When I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts last weekend—which oddly (or not so oddly) seems like a lifetime ago—I spent some time talking to Audrey Watters about our somewhat similar visceral reactions to grad school. What I really like about Audrey’s presence in edtech right now is her deeply critical vision of the higher ed machine as anything but a romanticized, sacred space being innocently assaulted on all sides by evil corporations. Five years ago this fact was more deeply ingrained in my thinking, but I have to admit it had been blunted a bit as I receded more and more from a position of subversion in edtech given how quickly I saw EDUPUNK become a brand for neoliberal imaginings of the future of highered. And that future amounts to a cheap blend of technology and corporatism (along with the necessary celebration of a few entrepreneurs) to build a new educational system I have no faith in.
ds106 was my retreat, a space to simply create art, have fun, and experiment wildly. To some degree it worked, it simultaneously rejuvenated my spirits and pushed me to create and imagine distributed, online learning in some exhilerating ways alongside an entire community of people. At the same time, though, it exhausted me completely—a fact I am just now coming to terms with. And that “class” was in addition to my day job on an adjunct’s salary, which plays right back into the poverty-wage teaching machine that is at the heart of higher ed’s crisis. I make no excuses for my hypocrisy, in fact I reinforce it all the time on this blog. Higher ed has just as much, if not more, responsibility in creating the current climate of attacks on their value than any “evil” corporation. And while the market forces that point to the education sector as ripe for the raiding for profits may be unsavory, I feel I’ve been attacking them while letting higher ed off the hook. And it’s funny because when Audrey and I were talking last week this very thing came up, and we both, at times (her much more eloquently and intelligently than me), find ourselves arguing for a system that effectively chewed us up and spit us out pretty harshly. I honestly can’t say a corporation has done that to me just yet. Hell, I liked working at Univsion Online in the late 1990s, and I made more than I did working for an educational instution for the ensuing decade.
But all that is prelude to what I really want to talk about, namely how much I appreciated Stephen Downes’s “The Great Rebranding” post yesterday. Downes has been many things over the last 8 or 9 years I have been working in edtech: unbelievably productive, consistent, critical, and supportive. Some may jar at that last one, but frankly when my small moment in the edtech sun occurred in the form of EDUPUNK Downes was the most vocal supporter of the idea. I had imagined folks far closer to me, and who I thought knew me much better than Downes, would be just that—turns out that wasn’t the case. Downes liked the idea, so he reframed it to be relevant to his vision, which has been razor sharp and remarkably consistent throughout all the MOOC madness: education should be free—as in accessible beyond elite universities (which basically characterizes almost all colleges and Universities in the US given their price point). Of all the visions in edtech that inspire, at the end of the day none more than Downes’s reinforces a powerful and deeply difficult alternative to the status quo I find myself flirting with more and more these days.
I had often wondered how Downes was holding up under the pressure of watching an idea he effectively brought into the world, alongside George Siemens, be co-opted so ruthlessly by the very institutions that he has been working to route around. What’s more, they also claimed his vision of educating the world through access and freedom—it’s a montra I’ve heard Daphne Koller and Sebastian Thron repeat ad nauseam. At the same time, from what I understand, Downes is more preoccupied with keeping his job as a researcher for the Canadian government given the current cuts, than seeking out venture capital funding for his next career move. The dark, horrific irony of that should be lost on none of us. So, when Downes took a moment yesterday to clarify his vision again and restate, in his typically clear, sharp, and uncompromising way, I feel a little better about what I do today knowing he’s out there. I am reminded there are people out their doing this stuff that is buoyed by an ideal that all-too-often the omnipresent pressures of life can easily corrupt. Downes’s thinking stands as a beacon in the storm for me these days, and in no small way because of passages like what follows:
The arguments in which the four elements of MOOCs – ‘massive’, ‘open’, ‘online’, and ‘course’ – are one by one putated to be ‘optional’ or ‘unnecessary’ seems to me to be a desparate attempt to cleanse MOOCs of any disruptive impact they may have on the traditional action of in-person teaching to a teacher to a small group of people.
These arguments miss the point of the MOOC, and that point is, precisely, to make education available to people who cannot afford pay the cost to travel to and attend these small in-person events. Having one instructor for 20-50 people is expensive, and most of the world cannot afford that cost. That’s *why* the institutions – from which the attendees of this conference were uniquely selected – charge thousands of dollars of tuition every year.
MOOCs were not designed to serve the missions of the elite colleges and universities. They were designed to undermine them, and make those missions obsolete.
Yes there has been a great rebranding and co-option of the concept of the MOOC over the last couple of years. The near-instant response from the elites, almost unprecedented in my experience, is a recognition of the deeply subversive intent and design of the original MOOCs (which they would like very much to erase from history).
Hope springs eternal in the edtech’s breast. Thank you, Stephen!