Is the MOOC-Threat Academic?

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… And in this paper, I posit that institutions placing their proverbial eggs in the basket of this type of educational future may well be undermining their own positions as purveyors of closed, expert knowledge.

Many xMOOCs may be designed and intended to maintain the expertise model and the market share of elite universities over the specter of knowledge abundance and participatory culture. However, so long as the courses as platforms continue to enable participatory networking and engagement among students, they effectively begin to sow the very seeds of new literacies that challenge and undermine that instrumentalist perspective on education and expertise. Even contained within the most restrictive LMS and confined to a discussion board, learners in courses on the xMOOC spectrum nonetheless are exposed, in effect, to a fledgling network. The network effect of peer-oriented communications and connections and process-focused knowledge generation may thus be difficult to contain entirely, particularly at scale. Thus xMOOCs in their very success may end up creating conditions for the development of open, communications-focused, peer-to-peer literacies about learning.

Bonnie Stewart

I can only speak of the the xMOOC courses with which I have had tangential experience. These are mostly in the field of engineering, more specifically, programming and start-up engineering, with a little poetry thrown in for very, very good measure.

It is naive to think that education aimed at software development with its long history of open-source, hackathons, code-sharing and learning-by-doing, is unaware of the dangers it faces from mixing up networks of individuals who know more with networks of individuals who know less. The xMOOC phenomena has simply bowed to and formalized the ways in which many of us were getting in and nearly all of us were keeping up with a fast-moving industry in the first place.

Iirc, Google, blogs, news and Q&A discussion boards like Slashdot, heisse and more recently Stack-Overflow and HN are the wild-west ways that we non-academic-students have been, way outside of the flow of mainstream academia, busily learning from each other and sharing our success or failures in the application of what we thought we knew.

What if, what if? Oh, dear.

Remember, in 1995, when the final locks on the digital gates to whole cities of thought previously available exclusively to the military and academia opened to commercial interests? What a stir that caused! It was at least the size of this MOOC consternation. And yet…

As I understand the most basic engineering point-of-view, the internet was conceived to be a distributed and robust way of sharing knowledge amongst academic and scientific communities. Who knew it would turn out to be a robust way of sharing stupid cat photos, old jokes and where to find the best discounts on Jimmy Choo shoes? Make no mistake about it though, long before the gold-rush of companies trying to sell us their wares, we perpetual students and lovers of knowledge came here to engage in thoughtful and collaborative education - for ourselves and with the next generation of “newbies” whatever their age or skill-level.

The appropriateness of a multi-faceted use-case should really be seen less as a threat to academia and more as a compliment to the abstract vision of the founding Universities and scientific facilities. These are where thinkers and tinkerers crafted a virtual space in which you and I can sit together, half-way around the world to reflect, and reflect on, meaningful educational experience.

We are collaborative and we are open. We are in a public forum where we can together challenge the perennial academic questions: what does it mean to be a teacher, and who is the student? A place where we clearly see that these ancient questions remain unanswerable as long we insist on using ink to draw the lines.

What I am saying is that any perceived challenge to academia is not only not new, it is self-made.

Then why all the noise and worry?

Frankly, I don’t know the answer to that question. Next year the commercial internet will be twenty years old. Universities are still around and are well attended by students. If you listen to all the worry and noise, they do not have enough money, but universities have never had enough money. I suspect that administrators simply refuse any definition of “enough” containing the words “not more” as impertinent to their situation.

Personally, I think the MOOC-hype within education itself is a result of a predominence of eye-rolling and refreshing-of-drinks that used to attend attempts at chatting about digital learning. The wisdom of elbowing ones spouse and asking for more ice has been challenged by a mainstream media finally making itself useful. They are pointing at, discussing the importance of, and even interviewing that gorilla, the one sitting next to the elephant in the room.

So, yes, the way I see it the threat is indeed academic. It is neither new, nor particularly worrisome. Just as the teacher is often the student, that gorilla is our host and ourselves.