Hacking the moocs?

[From my former blog, Amnesia Creativa, a post on digital pedagogy and the MOOC hype.]

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a MOOC coming down through the wires and this MOOC that was coming down through the wires met a vicious digital native named baby linux…

I am sure one of the future generations will start the story in this way. But which generation will be and what story they will tell, it is still not clear. Being in the middle of a transformation of the way knowledge is managed, shaped, remember, archived (as we undoubtedly are), the question of pedagogy and education is in my view a key issue. And it will be part of what I will be writing about in this blog.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are the most recent and most hyped development in education, after the New York Times declared 2012 to be The Year of the Mooc. It is becoming a worldwide phenomenon at the crossroad between e-learning (as something that has “the potential to transform the educational transaction towards the ideal of a community of inquiry” – see Garrison 2011) and distant education, a movement that is at least a century year old.

The first MOOC was developed by Stephen Downes and George Siemens in 2008, when they opened up their course on educational technologies and methods (the name of the course was Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, or CCKNO8) to external, non-paying not-for-credit students. Although it was only considered “a pilot project in an emerging-technologies certificate program” (Parry 2010) it was extremely successful and ignited some debates thanks to Dave Cormier and other people. Cormier was the one who came up with the acronym during a chat with Siemens.
As with every kind of new technology, MOOCs will be adopted by users in unpredictable ways and we will need some time to understand how they will change the educational environment. At the moment I have to say that the impression is not very positive, with a few interesting exceptions. Unfortunately, what was the product of the open education movement became part of a corporative and imperialistic endeavor. In a recent post, Martin Grandjean, a French historian, spoke about imperialism of the mooc. Grandjean wrote that

aucun MOOC ne remplit à ce jour la mission de diffuser un savoir, mais bien plutôt d’occuper un terrain stratégique dans un paysage universitaire globalisé en complète recomposition (ou decomposition)

Moocs, today, are not developed as a tool to distribute knowledge, but as an attempt to occupy a field in the globalized academic landscape that is being transformed, or decomposed. (my translation)

Grandjean is addressing xMoocs (“professor-centric massive courses” where “teacher-to-student interaction is non-existent” – see what degrees of freedom has to say on that) rather than cMoocs (“massive online education built around connectivity“) such as the one by Siemens and Downes. The former are becoming dominant with providers such as Coursera currently dominating the field. The risks underlined by Grandjean are related to the impoverishment of the offerings to some dominant academic school (because of a mixture of money, power, prestige, and last and maybe, sadly, least, scientific research). Even in the case that the best schools, the most prestigious scholars will become the facilitator of the most successful massive course, inevitably this will cause an shrinking of academic debates and educational opportunities. Not to mention the fact that they will bring us back to a kind of frontal, one-way teaching that makes the student a passive consumer rather than an active producer of knowledge.

The risks are very real and need to be taken into account. It is true that

nothing prevents students from going beyond these existing tools and creating their own intimate communities (by taking classes in a group, for example, or building their own small online communities of committed classmates) to fill these gaps

as Degree of Freedom says, but we should not forget that students may not have enough self-confidence to follow that path or enough knowledge and expertise to understand the risks, and will probably need some guidance to go beyond what is on offer.
How to use MOOCs will be a negotiation between massive student population and the global(ised) education system. Students have their own reasons, and quite often these are not entirely related to acquiring credits. Cost free MOOCs are becoming part of this huge information repository called the web, almost as an alternative to wikipedia (which is also creating a wikiversity, in fact) whenever there is a need to know something about a topic (part of the transformational process called digital humanities – or humanities computing – is lead by the question of how we know what we think we know, and why, as “Obi Wan” McCarty reminded us a few years ago). This, at least, is what is implied in a short how-to video by Dave Cormier

Where this transformation will lead is still not very clear, but what will need apparently is to hack the institutionalised Moocs, transforming them in something more open and more respectful of the need of students all over the world.

This, in fact, is what happened with the original mooc by Siemens and Downes who were “hacking the format of a class.”

What we are facing is the same old story, only with new technology.

For all these reasons, I decided to follow the debate on Moocs. More posts on the topic will appear in the near future.

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