Adventures in Jutland

A few non-generalisations about online ed (along with a few generalisations)

Yet another article generalising about “students”, “profs” and online education: ‘Students are cool with MOOCs, so why aren’t profs?’.

I’ve read a lot of this genre of statement over the years. Now it’s a common thing to state in the midst of debates over MOOCs.

I had an interesting exchange about this with the often illuminating and usually disruptive @timbuckteeth (Steve Wheeler) and others on Twitter. I led me to ask: what’s wrong with such statements?

1. “Students” ain’t students. Not only educators but just about everyone loves to talk about “students” (I have my own mea culpas here). “Students” do this. “Students” think that. “Students” are all this. “Students” these days are all digital natives. etc etc etc. A single moment’s thought—or better a single conversation with a group of students—is all that’s needed to give one pause. The news is that, like any group of people, students are different. They don’t all do the same things, the same way. They don’t think the same. They use media—online or off—very differently (and I teach a lot of media students). They like different things. This shouldn’t surprise us when we think about it, but we use the shorthand “students” in any case, and it’s very destructive.

2. Some students—quite a lot—like online learning (I’ve used online learning since the 1990s; I’ve asked a lot of groups of students about this over the years).  However, a surprisingly high percentage don’t like online learning (this even more surprisingly includes some of those who pretty much live online). When they do like it, most, quite understandably, seem to like it because it’s convenient in the midst of what are often busy lives. That is, not necessarily because it provides better opportunities for learning. Purely on the basis of conversations, I’d note that the students who appreciate online learning for the learning opportunities it provides are fairly often those who are already autodidacts. The same students sometimes also want more from their offline classes. They have high expectations in general. Of course, the situation is much more complex than even this. For one thing the students who do like online learning are very discriminating. If you ask, they’ll tell you lots of things they like and don’t like about both online and offline learning. No one really just likes “online ed” in general. It’s hard for any given platform or even large institution to satisfy such discriminating tastes. It’s easy for the internet to.

3. “Profs” ain’t profs. Ditto the above with regard to those who teach. Different profs are also people who think differently. They also have different conditions of employment which are affected differently by online ed. Something also forgotten here is that all of those who teach, without exception, are also learning themselves, much of it online. Plus, as many have pointed out, it’s been faculty who have been developing online ed for decades now. It may surprise some that faculty have also been developing offline ed for even longer. Sometimes in league with students. If sometimes “profs are in the way of MOOCs”—and this is clearly a generalisation—it’s not because they’re dinosaurs clinging to tenure. For one thing this assumes that everyone in favour of MOOCs is untenured. For another they might object to MOOCs for a variety of very good reasons (I’ve been collecting discussions of MOOCs for a while if you’re interested).

4. “MOOCs” ain’t MOOCs. Not all MOOCs are the same. Despite all the discussion, a lot of people still don’t differentiate between cMOOCs and xMOOCs for a start, and that’s not the end of it. Not all are open in the same way. Etc etc. Here it might be sensible to begin with MOOC founders Stephen Downes and George Siemens, who have a much more nuanced understanding of MOOCs than what has often followed. This, by Stephen Downes, is probably the most interesting statement on MOOCs I’ve read.

5. Of course, MOOCs are not the whole of “online ed”. They are neither it’s alpha or omega. They have not appeared out of nowhere, although some suggest they might soon disappear or morph into a variety of more interesting things.

6. “Online ed” ain’t online ed. Decades of work on online education sometimes seems obscured by the sudden rise of MOOCs. Although not, interestingly, by Downes and Siemens community-based cMOOCs. Rather it’s been the big institution’s/new corporations xMOOCs that have clouded the sky. It’s a pity because online education is now very rich, very varied and, more importantly, genuinely disrupting education and educational institutions. This disruption is significant, but in ways that are not yet clear. Indeed, this situation is unlikely to be resolved in the short term, if indeed ever. If there’s one generalisation we can make it’s that the variety of online ed events do not arrive as a single line disruption. It’s more like an ongoing swarm of different kinds of insects. In short, things are complex. Personally, I think the assumed “rise of MOOCs” is explained by a desire to evade the actual complexity of online ed disruption. Established institutions, even established modes of launching startups, often don’t like swarms of difference. They want everything to fall into their institutional practices, their corporation, their platform. Seen this way, xMOOCs are exactly a single line solution to what is a very complex problem for administrators and/or those trying to institutionalise/commercialise online ed. cMOOCs, and the idea and experimentation they involve are much more interesting. It should be no surprise that a lot of xMOOC critics are seasoned online ed people.

7. “Learning” ain’t learning. It’s not all the same. It doesn’t happen in the same way. It seems silly but still necessary to have to say this. I mean that teaching physics is not the same as teaching history or sociology but that only begins the trip down the many by-ways of different kinds of learning. All of these might be able to be done online, although this doesn’t have to invalidate offline learning. The point is that we need a little more flexibility in our thinking about different aspects of learning in different settings. Lots of people, I know, do have this flexibility. One of my favourites for years has been the University of Mary Washington blog project (yes, it’s kinda based on a single platform .. I know .. but hey, I like that platform 🙂

8. (An unfortunate generalisation that seems appropriate). Although I learn a great deal from ed theory, I find most of it happily operates on basic assumptions about learning (from 1950s cog psych) that are highly contested/contestable.  .. I’ve written enough about this elsewhere. I can’t say it enough. I think even Benjamin Bloom himself would have found a lot of what passes for ed theory today of diminishing value (that’s me being polite).

9. Few people yet get how disruptive of education networks can/will be (another unfortunate but I think appropriate generalisation). In fact, some try but I don’t think any of us get it yet. I’m not sure any of us can. Think of people who learn for free, in a world in which accreditation is less important (or no longer important), without assessment, with at most a structure provided by flexible modules they can combine in any way they want, to learn in communities that find such knowledge relevant. Think of a world without courses or programs. Where the internet + on/offline community is the LMS. I’m not saying anything here others haven’t but I still think we don’t yet get the disruption involved. Too often our reaction, as in the case of xMOOCs, is to try to capture the energy involved and fold it back into what we know (I mean in terms of institutional practices, or corporate capital). There gains here, and it’s understandable and even necessary. However, it seems a bit of  stop gap measure, there is also on occasion a poisoning of the well. Put very simply, we are afraid to ‘let learning take place’. This book might be useful as an antidote.

Here endeth the lesson.

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