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.

Delving into Coursera

I’ve been tasked with looking into Coursera. I am sure I’m just another voice in this sea of opinion currently. My immediate cultural observation is how venture capital interest and investment has been obfuscated with a ‘saving the world’ narrative. To be brief, at the time of launch there was an emotive TED talks about opportunity and giving the gift of learning. This contrasted with earlier interviews with the founders (at Standford) about how they used students to build a platform in response to the problems of stability emerging from giving public access to back-catalogue computer courses. Today, Coursera is branded with some alignment with Stanford and not the venture capitalists that helped establish Netscape and later Amazon. So I’m a little suspicious about the ethics of Coursera, however I’m willing to move past that in order to look at what it does – as a learning experience.

I’ve joined a class and enrolled for two more. From a design stance, I see Coursera (and rivals) as the further domestication of computing into consumer culture. I’m not so sure they replace anything, let alone destroy the joint.

To that end the reductionist interface and clean typography seem perfectly sensible for people who haven’t been living in the ‘ed-tech’ bubble. I don’t mind the use of short videos at all – they are certainly more likely to be watched than hour long monologues.

I like the use of classroom seminars to give a ‘fly on the wall’ view of a small group discussion too. I don’t particularly agree that what comes out of MOOCs is all that important. I was always a fan of Stephen Downes vision of emergent networks that worked towards some worthy goal. I don’t even mind if they are edutainment, as I do like the History Channel and Discovery Channel too.

For me I see more value in using MOOCS as learning-enablers – perhaps to dream up more imaginative pathways to getting into degrees or getting a better job, but I draw the line at them being used to deceive people into joining ‘freemium’ cut down courses in order to up-sell them. This is for the same reason I hate edu-games which try to deceive kids into learning.

There is a strong potential for politicians to see this in Australian as a potential public/private partnership. These things have been problematic when attempting to build other infrastructure such as roads, so around this, I think I might explore that a little.

Sold a puppy.

MOOCs are being heralded as disrupting higher education. What if higher education is using MOOCs as a trope, to disorientate popular culture from the long established ‘open-education’ movement’s agenda.

Can you imagine the disruption that would have occurred if George Siemens got his way with open-courses? What if Stephen Downe’s ideas of Connectivism should develop un-opposed? They might result in remarkable changes to the social capital placed on qualifications and networked-knowlege. Who loses out? … those used to profiting from fee-paying study, consulting, publishers and so on.

A similar argument can be made for K12. Brands such as Google, Apple, Pearson, Private School X and so on require teachers to perceive ‘rich media’ and ‘useful technologies’ in very limited orientation to their products. This has been achieved by enticing teachers to cultivate popular-online-persona, manage in-group bias and chase away other arguments. What is then presented as “essential” to the lives of children is simply a procession of products as a result of planned obsolesce and media manipulation. Here’s an Apple badge for the teacher so to speak.

People make what they believe to be rational judgements about which technologies they want to use, based upon their belief about their situation. These choices are critically influenced by what they think about computers, computer users, computer software and so forth. At the same time, they try to reconcile how these products might provide reassurance as to why they become and stay being teachers.

This is the thin layer of online educational culture. Media messages (especially from citizen-journalists) advocate that technology will (eventually) wipe away the institutions as credentialing agents. Twitter is all about credentialling – within the self-constructed cluster, there is a peception it can be used to short-cut the system and improves one’s position in life. Well perhaps it can – for a few. But the audience is not the busy academic or teacher. Most of the discussion is between brands (and brand endorsers) and adminstrators and decision makers, whom hold power over the way courses and classrooms are run.

Online educational culture can also be described simply an appendage machinery that sells technology to consumers via the family. It uses education as a ‘trust’ signal. Popular ‘educational media’ is used to disorientate people such that they find it hard to differentiate real and unreal. This isn’t new – advertisers have done this since they first started selling microcomputers to consumers. Buy a Commodore VIC20 so you’re kids don’t end up thick.

At the heart of the Open Education Resources movement (and the Open movement in general) is the notion that education is a public good and not which BRANDS are good. That is a particular skill of marketers and advertising. It’s no wonder games such as Minecraft are excluded from popular online educational culture.

Now who’s running the classroom of the future?

The Digital Dust Bowl

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One of the things that is changing the way families experience games are the new media layers that games are appearing on. We’ve known for years that media works better when it is fluid. If you like, if we were to take the sum total of all forms of media that appear in popular culture, make them immersive and interactive – and where to you find yourself?

On the Internet is not the correct answer. The Internet is just the transport for media layers. Where you end up is inside one of several networks, which carries media more powerful and fluid than newspapers, radio, television, books, magazines – or websites.

Sony, Nintendo, Valve, Xbox, iTunes and Google Play are the network layers that manage to exist in two key areas of our lives. Firstly, the pocket. At any moment we can be entertained, thrilled and most importantly – consume and purchase. Secondly, in the lounge room. The one place that most families inhabit  Not the study or a nook (where the PC lives) but front and centre of viewing.

Games are more powerful, because games are a significant part of these networks overall media business. Not just blockbuster games, but Indie games which are relatively smaller and cheaper to download. They exist alongside the DLC (downloadable content) which are ‘additions’ to the games you buy in the store – and you pay for. They sit along side downloadable videos, television, music and news. They link into you social feed. An Indie game, such as Super Meat Boy can turn 10,000 units in a day at 12000c a pop, which is somewhere around $20.00.

A big reason the media (be that television, print, or websites) will fail to win their relentless attempts to diminish games as a media (we already spend more time playing that doing anything else) is that games are central to the economic success (and growth) of these media networks. If you were born after say 1978, you grew up playing games on micro-computers. If you were born after 1990, you grew up on optical-media based consoles. If you were born after 2000, you are growing up on network-games.

The thing about this – the thing which seems of the most importance to me right now – is that we know almost nothing about the motivations and perceptions of parents towards their use in the home. In education, the scary thing is that these things are never mentioned in relation to ‘integrating ICT’. There’s a huge assumption that eventually, though the pathways put forward through popular Internet media layers (the feed of blogs, Twitter and so on) – sufficient adults will understand online information pathways to develop the skills (what skills) needed for the future. At best, this near future is seen as a shift from laptop top tablet.

This of course means that the ‘cutting edge’ in popular culture of online education is based on tablets, mobile phones and on maturation of Internet websites. It ignores completely the use of wearable technology, smart televisions, Kinect, Google Glass and many more technologies that have already entered the home. When educational futurists painted a vision of Web2.0, they assumed it would be on a computer, then a laptop and now a tablet.

The future of online learning won’t be these things. It will be in fast moving, on-demand content that can be immersive and fluid. It is perhaps the biggest reason I found the MS Surface tablet exciting. It looked, worked and talked to my Xbox network. It amases me in higher education that no one (or no one I can see) isn’t working really hard on how eLearning might look via a network layer such as Xbox live – one which has a mature system of reputation, avatar, history of use, money and of course downloadable content. How hard would it be to create an amazing learning managent system that worked on the Xbox network? Well, impossible actually – as education simply hasn’t considered that just about all of it’s ‘innovations’ for interactive screens, live cams, secure mail, gamification, flipped classroom, internet searching and so on can be done on Xbox live.

So when these media networks have machines hooked up to wall mounted LCDs pushing data at us though 8 cores of processing – and hiring thousands of programmers to do it … it seems almost Edwardian to suggest websites have much of a future. Every major media player in the world is on or trying to get on the network layers that sit in our pockets and lounge room walls.

My money (if I had any) is on the future being a solid return to subject mastery in classroom and a retreat from the high invested (low return) that we’ve seen in the last decade. I don’t imagine for a moment that student results will be diminished. I think that higher education and other offerings of ‘learning’ will make their way to layers such as Xbox live (and not just iTunesU) and we’ll be interacting in real time with real people using gesture based technology, wearable technology – because the networks which carry games such as Crysis3 are currently limited by the machines – the Wii, the Xbox and the PS3 are a decade old.

Imagine if the classroom had laptops and computers 10 years old, they would barely run todays software – and yet the ageing PS3 and Xbox still deliver media and games which you’d expect on your iFad3 or i7 PC. If anyone knows how to get the maximum interaction out of a machine – it’s game developers and all of these media networks (those used to selling movies, TV and music) know – if they want a future doing just that – then they need to fund the games industry … and that is expensive … like many millions and years of waiting for it expensive.

I doubt you’ll find a single proposal at ISTE last year, this year or next year, that will look at how networked media will flood into lives of kids in the next few years. We’re about to enter a new generation of machine – the PS4, the Xbox (720) and so on, which will quite simply transform the way media is delivered and interacted with. Instead theres a bunch of people who are in the old-marketpace. To me it’s like the boom and bust of the wheat farmers who ignored the cattle-men and believed the solution to low grain prices what to produce more grain to sell, or if the price of grain is high, plant more grain to make money.

The dust-storm is arriving … me, I’m working on figuring out how and why families choose the games and networks they do … as it’s only by getting that, could I then try to imagine how we might prepare teachers for the next generation – the ones who will grow up feeding on high-speed media via cheap boxes that know their name.

Now I”m going to play Fez – which is metaphor. The world is 3D, it has four sides, a top and a bottom – what I’m seeing in edu-tech is an unwillingness to accept change is not about changing one surface for another (web1.0 to web2.0, computer screen to laptop screen, laptop to tablet screen). It’s about waking up and realising there’s stuff going on around the back that your current feed does not want you to know about.

At times it feels ironic that what is presented as ‘the edge of new learning technologies’, quick to vilify ‘old methods’ – is already a chapter in history – relevant in the 1990s, but in denial of what comes next – for no greater reason than they don’t have a place in it, and about to find themselves living in the ‘digital dust bowl’.

It’s very exciting stuff. It’s like finding the Web all over again, or that whole – what am I doing here – thing that came with Second Life or Minecraft. I’m betting that the way MOOCS and online learning for adults will explode is exactly the same way they exploded for games. I’m also betting right now all the money for MOOCs and massive online learning delivery systems is going into dust-ware.

Me, I’m working on a game with Mr11 about a Monkey with a monocle – because his homework said to make a pencil box using a set-square. I’m by-passing the Google Sketch phase and going straight for the understanding of the design process.