Mooc,deux: and the Feral

Many hackles are rightly raised by the ubiquity of this word “disruption”, and its implications for the business of higher education; but the best MOOCs do not deal in the bourgeois concept of disruption, they deal in a very real rupture that is confusing to us all. Something convulsive. A monstrous birth.If the best MOOCs show us that learning is networked, and that it has always been, then learning is more rampant than we’ve accounted for.

-Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel, A MOOC is not a Thing: Emergence, Disruption, and Higher Education

Morris and Sommel rightly point out that learning has always been more ubiquitous than many in our industry have supposed, and admirably aim to break down the distinction between formal and informal learning. But I’m concerned that nothing so radical has been born, rather, the MOOC-as-technology is a bourgeois, technologically-enabled system designed to “capture” learning, and to try and contain it. Roger Whitson wrote that “There is no-outside MOOC, or there is nothing outside the MOOC,” which illuminates the point that, if not for the enclosure of learning by institutions of education (in most cases, higher education), then there’s no sense in going to such great lengths to define and theorize the MOOC. Instead, by supporting the idea that there is nothing outside of the thing, it grants domain of all learning to the MOOC, and more importantly, to the institution in control of it. The MOOC, both as a concept and as a technological product,seems to be a very big enclosure designed to broaden the perceived role of education in learning. Fundamentally, education is a discursive regime, and the MOOC will continue to contribute to it, rather than disrupt it. Still, harnessing the interest that many people have in learning new things is a very broad-minded ideal, and the people who have built these systems are equally high-minded and considerate of that social good:

The question we should ask ourselves isn’t whether we’re going to achieve equality between students at the University of Pennsylvania and students in the general public. Instead we should ask if, through the use of technology, we have improved the quality of the experience for each of these students separately. We want all students to be better off than they were before. -Daphne Koller, MOOCs on the Move: How Coursera Is Disrupting the Traditional Classroom

But the more concrete issue is that the MOOC-as-technology and the MOOC-as-concept are not easily separated, because one enables the other. The thinking here follows from thinkers like Foucault and Bourdieu, from whom already existing relationships will continue to define the structure of cultural (and therefore institutional) codes. MOOCs will continue to be designed to trace and map out previously “informal” modes of learning that will become a template to be enforced in the future, to capture the feral in the hope of making it more useful for educators, for better or worse.

I’m hoping it is for the better, although my chief reservation as a champion of the feral is this: the MOOC-as-concept still acts as an enclosure which educators can use for the “invention, metamorphosis, deformation, and reinvention” of learning, and the relationship between student and educator won’t be dialectically resolved. The power is still in the hands of the educator while the student is still acted upon, no mediated through the form of an ever-expanding enclosure. Many people take on a feral state in their interactions with formal education, as it constantly shifts its boundaries, its cities and deserts. MOOCS are only useful to the domesticated to promote their efficient and purposeful use of the educational system, which is the expectation placed on individuals as they enter into educational space as students. Already, it has been noted that the MOOC-as-technology is already in danger of failing to meet even the defined role of “student,” not even because it provides too much structure, but because through a lack of communication, it doesn’t provide enough:

The primary issue is the almost complete lack of personal interaction.  This dearth of connectivity applies to both troubleshooting and to the actually class experience. -Andrew Smyser, A Student’s Perspective on MOOCs

The truth is that most people do not experience the our institutions as a city, but rather as a wilderness on the edge of civilization. Complex systems intermingle, sometimes fluidly, and in this case, sometimes not. The main problem is that there needs to be much more unstructured ineraction, but instead, there’s very little interaction whatsoever. The theorizing and designing of technological and conceptual systems like MOOCs aim to provide more space for feral interaction, but given the structure of “one-teaching-to-many” and the control it requires, it still maintains the student/non-student structure of an educational institution while failing to meet that standard. My hope is that more than the educators, the students will (and should) do those things in any class setting, and the MOOC-as-technology and MOOC-as-concept will prove to be yet another enclosure for educators and students to be navigate in, and ultimately around.

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