Know your product: Is the MOOC the messiah or just a very naughty boy?

Where’s the professor?
We need him now!
Gonna tell you ’bout them
Yeah we take it all the way ’round the world
(The Saints – Know your product)

I have been bemused at the on-going howling and whooping about the seismic shifts cutting swathes through Higher Education.  It seems to me that there are two discrete things happening here; the desire to see change happen, led by people with the passion, enthusiasm and money and the equal desire to find quick fixes from the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Change is a complex beast at the best of times, I think simply because there is rarely change that is universally embraced nor equally applied or applicable.  Even in 2008 when Barack Obama won office in the US, the result was one of the polarised oppositions in the history of global politics, defending their turf with ever increasing fervour and even more outlandish claims.  MOOCs and all their multiple variations are one such seismic ‘shift’.  Even this week a consortium of UK universities got together and announced to the world that MOOCs represent a ‘Napster moment’ for Higher Education;

UK universities to launch free degree-style online courses

and

UK universities are wary of getting on board the mooc train

But what do MOOCs actually represent in this fractured, and some would argue broken university environment still reeling from increased fees, the changing skills requirements of employers in a high unemployment world and shrinking global boundaries between systems and institutions? It would easy to argue that they are the messiah, bringing with them a new era in open learning, connectivity and smashing the cobwebbed ivory towers of the academic establishment.  It would be equally easy to label them a fad, like the yo-yo or the billion hit success of Gangnam style (wop, wop, wop, gangnam style!).  And it would be a cop-out to say that their impact lies somewhere in the middle.


(Two Gangnam style parodies – One from Stanford University and the other from York university)

For what it’s worth, I think MOOCs represent just another apparent quick fix to the bleedingly obvious problems most universities are facing.  Rapid expansions, bigger is better and an increasing dependence on less academic staff doing more with much less have all taken their toll on the most basic business and educational practices required to be a functional organisation. Academic stress is at its highest levels in recent memory and has engendered a long-hours culture and significant issues with depression and mental illness (http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=6344).  In the view of both our political class and the tabloid press, universities are always in deficit, never meeting the requirements of any our constituents, requiring constant funding cuts and increased competition to drag us from our 18th century ivory towers. And then there is the MOOC.  Trendy, fashionable, supported and promoted by the top universities that are often spared the harshest of the impacts described above (at least publicly).  Why wouldn’t every university, private college and ma and pa show want in?  It must be as easy as pie to do a MOOC? Go on, do one now, I dare you!

 

But like most quick fixes, I argue that the MOOC idea is fundamentally flawed and risks futher de-stabilising already unstable institutions.  And to make my case I am going to make three (highly opinionated) arguments;

1. MOOCs are not a Napster moment

Napster was a platform to share music illegally.  It represented a kick in the arse by users who were tired of paying £15 for a CD that they already owned on vinyl, or being unable to find music by a band that a record company kept in the faults or refused to sign.  It was a rebellion; a punk act if you will (granted one that made Sean Fanning a rich man and have the distinct honour of portrayed by Justin Timberlake in a movie).  MOOCs are not led or run by the users.  They are not subverting the norm, just re-packaging it.  A more accurate analogy might be the move from vinyl to CD. And from that we had the highest record profits in history and then the greatest crash in revenues as users took control and democratised music, both in the production and distribution of it.

MOOCs are run by the establishment.  The user is simply grist for the mill; numbers to be held up as demonstrative of the great success of MOOCs in changing education forever.  The groundswell of user-led change stopped when MOOCs went commercial and the words ‘monetize’ and ‘consumers’ became part of the debate.  MOOCs are not Patti Smith or Siouxsie Sioux , they are Avril Lavigne.  They may look punk, dangerous and scary to your parents, but underneath they are still the mainstream masquerading as a rebel.

 2. The numbers game

I alluded to this in the first point.  Coursera has had nearly 2 million students enrol from over 196 countries.  Huge numbers! Game-changing numbers!! Participation in droves!!!  Their completion rate – between 7 and 8%.  Is it too blunt a point to say that if MOOC providers actually cared about learners then that kind of attrition should be horrifying to them?  Instead we hear all the right PR arguments about the reasons why people got involved, the desire to experiment and dip a toe in the water, and they are right, fair point.  Why shouldn’t HE encourage experimentation and engagement?  Of course it should.  And it used to do far more of it with continuing education programmes, community education and taster courses.  And almost exclusively they have been shut down, commercialised or sold-on, much to the detriment of an educated society.  So why are we talking in that language again? Do universities believe that we made a mistake by closing down our systems, fire-walling everything we did and making the whole thing user pays?  Without going all Mulder on you, I want to believe.  I really do.  But the Scully in me continues to have those nagging doubts about the altruistic intentions of MOOCs.

 3. What is this change thing anyway?

Good old Stephen Stills (I don’t say that often!).  When in Buffalo Springfield he sung this little couplet;

‘There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear’. 

What kind of change do MOOCs represent anyway? Are MOOCs the same old, same old; a very web 1.0 way of didactic instructionism and academic-centred content?  Alternately, the pragmatic solution to assessment within some MOOCs (at least on the surface) privileges the role of the peer and the community.  There is a building discourse around the superficiality of change seeded by or in response to technology in Higher Education. One where the institutional position is to keep the entire house the way it was, but to simply change the colours of the wall.  Whether this is through a lack of skill or mismatch between the understanding of the academy and the needs and skills of the learner, there is evidence that many e-learning projects have simply become lecture 2.0 or tutorial 2.0, without appropriate thought to changing the pedagogy (Blin & Munro 2008). A discussion forum where the lecturer simply poses a question and asks the learners to ‘discuss’ does not ground the interactions either vertically or horizontally (between learners, other learners and academics). Using YouTube instead of a VHS recording, allowing the VLE to act as a file repository or a way of replicating the classroom virtually ignores the obvious benefits that technology can bring to enhance pedagogy. Are MOOCs caught in this ‘deckchairs on the Titanic’ mentality?  Are they driven by a new pedagogy, wedded to the demands and behaviours of a new learner cohort?  Are they seeking to make new knowledge in emerging disciplines?  Are they really learning 2.0 or just another attempt to re-package what we have already with a few bonus tracks and a novelty toy?  Or are they McDonalds Happy Meal of Higher Education, the same burger, fries and Coke that we have been served up consistently and efficiently for decades, just with a different plastic toy and a newer, funkier box?

 

You might think, at the end of the day and this close to Christmas that perhaps all of this seems a little Grinch-like.  I argue that in most cases, for any real innovation to have significant and lasting impact, there needs to be a simplicity, a functionality and sometimes simply a sheer audacity to do what it says on the box, unafraid of the consequences.  The simplicity of making education more widely accessible is audacious in this time of austerity.  But what is missing for me is the reason why it needs to be done, aside from the ‘because we could do it’ solipsism.  Are learners demanding it?  By sheer numbers, yes they are.  Is a MOOC delivering what they want? Is it meeting their expectations? By the same sheer numbers, apparently not.

 

‘I’m just sitting in my chair when a voice comes on the air
Says “Why don’t you try it? You’ll feel alright!”
“It’s a great new brand of smokes
“Cool your head and clears your throat
“Keeps you young and so in touch.”

Said advertising, you’re lying
You’re never gonna give me what I want
I said smooth talking, brain washing
You’re never gonna get me what I need

(The Saints – Know your Product)


Thanks to all you who have read and commented on this blog in 2012.  I have been humbled by your interest and your engagement.  I will be back in 2013 with more thoughts and ideas, more music and perhaps even a mix-tape or two.  But in the meantime, if you are for something to keep you entertained over the holidays, check out my Australian music podcast called ‘Wide Open Road’ right here

E-Learning: Going down to the crossroads. Track 1: Tramps like us baby we were born to run: Singing to you, singing with you, singing for you, not singing at you…

Photo by Hardseat http://www.flickr.com/photos/hardseat/2156068845/

I was watching a documentary recently about the rise and fall of punk in NYC and London.  I was struck by some of the comments made by the people who there at the time, seeds of a movement that influenced not just decades of music but cuts to the core of the way people choose to live their lives today.  Over the next few weeks I thought it would be nice to write some short vignettes about these insights, and explore what relevance they have to both the ‘punk moment’ that I believe higher education is rapidly racing towards (or perhaps already seeing in its rear-view mirror) but also to the way we practice higher education in the midst of the squall.

Now I guess I’ll have to tell ‘em
That I got no cerebellum
Gonna get my Ph.D.
I’m a teenage lobotomy

(The Ramones – Teenage Lobotomy)

Track 1:  Tramps like us baby we were born to run: Singing to you, singing with you, singing for you, not singing at you…

This idea sums up the spirit of the punk for me.  It blurs the line between the audience and the artist and defines the relationship as one driven by communication not broadcast.   It is not someone from a high altar of the stage telling you what you should do, it is a voice and a message that you get and understand.  When John Lydon (the lead singer of the Sex Pistols) wrote in his autobiography about what made the Sex Pistols different, or prescient he said;

‘Before the Sex Pistols, music was so bloody serious…There was no deep thought in it, merely images pertaining to something mystical, too stupid and absolutely devoid of reality. How on earth were we supposed to relate to that music when we lived in council flats?’ (Lydon & Zimmerman 1995)

 

Despite often have an adversarial relationship with his audience, Lydon in both his Pistols incarnation and his later band Public Image Limited, challenged the audience, made the uncomfortable but also included them, if they chose to be included;

‘The more I see the less I get.  The likes of you and me are an embarrassment’ From the song ‘Chant’ by Public Image Limited 1979

Higher education through its often slavish devotion to administrative systems, its movement towards a customer orientation within the student/institution relationship and wrapped up in its legislated position as a certifier of credentials, often seeks to draw clear distinctions between learner and teacher.  Power, authority, authenticity and perhaps an innate sense of fear colour the way we interact with learners.  These two processes alone provide the teacher with a privileged role within a network, making it difficult to provide an environment for learners to challenge, create, repurpose and experiment.  My colleague at the University of Greenwich, Patrick Ainley with Joyce Canaan (2006) notes that ‘…opportunities for enabling students’ critical thinking, and our collective critical hope, are more limited than previously as students and lecturers face increased pressures and constraints due to the neoliberal marketization of the sector’.  Along with many other he advocates for a new pedagogy that provides learners with the opportunity to make and create;

‘…for students to add to these bodies of knowledge and their practical applications by new acts of creation, experimentation, investigation or scholarship as the warrant of the quality of their graduation ‘ (Ainley 2012).

 

Is this call a world away from what punk bands like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones offered their audience?  The conditions, by which they themselves could get on stage, make music and add to the body of knowledge that is popular music.  There is a clear distinction between singing to you, singing with you and singing at you.  It is the idea that an artist sees their audience in a different light.  They are more than simply passive consumers; there to sit at the foot of Buddha and hear all the imparted wisdom they need to find meaning, experience life or be inspired.  The late Johnny Ramone noted in a 1993 interview that ‘…that’s what I had always hoped (was) that when kids see the Ramones that they feel they can go out there and do this to’.  The audience are part of the process and can be emotionally transformed by the song.  The audience is their reason for being there.

 

The use of a VLE or CMS is a telling example of this problem in higher education.  The dominant paradigm within many programmes is to use the VLE like a radio station, with play-listed tracks, little opportunity for interaction, certainly little or no user generated content and in reality seeing the audience as simply the pathway to achieving other aims (such as advertising dollars).  The listener is expected to consume whatever is produced, or move to another radio station within a limited bandwidth.  It is the academy singing at them.  There is no engagement, no involvement, no connection.  The VLE that replicates the classroom does just that.  The lecturer curates the playlist, the learner does as they are compelled to do through activities and readings, and through doing this, contributes to a variety of performance measures (including participation in e-learning!).  It is then rolled over into next year, another audience, another town.  Hello, Cleveland!

It is like Spinal Tap in their Simpsons appearance having to lift their guitars and read the town name they were in, before screaming at the audience ‘Hello Springfield!’  Bruce Springsteen, despite playing stadiums was the exact opposite to this humorous disconnection.  Bruce chooses to sing to the audience, and encourages them to sing with him.  He connects with them at the most fundamental level.  He tells them stories around the dinner table.  He draws them into a fireside chat about things that matter to both of them.  He elicits a sense of solidarity with his fans, he never berates them, belittles them or criticises them. He rarely proselytizes about politics, his or theirs.  The fans are part of the same cause, the same experiences seen through different eyes.

 

Higher education teaching faces the same mountain as Spinal Tap (yes, I know they are ironic, but they were being ironic about something real!) and Bruce Springsteen.  It is easy, and perhaps comfortable, in a world where learners are coming to education with different experiences and skills (and maybe as Patrick Ainley argues with even less academic literacy than before) to rely on the tried and true methods of teaching and learning we have used before.  The institutional shift from one VLE to another becomes an excuse to scale back the interaction built up over time and ramp up the control or disengage the learner from each other.   Supported by a curriculum that can be up to five years old, learning can look less like the new world and more like the ‘new boss, same as the old boss’ (to quote The Who).  The VLE becomes a way of broadcasting materials that we have made AT learners.  There is little opportunity to personalise those materials, but significant provision to individualise the learning.  Do we provide an opportunity for the learner to make their own materials and resources, collaboratively or individually and share them?  Find resources and ideas through their own networks?  How are the communication tools within a VLE, such as discussion forums or blogs, used?  We seed them with thought provoking questions like, ‘I think that the new boss is not the same as the old boss – Discuss’.  Is there an opportunity for learners to start their own topics? Activities are assessed automatically, against a rubric.  A VLE supports quizzes, multiple choice tests, matching tests.  They are individual not personalised.  The continued reliance on an assessment system that requires and privileges an assertion of individual understanding is not modern learning.  It is memory, it is absorption and it is repetition; it is not application, use, social contextualisation and collaboration (Brown & Adler 2008a, 2008b; Hemmi, Bayne & Land 2009).

 

The commercial pitch for the plethora of e-learning tools on the market usually revolves around the notion of pulling academics back from the precipice of overwork and change and providing them with a point of calm in the ever-threatening maelstrom of higher education.  Is e-learning too much for you to do? Then simply buy our product, press a button and capture the lecture.  Click an icon and screencast everything you do, and as they say in Australia, ‘Bob’s your uncle’.  Jack a mic into your laptop and bingo, you have made a podcast.  Make your hand-outs into PDFs and put them on Moodle and voila, you are engaging in e-learning.  There is no exploration as to the reason why we would use these tools in the first place (‘pedagogy before technology’ we hear the collective academy sing, usually at us though – how many people actually believe it when they sing it?).

 

More importantly, there is little exposition around the way we make this content, the words we use, the techniques, practices and skills we acquire and apply and the scaffolding we integrate into the methodology.  Teaching and learning in higher education is at a point where it must take a root and branch look at the way it is engaging with its audience.  Perhaps, higher education can seek inspiration from the Ramones, a band of amazing virtuosity, influence and critical and popular respect, but equally one that people feel that they can be a part of, a template that is replicated, reused and mashed up.  They engaged in ‘new acts of creation’.   They took their rudimentary skills and made something with them, getting better and better and taking their audience with them.

 

‘Live punk rock actively tore down the barriers between artists and audience, intentionally exploding and deconstructing the image of rock star.’ (Dunn 2008)

 

The VLE and other forms of institutionalised e-learning can create barriers between the teacher and the learner.  The more automated the system becomes, the more learner feels disconnected from the network forming around them.  Is this the same as the way rock stars became disconnected from their audiences, before punk smashed the wall down and through confrontation and challenge made the audience re-connect, often viscerally?  Are we at a juncture where e-learning has made the academic the rock star? And if so, how do we explode and deconstruct that myth, hand power back to the audience, bring them on stage, show them a few chords and make them a member of the band?  How do we encourage the learners to make their own band?

 

Joe Strummer of the Clash inspired thousands of people to make their own music.  In some cases, he then went on to play on their records, rave about them in interviews, played with them live and was mourned by them on the occasion of his tragic death in 2002.  However, it would disingenuous to suggest that these artists were not in privileged positions.  This is not about, as Sonic Youth challenged ‘Kill(ing) yr idols’.   Teachers have a significant and important role in higher education.  We just have to accept that it may not be the same as before.  That our role is to sing to our audience, help them to make connections not just with us and the content we share, but with each other, sharing and making new content, to help them let go, experiment, express themselves and share experiences, and to help make the experience one of hope, of potential and of creativity.  Singing to them, with them and for them.


References

Ainley, P. 2012, ‘For A Really Open University’, Compass: The Journal of Learning and Teaching at the University of Greenwich, no. 4, p. 9.

Ainley, P. & Canaan, J.E. 2006, ‘Critical hope at the chalkface: An English perspective’, Cultural Studies? Critical Methodologies, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 94-106.

Brown, J.S. & Adler, R.P. 2008a, ”Minds on fire’ : Open education, the long tail, and learning 2.0′, Educause review, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 16-20.

Brown, J.S. & Adler, R.P. 2008b, ‘Open education, the long tail, and learning 2.0′, Educause review, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 16-20.

Dunn, K.C. 2008, ‘Never mind the bollocks: the punk rock politics of global communication’, Review of International Studies, vol. 34, no. S1, pp. 193-210.

Hemmi, A., Bayne, S. & Land, R. 2009, ‘The appropriation and repurposing of social technologies in higher education’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 19-30.

Lydon, J. & Zimmerman, K. 1995, Rotten: no Irish, no blacks, no dogs, Picador.