Designed to undermine

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!

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9 Responses to Designed to undermine

  1. Pingback: Death Star Library » FOLLOWERS OF THE APOCALYPSE

  2. Barbara says:

    Excellent post, Jim, and one that resonates with me and what I do. I especially liked this line: “[we] find ourselves arguing for a system that effectively chewed us up and spit us out pretty harshly”

    It has been interesting to watch the community where I work grapple with the MOOCs. And to see how many people are blissfully unaware of any of this as well. If there is one silver lining in all of this it has brought people on our campus together to actually talk about things like “open” and “online” and other words that, we are discovering, have a gazillion different meanings based upon individual context. Yes, Moodle is open source but it is no more “open” than Blackboard. Yes there is a blogging tool in Blackboard but that doesn’t mean it’s really, well, blogging. My point is this: MOOC-mania is at least making these conversations happen in more places, and it is a bout damn time.

    But that doesn’t address your point about the Massive Chew’em Up and Spit’em Out Machine that Higher Ed has become, especially for those of us who do not have PhDs. I wish there were a guarantee that creative thinking would be rewarded with job security vs fearing otherwise.

    The Machine isn’t gonna change anytime soon, alas. But what we can do (subversively, of course) is focus on our students. Raise their expectations, teach them to ask questions, teach them to push and prod the limits of the current system. I do what I do because I want my students to see that there is another way to approach the stuff they have been taught, that there are many ways to learn and many ways to show knowledge, and that they can teach themselves (and others) in lotsa different ways.

    Rock on, bava.

  3. Joss Winn says:

    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.

    This quote by Stephen Downes doesn’t impress me, Jim. Stephen seems to be resigned to the idea that higher education can’t be publicly funded like the school system, where classes of 30-50 pupils are already funded by taxes. Why not higher education, too? The problem with MOOCs is that they clearly aren’t disrupting the elite institutions. What will suffer are the local colleges, and the small, more fragile institutions that provide the mass of higher education already. The elite institutions are just swallowing it up.

    MOOCs have become a fucking disaster. A fucking joke.

  4. Reverend says:

    @Barbara,
    As always, it’s you who rocks. That said, reframing the whole thing to the experience for students and faculty alike is one way to ameliorate the terror. That said, it always feels like that reality has itself become more removed from an experience given the tenuous nature of the whole enterprise. And while I have to qualify all this by my own dark thoughts that sometimes color my thinking, I am increasingly wondering just how that works. I think your bowling example has been the most inspiring example of all this as of late, and what strikes me about it is how something so simple might be considered so radical by so many.

    @Joss,
    I don’t disagree at all with what MOOCs have become, i.e. a fucking joke. What’s more, I’m at one of those small, local public colleges that might feel the effects more than most. And what are we doing to deal with the state cuts? We raise tuition again and again. At the same time the faculty are over worked, and the cuts continue to get closer to home—I’m with them that at some point you have to check out to protect your sanity. There seems to be little or no time or energy for action and a sense of futility has become to creep in

    As for public education more generally, I think Kernohan is right in his most recent post about the differences between the US and the UK, we have been down the road of cuts and disinvestment for 10-20 years longer than you, so I think we might be a bit more skeptical. And this attempt to remain hopeful and keep pushing for a reinvestment in public education seems almost absurd. I mean the US can;t even get its head around keeping automatic weapons out of elementary schools, we have issues from the disinvestment that have creeped into every sector of society: general health, mental health, income, career opportunities, etc. The disinvestment is effecting huge swaths of the population beyond education, and we are beginning to feel some of the real social horros that will accompany a system that provides little to no social services of any worth. I wish it were as simple as MOOCs are a joke or we need to reinvest in education, I really do.

  5. Joss Winn says:

    There’s nothing simple about struggling for public investment in education. I understand that the US might be years ahead in terms of the misery, but Stephen’ s comment suggests that MOOCs are about solving the problems in higher education for ‘most of the world’. I don’t see any improvement coming out of MOOCs for the UK system where fees are now higher on average than the US, and much of Europe still provides cheap/free higher education. MOOCs are an unwelcome distraction. The problems, as you say, are way more complex/deeper than an expanded form of online education can solve, or ‘subvert’ (what exactly have MOOCs subverted?). MOOCS might be a response to a real, local, North American problem but the idea is being globalised and the good intentions of a handful of people is just yet more ‘creative destruction’ for the rest of us.

  6. Pingback: What Are MOOCs (Good For)? I Don’t Really Know… | OUseful.Info, the blog...

  7. Luke says:

    I’m with Joss on this one. Downes sounds shockingly like Kohler and Ng and that great mustachioed sage of the op ed here, though he’s obviously clearer about the direction of things and the risks. I see the value of MOOCs as being located in the extent to which they form the basis of new connections and create new pedagogical opportunities that can lead to new ways of knowing. He comes off as a disruption fetishist here; as Joss notes, the real disruption is happening in the public sphere, at the level of budgets and the rhetoric of what constitutes a “society.”

    MOOCs won’t solve problems of access, but are instead accentuating the divides wrought by historic disinvestment. The tragedy in what’s happened to MOOCs is that an experiment that began around pedagogy has evolved to forsaken its origins. As soon as we legitimize the idea that you can have an education without access to teachers, we’ve lost the battle. Downes needs to decouple an assault on the structures of higher education from an assault on teachers, on faculty. He reduces faculty members and curricula to cogs in the machine of imperialist university structures. Some are, too many are; but there are also many of us who are committed to imagining new futures through how we teach and facilitate student learning. We’ll make that future in conflict and negotiation with those overarching structures just like we have for generations.

    I’m all for the global network of self-directed learning that Downes aspires to, but it’s only part of what can propel education. We need faculty, we need students to have access to them, and we need a range of communities of learners to support a range of ways to know. CUNY students need this as much or more so than do Stanford students. Amidst all their problems and corruptions and disappointments, colleges and universities still provide that purpose, and that’s why they’re worth the fight.

  8. Geoff Cain says:

    I really hope that the mission of colleges isn’t to protect tenure and privilege at any cost. A lot of what is going on around MOOCs, OERs, and open textbooks is in response to the exclusive nature of education. The cost of education is rising faster than inflation and faster than the cost of healthcare. How can educators defend that? Is that why you became a teacher? In the meantime, folks are taking free classes, sharing information, and connecting with one another trying their damnedest to not let schools get in the way of their education. People like Stephen Downes and Jim Groom do make a huge difference. Students of CCK and DS 106 know what the possibilities are, they know it does not have to be this way. There are some lessons here from Marcuse where he talks about the ability of the status quo to absorb revolutionary ideas. The big colleges and corporations are basically rendering the term “MOOC” meaningless in much the same way that Kamenetz and others trivialized “Edupunk.”

  9. Luke says:

    And yet Marcuse notoriously told Columbia student protestors in 1968 that the university was the one place they had, the place where they could learn to be radical. We shouldn’t give it up without a fight.

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