As Phil mentioned, he and I were both lucky to attend the MOOC Research Initiative conference, which was a real tour de force. Jim Groom observed that even the famously curmudgeonly Stephen Downes appeared to be enjoying himself, and I would make a similar observation about the famously curmudgeonly Jonathan Rees. If both of those guys can be simultaneously (relatively) pleased at a MOOC conference, then something is going either spectacularly right or horribly wrong. I believe it was the former in this case.
We are at one of those rare moments when there’s enough confusion that real conversation happens and possibilities open up. The sense I got is that everybody is really grappling with the questions of where we can take the concept of a “MOOC” and what MOOCishness might be good for. That is fun and hope-inducing. Phil and I spent a lot of the time interviewing folks for a future e-Literate TV series (coming to a computing device near you in March or April of 2014), so we were lucky to hear a lot of perspectives. There is some very good exploration happening now. George Siemens and his fellow conference organizers (as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which sponsored the event and the research) did a real service by bringing people together to talk about these issues at this pregnant moment.
One thing happened toward the end of the conference that has me puzzled, though. Jim mentioned it in his blog post:
At the same time[,] Bon Stewart’s admonitions for some kind of organized response to start filling the temporary void of direction with alternative narrative still rings in my ears—and it is very much the lesson I took away from Audrey Watters keynote at OpenEd.
There was a lot of conversation, really throughout the conference but coming to a head at the end, that the term of MOOC is somehow damaged goods and that…something…should be done about it. Usually the word “narrative” was brought up. But this talk of “alternative narratives” or, as Bonnie put it, “changing the narrative”, confuses me. As far as I’m concerned, the connectivist/open ed crowd has been spectacularly, stunningly successful at “changing the narrative,” and I’m not at all clear what it would look like to somehow do it differently. I don’t understand what they mean here. Unfortunately I had to rush out the door to try to catch a plane shortly after the panel discussion and didn’t have an opportunity to follow up with some of the attendees. So I’m going to try to express my confusion in this blog post and hope that somebody can help me figure out what I’m missing.
Warning: This post is long and lit crit wonkish.
The Archeologies of Ed Tech Narratives
Before there was “MOOC,” there was “edupunk.” Jim coined this term in 2008 as a way of describing an anti-consumerist educational ethos. He was rejecting LMSs, course cartridges, PowerPoint decks, and other tools that tend to encourage (in his view) the notion of education as something that can be packaged and delivered. Journalist Anya Kamenetz picked up this term in her book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Despite the fact that Anya explicitly cited Jim and some of his peers as sources of inspiration for her book, the edupunk crowd was not amused. I didn’t follow this falling out closely, but my sense is that they didn’t like the book because it is, in part, consumerist in its recommendations to students about how they should think about their education. (Anya’s Gates-funded sequel, The Edupunks’ Guide to a DIY Credential, is essentially a consumers’ guide.) Anya’s use of the term and her impressive success at promoting the book and the ideas in it eventually prompted Jim and others to stop using the term edupunk.
And yet, I think it’s worthwhile for the DIY U critics to ask themselves what that narrative would have been like had it not been for the influence of their word on the book. Remember, Anya’s primary concern is the student debt crisis. Her goal is to show students that they don’t have to feel locked into the default path of a traditional college education that will plunge them deep into debt. There are other narratives that could have served her purpose. Consider, for example, libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel’s Ayn Randian exhortation that young people should drop out of college and create their own startups. Anya’s book title could have been simply DIY U: Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Education. The addition of “edupunks” destabilizes the narrative that would have been implicit in that title. It raises questions for the reader: What is an edupunk? Where did that term come from? What do punks have to do with edupreneurs, or the coming transformation of higher education? You could say that the term “edupunk” was co-opted, and there would be some truth to that statement. You could also say that “edupunk” infected or informed the narrative about the student debt crisis. There would be some truth to that statement too.
The story of “MOOC” is different but it shares some important characteristics. In this case, I believe the xMOOC proponents were largely unaware of the connectivist work when they took up the term. Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig cited Salman Khan as their inspiration; I don’t recall them ever mentioning George Siemens, Stephen Downes, or David Cormier. I suspect that “MOOC” was a convenient term that they and others latched onto without giving it a lot of deep thought. (And for the Derrida fans in the crowd, somebody then had to create the term “SPOC” to position “private” as the absence of “open”.) But imagine if they had latched onto or made up a different term, like “Internet-scale Courses (ISC)”. In this post-pivot moment, what conversation would that have provoked? With “MOOC,” we can ask questions like, “Really, what do we mean by ‘massiveness’ and ‘openness’, and why (and how, and where) are those useful features of an educational experience?” No such possibility would exist in “Internet-scale Courses.”
Is there a world in which an original idea like “edupunk” or “MOOC’ could both become dominant and remain true to its roots? One narrative we should be particularly careful of is the narrative of co-optation. The notion that some pure Idea is insidiously taken over by Forces and corrupted to their Evil Ends is both convenient enough to be almost inevitably wrong and simple enough to contradict the epistemological tenets that undergird the very idea of connectivism.
Writing and Diffidence
I have largely put away the theoretical tools that I learned as a graduate student in media studies, but one that has stayed with me is the notion of critique in the Derridian sense. Now, I will be honest: There are vast swathes of Derrida that I simply do not understand. In fact, I have always suspected that his works were partly jokes about the knowability of meaning at the expense of the reader, in somewhat the same way that Shelley’s “Ozymandias” can be read as a joke about the knowability of identity. But one thing that I did take away from Derrida (and Foucault, in a different way) is that there is an inherent, inevitable, and eternal tendency in human culture to develop simple stories about what is. These stories are always wrong, in part because they are simple. You can’t fix this. You can’t “change the narrative” to something that is “true.” We want easy answers but there are no easy answers. One can buy this much of the theory without buying the idea that meaning is radically relative, but connectivists in particular should grok this concept. Changing the narrative does not get us out of the fundamental problem that all narratives are, in some important sense, false (or, if you want to get all post-structuralist, that they can only be “true” in the sense and to the degree that they are consistent with the rest of a belief system). Nor does it solve the problem that any narrative will inevitably be warped by the powerful human tendency to make what they are hearing consistent with what they think they already know and, more importantly, with what they want to believe. The best you can do, according to this view of the world, is continually destabilize the dominant narrative—to challenge people to look, for a moment, beyond the easy and search for the true.
And this brings me back to the thing that I don’t get. Given this view of the world, what does it mean to “change the narrative” or “create alternative narratives”? What would success look like? How is it different from what has already happened with “edupunk” and “MOOC”? If those stories are failure stories, then how would a success story be different?
Phil and I aren’t thinking about e-Literate TV as a work of critique—we’re just not that smart—but I suppose you could say that one of our goals with it is to change, or at least destabilize, narratives. What we see happening on campuses is something like this:
- The campus president announces, “I just met with the very nice people at [insert commercial MOOC vendor]. We are making a MOOC. This is going to transform our university! Please make the MOOC by next week.”
- Somebody in the faculty senate declares, “I heard that MOOCs give you cancer and melt the polar ice caps.”
- Food fight.
We want to challenge both the president’s and the faculty member’s narratives, not because we want to replace them with a “better” or “truer” one, but because the most interesting conversations happen when people on both sides of the argument start realizing that the situation is more complicated than they thought it was. This is precisely what was so inspiring about the MOOC conference, and it’s the most that we know how to aspire to. If there is a more effective strategy or a higher goal for “changing the narrative,” I would like to understand what it is. But at the moment, I am having a failure of imagination.