Monday, April 15, 2013

MOOCs and Network Scale

I've just listened to a TVO lecture by Eric Mazur, a well known physicist at Harvard University, in which he talks about the stop-motion photography that his lab is able to perform. While I like the magic  of stop-motion photography as much as any, what really impressed me was his clarification of the remoteness of different space/time scales from our own. Different network scales lead to radically different views of reality—in the words of Nicolescu, they lead to different levels of reality.

First, Mazur helped me to see how intimately space and time are bound together. When we speed up or slow down time significantly, then we are automatically reducing or expanding the amount of space that we are encompassing. I know, of course, from my readings in science that since Einstein we have known that space and time are a unit and that if, for instance, you bend space then you bend time, but for whatever reason, Mazur helped me see that more clearly. When you talk about nanoseconds, then you are also talking about micro-distances. The one includes the other.

But mostly Mazur helped me understand viscerally the truly profound differences between different scales, or levels, of reality. Basically, with our natural eye we see very little of life that happens at scales much smaller/faster or larger/slower than our own. For us, anything quicker than the blink of an eye or smaller than a grain of sand simply doesn't exist. Likewise, anything slower than a lifetime or larger than the horizon doesn't exist.

Except, of course, that it does exist, and it influences us. Those influences exert themselves across the various scales, or levels, of reality, affecting us almost as if by magic. Thus, the Moon, on a scale far larger than our own, exerts influences on the molecules of our bodies, a scale far smaller than our own, and drives us crazy once a month, as any grade school teacher can tell you.

Our technology, including Mazur's own amazing lazer-aided photography, allows us to slow down time, to almost stop it, so that we can see events that have been happening all along and affecting us in mysterious ways, but that we could not see. Likewise, with our telescopes we can speed up time almost back to the Big Bang to learn what's been happening in those long processes of the Cosmos.

This makes me wonder, then, about the effects of scale within a MOOC. It seems to me that just saying MOOCs are massive does not quite get the point of all those people in a coherent group. I have a sense that shifting from a normal 20 or even 200-student class to a 2,000 or 20,000-student MOOC is something else entirely. As Nicolescu says of the different levels of reality: "two levels of Reality are different if, while passing from one to the other, there is a break in the laws and a break in the fundamental concepts" (Manifesto, 21). Education among 2,000 may be a radically different scale of education than educating 20 or 200. As Mazur shows, when we use factors of 10 down from a second, we quickly reach scales that are not obvious to the naked eye and that behave very differently than our ordinary scale. Likewise, longer/larger scales are also not obvious to the naked eye and behave very differently. It seems to me quite reasonable that MOOCs are fundamentally different than a 20-student classroom. That is not a radical statement, but I don't think that xMOOCs are aware of it. They appear to be committed to business as usual: transferring some knowledge or skill from a teacher to a student, 20-at-a-time or 20,000-at-a-time. I think they are making a fundamental mistake.

But I don't really know how. Well, I've identified yet another thing that I don't know. I don't understand well enough the different structures and interactions at the different scales of education and I don't know how those different scales influence one another across the various scales. If anyone has already addressed this issue, then please direct me to them if you can. Thanks.

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