A MOOC is not a Thing: Emergence, Disruption, and Higher Education

A MOOC is not a Thing: Emergence, Disruption, and Higher Education

A MOOC is not a thing. A MOOC is a strategy. What we say about MOOCs cannot possibly contain their drama, banality, incessance, and proliferation. The MOOC is a variant beast — placental, emergent, alienating, enveloping, sometimes thriving, sometimes dead, sometimes reborn.

There is nothing about a MOOC that can be contained. Try as they might, MOOC-makers like Coursera, EdX, and Udacity cannot keep their MOOCs to themselves, because when we join a MOOC, it is not to learn new content, new skills, new knowledge, it is to learn new learning. Entering a MOOC is entering Wonderland – where modes of learning are turned sideways and on their heads — and we walk away MOOCified.

“There is a relational aspect to learning.” There’s an invisible network (or potential network) underneath every learning community. The best MOOCs make the networks patent. The worst MOOCs are neutered, lost objects that float unabsolved in the ether as capital “L” Learning, abstract and decontextualized.

MOOCification: to harness (in an instant) the power of a nodal network for learning. Rather than creating a course to structure a network, MOOCification relies on nodes to power a learning activity (or assignment). MOOCification also refers to a pedagogical approach inspired by MOOCs that is unleashed in an otherwise closed or small-format course.

Chris Friend writes, in “Learning as Performance: MOOC Pedagogy and On-ground Classes”, “The promise of MOOCs lies not in what the format lets us do, but in what the format lets us question: Where does learning happen? What are the requirements of effective collaboration? How can assessment become more authentic? How much structure and direction are best in a classroom?” These questions stir and circle back upon themselves in endless repetition as we and everyone grapples with what the MOOC is and what it does. These are important questions, exactly the right ones at exactly the right time; but there’s a deeper one that underlies our conversation. The question that needs tending to now, as the furor around MOOCs builds to a roar.

Are organized attempts to harness learning always and necessarily frustrated? Does learning happen modally at all? Is learning the demesne of any institution, organization, or formal community; or does it happen regardless of these, unmonitored, unfettered, uncontrolled, and does the rise of the MOOC point to this? Have we created MOOCs, or have we just discovered them, emerging from their cave, where they’ve always lived? Is it, as Roger Whitson writes, that “there is nothing outside the MOOC”? Without threatening to spin into intellectual nihilism (or relativism), we need to worry for the entire enterprise of education, to be unnerved in order to uncover what’s going on now. And not now this year. But now exactly this moment. Because just this second something is awry.

True stability results when presumed order and presumed disorder are balanced. A truly stable system expects the unexpected, is prepared to be disrupted, waits to be transformed. ~ Tom Robbins

Pete Rorabaugh writes, “The analysis, remixing, and socially engaged construction of personally relevant knowledge — often happens when the institutional framework is disrupted, diverted, or left in the dust.” Many hackles are rightly raised by the ubiquity of this word “disruption”, and its implications for the business of higher education; but the best MOOCs do not deal in the bourgeois concept of disruption, they deal in a very real rupture that is confusing to us all. Something convulsive. A monstrous birth.

The MOOC is a dialectic. It invites us in with a curled finger, as sinister as it is salient.

Learning isn’t (and has never really been) in the hands of academics, administrators, institutions, corporations, Forbes magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s in the hands of Rosemary Sewart, and people like her. The ones who come fully alive to learning without being told when and where it’s going to happen, without being placed obediently on a board like a pawn. The ones who throw wide the classroom doors, who hack schooling, or learn by reflecting on the flurry of input in their everyday lives; as Rosemary says, “learning … where life happens.”

We are all schoolmasters, and our schoolhouse is the universe. To attend chiefly to the desk or schoolhouse while we neglect the scenery in which it is placed is absurd. If we do not look out we shall find our fine schoolhouse standing in a cow-yard at last. ~ Henry David Thoreau

While we’ve all focused our consternation on how MOOCs may take down the walls of the university, or how they may represent the MOOCDonalds of higher ed., we are missing the most important, and most frightening, potential of MOOCs. They force us to reconsider the very fabric of how we think about learning — its occurrence, emergence, habitat, and administration.

From August 12th to August 18th, 2012, Hybrid Pedagogy ran MOOC MOOC, a now infamous mini-MOOC, meta-MOOC, MOOC about MOOCs that garnered not only a good bit of attention for its efforts, but also built a lasting community that remains curious about emerging ideas of MOOCification, the place of mini- and micro-MOOCs, and the implementation of open learning environments in traditional higher ed. classrooms. As well, MOOC MOOC set a precedent for MOOCish conversations about MOOCs, and spurred us to think deeply about where online education is headed.

It would be easy to contend, at this early stage in their evolution, that every MOOC has been a MOOC about MOOCs — that every MOOC is a meta-MOOC, a MOOC MOOC. The early connectivist MOOCs pioneered by folks like George Siemens and Stephen Downes were, whether explicitly or implicitly, exploring the form, the pedagogy, and the process of MOOCs.

At the same time, we were unaware of anyone who had done a MOOC unflinchingly trained on the MOOC phenomenon. A MOOC that explored unhesitatingly — even a bit recklessly — the potential, pitfalls, drawbacks, and advantages of this approach to teaching and learning. MOOC MOOC aimed to expose all of us to the grand experiment of MOOCs by having us participate directly in that grand experiment, albeit in a concentrated, one-week format. (And there was mighty participation. Andrew Staroscik created this interactive graph of tweet volume on the #moocmooc hashtag.) Rather than a knee-jerk critical reaction to the march of the MOOCs, we encouraged participants to inhabit the MOOC, exploring its pedagogical potential as an exercise in discernment but not judgment.

For one week beginning January 6, 2013, MOOC MOOC will return for a continued examination of the MOOC phenomenon, now grown well beyond a rising surge into a more perfect storm. This new iteration, which we’re fondly (and absurdly) calling MOOC MOOC [squared], will inspect not only the broadened landscape of MOOCs (including Coursera’s swelling presence and for-credit bidUdacity’s flash mob-style on-ground gatherings, and the rise of LMS-based MOOCs like Instructure’s Canvas.net), but also will turn the lens on itself, repurposing and remixing the original course and the conversations and artifacts that arose from within the course. MOOC MOOC will be housed once more within the Canvas LMS, fueled by the ongoing discussions of the MOOC MOOC community.

There is no good or evil inherent in a MOOC, only in what it will or will not unleash. We must stop thinking of education as requiring stringent modes and constructs, and embrace it as invention, metamorphosis, deformation, and reinvention. This is the territory of the inventor always, the territory of the pugnacious and irreverent. Learning in MOOCs should be cohesive, not divided, and it must happen multi-nodally. The parsing of learning that formal education has always relied on will give way to something, if not holistic, then simultaneous, distributed, alive in more than one place at a time. If the best MOOCs show us that learning is networked, and that it has always been, then learning is more rampant than we’ve accounted for.

[Photo by kevin dooley]

About the Authors

Sean Michael Morris (@slamteacher) is the Editor of Hybrid Pedagogy. He considers himself a digital agnostic, and allies himself with adjuncts, students, and others who are contingent to the enterprise of higher education. His personal website can be found at seanmichaelmorris.com.

Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) is Director of Hybrid Pedagogy and Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is an advocate for lifelong learning and the public digital humanities. His personal web site can be found at jessestommel.com.

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