Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Time for a SmOOC?

Motivated by Bon Stewart's efforts to unpack the MOOC buzzword and now by Jenny Mackness' thoughts about the explosion of MOOCs in higher education, I want to say a bit more about the appropriation of MOOCs by universities and corporations.

One could be kind to the universities that are, in Mackness' words, "jumping on the MOOC bandwagon at an alarming rate," and say that at least they recognize a good new wine when they see it and that they are putting the new wine into old skins mostly because that's what they know how to do, but really, I don't know how kind such a comment would be, and anyway, I'm not sure the universities are that benign (used mostly in the medical sense of not being malignant). A more cynical train of thought might suggest that we are witnessing a movement by the forces of control to counter and appropriate, to quote the blog Learning Spaces, "smooth spaces where nomadic thinking can occur, and is indeed encouraged."

The writer of Learning Spaces (BTW, I don't know the name of this person. Can anyone tell me? Thanks) argues that corporatisation of education reflects a shift from disciplinary societies to societies of control, as described by Gilles Deleuze in his article Postscript on the Societies of Control (1992). Learning Spaces says, "In education this [control] is characterised through dataveillance and ever more strict frameworks for accountability, particularly through the work of Ofsted. However, whilst restrictions and creeping privatisation have led to a loss of professionalism and increasing homogenisation of the educative process, Deleuzean geophilosophy emphasises the potential for individuals and groups to create alternative spaces for professional creativity and debate." I believe that MOOCs began as explorations "for individuals and groups to create alternative spaces for professional creativity and debate." I think this more open space is core to the idea of MOOCs (part of the DNA), and that most of us are suspect of what we see as the compromise of this open space by recent versions of MOOCs rolled out by more corporate bodies. I think that Bon Stewart, Jenny Mackness, and others will agree. Stewart notes that MOOCs "grew, initially, as learning networks of emergent knowledge focused around educational technologies: in other words, around complexity and disruptive innovation in higher ed." Mackness says about the very first MOOC, CCK08, that it "was an experiment in getting people to think about learning differently." We don't see this same openness in some of the latest, most notorious versions of MOOCs.

The openness of MOOCs means that MOOCs can be hijacked for different purposes. This is intentional, I think. The idea is for people, or even institutions, to connect freely to a MOOC and to use it for their own educational purposes. I hijacked a couple of the MOOCs I engaged, using them as supplemental readings and discussion springboards for a faculty development program in writing across the curriculum. A few of the faculty at my local university actually liked the hijack enough that they enrolled themselves into the MOOCs and into subsequent MOOCs.

Others, particularly corporations and corporatized institutions, will hijack MOOCs and do things with them that we early MOOCers are not likely to appreciate. I find a possible explanation for this misappropriation in Deleuze's essay Postscript on the Societies of Control and in Learning Spaces educational riff on that essay. Deleuze says that society is shifting from what Foucault called disciplinary societies with its various enclosed environments (prisons, hospitals, families, factories, schools, etc.), each with its own rules and hierarchical structures to what Deleuze calls societies of control, in which individuals are turned into dividuals, separate data streams captured and manipulated by the corporations that own the data streams (Google, Facebook, Apple, international banks come immediately to mind). As Deleuze succinctly says, "Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt." Deleuze does not appear to see this as progress. For our argument, he sees some dire possibilities for education: "Indeed, just as the corporation replaces the factory, perpetual training tends to replace the school, and continuous control to replace the examination. Which is the surest way of delivering the school over to the corporation."

This line of thought seems to suggest that we should expect the educational corporations to hijack MOOCs for the purpose of establishing their controls over the data streams that MOOCs generate. We should also expect old-style schools to reject MOOCs as they try to preserve their enclosed and managed spaces. What Mackness calls cognitivist MOOCs, then, are likely to be threatened from two directions:
  1. The old-style schools (disciplinary societies) will seek to control MOOCs either by blocking MOOCs from their enclosed spaces (forbidding laptops and smartphones in the classroom), or by bringing MOOCs into their enclosed spaces where they can manage them as they've managed things for two hundred years.
  2. The new-style schools (societies of control) will seek to control MOOCs by extending the mechanisms of control (salary, marketing, and validation, for example) that ironically use the same technological substrate as MOOCs: modern computers and networks.
I don't think the old-style schools are any threat to MOOCs. As Deleuze says of all old-school, disciplinary societies: "We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure--prison, hospital, factory, school, family. … The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons. But everyone knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their expiration periods. It's only a matter of administering their last rites and of keeping people employed until the installation of the new forces knocking at the door. These are the _societies of control_, which are in the process of replacing disciplinary societies." The old schools will not survive the steamroller that Deleuze calls the societies of control.

I think the new-style schools, however, are a great threat to connectivist MOOCs. They understand and use technology that enables MOOCs of any stripe, and they believe (unlike the old-schools) that their very life depends on establishing control over the data streams that open educational resources such as MOOCs create.

All is not bleak, however. Deleuze notes that this period of transition from disciplinary societies to societies of control holds real promise as well as peril. As new regimes of control emerge in home, school, factory, and hospital: 
There is no need to ask which is the toughest regime, for it's within each of them that liberating and enslaving forces confront one another. For example, in the crisis of the hospital as environment of enclosure, neighborhood clinics, hospices, and day care could at first express new freedom, but they could participate as well in mechanisms of control that are equal to the harshest of confinements. There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.
I think, then, that our best new weapons are more connectivist MOOCs that "express new freedom," knowing full well that others will offer near enemies: MOOCs that establish control over the various data streams that feed into and out of a MOOC. I especially like Jenny Mackness' idea of SmOOCs, or small open online courses. I think it's time to offer a SmOOC. It looks like a fine, new weapon to me.

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