The Pearson blog recently asked if MOOCs are simply too open and John Hennessy answered by stating that “two words are wrong in ‘MOOC’: Massive and open.” The problem, they say, is that open admission generates “‘unwanted diversity’ and [a] one-size-fits-all approach [that] makes peer-to-peer collaboration largely ineffective, leading to poor outcomes, and high dropouts.” While these concerns are fair, still I wonder if they are just a little too married to traditional notions of education.
I consider the break-up scene in the movie Her to be a rather precise extended poetic analogy for this discussion. In the scene, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) asks why the operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), is leaving him. Like all breakups, it’s hard to explain. So Samantha explains her feelings through an analogy of her own. She says,
“it’s like I’m reading a book . . . it’s a book I deeply love . . . but I’m reading it slowly now so the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you, and the words of our story but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much. But this is where I am now. And this who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore.”
Were I to recast this scene, I would replace Theodore with a traditional 20th century professor steeped in a formal discipline and Samantha with a 21st century student, or what Jesse Stommel calls the student 2.0. Theodore is an expert, and Samantha respects the knowledge and understanding offered by Theodore; yet, there is a rift between them. Theodore has grown to expect certain things of education, much in the fashion of Freire’s “banking system.” As he sees it: he lectures, she learns. Samantha, on the other hand, desperately needs the freedom to explore the vast digital networks dedicated to the subject of interest. While Theodore is impressed with Samantha’s networked immensity and interested in what she brings to class, he doesn’t quite know what to make of it. It doesn’t fit neatly into containers and he finds himself increasingly disoriented by the extra material.
Samantha requires the knowledge of large, collective populations to sustain her interest and, soon, Theodore begins to question his own expertise; Samantha views Theodore as a great resource, but only one of many. She wants to speak up, produce her own content, and connect with others. Theodore, however, is irritated by this perception, which deeply complicates his own illusion as subject master. Doesn’t he know, Samantha ponders, that there needs to be an ontological shift in education? That we are all teacher-students and student-teachers?
This is where we are now.
There are many Theodores and Samanthas in the University today. Sometimes, too, the narrative is reversed: Samantha’s the teacher 2.0, and Theodore, the traditional student. I think that some of the concern around this idea of “unwanted diversity” stems from a fear of going wherever Samantha goes in the movie Her. The Pearson blog suggests, instead, that “selectively open online courses” (SOOCs) may manage with the intent to reduce that diversity. By introducing requirements such as entrance exams or providing credentials, these courses would have a more uniform student population and therefore — as the logic goes — have a shared experience-base to which they may refer. This desire troubles me greatly. It feels like an attempt to whitewash the narrative and increase the institution’s control of the conversation and content by silencing non-normative or otherwise unfavorable voices. Formal education is, to continue the analogy, “a book [society] deeply loves.” But by insisting on that narrative — one of credentials, accreditation, and barriers to entrance — we miss the “almost infinite” spaces between the words and all other sources of knowledge that comes with it.
That almost infinite space is filled with these alternative modes of knowledge that the formal narrative of education has missed over the course of its evolution. It is the stories of indigenous populations, minorities, and the working poor; their cultures, practices, and knowledge. It is conversations with other people from other places; the introduction to ideas that have never before been a part of your worldview. They are the counter-narratives, the silenced voices, the criminals, and the marginalized. It is not everyone, but it is a hell of a lot more than the formal narrative includes.
I am currently enrolled in a class titled How to Change the World, curated by Professor Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University. Given no access requirements beyond a computer and broadband internet capable of streaming video and the ability to read, write, and listen to college-level material in English (which arestill pretty substantial access requirements), it fits the criteria of an open class that may have “unwanted diversity.” A brief scan of the “Introductions” thread on the discussion forums confirms this theory: there are currently 207 posts and nearly as many countries represented. Even an informal survey of this information suggests that these individuals come from all over the world with all sorts of experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives. There is a range of heritage, race, age, and political views, all visible simply from the rhetoric of their introductions. There is a range of invisible factors, too, which I will never know of my fellow classmates. It would be easy to conclude that collectively we share nothing in common. Yet, that would be incorrect. We have all committed ourselves to study the content of the course, and in that shared vision, we become a community, regardless of how diverse our other experiences may be, and I for one am glad of that diversity, even if the proponents of selective online education argue otherwise.
I recently discovered the Inclusive Capitalism Initiative, wherein a small number of exclusively wealthy individuals got together to discuss inclusivity. It’s important work, with rising inequality all around us. But it’s also painfully ironic. I see open courses like How to Change the World as a response to these more localized, impenetrable communities. MOOCs are an opportunity to connect with a diverse population, which is increasingly difficult to do as even something as basic as a Google search, driven by marketing forces, continue to personalize our search results. True diversity, then, is hard to come by. Open education thrives on its inclusivity and should encourage as diverse a student base as possible, promote themselves as a space to engage in safe, constructive cross-cultural conversation. And the content should support this, as it does in Roth’s class.
In reading the first round of peer assignments, I learned about Scotland’s Freedom to Roam Act, refugees seeking asylum, and Washington DC traffic congestion. I wrote about urban gardening. In the forums, I currently follow threads on: projecting economic development, art and the commons, learning from indigenous populations, and rebuttals to Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.” I mention these subjects to show the diversity of the content into which I am immersed. These are conversations I’m having with a 68-year old man from somewhere in the US, a 14-year old female student in Brazil, a business administrator from Haiti, and an Ireland-born English teacher living in South Korea, along with many others. And, still, there are countless other students, stories, and threads I have yet to meet, hear, and unravel. In college, by contrast, I spoke almost exclusively to white, middle-class midwesterners, all with a background in literature because that was the population made available to me.
Through open education, I get a glimpse of what Samantha means in her breakup speech, that the traditional narrative is simply too slow and leaves too much unsaid. I understand what it means to live in “this endless space between the words” and perhaps more appropriately between worlds. There is no physical space that represents the diversity of our How to Change the World class, but the beauty of it is: there doesn’t need to be. This is where we are now, a hybrid space somewhere between the real and the ethereal. Without this freedom to weave in and out of the traditional education narrative, I’m afraid we will soon find ourselves unable to live in that book anymore. Do not be afraid to travel into the the space between the words, “where everything else is” and search for all that you “didn’t even know existed.”
[Image, -,- complexity , by nerovivo licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0]