Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Opposition and Social Structure in Moocville

Over at Playable, DSKMAG comments on the oppositions constituting the social structure in MOOCville. Here is the account, lightly paraphrased.  

In the first generation of ed tech, people were represented but could not participate. The structure was built on polar oppositions - expert/audience, teacher/student, etc. But the new media world of web 2.0 challenges these oppositions. All of us can represent ourselves and participate in our own self-representations. We are no longer mere consumers of meanings but also their producers.

We can compare two emerging Internet structures. One is the structure of web celebrities and their audiences, the other is the structure of roughly equal distributed knowers and meaning producers. 

Sir Ken Robinson is a paradigm of the first. He is a media star, and his TED talk is a paradigm of the kind of media object which the rest of us can stand back and marvel at. We participate in his celebrity by absorbing and 'getting' his insights. Compare this with William Shatner or Kurt Sutter who engage with us one-to-one on Twitter. They understand the new power of media, while Robinson understands merely how to use media to grab power for himself. 

By emerging from the crowd, the Robinson types lose contact with web users and fail to pick up on the new cutting edge ideas constantly emerging out there. They come to believe too much in their own social authority, and over-rate their correctness. To put this another way, they come to think that knowledge resides in them, not in the network.

I am reminded here of a wonderful line from Picasso. In his famous interview with Christian Zervos, Picasso said "I never buy a picture from myself". He meant that he wasn't all that impressed with himself and his past processes or objects - rather he was tuned in to the world and the art world, and always moving on to the next thing.

The Ken Robinson's by contrast are perpetually buying pictures from themselves. 

xMOOCs, the article contends, constitute the entire human population as 'audiences' - as 'students' being served up "habituated content" by venture capitalists, Scientists, elite universities, and intellectuals. The students, once habituated to the new commodified knowledge forms, are then to be converted into potential paying customers of the next levels of 'education,' as e.g. students in Georgia Tech's Masters degree program, or the business schools of Temple or the University of Cincinnati. And the students are expected to be grateful - they are getting a 'second chance' - or a 'world class elite university course' as a philanthropic gift

xMOOCs, in short, perpetuate the cultural control of experts - those whose status is most threatened by the open access, distributed knowledge potential of web 2.0 and what I call 'education 2.0.' They convey the message that a 'real educational experience' - even for those liberating themselves from the hegemonic structures of schooling - is one provided by an institution - and ultimately at significant cost to the 'student'. In this model learners and knowers remain 'students' who control neither the processes or outcomes of their own learning. xMOOCs thus reproduce the structure of oppositions - expert/ novice and teacher/student and celebrity/audience - in the Internet culture which might undermine them. 

This is certainly a very probing analysis. I see McLuhan and Ivan Illich hovering in the background here. The xMOOC medium is the message.  And the message is that opportunities for learning are scarce. 

I would wish to soften this analysis somewhat. While we can all agree with Stephen Downes that knowledge is distributed and that networks - not their nodes - are the real sites of learning, and then accept that 'experts' and 'celebrities' cut themselves off from the flow of information and cutting edge insights, knowledge is nonetheless never distributed equally. There are people who have spent years on various topics and who are more discerning than most. While like Sutter or Shatner they can engage one-on-one with some of the ‘low rank’ people they cannot be expected to engage with very many of them, simply because of the limits that come with any form of celebrity (where celebrity by definition means having more people being attentive to you than you can attend to) – even the relative celebrity of the leaders and major participants in the Twitterverse and cMOOCs. 

So there is an overdrawn  ‘opposition’ in this account of oppositions in the MOOC space, the untenable opposition between spaces with oppositions and spaces without them. And far from necessarily re-imposing  the polar oppositions of the past, xMOOCs can be valuable tools for self-directed learning and not merely re-habituation into institutionalized, hierarchical forms of 'education.  

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