During last week’s #MOOCMOOC (Hybrid Pedagogy’s week-long MOOC on the MOOC format, Aug. 11-18), I began an offline conversation with a close friend and colleague about higher ed, institutional affiliation, and digital culture. Here is his response, which he did not feel safe publishing under his own name due to anxieties about his employer’s response. For now, we’ll call him Frank Framington. My reply will follow next week. Welcome to my new domain name, by the way, and thanks to Frank for giving me something intelligent and provocative at the outset.
Terrors of a True Believer
by Frank Framington
Last week I participated in MoocMooc, a (somewhat) massive online open course on the topic of massive online open courses (how meta!) . For those of you who haven’t heard, the massive online open course is an emerging form of education which proposes the use of digital delivery methods and innovative pedagogy to allow a relatively small number of educators to teach an immense number of students. Courses on the MOOC model have been offered to anyone who wishes to take them, often at low or no cost, by high prestige universities such as MIT and Stanford.
As an educator interested in digital literacies and the free/open source software and free culture movements, this was of obvious interest to me. The massive online open course, after all, enshrines that little word “open” at it’s center. Like Wikipedia, my usual object of study, the MOOC seems to embrace a hope that a future of more widely available information will empower ordinary people. Jimmy Wales has famously described the his vision for Wikipedia’s ultimate goal as “a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” This seems, to me, to be reflected in the philosophy of the MOOC.
These are noble goals, the goals that inspired me for much of my youth. However, in this piece I want to raise some important questions about them. Sadly, while I still love and support Wikipedia, Free Software, and Free culture, my time spent studying these communities has lead me to adjust my estimation of the political impact of these formations down rather radically. This is not to say that I believe that a Wiki, or a Free Software project, or a mooc, or a class does not deserve to exist if it is not 100% committed to building a better society. However, given the idealistic language the MOOC comes wrapped in, I think it is important for us to think critically about the realistic outcomes of implementing this learning model.
The questions I want to raise here were a bit of a stretch for the Hybrid Pedagogy’s #MOOCMOOC to accommodate, as they aren’t really centered on pedagogy, which was #MOOCMOOC’s focus. I don’t mean to derail or take away from the valuable work #MOOCMOOC did. However, as educators we are workers and stakeholders in our institutions, as well as classroom teachers, and these are issues I believe we must engage with.
What follows, then, are a series of doubts I have about the movement I have studied, loved and been a part of. A movement I believe (perhaps incorrectly?) the MOOC to be tightly related to (especially in its more radical, connectivist guise) for the reasons given above. I hope they will be read, not as the sneers of a Richard Dawkins decrying the stupid and faithful, but as the midnight terrors of a true believer. In Donna Haraway’s terms, what follows is heresy, not apostasy.
The Value of Inefficiency
It wasn’t the news blog that killed the newspaper, it was Craigslist. The “value” communities found in their newspapers had to do with their investigation and reporting of local news. The “value” newspapers relied on generating as a source of revenue had to do with their utility to advertisers as a centralized location to place classified ads. When Craigslist “disrupted” the classified ad market, it brought down the news and opinion writing that was being cross-subsidized by this market, largely unintentionally.
Classical economic theory says that this shouldn’t be a problem. If people find something valuable, it suggests, they will pay for it, and this sort of “unbundling” leads to greater efficiency. Many of us, in our roles as digital advocates, have been enthusiastic about how this unbundling-derived efficiency can lead to benefits for consumers, who no longer have to pay for an album to get the song they want, or a cable subscription to get their favorite TV shows.
But the evidence of the newspaper suggests that classical economics may be wrong on this point: perhaps not all “value” can be directly equated to quantifiable “market value.” I would suggest that cross subsidization may be, in some cases, a happy accident of history: a way that our market-oriented society provisioned public goods (without ever realizing what it was doing).
So too, educational institutions may provide value to their community in ways that are not immediately reflected in what they collect maximum economic “value” from. We all know our universities are veritable hives of cross-subsidy. In terms of classical economics, this is of course, inefficient, but Siva Vaidhyanthan writes:
“Universities are supposed to be special places where we let young people imagine a better world. They are supposed to be able to delay the pressures of the daily grind for a few years. They are supposed to be able to aspire to greatness and inspire each other. A tiny few will aspire to be poets. Many more will aspire to be engineers. Some will become both. Along the way they will bond with friends, meet lovers, experience hangovers, make mistakes, and read some mind-blowing books.
Does that sound wasteful? Does that sound inefficient? Nostalgic? Out-of-sync with the times? Damn right it does. But if we don’t want young people of all backgrounds to experiment with ideas and identities because it seems too expensive to support, we have to ask ourselves what sort of society we are trying to become.”
MOOCs are more than efficiency. Many of the early theorists and practitioners of MOOCs were (and remain) far more interested in experimenting with pedagogy and empowering students than they were in creating a more “efficient” educational system. However, can we really doubt that the current enthusiasm about MOOCs we witness among administrators and pundits is driven by the greater efficiency they promise? Finally we are told, the cost of education can be low enough to make it accessible to everyone!
But, if the value being offered by our institutions is more than just the value of “education,” as Vaidhyanthan suggests. then this efficiency may be realized at the cost of other public values. How can we maintain these values, inefficient as they are? How can we maintain a public space for the inefficient, the absurd, the unlikely in our communities? How can we maintain a supported, safe space (not just a classroom) in the lives of young people for all these things? These are questions we must think about very seriously as some seek to disrupt the business model of our institutions in search of greater efficiency. We must ask these questions whether that “efficiency” is derived from centralized distribution of video lectures, or decentralized, peer-based learning.
The Precarity Problem
The MOOC is tightly tied to the shift towards a more “flexible” economy. This move, which has been unfolding for the last 30 years, was heralded as a move towards greater freedom and personal choice for workers. Rather than being trapped in large, rigid hierarchical structures, they would be free to collaborate in horizontal networks of peers. Perhaps the best historical study of the ties between digital technology, counter-cultural idealism, and the flexible economy can be found in Fred Tuner’s From Counter-culture to Cyber-culture. The MOOC seems specifically connected to this shift in two ways. First, it seems to promise a more flexible use of academic labor, as more students are taught by fewer faculty in a rapidly evolving digital environment. Second, the MOOC seems to be an ideal way of providing students with the knowledge and skills they need for a flexible economy where they are expected to retrain and change jobs at an ever-increasing rate. Again, both these things are true whether a MOOC is a video lecture and a quiz, or an engaged peer-learning experience.
The problem that has emerged in this flexible economy is the problem of precarity. Far from being liberated to build their own lives, ordinary people increasingly find that, to paraphrase President Obama, they are “on their own.” In a recent essay cultural critic Mark Fischer put it this way:
It isn’t only work that has become more tenuous. The neoliberal attacks on public services, welfare programmes and trade unions mean that we are increasingly living in a world deprived of security or solidarity. The consequence of the normalisation of uncertainty is a permanent state of low-level panic. Fear, which attaches to particular objects, is replaced by a more generalised anxiety, a constant twitching, an inability to settle. The uncertainty of work is intensified by digital communication technology. As soon as there is email, there are no longer working hours nor a workplace. What characterises the present moment more than our anxious checking – of our messages, which may bring opportunities or demands (often both at the same time), or, more abstractly, of our status, which, like the stock market is constantly under review, never finally resolved?
While Fischer’s language here gives technology more blame than it deserves, does anyone really doubt the current articulation between digital communications (MOOCs included) and this sort of extension of work into every last facet of human life? How can we break this point of articulation? I am very much committed to the cause of teaching student’s digital literacies, but the notion that these literacies alone will accomplish this seems to me painfully naive. Just knowing what is happening when you find yourself on your blackberry on vacation does not give you the power to put it down, if your job is at stake.
Furthermore, information itself, often taken as the solution to the precarity problem, can become part of the crushing cycle of precarity itself. Computer programmer Ellen Ullman writes, in her magnificent autobiography Close to the Machine, of her experience trying to keep up with the constant flow of new programming techniques and knowledge: “Quarterly, seasonally, monthly, whenever – with an odd and relentless periodicity – UPS shows up at my door with a new set of disks. New versions of operating systems, database software, developer libraries, development tools, device driver kits – everything you need to know to keep pace [...]. The disks are barely loaded before I turn around and UPS is back again: a new stack of disks, another load of newness.” She tells of slowly drifting out of phase with this relentless pace, a change she attributes in part to growing older,
What has happened to me that I just feel tired? The weeklies come, and I barely flip the pages before throwing them on the recycle pile. The new catalogs come and I just put them on the shelf. My machines are three years old – ancient by my own standards. I haven’t loaded my last two Microsoft distributions. I tell myself that it’s because I’m having problems with the CD-ROM drive. The invoice for the Professional Developer subscription just came from Microsoft: I’m thinking of doing the unthinkable and not renewing.
I’m watching the great, spinning, cutting edge slice away from me – and I’m just watching. I’m almost fascinated by my own self-destructiveness.
We must consider the problem of precarious labor and precarious knowledge as we design both MOOCs and the institutions that will support them. The dream of more knowledge delivered faster and cheaper, or, alternately, of a never-ending learning experience shared by peers and mentors, is one with much to recommend it. But, as Ullman shows, human bodies respond to this constant change very differently. Some may be exhilarated while others are exhausted. Good pedagogy may bend the curve in the direction of exhilaration, but we still need to acknowledge that being exhilarated in the face of the novel is a privilege we can’t expect everyone to share all the time. After all, bodies may even respond differently to the pace of change over time (even if we do not wish to engage in the somewhat ageist notion that age and adaptability to change are inversely proportional).
Mooc of Ages
In his piece “What’s the Matter with Moocs?‘, Siva Vaidhyanathan writes that he can “almost excuse” business leaders with their breathless fascination with the greater “efficiency” offered by MOOCs . “Business people are always frenetically looking for the new big thing,” he writes, “because their professions demand that they be constantly wary of innovative competition. Most businesses fail after four years, after all. And almost all businesses fail after a century or so.” In stark contrast, “scholars [...] work for institutions designed to last centuries.” For me, Vaidhyanthan’s comment speaks to much more than just MOOCs , or even higher education. Rather, it highlights how our culture has increasingly turned over decision making on crucial matters to entities, corporations, with incredibly short life spans lived entirely within an alternate universe of evolutionary selection pressures that are not our own. Information companies are even more short-lived than their brick-and-mortar counterparts, the most venerable of them are barely old enough to drink. We will almost certainly outlive Google. Should we then entrust it with our future and the futures of our children? While MOOCs opposed to this outcome do exist, and I honor their work, the overall thrust towards this mode we see in the contemporary moment seems to be very much aligned with the needs of the Googles of the world for more malleable workers and more efficient training regimes.
Let me close then, with a call for something different: a MOOC of ages. Where current trends favor short-term retraining and “flexibility,” the MOOC of ages would seek to find ways to build hybrid digital spaces that reinforce oh-so unfashionable safety nets, systems of oversight, and (perhaps most important) webs of mutual responsibility that enable both rich, lived human lives and meaningful innovation. This cannot be accomplished through pedagogy alone. A “safe” classroom space provided for a student who knows he or she will soon be thrown into the maw of precarity is little but a cruel joke. We must do more than build classrooms that are “porous” to the outside world. We must imagine whole new constellations of socio-technical articulation linking classrooms to new political economies, new movements, new political formations. The MOOC of ages will be dangerous. It will be difficult. It will not be solved in a blog post.
But we can start.