#edcmooc Misgivings and Thanksgivings

I share some of the concerns Steve Krause and Alex Reid have expressed about the five-week E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC offered by the University of Edinburgh in which more that 41,000 people are participating. Alex notes the reductive ways in which the introductory readings are framed, pointing out that the engagement with “Prensky’s digital immigrants and digital natives” terminology “is an unproductive and even damaging perspective” but observing that “as with the utopian/dystopian discourse, perhaps the concept is to move people away from these positions.” I’m with him there, and I’ll add that this is a strategy many of us have used in our own teaching: to begin from a perhaps obvious and engaging perspective and then to gradually complicate matters. I’m not sure I agree with his complaint about the content of the readings, though, particularly in his assertion that “[w]hile technologies do not determine culture, they clearly participate in shaping the world (both naturally and culturally if you wish to make those problematic distinctions)”: well, depending on what positions you’re coming from, as the readings (even in their very basic and introductory nature) suggest, that’s a position that’s open to debate. I would argue the same about his statement that “[w]e could say that technologies are market-driven, but we wouldn’t want to mistakenly believe that the market overdetermines technology. As if the market were some uniform entity. As if the market were not capable of error.” The market had nothing to do with the Internet: that was all government and university-driven. Ditto for the space program. I’m not disagreeing with Alex for the sake of disagreeing, but simply to say that disagreements about positions offered by readings in the course are different from disagreements about how the course is conducted, and I suspect that the course leadership might have some idea about the types of engagement they were trying to promote and the range of positions they were offering for examination.

And that’s why I find myself liking the generous-but-skeptical way I see Steve Krause thinking about the course leadership’s methods when he observes that “Knox et al seem to be attempting an alternative to the ‘drill and grill’ approach, though it remains to be seen if they’ll be successful.  40,000 people have signed up for this MOOC, and I have to wonder if many/most of them will understand the dispersed learning experience. And I have to wonder if this dispersed kind of learning is ultimately scalable.” This experiential mode is a good thing, I think, and I’m curious to see how my fellow participants find their own ways through the material. With 41,000 participants, there’s way more activity and interaction than I could ever take in, but I’m starting to get a handle on which threads I might check in on — journalism has long demonstrated, and web discussion fora have long confirmed, that the ability to write a kicky and informative headline and lede can sometimes give you an idea about the quality of the discourse within.

More importantly, though, and what ought to make folks like Cheryl Ball rejoice, is the way the course leadership have designed and characterized the final peer-evaluated project that determines one’s performance in the course: as they put it, in a language and conceptual approach likely familiar (and that’s not a bad thing) to many of us in computers and writing,

Text is the dominant mode of expressing academic knowledge, but digital environments are multimodal by nature – they contain a mixture of text, images, sound, hyperlinks and so on. To express ourselves well on the web, we need to be able to communicate in ways that are “born digital” — that work with, not against, the possibilities of the medium. This can be challenging when what we want to communicate is complex, especially for those who are used to more traditional forms of academic writing. Nevertheless, there are fantastic possibilities in digital environments for rethinking what it means to make an academic argument, to express understanding of complex concepts, and to interpret and evaluate digital work.

That open-ended and multi-modal approach to a final project has a lot of people in the course nervous, but also makes me really excited: there’s finally starting to be some big, widespread recognition of and engagement with (and even validation of?) the affordances of new media composing. Even if 90% of MOOC participants drop out, that’s still 3100 new media compositions to be excited about. Anybody looking for a possible Kairos Topoi submission? I’d love to see a big-data approach to assessing that corpus of new media compositions. Talk to me.

6 thoughts on “#edcmooc Misgivings and Thanksgivings

  1. Steve Krause

    I think the open-ended approach to multimodal composing is potentially interesting too and I agree with the potentially cool value of 3000 + new media compositions unleashed on the world. But I remain skeptical about how any of these things can be assessed in any meaningful way. Does that matter? Well, if the MOOC is just an experience and success/a certificate is based just on completion, then no. But if the MOOC is (or will become?) something that we recognize as “college credit,” then yes, yes it is.

    Anyway, I could be talked into some kind of Topoi sort of thing, especially in relation to my class, Computers and Writing, Theory and Practice. Those are graduate students who might be interested in writing up stuff. And one of the assignments in the class is to reflect on what happened, so maybe that could connect here?

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  2. Alex Reid

    I think it’s an interesting idea to try and take some of the material from this course and use it as the basis for a topoi article. I’m assuming the work will be posted all around the public web. I also agree that on some level all these matters are up for debate. Among 41,000 people I imagine the existence of angels, the validity of the theory of evolution, and evidence of global warming might all be up for debate. Even the existence of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny might be a site of disagreement if we have young enough students. In a similar vein, in my view, Prensky’s digital immigrants/natives business is not a view that has disciplinary merit. That is, I don’t think there are scholars today in the fields of eLearning or digital culture citing Prensky’s concept as something that has real intellectual value. I agree that we do these things in the classroom, but in the classroom we have the benefit of the socratic method where we can lead everyone from Prensky, for example, toward a disciplinary understanding of the issues. After all, we are at the end of week one, and I still see students posting declaring how they are immigrants or natives. Or saying how they are immigrants but they feel like they still have something to offer or have certain digital literacies that are better than those of “kids today.” I guess I don’t understand why one would feed a class of 40,000 a pile of terminology you didn’t really want them to use. By next week, the class will probably whittle down to 20,000 or fewer, and half the class will have left thinking its academic to think about technologies as utopian or dystopian. I don’t think that’s a win.

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  5. Jenna Herman

    What that meta-study found was that online classes were either slightly better or about the same, but the best results came from “hybrid” course formats. Further, different teaching techniques worked better than others and what did not appear to help people learn were the things that are common in these MOOCs: a lot of video lectures and quizzes. And beyond that, two of the reasons for the results that come out of this study are that students spend more time engaged in the course and students self-select (and are thus more motivated) in online courses.

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