“I’m actually not against everything.”

5 12 2013

Apparently, the title of this post is a quote from me during the discussion session on our panel this morning. I’m not saying I didn’t say that (as that would require calling Bonnie Stewart a liar), but I really don’t remember saying it. It does, however, certainly sound like me and has the benefit of being true. Indeed, there have been plenty of things that I’ve heard about here at the MOOC Research Initiative Conference that I’m definitely not against.* It’s just that that quote sounds so defensive, and there really hasn’t been any occasion since I got here for me to feel defensive.

Oh wait! There was that moment this morning when Dave Cormier said, to quote Bonnie’s Twitter notes again, “you’re not defending adjuncts from the terribleness of the textbook, only the terribleness of the MOOC.” I am actually against the terrible of the textbook too, which might explain my general desperation to come up with something which I support.

Rather than try to list them all here now, let me try one big thing instead: I support an end to a state of permanent austerity in higher education. I think it is possible to organize faculty and students and staff and the general public to restore higher education to the glory it once had. Indeed, if MOOCs become a small part of that new picture as a means to bring new learners into the system, then higher education could be even more glorious than it’s ever been.

But I’m guessing that Dave’s point was that that ship has already sailed and it’s not coming back. Plenty of face-to-face classes are terrible now. The adjunct bell cannot be un-rung. If MOOCs don’t serve the people who aren’t being served well by the current system, then Pearson or some other non-MOOC evil corporation will continue to serve them even worse by creating yet another awful version of a course in a box that professors won’t enjoy teaching and from which students won’t enjoying learning.

Of course he’s right, you know.

But that still doesn’t answer my original question, “What problem do MOOCs solve?” I think the best answer I heard in the room came from Mike Caulfield, who suggested that they solve the lousy textbook problem. I can see that for disciplines where the textbooks are both incredibly boring and incredibly expensive, but with a limitless supply of primary source texts from which I can assign that certainly doesn’t apply to history. I got some pretty interesting answers to my question via Twitter, which included “free professional development” and “allowing learners to explore topics without worrying about maintaining a GPA,” but those aren’t problems. They’re side effects of a fundamental rethinking about the relationship between the teacher and the student done more out of financial expediency than out of any particular pedagogical need.

Are the benefits of those side effects worth the impact of this disruption? You know I’m going to say no, don’t you? I’m not going to bother with the whole face-to-face personal relationship thing here because I’ve written about the benefits of that relationship in this space many times before. What I’ll do now is offer a new reason in response to Dave’s argument.

Even if MOOCs work flawlessly, they’ll still be embedded inside the same old flawed higher education system. Indeed, if MOOCs work flawlessly, there’ll be far less pressure on the people who run public higher education to change that existing system because those MOOCs will serve as a escape valve for all the built up steam behind legitimate reform. At the end of the day on Tuesday, Stephen Downes made a long comment to the whole assembly that’s difficult to do justice to, but I’ll try to summarize it anyways: If you build a MOOC within a corrupt system, you’re part of the problem not part of the solution. If universities are the ones in charge of open learning then it’s not really open.

Although I’m employed by a university and I like having a job, I really sympathized with that comment. Here’s a guy who wanted to inspire a revolution and his revolution has been co-opted. Because of that co-optation, a tool designed to change the power structure might actually help keep that power structure in place for many years in the future. While I am hardly a revolutionary, I actually have a long list of reforms that I would implement tomorrow if I ran a university, starting with paying adjuncts a living wage and respecting shared governance.** If resources and attention towards major reform go exclusively in the direction of MOOCs (or even just technology in general) rather than for other excellent ideas, then I think we will all be the poorer for it.

Given a chance, rather than kill the patient or apply a technological band-aid, I’d prefer to keep trying to find a cure.

* For example, the first thing I’m going to do when I hit work again Monday morning is to take control of my digital identity.

** Which explains why nobody will ever let me run a university.

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8 12 2013
Changing the Narrative |e-Literate

[…] to be enjoying himself, and I would make a similar observation about the famously curmudgeonly Jonathan Rees. If both of those guys can be simultaneously (relatively) pleased at a MOOC conference, then […]

7 03 2014
Groundhog Day. | More or Less Bunk

[…] by a spectrum, not by two warring factions. Do I hate MOOCs? No. As I’ve written elsewhere, “I’m not actually against everything.” Do I hate top down administrative control of technology and pedagogy? Yes. Do you know what I […]

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