Defining Edu Terms & MOOC Simulacra

At the heart of the Open Education Resources movement (and the Open movement in general) is the notion that education is a public good.  The progression to such sentiment may be based in a notion that an educated citizenry betters democracy and civic life (folks like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson), or that knowledge and wisdom are non-rivalrous and non-excludable (Econ 101), or that the increase and diffusion of knowledge stimulates societal and cultural growth (James Smithson, John Quincy Adams).  Regardless of its germination, the crux of such thought is that the provision of education from an egalitarian lens results in benefit across the population.

At face value the Massive Open Online Course fits this vision:  courses are free, prerequisites are encouraged but not enforced, and access to the best professors at the best universities is not bound to geography or economics.  And research into the framework of the MOOC points to the opening of university walls, the building of intra- and internet communications and an attempt to promote the increase and diffusion of knowledge for society, whether communal or global.  That’s why it’s worth noting that one of the primary voices in OER, David Wiley, sees the 2013 incarnation of MOOCs as a money grab:

I propose that, whenever you hear the acronym MOOC, you think: “Massively Obfuscated Opportunities for Cash”

How can a MOOC be both a bastion for openness and the epitome of closed content?

It is because the term MOOC means nothing.  It is the epitome of a simulacrum, Baudrillard’s copy of a copy with no original ever in existence.  The term means one thing in mainstream society, another to the researchers and scholars who have spent their professional careers in distance education. In that it has grown into a catch-all neologism where any ed-tech startup can throw it into promotional social media in hopes to catch a big client.  Since its inception just five years ago it has been something different each year, and recent movements toward professional development, textbook subscription and both undergraduate and graduate degrees promise that 2013 will be quite different from 2012.  How did four letters turn into higher education’s most recent (and most media-cognizant) lightning rod?

George Siemens envisioned the digital society as elemental to learning and knowledge sharing in a digital culture.  He coined a term for the theory (connectivism), and gave the theory a test run in the production of a free collegiate course (CCK08) both about and borne of the theory.  At the same time as Siemens’ work, researchers and scholars like David Wiley and Alec Couros were also experimenting in the realm of open networks, OER and online courses.  Tied into this subculture, two people (Bryan Alexander and Dave Cormier) arrived from separate departures at calling the movement (most specifically Siemens’ course) a MOOC, a happenstance that points to a confluence of signifiers and symbols that directed the culture to viewing the phenomenon as massive and open (as well as tying into the digital culture’s love of acronyms; see MOO and MUD).  Three years later Sebastian Thrun, the guy who was instrumental in developing the driver-less car, experimented in what he called distributed learning with a teacher-less course, and the movement gained some press.  Siemens himself saw the potential of Thrun’s course as a logical step in the opening of networks and education, and called CS221 a MOOC.  When Thrun’s enrollment reached 100K+, tech and education writers flocked en masse to see what the big deal was, and (this part I am presuming; if someone can find the missing link between when Siemens labeled CS221 a MOOC and when MOOC became the descriptor for this movement, let me know!) in trying to research the movement these writers found the Siemens blog and ran with the neologism.  Within months, Stanford’s courses are no longer labeled distributed learning (which has a different meaning in CS/AI circles than it does in education) but MOOCs.  Thrun’s course has little in common with Siemens’ work, however, and by 2013 Wikipedia editors are trying to remove people like Wiley, Siemens and Couros from the MOOC entry because, according to the page editor, their use of the term was for promotional purposes.

There’s an outcry about this potential removal, but it’s only from the group that views MOOCs in the second way listed above, the subculture that was there back in 2008 or is keen on its growth, not the mainstream.  For that mainstream, this history is inconsequential, as well as to those disrupting the education establishment, most likely due to hubris.  When we talk about MOOCs, they can be the savior of higher education, the destruction of it, or a ship passing in the night, and all are true and will continue to be.  They can be these separate things because they are all of them at once.  This is MOOC as marketing, as brinksmanship, as sound byte.

And it’s not just MOOCs where terminology ambiguity reigns supreme.  It’s distributed learning, a phrase with very different meanings in education and in artificial intelligence.  It’s blended learning, which can be both a methodology for strengthening community and a tool for personalizing learning in a sea of thousands.  Last year I came across a well-intentioned blog about pedagogy by George Mason University’s Mark Sample that set out to create two competing notions of educational scaffolding, without any mention or knowledge of the long history of scaffolding as an educational construct.  You can make an argument for disparity in the use of a phrase like school choice, one that sounds completely benign but within the circles of K-12 education stands for (depending on your perspective) the opportunity for free-market entry into the education market or the destruction of the final public institution heretofore unencumbered by profiteering.  When we are talking about education, we are often using the same words and not talking about the same things.

Why is this?  A few potential thoughts. *Educators, especially those in higher ed, are subject specialists almost always outside of education, so knowledge of edu as a discipline is almost always personalized and bereft of the same theoretical and historical knowledge they hold on their primary subjects.  *The merging of education with a field such as computer science (a la Ed Tech) is incomplete, with educators unrefined in computer parlance and computer scientists found wonting on the teacher jargon.  *In haste to publish content in the hyperreality of Internet commerce, we pull terminology from other places and put pieces together that perhaps make sense in one context but lack the historical knowledge from an educational perspective. *Marketing is a major part of the continued success of higher education, both in selling customers and in selling the public.  The use of distilled terminology can sound refined without any heed to the terminology’s etymology.

Part of what makes language a wonderous construct is its multiple modalities, the opportunity for various meanings and suggestions, double entendre and subtle subtext.  But such rich application of language comes from historical precedent developed and refined over generations of use.  It is deliberate and considerate. It understands the past yet pushes forward the present.  This nuance does not exist in modern educational discourse.  Education terminology, especially in the ed-tech sector, is a catch-all designed as the salvation point and rallying cry, the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, or the epicenter of all ills of society.  The result is confusion in the research literature, debating semantics and attempting to define terms while the playing field continues to shift with policy and product.

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  10. Sue Marron

    MOOC is quickly becoming an over-used and generalized term referring to any large online class that can further one’s learning. Everyone seems to be jumping on the MOOC bandwagon, and these MOOCs will most likely be the “ships passing in the night.” However, as soon as the fanfare has blown over, the term MOOC will become more meaningful and substantial and could quite possibly be the savior of higher education. No matter what terminology is used to describe a MOOC, they are here to stay.

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