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.


Coursera: Sit-Up learning killer

The modality of the way a course is presented helps form the experience. I’ve talked about my thoughts on “Downtime Learning” where people choose to use time which might otherwise be spent bored, waiting for something to start/end/arrive/leave and so on. Then there are lean in technologies such as the smart phone and tablets, where we actively stare into glass or lean over it in conversation. The mode that feels the most awkward in today’s culture is “sit-up”, a demand most of us have heard directed towards us in class or in the lecture hall.

Personally I find “sit-up” learning the hardest to do. I get listless in the chair. I can’t decide how far to sit back and I’m constantly making minor adjustments to my focus. The idea sitting at a desk at home, in a study on a computer remains the dominant “vision” in distance education as to modality and physical space.

Additionally, Universities make a point of calling us”external” students just to make sure everyone knows they are expected to “sit up”, by reading endless PDFs or typing essays on Word. It’s almost a sneer about how lazy students probably say home and sit around, too un-motivated to get to campus and sit in a chair properly

I suspect few of these people could imagine the processes and innovations students have created (and shared) towards Downtime and Lean Over Learning practices. Its one thing to judge or espouse “students should or we should” rubbish year after year, but actual learning with ‘ease’ has seen students but become more able than institutions. This can be is evident when we hear high-level talk about MOOCs – the assume its just another LMS to be done at home at a desk. I doubt many have undertaken one. This also goes to the idea that a course is a ‘set’ number of hours in a calendar. Up front, it would be easy to assume a MOOC is 120 hours no one can afford to commit to, and if it’s less, then its not scholarly enough warrant recognition.

The CourseMap application from Coursera is a great example of what I’m describing. I’m enrolled in a fabulous course about games, narrative and Lord of the Rings with Jay Clayton. His pleasant manner, well produced videos clearly demonstrate he is not just a player, but thinks very deeply about the subject. I set this against similar courses I’ve done where the main aim appears to be the brandification of the person talking about gamification.

The interface is simple. Log in, see your course, see your progression and download the content (or stream it). Sit down in a quiet spot, put your feet up and watch. The simple design has a top window (for the video) and a generous note area to tap away why you watch the video (5-10mins) at a time. It’s a perfect environment for the downtime learner – and rather than being a cut down LMS, to me its an innovation on towards literary domestication. When I’ve done, I simply press “send”. In my case I send to EndNote which is then automatically tagged and added to a folder of research notes. I’m lucky here, as I’m exploring MOOCs and my research interest at the same time, in total comfort.

This is the emergent narrative of online learning to me, and it becomes very clear when MOOCs are being discussed that many opinions are based on the preconception that they are an LMS for students who don’t pay and don’t get credit. There’s a clear problem for higher education here. Many of those offering opinions and making decisions about MOOCs have such low levels of experience in this emergent literary culture – they will struggle to understand how fundamentally this mode of learning appeals people. We can’t very well compare 20 years of the LMS to Coursera for the simple reason few LMS’s are designed by people how can’t see past “sit up” learning. In fact the LMS is still designed for the computer. They don’t use responsive layouts, they seem to have no idea about S EO, they have poorly designed “apps” and so on – because there is a central belief that learning (proper learning) requires students (not people) to sit up, not lean back.

Coursera’s lean back app is just a superb piece of design. It’s simple with few option or distractions. When used well, the material dominates the time, not the tool or the personality. I’m learning because it’s interesting, not because of the bubble-gum popstar culture on Twitter that sells books. So I’ve enrolled Miss10 and Mr12 on the next course. I suspect they will breeze through it.