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: here are some similar ideas blogged by Steven Krause a few weeks before this post.

9 thoughts on “MOOC as Networked Textbook and a look back at the feedbook

  1. Pingback: Book Limitations « Thoughts about Higher Education

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  5. This is probably the most important blog post I have read this year. I have been drafting a post going very much in the same direction. My argument is focusing not just on the fact that a textbook “does not allow contribution by the learner” but also that it does not allow for a contribution by the teacher or by other researchers. I have proposed a model for developing textbooks using the same model as Open Source software.

    I think the Feedbook is a solution to the question of continuing professional development – more important than attending one course a year or reading a book a year. But I think there are some benefits to the textbook in the educational environment for many students.

    1. Until students can choose what to study, they will be captive audiences to subjects that they find irrelevant and boring. A bounded textbook can make this less painful.

    2. Many students find the fluidity of a feed or the changing nature of knowledge disorienting. These will find a finite textbook very helpful.

    3. Many teachers are not confident enough in their subject and/or its pedagogy to dispense with a guide.

    But we need to recognize that a textbook is an exoskeleton to its subject and the learning process. Something that guides it along but not something that is a foundation on which other things grow. And as many exoskeletons are, it can become an impenetrable shell, as well.

    But none of this is in contradiction to your (or mine) reimagining of the textbook. There can still be this exoskeleton but it can be light with many gaps. Students who are excited by the project, can remix the materials for some other students (perhaps in other parts of the world), teachers can submit patches for next year’s edition, etc. Non-linear learners like me can subscribe to updates and discussions about it. Etc.

  6. Pingback: #etmooc as an Example of Connected—Rhizomatic—Learning « Building Creative Bridges

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