The Complexification of Education

Jim Groom linked to a Dickinson quote that resonated with me:

The problem with writing a book is that getting to the point of releasing a little demon is long and painful. Bonnie, Dave, and I have been grappling with the narrative super-structure of the book. We are well aware that by the time this is published, the MOOC landscape will look very different from what it does today. MOOCs are already moving into the realm of unloved step-child of education. They are becoming a proxy battle for educational philosophies: what is the role of commercial activity in higher education? How deeply should technology be integrated with teaching and learning? What can software do better than people? MOOCs represent much of the hope of open education advocates (openly accessible education) and the fears of faculty (the take over of public education by for-profits). This dichotomy is being politicized and will only get worse. In the long run, we’ll all hate MOOCs because they will reflect the failed hope of equitable and affordable access to education as well as the salivating greed of those wishing to commercialize and globalize education.

We’ve tried to make this book about changes in higher education, broadly. In our numerous Skype calls, we’ve debated how to position the book and the type of tone to take. At one point, we wanted the narrative to be one of presenting MOOCs to the masses, something like pop-culture Shirky/Tapscott/Jarvis/Gladwell. The intent of the book, in this vein, would be to provide readers with accessible language and way of thinking about MOOCs. Then we’d all be very wealthy and tremendously famous. People would routinely approach us on the streets to sign, in permanent marker, their baby’s foreheads. Or something like that.

While this approach seems logical and has resonance with the nature of public discourse around MOOCs, it doesn’t really fit our personalities or our world views.

At this stage, I’m thinking the best approach is something along the lines of complexifying education. Instead of trying to provide a neat tidy commentary of MOOCs and higher education changes, we should be provide a complex view, one that acknowledges the failure of mono-views of educational change. What we face in higher education is a far more daunting task than “let’s all run MOOCs” or “online learning is the future”. We face challenges around access, digitization of education, move to granular learning (courses to competencies), growth of startup/maker culture, for-profit presence, global learner base, reduce public funds, autonomous and informed learners, participatory learning, privacy, digital identity, power shift from institution to individual, new roles for educators in creating content and methods of teaching, and so on. The last thing we need is a light treatment of MOOCs or change in general. We need an analysis that moves away from simple answers toward complex questions. When someone is done reading this book, in fall of 2013, I’d like them to put it down and say “Wow. Something big is happening. We don’t know what to do about it. We need to raise the quality of discourse around higher education so that we can suitably respond to the dramatic and historic changes impacting the university”.

I hope we can instill in readers a desire for better questions, rather than trite answers. I’m sure others are already plotting those books and planning those TED Talks. It will mean that we won’t hit fame and fortune. Instead, I hope we’ll impact a group of nuanced thinkers, willing to tolerate ambiguity and complexity, prepared to embrace integrative and even contradictory thinking as they engage with the changed network/ecology/landscape of the ivory/silicon tower.

Will MOOC as curation kill the paid journal?

Our manuscript deadline for this book is approaching (2 months, really?) and the challenge of pulling together the threads of the impact of MOOCs is ramping up. How do we disentangle the differences between the impact of MOOCs and the impact of online learning or budget cuts? What relationship does the MOOC have to the OER movement? lots and lots of questions, and all we can do is keep writing :) I’m working on an article around the end of the topic with Valerie Irvine right now… proof that i’m thinking about it Val :P

MOOC as an act of curation
I was looking over the work the folks at the university of Edinburgh on Coursera, specifically the E-learning and Digital Cultures and the tidyness of the work that they had done really struck me. Each week, here’s five neatly organized videos, here’s some nice things to read, here are some more complex things you might want to engage with… all nicely arranged by topic. Or, you could say, by chapter.

Having mostly piggy backed on the encyclopedic knowledge of Downes and Siemens for the teaching of MOOCs, it’d never really struck me how much the process is really about carving out a piece of the internet. A dabble of this perspective, some papers by that person, lets get some differing opinions in here – I remember this really great video by…

If you’re lucky (and I would argue, if you’re doing it right) that curation does predate the course, but it only ramps up when the course starts. Grsshopper, Stephen’s software for newsletters, is a curation engine. It pulls together All the Things created by the participants in a course so they can be seen by anyone who wants to. Again, chopping the internet into manageable pieces.

The Edinburgh example
According to the Times Higher article from yesterday, The University of Edinburgh got 300,000 students for its Coursera courses. The article magically sets out what I have always thought was the most likely business model for MOOCs – the loss leader. In 220 words they lay out their reasoning… they currently have 2000 online students. They want to have 10000 students. One can imagine that they hope that of the 300K 8000 students not currently registered for ‘for pay’ courses at the institution will decide to pay money to have a longer relationship with their institution.

Quality of instruction/personality
This really puts the pressure on the instructors in the MOOC to represent the institution in a positive way. In order for the loss leader approach to work, the Coursera experience needs to be a positive one. I also don’t think it’s a big leap to believe that the people who are teaching the Coursera courses will also be the people teaching the ‘for pay’ courses that the institution will be hoping that students take in the future. Personal faculty brand continues to increase in importance.

Open content
Every bit of the content that i saw in the course mentioned above was open access. Due to the crazy international laws around copyright, trying to get a contract with a publisher for access to a journal for 300,000 people. At least… not under any current model. So we have maybe 100 items of open content being curated by the instructors and then seen by potentially thousands of other teachers. Important point.

The threat to journals
I see this creating a two point threat to the journal infrastructure as we know it. Current journals are either of the open access variety, where mostly unpaid academic type people take care of the work and allow every to access the material. These, i presume, will get more and more traffic due to MOOCs. The paid journals, where libraries are charged fees based on the number of times people have accessed a particular piece or based on an institutional price governed by the number of students or… well… there are a few models. Anyway these journals are not usable by MOOCs. The licensing as it is would be too weird.

Broad viewing of open access
I’ve always thought that one of the reasons that OER and open access has struggle to catch on in some circles is that many academics had particular articles and people that they were accustomed to using in their courses, and choosing to go open access would require rethinking their courses and long search times. The curation process that is a MOOC alleviates this to a great degree. Here we have a network textbook that, in our present case the fine folks at Edinburgh, have taken the effort to collect. How easy to just take it and repurpose the pieces that you need.

The brand element
The need to publish is wrapped into a pile of tangles inside the academic system, tenure promotion, institutions proving that they have impact, satisfying funders etc… If we are having giant courses with 100K people in them, however, and anyone who publishes in a closed journal is left out, that’s going to have an impact on the uh… impact. The chance to have your work viewed, your institution to be known as having influential people in it, could increasingly be a matter of whether your material is used in a MOOC.

And, as mentioned earlier, your ability to market online courses could increasingly be a question of whether you have the kind of faculty that people want to take a course with. If i’m looking to learn something about connectivism, and I see George’s name on half the things that are written about them, I’m going to be tempted to take the connectivism course with george at Athabasca. If he’d published all those things in closed journals, it seems less likely that they would get found

So whither the closed journal? They are either going to get left out of the MOOC drive, or they are going to have to change the licensing. If they are going to charge anything for the material, however, that will be taking the price of the course from ‘free’ to ‘not-free’… which is a pretty big leap no matter how much you charge. The open net, on the other hand, is licensed in a way that is perfectly setup for MOOCs. Now that we have so much public curation going on, we are not only going to be able to find more of the existing awesomeness, I’m guessing that we’ll see people releasing more and more of their stuff for free… if only so they don’t miss out.

Quality Control in MOOCs

Like traditional education institutions, identity and reputation are important in MOOCs. For providers such as Udacity, Coursera, and edX, it means that the end user experience is vital in perceptions of overall quality. If students encounter a poor course (design, video, layout), that experience casts a reputation on the overall course provider. If they can’t offer quality courses, how do we know the assessments will be good quality? Or that plagiarism is being taken seriously?

The first open course that I offered had a big impact on how I have since viewed courses. When we opened CCK08, I thought “yay us, course is now open, people will learn, it will be awesome”. While we had that experience, we also had numerous concerns and complaints about course format, design, layout, and so on. Students had a different view of what a “free course” is all about than I had at the time. I discovered that students who participated in the course added enormous value for others. While they were taking the course without fee, they were offering their personal views, opinions, and time. The fee for taking a MOOC is active participation, which in turn increases the quality of the learning experience for others. Sometimes the language around MOOCs is almost “look at our wonderful MOOC overlords and the knowledge they bestow on the masses”. MOOCs and learners need each other. The gift of free courses by MOOC providers is promptly returned by learners in the form of their contributions. The MOOC platforms are nothing without learners. The gift of our participation is as valuable as the gift of an open course.

In mid-2012, I thought Udacity was the most vulnerable MOOC provider. Coursera was signing up universities every month or so and was offering hundreds of courses. edX was very well funded, $60m, and represented two of the top universities in the world: Harvard and MIT. Udacity, in contrast, was rolling out a few courses every semester. While Sebastian Thrun was very capable of drawing media attention, the optics of momentum were with Coursera. In August, 2012, Udacity cancelled a course before it started. This was an interesting decision and one that revealed, in my opinion, that Udacity was willing to take short term pain for long term reputation as a quality provider. Udacity owns its content, Coursera is more of a platform. That means that Udacity has a better range of monetization strategies – content, teaching, platform, recognition. Coursera as a brand will rely heavily on their university partners.

OT: edX is the most exciting MOOC provider – their content is outstanding, the platform is the best of all three providers. They are not profit-driven which means they have a different range of decisions and different criteria for making them. edX doesn’t get the media love of Udacity/Coursera (there is a story in there somewhere about the self-enforcing media plays around for-profit ventures and ability to feed into the public media through those connections). It has also managed to escape many of the concerns of plagiarism and quality.

Today, Coursera faced a quality crisis as its Fundamentals of Online Education course suddenly went dark. UPDATE: Keith Devlin provides clarification in the comments about how Coursera works – i.e. it was likely the instructors decision to close the course.

There had been some course rumblings: “The course so far is a disaster, ‘a mess’ as numerous students have called it”.

Interestingly, the communication with students has been horrible:

We are in the early stages of MOOCs and quality processes in Coursera are still being developed. An important question to consider relates to the quality and reputation of not only the institute and Coursera:

I’d add to that: who is advocating for learners who devoted a week to working through the content and suddenly had the course cancelled. How does a course make it into a system like Coursera without a quality check of technology and learning activities?

Update: email from Coursera to students: http://pastebin.com/RGxvuF7b

Under the Cloud of Knowledge Deficiency

Higher education is entering a fascinating phase of experimentation with new models of teaching and learning. A good portion of this trend is driven by technology, particularly online learning and its current manic manifestation: the MOOC. Anyone with even a brief familiarity of the history of distance education (see this book for a good overview) will recognize that much of what is being touted as new has a long legacy of research and has existed in numerous forms previously. Even then, there is something uniquely new happening in education and while we don’t quite know what it is and the scope of its impact, xEducation is an attempt to understand the change drivers and the messy landscape.
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Most people are aware that the global economy is in the midst of profound changes. These changes are evident in technological advances, capital flows, globalization, increased worker mobility and employment opportunities in knowledge work, social unrest, emergence of new economies, and the decline of long established economies. Taken together, these changes reflect a “big shift” economically and socially – one that is unprecedented in the modern economy and that has significant implications for corporations, governments, and societies around the world. The next twenty years will bring an even greater pace of change as megatrends and “game changers” continue to mature.

Higher education similarly faces change drivers that are “unprecedented in scope and diversity“. In response, provincial governments are confronting the reality that the “current system is unsustainable from a financial and quality perspective”. Top tier universities that have recognized the scope of changes are responding by calling for rapid responses, citing concerns that incremental change is no longer sufficient . The university sector is facing a future where technology will play a greater role in meeting the growing knowledge needs in society.

In spite of calls for change and predictions of disruption, higher education enrolment has continued to expand globally with average annual increases of 4.6% and the total student population doubling every 15 years. This trend has accelerated since 2000. Clear evidence exists that investing in a higher education degree has significant financial rewards for individuals and families. Many societal benefits exist for higher education including better access to quality jobs, lower unemployment, and breaking the cycle of poverty.

Additionally, the nature of work is changing. The economies of developed nations are transitioning to the long-rumored knowledge economy . Jobs that require advanced education are growing while those in the traditional labour and manufacturing sector on declining. Even in markets where traditional jobs are a large part of the economy, those jobs now require higher levels of education in order for individuals to be competitive.

The centrality of higher education in preparing individuals for knowledge work is not in question. Higher education plays a critical role in revitalizing regional economies through research and knowledge growth and preparing individuals and companies for innovation. For university leaders, the challenge is one of developing and articulating a vision of education that meets the requirement of a dynamic global marketplace and an economy prefaced on intellectual work rather than traditional labour. In particular, leaders need to recognize how the changing nature of the economy requires new approaches to supporting the needs of a diversified student population. Education is no longer an event that last four years and prepares students for the workforce. Education today must account for changing profiles of students, reskilling entire workforces transitioning to knowledge work, and preparing regional and provincial economies with the capacity to compete globally.
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I grew up in a small town, Morden, Manitoba. For a variety of reasons, we didn’t have television or radio in our home. As a result, I read roughly every book in the Morden public library. I read westerns, I read about ornithology, psychology, hypnotism, tried reading Grey’s anatomy but it was a painful experience, economics, business, philosophy, and self-help. While the lack of media in my home resulted in significant cultural blind spots (the joys of discovering Knight Rider later in life), I did develop a breadth of awareness, note I didn’t say depth!, of fields and disciplines that I’m still trying to connect today. All these free floating unconnected information elements, urgently in need of connective super-structures. In the process, I developed one attribute, curiosity about everything, and lost one attribute: fear of, or intimidation of, knowledge – by reading widely, I developed a sense that every topic, every knowledge domain, can be understood with some time investment.

Yet today, I feel unprepared and unable to prepare myself for today’s learning needs. When mental capacity is exceeded by change, it’s time to adjust the emotional, namely expectations of what it means to be in control, or even knowledgeable in a networked world.

In the past 20 years, society has witnessed the greatest expansion of knowledge in human history. Yes, there were periods of rapid knowledge expansion (see this issue of the Journal of History of Ideas), but nothing that remotely resembles what is happening today. Those who trade in hype, have bold declarations:

If every image made and every word written from the earliest stirring of civilization to the year 2003 were converted to digital information, the total would come to five exabytes. An exabyte is one quintillion bytes, or one billion gigabytes—or just think of it as the number one followed by 18 zeros. That’s a lot of digital data, but it’s nothing compared with what happened from 2003 through 2010: We created five exabytes of digital information every two days. Get ready for what’s coming: By next year, we’ll be producing five exabytes every 10 minutes.

Others take a more thoughtful and research-oriented approach but still arrive at a similar conclusion: knowledge is changing, what it means to know is changing. As a result, what it means to learn is also in the process of changing. The institutions that have served us well historically are slow, even reluctant, to recognize the scope of how substantially knowledge and learning are changing.

Through the internet, we are aware of event around the world as they occur. Through our social networks, we encounter ideas, links, and resources that overwhelm us. Scientometrics has developed (.pdf) as a field of ” to describe the study of science: growth, structure, interrelationships and productivity”. Global research output, particularly in the science and technology fields, has steadily increased, particularly in developing regions of the world.

As a result of knowledge changes, many of us are in a period of constant angst about what we know and what we don’t know. It’s like we are under a dark cloud of knowledge deficiency daily. Consider the concept of networks as an example. Networks are everywhere. In a given day, it’s not uncommon to hear references to power laws, weak ties, strong ties, structural holes, and so on. We collect these unconnected bits of information. We are aware of the language of networks and might even use it in our discussions with others. For most people, however, the knowledge is shallow. Open online courses are a way to address the angst of knowledge deficiency. A Coursera course like Social Network Analysis provide an opportunity to connect the disconnected info bits that we’ve encountered over periods of time. BTW – does anyone else feel like a kid in a candy store when looking at upcoming Coursera, edx, or Udacity course offerings? I’ll take that one, and that one, and that one, and that one…

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Later today, I’ll be on a panel organized by CBC’s Ira Basen at Western University titled Digital Boon or Digital Doom?. To prepare, I was sent a list of topics that will be considered during the debate/discussion. I’m sharing my thoughts and reflections here in order to prepare for the panel.

Pedagogy: online and classroom
The truly pedantic will state that we’re really talking about andragogy (i.e. Knowles). Given prevalence of use, pedagogy is just fine for me in describing teaching and learning at any level. A common question concerning online learning is its effectiveness in contrast with traditional instruction. Underlying this question is a research or evidence plea about whether or not schools and universities should embrace and move online.

There are two ways to answer this:

1.From the research: Research evidence is clear that online or blended learning is on par with in-class learning. Here are a few papers to look at:

- Bernard et al. on How Does Distance Education Compare with Classroom Instruction (search the article on Google Scholar and you can find pdf links – the one I found asked me not to link or cite without permission. duh.) – this is a gold standard case study for students on how to do a meta-analysis. The authors clearly detail their inclusion/exclusion criteria for research papers, see p. 384 for description, and the shortcomings of quality research papers in DE. Their conclusion is that online learning can be both better and worse than in-class instruction. Asynchronous online learning produces better results than synchronous online learning. They emphasize factors such as learning design in determining whether or not the learning experience will be effective. The view that media is a delivery mechanism and doesn’t influence learning dates back to Clark’s 1983 article where he argues that “there are no learning benefits to be gained from employing any specific medium to deliver instruction”. A counter claim to this argument, by Kozma, posits that there are cognitively relevant characteristics of media and as a consequence, media matter. Cognitive relevance shares some attributes with Gibson’s notion of affordances (i.e. action potential) of tools. This debate hasn’t been resolved for a few decades and I don’t intend to resolve it here. I personally fall somewhere in the middle: design matters. So do tools.

- Means et al. on Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning – this report draws heavily from the Bernard paper and provocatively concludes (p. 18) that “online learning (whether taught completely online or blended) on average produce stronger learning outcomes than do classes with solely face-to-face instruction”. It’s a widely cited and, for some, controversial report. Well worth reviewing, however.

- Tallent-Runnels et al. (.pdf) took a broad look at the experience of teaching online, considering students experiences, outcomes, and institutional factors. They don’t provide a clear assessment of “online is better” or “in class is better”, but instead take a more complex approach by evaluating the breadth of the teaching experience. Their analysis likely won’t change anyone’s opinion, for or against, online learning, but the paper does highlight the silliness of a blanket comparison. It’s kind of like saying “is it better to fly than to drive”. Well, that depends. Where are you going? How much time do you have? Do you have a budget? Do you like driving and sightseeing? etc.

- Bowen et al. on Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities – this paper hasn’t gained the acceptance that the above papers have, partly because the sample size is not large and partly because randomized trials are tough to do well in education and many educators don’t bother diving into attempts to do so. I include it here because it is a report that focuses on interactive online learning (they include an hour a week in person). The report concludes comparable learning outcomes between online and F2F, but tout productivity gains and cost savings of online instruction (p. 2). In their conclusion, the authors acknowledge that these benefits might not carry educational improvements”across the board” (p.27) and that future gains are related to improvements in software (p. 28).

2. From context: This is an argument that will infuriate many academics, especially those that take themselves too seriously or that don’t own a computer: The internet has won. Deal with it. Work is digital. Life is digital. The question of “is online learning comparable to face-to-face learning” has been answered by society: “Who cares. We live, play, and work digitally. Might as well learn that way too”.

The University
The interest in online learning, and the prominence of online courses (MOOCs), is stunning. I have never seen a trend develop as quickly and with as little input from faculty. The faculty voice has been mute in MOOC conversations. A handful of faculty members are offering MOOCs, but as a body, faculty have been on the sidelines as the biggest educational trend of the last several decades has developed. To me, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the MOOCs phenomenon. I’ve spoken with numerous systems that are offering MOOCs and in each instance, it was an admin or IT decision that did not include consultation with faculty senate. How is this possible? Are faculty that technology-shy that they would permit the evisceration of their practice in order to not reveal their technical phobias? I’ve stated this in other forums, but if 2012 was the year of the MOOC, 2013 will be the year of the anti-MOOC as faculty finally (hopefully) get into the conversation.

A few concerns exist beyond the lack of faculty voice. I’m concerned that education is being commodified. That MOOCs are a vehicle that will be used by corporations to take over public education. I’m concerned that the Silicon Valley way of “don’t think, just do” will produce a pedagogical model that lacks theory and ignores consideration of principles such as power, learner autonomy, and equity. I’m concerned that discoveries and pedagogical models that have been established over the past century will be ignored and the same idea, now with a new data/digital/cool-sounding name will herald a new age of “We discovered this…” (no. no ,you didn’t discover it. Read some freakin’ literature. The ideas are there already. You’re Columbus, coming into someone else’s territory).

But in spite of those concerns, I’ll keep experimenting with MOOCs. The prospect of global education, increased connectivity, and greater learner control are too tantalizing to ignore. Plus, it’s foolishness to ignore a new area of research. No doubt, there will be unintended consequences that will be negative. But creating a better model of learning, increasing access, and improving equity is more important than trying to preserve a model of the university or even the professorate that is at odds with how knowledge is generated and shared today.

What does this mean to higher education? The changes coming will be tremendous. The competition for students will be fierce. Kathleen Matheos and I did an article on the future of higher education a few years ago. Our core assertion is that society’s knowledge institutions mirror how knowledge is created and shared in a particular era. As a result, universities will begin to adopt the attributes of networks in how they teach and operation in order to stay relevant. In the process, research, teaching and learning, and assessment will be unbundled or de-coupled. This in turn will produce an ecosystem of numerous players, each addressing one aspect of what used to be the integrated higher education model. The image below was from that paper:

Unbundling

If you’re interested in readings/resources/discussions on the future of higher education, we ran a MOOC on this topic in fall 2012. The readings can be accessed here in Desire2Learn (click ‘content browser’).

MOOCs
Are MOOCs the future of higher education? I don’t think so. They are currently approaching hype-like status that only comes when in the throes of a fad. The term itself is quickly losing meaning as anything online and learning-related is apparently a MOOC. If you’re looking for MOOC resources, I’ve been tagging interesting articles and websites since 2011 here on Diigo. My co-author, Bonnie Stewart, has been tagging MOOC articles here on Delicious. If you don’t feel like reading hundreds of articles, Sir John Daniel provides a solid analysis of MOOCs. Don’t forget to look at the peer reviewed MOOC articles. Several colleagues have found Clay “the McGuyver of MP3 metaphors – explaining all phenomenon in the world through the lens of MP3′s and Napster since 1999″ Shirky’s evaluation of MOOCs helpful: Napster, Udacity, and the Academy.

The bigger trend to focus on is the increased role of two things in education:
1. Startups and entrepreneurs (or put another way, commercial activity): SXSWedu and ASU EdInnovation are two conferences devoted to this topic. I’m involved in organizing a conference with the tech/innovation theme in Calgary, Alberta May 1-3, 2013. The ecosystem of educational offering is being expanded, or pillared, depending on your view, by these startups. When in doubt, follow the money. The future of education is being shaped by entrepreneurs, not by professors.

2. Networked technologies and pedagogies: this has been my stomping grounds since the late 90′s. Together with colleagues like Stephen Downes, I’ve been looking at how connectedness changes learning. Connectedness is the big pedagogical innovation. Complex problems are solved by connecting expertise and knowledge. Literally, the knowledge is in the connections. As we become better connected as more of our knowledge becomes findable through social media and mobiles, networked pedagogies will grow in prominence. I’ve tagged connectivism resources here if you are interested in getting deeper into networked knowledge and learning. Google Scholar has a variety of articles as well.

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Back to where we started: most of us today live in this constant state of knowledge deficiency, feeling that we’re behind on something, don’t know enough, and need to do more learning.

This is now the norm.

Accept it.

Enjoy it.

Fortunately, learners today have terrific options for filling personal knowledge gaps or connecting information pieces that they’ve collected in their daily information interactions. MOOCs and online learning are long overdue. They benefit learners, first and foremost. Faculty and universities have a reason to be anxious. MOOC providers want to make money. They will stop being free and will start competing with universities. For those who are willing to engage in the change dialogue, it’s also a wonderful time to begin influencing the future of education. We know knowledge, learning, and higher education are changing. The best time to move the world in a direction that we want is when it is already changing. Influencing change that is already occurring is easier than battling inertia. Don’t like where things are going? Jump in, share your vision, build something that reflects your ideals and values. Just don’t sit on the sideline and complain about how what others are doing is ruining education. Out do them. Build something better, something more valuable. You owe it to yourself to have your voice heard.

Chopping down the trunk of education

I got an interesting question on twitter today from someone asking about the decentralized role of the teacher in a ‘What is a MOOC video’ that we recorded as part of a research project on MOOCs Sandy Macauley, Bonnie, George and I did in 2010. (video embedded at the end of the post) and i think Dan’s question gets to the heart of one of the important possibilities presented by the internet which have been taken up in MOOCs in one way or another.

Instructor as trunk
It should be obvious, i guess, that the trunk is essential to the tree. You can get away with cutting a few branches, or maybe a root or two, but once you do away with the big part at the middle of the tree you are now talking about something that is ‘wood’ not ‘a tree’. The image of instructor as trunk, then, is not only a question of them being ‘in the middle’ of the class, but they are also the critical and only point of connection between each of the branches. The trunk is the only reason the branches have for being. The conversation between the different branches (students) is structured and routed directly through the instructor.

For many years our education inevitably had to work this way. Students journeyed for miles to get to the location where the knowledge was, whether that was a few scant books or the instructors who are read or even written them. Each of those students needed to interact with that instructor in order to gain access to whatever it was they were going to say. Each of those students often had to share access to the same books… The instructor, ostensibly, would have acquired other knowledge, somewhere else, that it wasn’t feasible to transport to the location of the students. The instructor was the trunk around whom the students worked.

This provided a ton of advantages, many of which we now simply see as ‘what education is’. The technologies (and i mean the word very broadly) that were available had a profound impact not only on what was possible but also on choices that were made based on the particular advantages of that system. This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but lets take a look at what the advantages of a trunk based education system are

1. everyone is, more or less, accessing the same content
2. People are, more or less, accessing content at the same time

This may seem to be fairly straightforward, but they have far reaching consequences. If everyone is accessing the same content (because its all coming from the same instructor), we can measure the degrees to which people have accessed that content. If they are accessing it at the same time (because that instructor is one person, and can only be in one place at one time, and it’s more efficient to have all the people in, say, a room to listen to him/her) then we might as well have everyone get together and do the learning at the same time.

If we’re all going to learn together at the same time, and we’re all going to learn the same things, then we might as well package that in such a way that we can call it something. Say english 101. The trunk pulls things together, it allows for things to be standardized, measured and kept on time. These are often useful things. One primary problem, and this is the response that i made to Dan’s tweet earlier today…

Bring on the network
If the internet were to happen to education, now, things could be a bit different. Two of the things that are swept off the board, potentially, are the need to access the same content and to access it at the same time. If we can all access content out there on the internet and we can do it whenever we want, then we can go ahead and just learn the things that we want whenever we want to. Many of us have stories of learning how to do things, about new things or new ways of seeing things on our own time in our own way using resources (and people) on the web. There are now very few things you can’t learn on the web… in one way or another… if you accept that all those people out there on the web are people you can learn from.

But the wealth of possibilities brings on its own challenges. Along with the new connectivity, we were not given more time. We were also not given simpler lives that would allow for the inclusion of many new areas of research, both in our private and our professional lives. There is also the problem of sifting through the content available… how am I supposed to evaluate the worth of something I don’t understand.

Join a community
This has been a solution for many of the early adopters to the new connective technologies. Communities allow for collaborative evaluation of content and the ‘hive mind’ approach to knowing. You yourself may not have access to the things that you need, but someone nearby might. If you can bring together enough people from a field, you have a chance of being able to tackle most any problem.

But those communities have challenges of their own. They are difficult to join… and difficult to lurk in. They tend to develop their own habits, their own jokes, and while many communities mean to allow newcomers to join it can be difficult and off putting to find ways of fitting in with groups that are already cohesive.

Where’s my teacher?
And so we go and find ourselves a teacher again. But the teacher, this time, need not come along with all the content for their course crammed up in their head, or trapped in a sheaf of papers. That teacher has access to all kinds of content on the internet, has some sense of where much of it is stored, and has the ability (one hopes) to help evaluate the worth of that content.

The second C in cMOOC
I am a firm believer in the inclusion of the idea of a course into Massive open and online learning. I have spent many years working with communities online, with many failures some victories. It’s hard work bringing people together online, and harder work keeping them together. Having people study at the same time offers the ‘eventedness’ that spurs people to focus on a particular subject, idea of concept in ways that they often don’t when left to their own devices. It’s like going to the gym with other people… the proximity, the sharing, the shame :) are all part of the thing that keeps you going.

Keeping the Open in MOOC
So I’m willing to keep the we do this at the same time part that we learned from pre-web learning, but I don’t feel the same way about content. There are few fields where anything but the first few basic concepts aren’t subject to negotiation. There are many sides to be taken, contexts in which to take them and different applications that requires different kinds of input. If we allow people to choose their own content (within reason) we allow for those things to form on their own.

It’ll make grading harder (assuming you think that’s necessary)
It’ll make organizing it harder

But when you take the trunk out of education, when you remove the instructor as the person who makes decisions about the content, you might allow for the connections that are made during the course to remain when the course is finished. Authentic connections (assuming there’s such a thing) to content and people that don’t require the teacher to keep them growing.

MOOCs are Not a System

On December 14, 2012, twelve of us are gathering in Palo Alto to discuss the future of MOOCs in online education. An eclectic mix of interests will be at the table: venture capital and pedagogy and senior scholars and edtech writers and MOOC experimenters. And, uh, me.

I live about as far as you can get from Silicon Valley and still be on this continent. It looms, for me as a professional, much like Disneyland did as a child: mythic, yet foreign and inaccessible. It’s a mothership shaping half the conversations that occur around me, yet is nowhere I ever expected to go. 

Me and most of higher ed, I expect. Yet here we are, at the crossroads of the ever-shifting animal called MOOCs.

Sometimes it seems there are two solitudes with a vested interest in higher ed right now: those who see it through a business lens and those who see it through a learning lens. 

I don’t like simple dichotomies. And I don’t like narratives that reinforce them. But much of the hype and buzz and even critique over MOOCs can’t help but reinforce them, because those of us speaking don’t actually have access to the premises or the language spoken across the table. Or we don’t even see the table as shared.

Like it or not, we’re all sitting at it. And we need to learn to talk to each other. 

So I see this summit in Palo Alto as a rare chance for a bunch of us from all corners of higher education to sit at a common table and try to learn and contribute to a common language about what MOOCs and online learning can – and cannot – be.

The part of me that is forever a teacher will always believe that bringing people into a shared conversation matters.

Below is my opening salvo for the discussion. Whatever you’ve got to add, I’m listening.
*** 

What is this thing MOOCs are Messing With, Anyway?
It’s time to start asking what education is for.

We are trained from childhood to externalize our learning, to wave our hands like little Lisa Simpsons and be sorted and graded by the hierarchical governing body, then present our certifications at the end to other hierarchical governing bodies interested in hiring us for our credentials.

That social contract, of course, can no longer fulfill its promises. Nor does it allow for the
types of learning experiences that digital media make possible: it is not a system that can
account for remix, for peer-to-peer legitimation of knowledge, for the emergent and the
unfamiliar. It is a pre-determined system, a system for the domain of simple knowledge and the already-known. It’s a system whose power relations have ossified.

The Domain of the Known Can No Longer Be the Purview of Higher Ed
It’s also the system that much online education seems to try to replicate. It is familiar and
manageable. There is demand for credentials of what is known. But marrying the mass media model of one-to-many communications with the traditional academic model of the course is not a revolution in education, only a revolution in scale.

The domain of the known can no longer be the purview of higher education. Continuing to try to squeeze a scarcity-based system around knowledge in a time of knowledge abundance is disingenuous.

What is known is already out there, available. Learners can find and synthesize and share it any which way. They do not need facilitators to read Wikipedia or watch a series of videos. They do not even need the system of higher ed to legitimate what they learn, any longer, or even what they create…unless they want to call it research. But they do, for the most part, need some sense of structure or belonging or purpose to help them make their way into the learning process. Scaffolding paths and motivations and legitimation structures is one part of what education does that still has intrinsic value. It just needs to do it all a bit differently.

Enter MOOCs. They’re an event: they coordinate learning opportunities around topics,
schedules. They provide and package a structured experience, to some extent. But if that is all they are then they remain glorified correspondence courses.

Questions About the Baby and the Bathwater
On the other hand, dumping the traditional higher ed system entirely in favour of letting MOOCs do the work of a thousand universities drastically underestimates not only how the professional system of academia employs and mentors a large sector within our society, but also the ways in which universities coordinate learning and life opportunities far beyond direct enrolment in Course A or Course D. And then there’s the formalized research side of academia: if all research needed to be venture capital-friendly in order to be funded, what would get left out of the picture of knowledge?

What education can do goes far beyond content. Pedagogy in online learning matters perhaps more, not less, than it does in traditional classrooms. The possibilities of peer pedagogies can be enacted in online learning – and in the massive scale of MOOCs I harbour the hope that some kind of teacher decentering takes place even where content doesn’t promote peer engagement.

So my primary question as we consider MOOCS and online pedagogies and the possibilities the Internet holds for education is this – what purposes does higher ed serve in the society we envision ourselves educating for?

Basically, I think education needs new cultural narratives, and I think MOOCs may be a way of moving – stumbling, perhaps, but moving nonetheless – towards those.

Higher ed these days reminds me of nothing so much as the parable of the seven blind men and the elephant, each grasping a body part and convinced they know the whole. It carries on its back the weight of many histories and societal narratives: it stands for social mobility and for the freedom and ascetic pleasure of knowledge. It is also an industry, of a sort, and a complex system by which many are mentored and employed. We need to be careful of leaping on board to gut the system without understanding the ways in it is networked into our broader society.

Because MOOCs, of themselves, are not a system.

They are a platform, a way of organizing. We may say they are not a thing, but I suspect they are at risk of becoming a thing: of hardening, becoming reified and no longer pushed or investigated or picked at for possibilities…and they are not up to the job they are tasked with.

The equation of “subtract how we do things now, and add in MOOCs” does not add up. They do not effectively replace the system. They leave too much out of the conversation.

How do we go forward with MOOCs without having the Massive overtake the Open? Does
Online learning need to be modeled on traditional Course structure? Who is the audience for online learning? What are their needs? How do these needs fit within our cultural systems of work and knowledge and value, in monetary terms and beyond? What conflicts are visible here between education as an industry and as a public good?

How Do Things Assemble, or Not?
When I get stuck on these questions, I try to be mindful of the kinds of questions ActorNetwork Theory poses: how do things assemble? How do they not? Because the questions we are asking here are about what kinds of assemblages we want and need. It is important to me that we remember the fact that MOOCs were originally as steeped in the historical mission of public education as they were in branding and the desire for connectivity and belonging. All of these – and the kind of discovery learning that lets people wander off and network and contribute and make meaning and be part of the content and knowledge that class members take away from the experience – are important parts of the conversation.

Not all are scalable. Not all have the benefit of familiarity and immediate return on
investment.

But without accounting for all those disparate meanings and possibilities that higher ed brings with it, we risk turning MOOCs into a really really massive medium for what we already know, and that’s all.

And that is neither what we need, in a time when things are changing fast, nor what education, really, ultimately, is for.

Adjacent possible: MOOCs, Udacity, edX, Coursera

A few days ago, the New York Times ran an effusive articles on the general awesomeness of MOOCs: The Year of the MOOC. This comes on the heels of MIT declaring MOOCs The Most Important Education Technology in 200 Years. Sebastian Thrun responds to the times article by drawing attention and recognition to himself and his work “Wow – this all started with our class on AI!”.

Lost in this MOOC conversation, and a key goal of our book with Johns Hopkins University Press, is the historical context in which MOOCs are situated. Advocates of open education, going back to the open university movement of the 1960′s, feel slighted that their history is being ignored. Online universities – such as publicly-funded Athabasca University – similarly feel left out as they’ve been in this online learning game for a long time (over two decades). Where is the innovation in MOOCs? More recently, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier and I get mild rashes when MOOCs are treated as an “invented at Stanford” model, even by my hometown newspaper, the Edmonton Journal: Online guru to help develop free courses for University of Alberta. Dave, Stephen, and I ran the first MOOC, if only by name, in 2008. Go back a year or two and we find folks like Alec Couros and David Wiley. Go way back, and you’ll find schools systems like University of South Africa dating back to 1873.

Clearly the history of MOOCs is more complex than the New York Times or Sebastian Thrun acknowledge.

But let’s start by doing away with the “lone genius myth” of MOOCs. Thrun, Udacity, Coursera, and Stanford did not invent MOOCs. They did run them on a much larger scale than we have done with our MOOCs. They had better PR connections and better funding. Our own MOOCs, in turn, borrowed heavily from online learning research, our work with networked learning, and the experiences of conferences and online courses that are at least 20 years old. In academia, there is a desire for attribution, an acknowledgement of the origin of ideas. In this regard, NYTimes fails at basic literature review. Most of this relates to my own ego, so it is largely inconsequential. Having the idea first is not the same as succeeding in commercializing and moving ideas into the public sphere. In regards to the ladder, Udacity and Coursera have been wonderfully capable.

Stuart Kauffman has advanced the idea of Adjacent Possible. Clear definitions of AP are hard to come by online (you have to turn to his book Investigations). The closest I’ve come to a definition online is in this NPR article:

the universe is open upward in complexity indefinitely. Based on unprestatable Darwinian exaptations, the evolution of the biosphere, economy and culture seem beyond sufficient law, hence the universe is again open. The unstatable evolution of the biosphere opens up new Adjacent Possible adaptations.

Or in his Edge interview:

fourth concerns the idea of the adjacent possible. It just may be the case that biospheres on average keep expanding into the adjacent possible. By doing so they increase the diversity of what can happen next. It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization, so there may be internal gating mechanisms. This is why I call this an average secular trend, since they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it.

The adjacent possible essentially refers to what is possible next. Most of Kauffman’s discussions of AP refer to biological systems, but the concept can be applied to social systems or innovation in general. You can’t, for example, have an iPhone if you don’t have the development of the individual innovations and technologies that make an iPhone what it is. It sounds like a simple argument, but it is rather complex. We went, in a period of about four years, from not having touch screen phones to have dozens of options. The possibilities arose only after a period of development and innovation in the sub-elements of touch screen mobiles. Adaptations are only possible at the edge. As the edge advances, new possibilities arise.

When MOOCs are viewed through this lens, it deflates the bold innovation claims of MOOC providers and media. And my own. MOOCs started happening because technologies developed to a point where video, media, assessment, online interaction, and digital literacy of learners were broadly available. If we hadn’t run our first MOOC in 2008 at University of Manitoba, someone else would have. If Stanford hadn’t run the AI course, someone else would have run something similar. The edge of technology and society had advanced to a point where MOOCs were possible. Where credit is due to edX and Coursera is in their ability to recognize the potential, direct resources, and gain media recognition. While they may be the face of MOOCs today, they stand on a long history of innovation in technology and pedagogy.

Learning Management Systems and MOOCs

Since the entire education space seems to be moving toward a MOOC-like future, it is only sensible that existing learning management systems respond. Two announcements recently:

1. Instructure launches Canvas Network. I’ve written about Instructure before – they are an innovative company, but they like to approach things their own way…not being too eager to collaborate. I like the format and approach of Network, though the name will be difficult for generating traction. Network is a rather abundantly used term. The best aspect of this new project, from my quick review, is that it gives instructors greater control in opening or closing courses. Universities are looking for MOOC software. Coursera has commmoditized itself rapidly. I recently spoke with an early university partner in the program and they expressed a loss of interest or commitment to Coursera due to how rapidly the university partner program has been expanded – i.e. at the start, joining Coursera was an act of identity development, but today, with dozens of universities being added almost weekly, this particular university’s commitment to Coursera is waning and they are now looking for new partners or opportunities. Instructure is well positioned to be a MOOC software provider that helps universities maintain their identity rather than diluting it through large aggregated services.

2. Blackboard is having early success in getting universities to adopt its CourseSites service for delivering open courses:

ASU will use CourseSites to run a “global classroom” in collaboration with Leuphana University in Germany, and several departments at ASU are in the early stages of developing MOOCs that will run on CourseSites.
“CourseSites’ integrated platform for the multiple delivery modes including discussion, blogs, wikis, synchronous discussions and more, coupled with the self-enrollment feature, takes many of the technical challenges out of delivering a MOOC, allowing us to focus on content and engagement,” said Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois Springfield.

We are running our current open course, CFHE12, Desire2Learn. We’ve had a few glitches on our end (registrations and logins), but the learning experience of using a blend of open and distributed learning (grsshopper) with a more structured interface (D2L) has been valuable. I expect that D2L has also gained some insight into how MOOCs might work in their system. The development of multiple MOOC models – centralized content (Coursera), centralized platform (Canvas), centralized interactions (Coursera, Canvas), and distributed content and interactions (gRSShopper – i.e. our MOOC model) – is important. We need many models and many experiments to help define how education should function in a digital network age. I have my bias for MOOC formats, but recognize that universities, instructors, and students have varying preferences. Diverse offerings, both technological and pedagogically, are important.

UPDATE: Chronicle has updated their article regarding BlackBoard

MOOC Manifest Destiny

So. This morning, Inside Higher Ed announced that Coursera has contracted with Antioch University to license MOOC courses for credit, as part of Antioch’s bachelor’s degree programs.

This is, as Steve Kolowich pointed out in the article, a step towards lowering the cost of a degree for students.

It is also, he noted, “a first step for Coursera and its partners toward developing a revenue stream from licensing its courses.”

It’s revenue time in MOOCland. It’s where we start to see how some of the “disruption or bust” rhetoric that’s seized higher ed since last spring plays out in reality.

This is the part I’ve been waiting to watch since EdX was announced last May. Will xMOOCs diversify the ways we approach higher ed? Or are they a Trojan horse by which the most elite institutions corner a market share on neoliberal revenue models?

MOOCS – The Manifest Destiny Model
Both can end up being true, I suppose, if Coursera and Antioch’s announcement sets the tone for things to come.

This revenue model relies, at its core, on embracing the MOOC as an inevitable juggernaut: about finding salvation for parts of higher ed, at least, in a grand new narrative that promises lower cost to students AND a for-profit model.

The MOOC as Manifest Destiny: a story for our times. Or higher ed as envisioned by venture capitalists.

Education is About Money, Yes
My problem, to be frank, isn’t with the venture capitalists. Nor with the fact that they  approach higher ed as a business: I’ve worked in universities for fifteen years now. I see higher ed as a network of practices and systems developed in an era of population growth and public investment in education.

As the latter two have declined, the former become brittle and vulnerable. Operating as a business is a part of the reality of academia in a post-public-purse era.

Education is Not Only About Money
But it isn’t the only reality. Nor is it the narrative that brought most of the people currently engaged or enrolled in higher ed – and I mean ‘enrolled’ in the broad network sense: as students, yes, but also staff, admin, faculty of various stripes and levels of job security, and the many of us with feet in multiple categories – into the field.

For the vast numbers of us engaged in higher ed as part of the old social contract of upward mobility and means to a better life, this brave new world may have even less promise than the status quo.

Manifest Destiny = A Mythology of Power
In times of change, we humans tell ourselves stories. When we feel powerless and uncertain, we are particularly vulnerable to grand stories, ones that make us feel as if history is on our side. That where the MOOC as Manifest Destiny comes in.

It appeals to the interests of the venture capitalists, the libertarians, and the media, if all for slightly different reasons. It also appears to appeal to the interests of undergrads. And it may, certainly in the short term and if a credential is their primary goal.

But it does not speak to the interests and investments of time and learning made by the motley collection of people who have bought into higher ed as more than simply a business. And it does not speak to the interests of the broader cultural story of education.

The stories we tell ourselves matter.

In rolling ahead based on a logic that focuses on profit in the guise of cost-savings to current students, we’re making education a story that rests ultimately on money.

And we’re doing so based on some very misleading math.

Where the Money Comes From: A Word Problem
The only part of math I was ever good at was word problems: I cannot for the life of me remember which direction a formula operates in. But if Michael is on a train speeding towards Mary at 80km per hour, I am a Past Master of sorting out when they both hit Las Vegas.

And while as a story it may be compelling, it’s as math that the MOOC as Manifest Destiny narrative begins to look specious.

Antioch students pay less money for their undergraduate degrees thanks to Antioch licensing courses through Coursera. Coursera makes money from the deal. Happy stories, both of them.

But where does the money come from?

Less money does not magically convert into more money unless somewhere along the line, some part of the equation has been cut.

In the Coursera-Antioch partnership model it’s localized course delivery. Which has increasingly devolved to sessionals and adjuncts, anyhow. Easy to cut. After all, sessionals do not tend to have the same reputation – whether deserved or no – as tenured scholars in the classroom, and certainly don’t have the same levels of institutional status and privilege behind them.

They’re what gets dropped from the equation of MOOCs as Manifest Destiny. Masses of scholars and teachers with already-fragile employment, most of whom have invested years   and significant amounts of money in their own education.

Those very sessional and adjunct positions have traditionally been the entry-level positions IN the academy. Recently, they’ve become a bit of an extended holding tank for people aspiring to those positions.

That holding tank embodies the flaws of the current system – or systems, plural, because higher ed is not a monolith. But that loose collection of unwieldy networks that we call academia has been, for centuries, a very real field of work for millions of people.

The math of cheaper education for profit only works out if you actually gut the entire system by which professors learn to be professors.

Higher Ed BY Venture Capital, FOR Venture Capital
Doing so also guts the narrative of higher ed as more than simply business, by stripping away the possibility of education being an end in itself, and a system that eventually absorbs and employs its brightest.

It’s not that I object to Coursera making money, or to Antioch saving their students money. But carried to their logical conclusions, the narratives around those two particular occurrences begin to sound like higher ed by venture capitalists, and only for venture capitalists.

They’re not my idea of a destiny for education.

What about you? Do we have cultural stories that still carry enough power to engage and enrol people in other narratives about what education – even MOOC education – is for?

MOOC as Networked Textbook and a look back at the feedbook

A comment by Jason Green on twitter got me thinking again about a different lens through which to see the MOOC. The book, and particularly the textbook, are at the core of many of our classrooms. There’s no denying that having the content for a course all tied up in a handy, portable, near unbreakable format is convenient. Proof of this can be found in the fact that the yearly slaying of trees, organizing of content, printing and ordering of books and queuing in the bookstore to purchase them are almost as strong today as it was 30 years ago. Surely some people (I’m looking at you Cable Green) have encouraged a move towards taking those books online, but many of those models replicate much of the ‘prepare, organize and buy’ models of the paper book industry while saving trees and avoiding fleecing the student. Those books are still, however, finite and finished.

The book
The physical book and the logistical and practical constraints that it imposes on knowledge and learning are key to understanding the shift that the internet imposes on education. Among other things the book

  1. Imposes a need to ‘finalize’ a version of knowledge
  2. Requires that the content of a course be decided before the students arrive
  3. Is not easily added to – it does not allow contribution by the learner
  4. cannot argue back

If I was to accuse the book of one crime, it would be that it tends to encourage passivity. As it cannot change, it does not encourage change in others.

The textbook has a set of implicit literacies that go along with it. It encourages linearity. It is a single source. Many of them speak as a single point of authority.

The Feedbook
The Feedbook is an idea that I’ve been toying about for years, and, in some ways is the idea that got ‘Dave’s Educational Blog’ started. In 2005 I started talking about the idea of a feedbook, that is, looking at a textbook as a collection of feeds from various people in the field that you are in, and creating a ‘living textbook’. It would replace the static textbook and allow students to not only access content and ideas that are incredibly current, they would also have that content contextualized by the identity of the person who had written…

There were any number of challenges to doing it this way. It ignored, first of all, many forms of knowing and representing knowing (like formally written articles) which are of great value. Logistically it also forces any number of problems in terms of pulling together OPML files, choosing people who were blogging ‘well’, and keeping things from getting distracted. It’s also pretty much impossible for someone who does not already have a number of connections in the network to be able to get ‘in’.

Distributed participation
Many of the criticisms that I’ve heard about the cMOOCs that we’ve done and I think much of the potential that people have missed in the xMOOCs is through a misunderstanding of the distributed possibilities presented by the model. If you think of a course as given by an expert for the sole intent of someday having that expert tell you that you have reached a number of pre-agreed objectives, then we are not using the word course in the same way.

I see a course as a way of organizing a discussion, whether that be simply through the organization of topics or questions or with the suggestions of other people’s recorded (in text, video or otherwise) thoughts to provide common ground for discussion. I see a course as hosting a themed party. With the MOOC it’s more like earth day. On this day you all go about doing things that, for you, represent your hopes and dreams for how we can better take care of the planet. There are suggested activities (like going dark in your house for an hour) and there are suggested ways to change your activities to make things healthier for the planet, but, at the end of the day, your participation is up to you. Earth day is a reminder that this issue is important to you. It brings focus.

MOOC as textbook
More and more I see any MOOC as an event. It’s an event in which you can participate in whatever way you like. The social (and financial) contract explicitly at the core of most courses doesn’t exist. While this may lead to some of the low rates of completion that are part of what a MOOC is, they allow for flexibility of participation. The MOOC as ‘textbook’ is one of those methods of participation.

We have heard many stories of people taking a credit course ‘through the MOOC’(John Schinker’s story of trying it on his own is interesting for this). There are a number of courses that have run alongside of the MOOCs with support staff and small tight knit communities taking what they were interested in from the MOOCs and leaving the rest. The MOOC event structure often includes suggested content and activities and also has the advantage of shaping a broad discussion along certain lines that you can use to structure your own course. It can be any course’s main content… even if the instructor spends much of their time disagreeing with the content.

The big advantage, i think, to conceptualizing the MOOC as a textbook is that it is embedded in networked literacies. In a paper textbook the creation and negotiation of the content is almost entirely hidden. There is no way to contribute to the discussion on the content that is being covered. Multiple voices are at the core of a distributed view of content. You could easily have three posts in a given day all taking exactly opposite opinions from each other leaving your students to have to choose what works for them.

What problem does it solve?
For one, it provides a means of access to a community. Through a MOOC anyone with internet access can work towards being part of a discussion. I see that as a good thing.

It also offers choice. Indeed it forces choice. Choosing and choosing well has always been a valuable literacy, but in the context of a world of knowledge abundance, choice is slowly become the most important literacy.

In the end, and this is my bias showing, the community becomes the curriculum.

NOTE: http://stevendkrause.com/2012/10/11/whats-good-about-moocs-or-they-arent-about-selling-textbooks-they-are-textbooks/ here are some similar ideas blogged by Steven Krause a few weeks before this post.