Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What's the Matter with MOOCs?

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled What's the Matter with MOOCs?, Siva Vaidhyanathan dismisses the current obsession with MOOCs as "something that very wealthy private institutions offer for free, at a loss, as a service to humanity." He adds insult to injury by adding that he, indeed, enjoys MOOCs: "Let me pause to say that I enjoy MOOCs. I watch course videos and online instruction like those from the Khan Academy … well, obsessively. I have learned a lot about a lot of things beyond my expertise from them. My life is richer because of them. MOOCs inform me. But they do not educate me. There is a difference."

Those of us who have actually been in a MOOC will find Vaidhyanathan's argument silly at best and outrageously unfortunate at worst (kudos to John Mak for trying to correct Vaidhyanathan's errors). His failure to understand MOOCs is catastrophic and staggering. Vaidhyanathan has failed scholarship and done a great disservice to the Academy and its conversation about MOOCs, which have almost nothing to do with online video banks or rich, private universities, but with collaborative communities created more often than not from somewhat remote, public universities. Still, I suppose this sort of misunderstanding is bound to happen.

Eventually, any theory or practice worth its salt moves beyond its origins and begins to take on a life of its own. The same will happen to Connectivism. Others will begin to define and shape Connectivism, perhaps in ways that Downes and Siemens do not anticipate and will not support, but it will happen if Connectivism doesn't die first. It seems to be happening more quickly with MOOCs. Luck of the draw?

I'm not sure, but I do have a connectivist/rhizomatic explanation for it that turns me back to my own discipline of writing. A newly-minted theory (and Connectivism is still rather new in the history of educational theory) is like a newly-minted book (or a newly-minted baby, nation, or computer system): it has a generative point with a rather limited DNA, but once it is released into the eco-system, then the theory (or book, baby, nation, system) takes on its own life, direction, and development that the originators (or writer, parents, founders, inventors) seldom anticipate and never control. I'm reminded of a story about Robert Frost reading his poem The Road Not Taken, and afterward, responding to a young woman who asked him what the famous poem really meant. He asked her in turn what she thought it meant; whereupon, she spoke at length. When at last she concluded, he said that, from then on, that's what the poem would mean to him.

I don't know if the story is factual, but it is true, and Frost was wise to understand that the meaning of his poem no longer belonged to him, unless he wanted to rewrite the poem, and then it would just be another poem that he would eventually lose control of.

Of course, Cormier, Downes, and Siemens, along with others, are still writing Connectivism and MOOCs, and I'm certain that they still have points to add and clarify, but really, they can only supply the generative DNA. The growth and development of Connectivism and MOOCs will depend on so much more. Let's hope that they enjoy watching their baby grow.
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