murmur: a MOOC by any other name

So, I'm participating in this week's MOOC MOOC, a massive open online course about massive open online courses. As a part of Monday's exercises, participants were instructed to introduce themselves to other course participants on the course introduction space and to complete a reading and writing assignment. With some folks beginning to participate over the weekend, and since I am operating on Mountain Time, there were already around three hundred introductions--and they were flying in as I completed mine. Thinking about this from a student perspective, it's hard not to feel a little lost already. For the first reading/writing assignment, we were asked to contemplate a list of questions and to explore six "articles." The readings ranged from blog posts and articles to an online wiki-style guide to MOOCS.  The guiding questions were as follows:

The Questions at Hand

  1. What are MOOCs? What do we think they are? What do we fear they may be? What potential lies under their surface?
  2. How do we approach the MOOC? If MOOCs render our previous pedagogies dull and ineffective, how do we innovate? What do we innovate?
  3. If MOOCs aren’t a replacement for the classroom in higher education, how else might they be employed in our teaching and learning?
  4. Does connectivism make more sense than broadcast-, auditorium-style online learning? Why or why not? What do each offer --- to students, teachers, administrators, institutions?

The writing assignment is a collaboration. Participants were asked to ponder two questions--What is a MOOC? What does it do, and what does it not do?--and then contribute to a 1000-word essay as part of a google docs collaboration. Participants were also instructed to include a picture licensed through the Creative Commons and to reference the assigned research articles.

(If this sounds a bit like a course observation at this point, it's only because that's the best way I know to provide the context for this post.)

As both a writing instructor and writing studies researcher, I found this assignment intriguing. Unfortunately, because I didn't get underway until Monday, I am unable to participate in the activity. Still, I want to engage with this process as earnestly as possible, so I've chosen to share my response to the assignment on my blog.

a mooc by any other name

As far as I can tell at this stage, a MOOC is a way to deliver learning opportunities to the largest possible audience. Period. There doesn't appear to be a shared technological platform or instructional philosophy. Although, as Marc Bousquet (drawing on the work of George Siemens and Stephen Downes) points out the best MOOCs are rooted in "connectedness" and "the social character of learning":

Good MOOC’s, in [Siemen's and Downes's] view, foreground and sustain the social dimension of learning and active practices, i.e., knowledge production rather than knowledge consumption. To a limited extent, certain experiments in MOOC’s that foreground social media participation over “content mastery” realize some of the ideals of Siemen and Downes.

Since collaboration, active learning, and the production of knowledge lie at the heart of most contemporary writing classes--regardless of the environment in which they are delivered--I find this possibility heartening. For those of us who believe (because our experience and research show us) that writing courses are necessarily small in order to enable collaboration, community, and connection, it is great to see leaders in this movement highlighting the value of those ideals.

The challenge, however, is that some early MOOCs have privileged content mastery. As Sean Michael Morris notes, some MOOCs simply scale up old models of online teaching and learning for "massive" audiences. Morris participated in a University of Michigan course on Science Fiction and Fantasy offered through Coursera and found that it employed methods and mechanisms he and his colleagues had used a decade prior:

Granted, I’ve only gotten a glance at what Coursera is doing; nonetheless, they appear to be offering the same brand of content that CCCO offered a decade ago -- but without the innovations and interactivity available when I left the school. The one extra thing they’ve added are video-taped lectures by well-known professors -- professors who, it turns out, don’t actually teach the course (I received an e-mail from a course “staff member”).

This, along with access, is my primary concern. If the most visible MOOCs rely on class structures we've been trying to escape for decades, how are they an improvement? How long have we heard the complaint about higher ed--from students, parents, and pundits--that college students are reduced to numbers, herded into large lectures that allow for little interaction with senior faculty (or one another) and then corralled into breakout sessions or labs led by over-worked, under-paid teaching assistants? This argument was around when I was an undergraduate in the early 1990s, documented quite memorably in Reality Bites. Social Security Number? "It's the only thing I really learned in college." And as labor issues are a growing concern in a higher-education system that relies heavily on contingent faculty, I cannot imagine this MOOC model will allay them.

There is a glimmer of hope out there, I guess. Drawing on a piece by Jesse Stommel, one of the managing editors of Hybrid Pedagogy, Morris points out that this is not all set in stone.  Yet.

Jesse Stommel reminds us in his article, The March of the MOOCs: Monstrous Open Online Courses, that “MOOCs are all untapped potential” and “MOOCs are trainable.” In reality, the shapelessness of the MOOC approach, the vast chaos of it, can likely contribute much more to resurrecting that important connection between student and teacher than can any other form of online learning. Edmundson himself says that “Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.” And if there is any online educational approach that percusses the way jazz does, it’s the MOOC.

I love the hope and idealism expressed by both Stommel and Morris, but I am (as ever) skeptical. I wonder, for example, what happens if you're a shy participant. Or working through a technology anxiety. Or a slow typer.

And that's why "murmur." It's not just the predilection for REM-inspired blog titles. I was overwhelmed by the volume of activity on the introduction thread on this MOOC. And I've participated in and read plenty of online discussions. I felt like a murmur in a lively conversation. It's like not knowing anyone at a party. Like everyone knows everyone and is having a great time. Except you. It's usually an illusion, but that doesn't change the way it feels.  I wouldn't want my students to feel that, and I wouldn't want them overwhelmed by that first dip into interacting with their classmates.

So, I guess as a writing instructor, my skepticism thus far (beyond, you know, the usual level that comes with being a too-young curmudgeon) is a hesitancy associated with anything massive.

I look forward to learning more, of course, and I'm so very glad that we are having a large, public conversation about it. I don't want anyone--especially those of us who do the work of designing and teaching courses, research the teaching of subject areas, or administer (and/or research the administration of) academic programs--left out. I think our disciplinary differences need to be as much a part of this discussion as pedagogical best practices and the best interests of learners.