleagues, have grown increasingly concerned about the role of so-called “xMOOCs” in furthering a corporatization of Higher Ed. This concern has been fueled by the ouster (and, fortunately, reinstatement) of UVA’s president by the governing board in part because she refused to go the high-cost,questionable-benefit route of jumping onto the free online-ed wagon and, more recently, Emory’s elimination of several departments at the same time that it announced a contract with Coursera.

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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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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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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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Of MOOCs and men…

Today’s New York Times ran an enthusiastic story on the use of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) by Stanford. In addition to Stanford, both Berkeley and the University of Michigan are also currently offering MOOCs through Coursera. A step further than most of the free online content provided through iTunes U and other venues, MOOCs are geared specifically to online students. Courses occur over a set period of time, complete with readings, lectures, and tests, and forums are provided for student interaction and even for limited Q&As with instructors. Undoubtedly, MOOCs highlight the democratizing potential of the digitization of higher education. But their presence also raises two important questions:

(1) Do MOOCs mark a significant departure from earlier free higher educational content available online?

(2) Where—if anywhere—would the humanities figure in this wide world of MOOCs?

Curious to see the interface, I enrolled in “Model Thinking,” a course provided by the University of Michigan. While it is doubtless too early for me to fully address the nature of this online classroom, my first impression involves pleasant surprise at the level of organization and navigability (there’s a clear integration of syllabus, lecture videos, course readings, and tests) and an immediate association with that bastion of autodidacticism, Khan Academy. Of course, “Model Thinking” can offer both institutional validity and a higher-education focus, two aspects where Sal Khan’s labor of love falls short. However, the association does suggest that MOOCs may be less “classroom-like” than they initially appear; I have difficulty imagining the experience of navigating through an archived version of the course being substantively different from “taking” the course during the window of its actual offering. After all, with literally tens of thousands of students, how much “classroom feeling”—between student and instructor and between student and student—can you actually replicate?

While losing some of the “classroom feeling” may not be a great sacrifice for science and engineering courses that often already operate with huge class sizes, it would pose a greater problem to the humanities where, for lack of a better term, the “human” in humanities education matters in a much more integral way. Perhaps because of this problem, the majority of MOOCs offered are in science and engineering (with a heavy, and unsurprising, emphasis on computer science).

Still, the idea is intriguing: is there a way to democratize humanities education? Or do the simple facts of how humanities pedagogy functions—through discussion and essay writing—force it to operate largely within institutional confines that necessarily exclude a large percentage of potential students? To return to the Khan Academy example, the site’s recent alliance with SmartHistory, an online Art History textbook combined with short videotaped conversations about important works of art, wisely avoids the quiz-framework that dominates the rest of the site. The move seems to indicate that the creators of SmartHistory recognize that computer-gradable quizzes are a really crappy way of demonstrating meaningful knowledge of the humanities beyond simple factual knowledge.

It would seem, then, that the only way that humanities education could be meaningfully delivered to thousands (or tens of thousands of people) would be through the use of hundreds if not thousands of instructors. The logistical issues of organizing such a collaboration aside, would there even be enough (already underpaid) humanities faculty and grad students willing to volunteer their time to responding to papers written by students with whom they have no direct connection?

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