Sunday, 26 June 2016

Three Books on MOOCs

Paul Kim (Ed.) Massive Open Online Courses: The MOOC Revolution (Routledge 2015)

Jeremy Knox Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course: Contaminating the Subject of Global Education (Routledge 2016)

Curtis J. Bonk et el. (Eds.) MOOCs and Open Education Around the World (Routledge 2015)

When it comes to MOOCs I sometimes feel like an anti-capitalist popping into Starbucks. I know that I shouldn't. I know that they represent just about everything that I am fighting against. It's just that occasionally I just can't resist a Espresso Macchiato to get me going in the morning. At the moment, for instance, I'm enjoying a MOOC on Royal Food and Feasting with the University of Reading and Historic Royal Palaces. It's a well-designed MOOC that seems to incorporate the best of xMOOCs and cMOOCs. (Briefly an xMOOC is a MOOC that relies heavily on video lectures and computer-marked assignments and a closed discussion space for students. A cMOOC - the c stands for 'connectivist' - is relies far more of co-operative learning with students supporting each other and using a variety of social and other media).

Paul Kim's Massive Open Online Courses: The MOOC Revolution reads like it was written by critical friends of MOOCs. There is some discussion about the 'open' bit of MOOCs in several chapters. There is no doubt that MOOCs are accessible to all (as long as you have the right technology) so from that point of view they are open. Yet the curriculum of the MOOC is not open and the content of the MOOC is not open either. Indeed MOOC platforms such as Coursera and FutureLearn have placed heavy restrictions on the use of MOOC content outside of the MOOCs themselves. 

One chapter entitled "Enter the Anti-MOOCs" distills many of the criticisms of MOOCs. They are a part of the increasing commercialisation of higher education. Many of the students (like me - I recognise my privilege) are already highly educated with a large proportion having degrees or higher degrees. MOOCs are being used as marketing tools by the most 'prestigious' universities. The reaction to MOOCs is detailed in this chapter as well and many of these are positive reactions. Initiatives such as LOOCS (Little Open Online Courses) are examined. We cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. For me MOOCs in themselves are not bad but the model on which they are built needs to change. See later for an examination of DOCCs.

I was also intrigued by a chapter on the pedagogy of MOOCs. Rightly this focuses on xMOOCs. cMOOCs already have a strong pedagogy, connectivism, built into them (This article is a good introduction to connectivism). I was always puzzled by the way xMOOCs function. Asking students to just watch a bunch of videos and answer some computer-generated questions seems to me to fly in the face of everything we've been told about how to engage students. No wonder the drop-out rate is so huge. Only the most committed students will see this through to the end. What was also interesting is the exploration of different pedagogies of MOOC platforms. This seems to rely on the countries/areas where the platform was set up. EdX and Coursera (both in the USA) offer a different pedagogic style to FutureLearn (UK-based) or Iversity (Europe-based).

Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course: Contaminating the Subject of Global Education was a difficult read for me. Not because it set out to challenge my views about MOOCs but it approaches it's critique of MOOCs from an academic perspective that I'm not familiar with. For instance, the concept of "posthumanism" was one that I had never encountered before. The author's main contention is that MOOCs are part of a universalist view of humanism in which people are rational and autonomous human beings. For the author there is nothing universalist about this at all. Hence "posthumanism". The principles of rationality and autonomy are the products of a particular time and a particular place and that MOOCs buy into this universalist worldview.

He also regards MOOCs as a form of educational colonialism. Many of the most prestigious universities in the western world have jumped onto the MOOC bandwagon claiming to offer educational opportunities to everybody around the world whilst pushing their own interests in the background. Even the pedagogy used is a form of colonialism as any pedagogic theory is a product of the time and place it emerged from. 

Leading on from that the author also regards MOOCs are being a symptom of the growing influence of Silicon Valley Values (there was a fascinating programme on Silicon Valley Values on BBC Radio 4 a little while ago - you can hear it here). For me Silicon Valley Values place a huge emphasis on technology as providing the panacea for many societal problems whilst at the same time being proud of their 'disruptive' nature (see the rise of Uber and Airbnb as other examples) which actively opposes government regulation and the protection of workers, consumers and the environment. Neo-liberalism delivered through your computer/phone screen.

Like the first book in this review, MOOCs and Open Education Around the World, is a critical but not sceptical friend of MOOCs. There are lots of essays written by "educational leaders" looking at MOOCs and other open educational initiatives around the world.

Again there is some recognition that the "open" bit of MOOCs is problematic. People involved in the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement would simply not recognise MOOCs as being genuinely open. Within the book there is some difference of opinion about what open actually means. For instance, there are some chapters on the development of open universities around the world. Of course they are open access but again not open in terms of curriculum or content.

The chapters on the impact (actual or potential) of Open Educational Resources on the developing world - especially in sub-Saharan Africa - are especially interesting. OERs can open up resources for schools and colleges in the developing world in the same way that generic drugs could transform healthcare. MOOCs could play a part in this but at the moment they are more of a hindrance than a help.

I was especially intrigued by a chapter on DOCCs. DOCCs stands for Distributed Open Collaborative Course. DOCCs are being developed by FemTechNet and are, in their own words:

an alternative genre of a networked learning course that exemplifies feminist principles and pedagogical methods that support decentralized and collaborative forms of learning. A DOCC is built on the understanding that expertise is distributed throughout networks, among participants situated in diverse institutional contexts, within diverse material, geographic, and national settings, and who embody and perform diverse identities (as teachers, as students, as media-makers, as activists, as trainers, as members of various public groups, for example).

I may be wrong but that sounds a lot like a cMOOC to me and seems to draw on not only feminist pedagogies but also the newly-emerging pedagogic theory of rhizomatic learning. It you're interested in true open learning then it may be worth keeping an eye on this.

Most of the chapters in this book, however, are less analytical and are more descriptive of MOOC and OER development around the world. From that perspective, this makes this book the most useful for anybody who is considering creating a MOOC in their institution and wants to be taken through some of the nuts and bolts of doing so.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Gender, Experience and Knowledge in Adult Learning

Elena Micelson
Gender, Experience, and Knowledge in Adult Learning: Alisoun's Daughters (Routledge, 2015)

There is broad agreement that experiential learning plays a central role in adult education. Adults learn by doing and by drawing on their own prior experiences and knowledge as they do so. Malcolm Knowles, the founder of andragogy (the theory of adult learning), made six assumptions about adult learning and two of these assumptions revolve around experience. The first is that adults bring their own experiences to their learning. The second is adult learning is best when it is problem-centred rather than content-centred. David Kolb's Learning Cycle (shown below) also places experience at the heart of adult learning.

This book does not question the importance of experiential learning but looks deeper at the assumptions made about what those experiences (and the reflection that arises out of it) actually are. The author maintains that there is an assumption that we will experience the same thing in roughly the same way and following on from that our reflections will also be broadly similar. Galileo stated that anybody could look through his telescope and they would all see the same thing.

The author wants to reflect on whether that is true. Could it be that our 'universal' concept of experience and knowledge is socially conditioned and that gender, sexuality, race and class need to be taken into account when thinking about what experience and knowledge actually are. If we all looked through Galileo's telescope we may very well all see the same thing but our experiences would be very different and our reflections on what we saw would all be different too. On top of that she argues that we tend to value some kinds of experience and knowledge over others and that the ones that we devalue are, not without coincidence, the experiences and knowledge of women, ethnic minorities and other marginalised groups.

As an example, I am involved with a educational movement called Trade School which offers learning in exchange for bartered items. In the 'About' page of the Trade School website it says that "Trade School celebrates practical wisdom". Just think about that word "wisdom" for a moment and then picture first a wise man and then a wise woman. Does "wisdom" suddenly become gendered? What I see (and I hope I'm not alone here) when I think of a wise man is somebody scholarly, a  deep thinker, somebody who thinks in the abstract and is somewhat aloof and detached from the rest of the world. A wise woman, however, feels to me to be keepers of a traditional and archaic knowledge that she learnt from previous generations and will pass onto the next. Her learning comes from her experience of the world and of community around her. It is a wisdom that may not be valued as much as that of her male counterpart.

For the author of this book many adult educational theorists (especially Kolb) either simply ignore or downgrade the social context of peoples' experience and knowledge. She does give some credence to John Dewey (one of our most pre-eminent educational theorists) for believing that experiential learning can only properly exist within a social sphere. The different experiences and the different forms of knowledge that come from that experience should be properly acknowledged in the field of adult education. 

I have to admit that I found parts of this book quite dense and difficult to read. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that the disciplines of postmodernism, feminist epistemology, queer theory and critical studies simply did not exist when I was at university in the early 1980s so I was starting from a position behind many of the intended readers of this book. They will be familiar with many of these ideas anyway and probably use the same kind of language. 

Yet for anybody interested in the theory (and practice) of adult learning I believe that this book would be a very useful read. I didn't have a "Road to Damascus" moment as the scales fell from my eyes as I turned over every page, What I did experience was a view into a part of a world that I thought I knew quite well but that I hadn't seen through the experiences of others. Perhaps, as adult educators, that's the most useful lesson to be taken from this book. Adult educators must not assume that adult learners are able or willing to look through their eyes.

P.S. 'Alisoun's Daughter' mentioned in the title is the Wife of Bath from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. I'm glad the author chose her as the role model for this book. It's my favourite of the Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath is outrageous, opinionated and, in the context of the fourteenth century, very liberated indeed. Her first words are:

Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
To speke...

[Experience, though no authority were in this world,
is enough grounds for me to speak...]