The Monty Python MOOC

John Hartley (Curtin University) in his excellent book Digital futures for cultural and media studies (2012) makes some compelling arguments for re-focusing research on human behaviour inside a media rich world. Towards the current era of interactivity, social networks and the Internet enables ‘the people’ to challenge how they are represented by representing themselves, making decisions, choices and taking direct action. He argues “we are directly productive of both meanings and actions” (p.21). He explains that this interactive user productivity requires media and cultural studies to focus on “the causes and mechanisms of change” and not just “the oppositions within them” (p.22). 

In a race to decide ‘which brand is best’ there seems an increasing gap between people interested in working out ‘why and how’ we negotiate the media choices we do – and an emphasis on speculation where we try many things and stick with none for very long at all. The distinction between ‘old’ practice and ‘new’ practice is not longer signalled by the type of media used in the classroom – but increasingly, the brand and associations with celebrities.

The first decade of “edtech” was all about oppositions, where “the people” (teachers, students, parents) were represented but never invited to really participate a two-way dialogic model where everyone was seen to be productive. For example: Sir Ken Robinson, who’s monologue on creativity is seen as a seminal TED-Talk doesn’t believe you or I are productive peers. He doesn’t engage with people online the way William Shatner or Kurt Sutter do most weeks on Twitter. Similarly many ‘top rank’ educators ignore lesser educators on social media. The difference between Sutter and Robinson is that one understands the power of media and the other thinks social media gives them new power.

In fact, in order for ‘high-rank’ people to be plucked from the crowd, these oppositions became a central theme in an un-equal exchange. The original “dangerously irrelevant” metaphor has given way to “dangerous experts” where the high-ranks, place too much stead in their social-authority and over-estimate their correctness. By avoiding ‘low-rank’ users, they fail to pick up on ideas (and media) they under-estimate. Yet we are all active-producers of media as well as consumers. We are all entrepreneurs, adventurers and worthy of being treated as equals in the subjective co-constructed fantasy.

But we’re not equals are we. Social media is not universally liberating and open (yet). Hartley discusses how we are seen by producers (those who determine what media best for the reading public, such as TED Talks) as part of a commercial value-chain rather than a dialogue. I’ve said that this happens with people, but it also happens with objects. For example it also occurs in MOOCs (or rather xMOOCS). Their elite producers have taken the idea of the reading public (potential students) to encompass the entire planet. Furthermore, it’s offered to the planet via habituated content though venture capitalists, scientists and intellectuals – the very people with the most to lose from declining cultural alignment with print media. The lack of actual qualification as the end of a MOOC is symbolic of their skepticism of “the people” in their MOOCs to be creative and productive. As Hartley points out, new media still seen as “demotic and unworthy – even untruthful” (p.25).

Although users of MOOCs are a potential paying audience who have learned to use ‘new media’ towards their own productivity and emancipation from hegemonic structures such as schools – this innovative ‘second chance’ to re-engage with learning’ is represented as a philanthropic effort by those with existing authority towards the rest of society.

If the the purpose of MOOCs is not to make money, it’s not too hard to draw on Hartley’s ideas. A MOOC (as a media object) can successfully insist on the control culture of the expert and perpetuate the unworthiness of open innovation networks. That has an economic, political and social value. It’s no wonder Stephen Downes is asking what happened to Open Educational Resources and networked knowledge.

In effect even if MOOCs lose millions, they are useful in the stand-off between ‘print media’ ownership and the global abandonment of it. As mass education remains loyal to the idea of scarcity and the cognitive apprenticeship, xMOOCs signal the futher use of oppositions in media. A ‘real’ educational experience is provided by an institution at significant student cost. The student is not in control of the learning process or the outcome. If that isn’t okay – then do a MOOC or hang out with the pauper-press-gallery while we (the experts) figure out a way to shut it down.

It’s basic game-tactics. Keeps the adds busy why the hero takes out the boss and collects the rewards.


3 thoughts on “The Monty Python MOOC

  1. Very probing analysis. I see McLuhan and Ivan Illich hovering in the background here. However, while we can all agree with Stephen Downes about distributed knowledge, knowledge is 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 – which by definition means having more people being attentive to you than you can attend to. So there is an ‘opposition’ at work here which is itself untenable, between spaces with and without oppositions.

    • So it may be that some celebrities are walking the streets, recapturing a sense of past anonymity. It probably points to purpose, and I suspect some have set about creating media constructs which appear as ‘every man’ in the same way advertising often seeks to do – but really has a commercial agenda.

      I have no where near resolved it – thanks for the bounce, will think on.

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