E-Learning: Going down to the crossroads. Track 2: Same as it ever was: Pedagogical slippage in MOOCs and other top 40 hits

One of the most consistent rules in music is that when something becomes popular, it gets commercialised, sanitised and commodified .  It certainly happened with punk, Britpop and any number of major musical movements.  The Sex Pistols lead to Adam and the Ants.  Nirvana led to Stone Temple Pilots and Blur and Oasis led to Coldplay.   The same could be said of e-learning in higher education.  The innovations, the pioneering and the experimentation that lead to a critical analysis and evaluation of the way we do things, becomes corrupted and made safe by either risk averse faculty, firewall friendly administration or the inevitable gravitational pull of a one-stop ‘software in a box’ commercial solution.  The practices of innovators and early adopters question and challenge the existing pedagogical orthodoxies.  Our understanding of learning, teaching and assessment evolves, and adapts into new ways of thinking about pedagogy.  But as these practices seep into the mainstream, they don’t mutate or replicate, they can become hollowed out, a fresh new shell for the way we have always done ’it’.  This pedagogical slippage occurs across most of the e-learning landscape.  New ideas become old ideas in a shiny new suit.  And in the end, all we are innovating is the technology and not the way it’s used.


Anderson and Balsamo (1997) note that;

‘In practical terms, classroom technologies must be critically evaluated, analysed self-reflexively, and understood as part of broader cultural, economic, and political contexts. Inviting students to think critically about both the tools of technology and the uses to which they may be deployed is an empowering gesture that resonates at every level of educational exchange.’ (Anderson & Balsamo 2007)


What we see in the hype that surrounds methodologies like the MOOC and flipped classrooms is firstly a mad rush to be part of one, whether the pressure is institutional, peer or media driven, and secondly a lack of pedagogical criticality.  Sure there is plenty of incisive (and not so) comment and analysis, to which this blog post clearly contributes, but there is little of what Anderson and Balsamo argue for.  Perhaps this is a consequence of the lag between research and practice, but arguably, taking MOOCs as an example, the learner is not asked to think critically about the platform or the way it’s used, they are numbers plucked out of the air, hurled around as labels to argue whose MOOC is biggest and then dismissed as drop-outs and failures, as the attritions rates are so high from most MOOC offerings.


To support my assertion, I offer you two examples, and then let the controversy begin…


The MOOC ‘phenomena’ embodies all the characteristics of pedagogical slippage.  The first MOOCs (such as the one on connectivism by Downes and Siemens) were not your average on-line course made free.  They were the manifestation of the work done on Connectivism, with mass aggregation of user sourced and generated content, the repurposing of this content for the specific context of the learner and ‘feeding forward’ of this knowledge to be shared openly with the wider network (ie: the open community).  This challenged existing pedagogies in a number of ways.  It de-privileged the role of the teacher, putting them as part of the network, but not the hub of the network.  The design challenged the linear ‘teaching leads to learning’ format of most higher education programmes and finally it clearly identified a significant place for learner-led interaction and knowledge construction.  These are challenging concepts.


However, some of the MOOCs we see emerging today, such as those from Coursera and Edx for example are not as experimental.  Have a read through the course materials of some of these programmes.  They are often presented in the way we have always done distance learning.  They provide the learner with curated material, mainly produced by the lecturer.  They ask the learner to consume that material, perhaps get into a group and discuss it, then produce an assessment which is either auto-marked against an instrumentalised rubric or is peer marked (which in itself is different, but challengeable –  a topic for another day).


The flipped classroom

Generally attributed to the Khan Academy, the flipped classroom has been around a lot longer than that, with some of the early work occurring at Harvard in the late 1990s.  The intention of these pilots was to break down the misconceptions that had begun to creep into learners after they had attended the lecture and provide opportunity for discussion and dialogue, not just broadcast.  The idea of flipped classrooms is quite radical in itself.  Flip the homework so that the learner consumes materials (preferably socially curated) before they come to the lecture and use the time for engagement with debates and the arguments that emerge from the material.  But then, what starts to occur as they become popular can again be attributed to pedagogical slippage; the innovate idea makes way for last year’s lectures reused but not remixed or repurposed.   Then the lecture space becomes an area for the lecturer to effectively run what they used to do in a tutorial but on a larger scale, group discussions, rarely fed back and shared, or as another secondary lecture.


Now it would be wrong of me to argue that all MOOCs and all flipped classrooms are run on a pedagogy 1.0 model (‘Same as it was ever was’, to quote the Talking Heads).  But each time I see a case, or a conference presentation or the ever increasing PR machines pumping out visions of a new radicalism emerging from within the academy in the form of a MOOC, there are significant parallels to when record companies begin to infiltrate and exploit a ‘scene’.


Do I think that all the hype around MOOCs and flipped classrooms is a bad thing? It clearly has drawn attention to the need for change in the way higher education does its business.  It has placed some of the emerging epistemologies on the table and has made people at least acknowledge their existence.  But in the great race to get on the MOOC train to Memphis have we forgotten that it is not about the destination, but the journey?  Simply using a MOOC, or trying a flipped classroom, or making an app, or putting some OERs up for use is not the point.  Identifying why you are using them, in what way can they enhance the student experience, embolden the community to achieve more and change the way we ‘do’ education’ are more critical questions.  A MOOC by itself is simply that, a course put up on-line for free.  As Jesse Stommel notes in an excellent blog post  …‘In fact, a MOOC isn’t a thing at all, just a methodological approach, with no inherent value except insofar as it’s used.’


This debate has surfaced in the almost hysteric rush to MOOCdom that has enveloped the blogsphere, higher education policy making and taken (and returned) of the job of one University manager.  Noted library scholar, Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote a cutting piece for the Chronicle where he quoted Dan Cohen of George Mason University noting his concerns that MOOCs have a…


‘“…lowest-common denominator/old-style learning by repetition aspect….” Instead, Cohen argues, we should be developing projects that help students explore, lead them toward new insights, and help them build digital projects themselves.’


The notion of technology as a vehicle for the ‘old ways’ we do things has been of concern to researchers and practitioner in this area;

‘As we have seen, the likelihood is that educators will engage with Web 2.0 technologies in the same old ways. As Kirkup and Kirkwood (2005) have shown, teaching staff in higher education will probably employ the latest technologies to teach much as they have done in the past, if left to their own devices. To the extent that, say, podcasting has begun to make an impact in higher education, this has already happened. Most podcasts are last year’s lecture in digital format. Student remixing of podcasts, use of syndication to pool collective responses and other more active learning approaches are losing out to those that see podcasting as a high-tech alternative to the audio cassette of the 1980s.’ (Barnes & Tynan 2007) 

‘(VLE’s can create) conservative dependence on pre-digital metaphors, signs and practices which are increasingly anachronistic as digital modes gain in social and cultural significance’.  (Hemmi, Bayne & Land 2009)

Now, I guess the argument could be made about the idea of relativity.  I mention that Blur and Oasis as bands and a successful ones at that were partially responsible for creating the environment that afforded Coldplay the opportunity to sign for a major label.   This is what we call in music fandom ‘a fight startin’ comment!’   However, let’s assume that it is correct.  Coldplay have sold millions of records, are incredibly popular and arguably quite successful.  So, by my logic, MOOCs arising from the 2nd generation (after Siemens and Downes) could equally be the next big thing.  I could go into how Coldplay give the audience what they want to hear and they do what they do extremely well.  They have live shows that engage the audience and involve them in the experience.  However, the analogy is just that.  What I would note is that Coldplay did not copy the chords and lyrics of Blur or Oasis and just make them with new guitars and keyboards.  They adapted, they were influenced, inspired and then made their own thing.  It wasn’t Blur v.2, it was Coldplay v.1 and that was different from what went before. Same as it ever was.


You may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to?
You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?
You may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?

(Talking Heads – Once in a Lifetime)




Anderson, S. & Balsamo, A. 2007, ‘A pedagogy for original synners’, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning, pp. 241-259.

Barnes, C. & Tynan, B. 2007, ‘The adventures of Miranda in the brave new world: learning in a Web 2.0 millennium’, ALT-J, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 189-200.

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.

Kirkup, G. & Kirkwood, A. 2005, ‘Information and communications technologies (ICT) in higher education teaching—a tale of gradualism rather than revolution’, Learning, Media and Technology, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 185-199.


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.


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.