What *We* Talk About When *We* Talk About MOOCs

Yesterday’s Chronicle announcement of the MOOC-related study Preparing for the Digital University (a comprehensive review of distance, blended and online learning funded in part by the Gates Foundation and investigated in part by Athabasca University) created somewhat of a tremor in the social media landscape for those who follow George Siemens (one of the researchers in the study, the point-person for the Chronicle write up, and one of the creators of CCK08, the course that spawned the MOOC acronym) and Stephen Downes (one of the more prevalent and accessible EdTech researchers today, as well as the other primary creator of CCK08, the course that spawned the MOOC acronym).  Downes addressed the research study at his website, Siemens and Downes discussed the differences of opinion on Twitter, Downes elucidated his point at his blog, and Siemens responded at his blog.

Every bit of the conversation between the two is worth reading (as well as the Twitter additions from other EdTech-minded individuals).  This conversation is a highlighted example of a more and more common conversation happening within this wing of the EdTech world — the *forgotten history* of distance education/online learning and what it means when *we* forget *our* history.  Downes points out inefficiencies in the MOOC research Siemens links to (based on the MOOC Research Initiative) due to a lack of familiarity with the richness of the field, and after calling for people to take education back from edtech vendors, Siemens also links to the importance of research and evidence.  From this perspective, the problem is ignorance or naivety and the solution is research, research seen here as both an awakening of the shoulders of giants as well as a tool of influence in greater conversations.

I have been struggling with responses to the historical narrative being employed more and more in this field.  Seeing the alternative/subculture/resistance histories of our discipline is vitally important for a number of reasons.  But knowing the histories, and potentially having the alternative/subculture/resistance histories shape research, is only one possible outcome of the knowledge.  And if it remains the only one, the EdTech field will continue to feel overrun and overwhelmed by venture capitalists, AI developers and user experience engineers.

The MOOC is an excellent and recent example of such a diverse history.  As the story goes: a 2008 course experiment is given the acronym, there is popularity in a subculture of distance education, in a seemingly separate space a handful of Stanford professors decide to offer their courses online at no monetary cost, it is well-marketed in the drapery of solutionism, George Siemens compares the experiment to the MOOCs of his field, he soon thereafter criticizes the approach, but NYTimes reporter Tamar Lewin sees the blog where Siemens (a scholar she follows) labels this marketed phenomenon as a MOOC and she does the same, and within eight months we have reached Pappano’s The Year of the MOOC.  Today’s term MOOC has distinct and different meanings, and to attempt to merge the two means to dilute the power of the original message (some people use xMOOC and cMOOC, but those people are almost entirely people celebrating cMOOC and using xMOOC as a pejorative).  We are not going to change the MOOC definition because we know the alternative histories; what we can do is understand what we are saying when we are saying it — MOOC means one thing when I say it to my colleagues at an EdTech conference such as #et4online or #opened15, it means something different when I mention it at my university, it has a third meaning in a space such as MindShift, and a fourth if I were to engage it in a platform such as the Sacramento News Review.  And in many spaces MOOC means absolutely nothing, even to this day

Providing more information to each of the cultures listed here is not an adequate solution, because the information already exists and is readily accessible.  Information does not make change.  Information is an aspect or element of change, but it is just one part.  If information were in and of itself the driver of change, the news and media producers would employ much greater negotiation of facts and claims when presenting this information.

Today, most MOOC articles start with a variation of the theme MOOC hype has died down but…, and yesterday’s Chronicle article is no different, both chastising the hype while perpetuating it (through claims about why students registered and how the instrument is in essence a grand experiment of teaching at scale).  The piece quotes Siemens:

It’s almost like we went through this sort of shameful period where we forgot that we were researchers and we forgot that we were scientists and instead we were just making decisions and proclamations that weren’t at all scientific.

I struggle with the use of *we* in this sentence.  Now, I could reach out to George to ask who he was referring to here (we as in education practitioners, we as in a much larger sense of education including administrators and so forth, we much smaller as in himself and those he has worked with on issues such as the MOOC Research Initiative), but once this article was published, George’s intent with his quote is just one interpretation.  There is a dominant interpretation based on the writing of the article, and when we look at the paragraph preceding George’s quote, how we are intended to read this quote is much clearer.

When MOOCs emerged a few years ago, many in the academic world were sent into a frenzy. Pundits made sweeping statements about the courses, saying that they were the future of education or that colleges would become obsolete, said George Siemens, an author of the report who is also credited with helping to create what we now know as a MOOC.

Here we are, an article starting with a blithe critique of MOOC hype, then placing the driver of the frenzy at the feet of academics and pundits, a link to Siemens’ relationship with the acronym, after which comes a quote where *we* are to blame.  The Chronicle substitutes complexity for rhetoric (ex: I struggle with defining George as helping create what we now know  as a MOOC),and the article frames the problem as perpetuated by academics and pundits alike, the neutral and ahistorical MOOC technology an innocent bystander just waiting to be engaged properly so it can solutionize.

There are numerous problems with the Chronicle’s dominant argument, most notably the idea that academics and pundits drove the hype machine.  What brought me to this sector of EdTech was a difficulty in negotiating how the MOOC could mean two vastly different things yet be used so comfortably as a term of reference.  This blog is a result of my 2+ years of research on the sociocultural effect of MOOC discourse, culminating in a Delphi study with 20 individuals with expertise correlated to Massive Open Online Courses.  It frustrated some in the study that our conversations were about attitudes and beliefs rather than instruments and models, but the purpose was to take the temperature not on whether MOOCs were working but what *we* (meaning popular society) were saying when we were talking about MOOCs.  The conversations around MOOCs were spirited and lively, but they were thoughtful and developed.  Where the study found dissonance was not in some people buying hype and others invoking reason, but rather some people applying terms and definitions that often stand counter to the values many hold regarding education, and how those early terms & definitions shaped later conversation.  The Delphi convened thrice in the Fall of 2013; my literature review is chock full of similarly reasoned & tempered discussion & analysis of the phenomenon.  Our backward lens has a tendency to fit our specific vantage point quite well, and when we are not willing to address that we are doing more creation of history than awareness of history.

History is part of the way in which we can engage and promote our visions and ideas of how education should manifest.  Research and development is part of it as well.  But neither of these will work on their own, nor will they work if framed in a battle with an EdTech enemy.  There is no battle.  Rather, there is a dominant ideology that sees technology as a solution to the problems of contemporary society; this view is not Truth but an ethos shared across much of Western society.  As it is not Truth, we cannot defeat it or reclaim something from it because it does not really exist.  What we can do is acknowledge it, do the work we see as important while understanding where the dominant would resist, affect our local networks and environments, and work with others who resist or negotiate the dominant narrative to acknowledge, work, localize and spread.  From that perspective, we can affect those around us and potentially shift a fabricated consciousness to a direction more aligned with ours.

5 thoughts on “What *We* Talk About When *We* Talk About MOOCs

  1. Maha Bali

    Fabricated consciousness indeed. I think I have a particular problem with Chronicle articles that talk about MOOCs, esp how they frame George Siemens’ quotes. So that was a good catch.
    Is your delphi research available yet? I’ll go look for your et4online talk which i think was recorded and i assume you share some of it there?

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      My Delphi is available here http://www.scribd.com/doc/231075460/The-Evolution-Impact-of-the-Massive-Open-Online-Course#scribd

      The #et4online presentation was not recorded, and there was no slide share as my slides were 66MB. I am working on developing a more comprehensive resource for what I am talking about in these media and presentations. But I see a folly in believing that if we argue better or present more information or organize better we will change the dominant paradigm. The dominant paradigm exists to facilitate the dominant paradigm, and it will shift over time to continue to do that. It can change and ebb and flow, but it does so largely in terms of value for those in power. I find that using a postmodern lens to view such things is liberating rather than defeating; it takes the pressure off *changing education* while allowing us to do what we see value in for the spaces we can truly change (localized environments, whether those be geographic or digital). It takes a lot of energy to shout that the original MOOC was in 2008 and no one is really going to notice; it frees up my time and resources and abilities to understand MOOC has many meanings, and in my networks and environments I use it with a clear definition and we can affect transformation and change for those we interact with.

      And I wonder if there is something really big here — the whole notion of scale — perhaps this education niche resists scale because if education is about people, you cannot scale a subculture. You can scale the dominant paradigm because it is the dominant, but the subculture has to move in a different fashion through, around, and within the dominant. Hmmm.

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