The Picture of Dorian Gray... [Image used under CC license on Flickr: photo by MassafelliPhotography.]
Below I will argue that delivering content in the form of massive online courses misses the heart of the target for using online networks for learning. Certainly, MOOCs (in any variety) harness the logic of ubiquitous networked content, but they fail to capture the value of networked evaluation. Open badges with online, peer-based requirement testing can evaluate content understanding delivered in any manner, from one-on-one learning and small discussion conferences, to self-guided content exploration, to MOOCs.
In his new book, Who Owns the Future?, Jaron Lanier warns us about “Siren Servers” (sirens because they appear to offer amazing value for our lives and seduce us by not charging for this) sucking the worth from our futures while externalizing risk and hoarding the aggregated value of our contributions as their own assets. He is talking about Facebook and Amazon and Google and Apple, etc.. In our present economy, he argues, she who owns the server owns the future. Many of his concerns apply rather starkly to the big MOOC consortia. As he notes, “(h)igher education could be Napsterized and vaporized in a matter of a few short years.” (Lanier, 84).
In some ways, the picture of higher education as an advanced content delivery system—where MOOCs and other internet services will disintermediate the jobs of faculty by providing content universally—offers a Dorian Gray solution to the problems of accelerating costs in higher education. In this scenario, if you could MOOC-ify as much of the classroom content as possible, you could eliminate a majority of faculty jobs while offering city college students Harvard-level classes. Higher education would look and work better and brighter and be cheaper and more available than it does now. However, the real picture of higher education (presumably withered and grotesque, hidden in a locked closet somewhere) would remind us that learning only starts with content delivery and that understanding content (however this is delivered) is really just the first step in higher education. Everything beyond this improves with and through classroom conversations. In a recent (May 20, 2013) New Yorker article on MOOCs, Nathan Heller ends his exploration of online courses with a paean to in-class conversation: “Their discussion left an energetic silence in the room, a feeling of wet paint being laid on canvas.” If MOOCs were the only option left for students in the future, higher education would be as impoverished (in terms of learning) as its graduates are today (in terms of loans).
The recent movement to “flip the lecture” opens the door to MOOCs (and TED talks, and a galaxy of ubiquitous content) as homework, grist for the learning conversation. Nobody invites even the most famous TED talker to come to their university and do their old TED talk as a performance. Everyone has already seen it. If its content is worth discussion, then discuss it. The internet is a great resource for really relevant content for a curriculum. MOOCs will make it even more valuable. Better still, once the knife has been plunged into the picture of a MOOC-only future, the academy can focus on using the internet to enhance classroom conversations—learning moments that demonstrate a deeper, critical, reflexive understanding of the content.
My wife and son are Aikidoists. They have black belts in Aikido (a Japanese martial art). One of the features of their testing is that the teacher (sensei) in their Aikido dojo does not grade their test. High level teachers from outside the dojo are brought in to grade the tests, and the grade is for the student and for the sensei. The logic is impeccable. The student and teacher are both invested in finding a path to a deeper understanding of the art. The student’s dedication and the teachers ability to guide this are equally important. The evaluation serves to applaud effort and accomplishment and to correct mistakes and methods that are not effective. When a new belt is earned, the entire community benefits. Evaluation is a community-supported priority.
I want to propose that online open badges offer an opportunity for faculty to return their focus to those classroom conversations and student contributions that matter for learning. Open badge communities can support (and require) peer-based evaluation systems that remove testing from within the classroom, and make this another learning opportunity.
In terms of higher education, separating formal evaluation (grading) from classroom interactions frees up to the learning space as a forum for peer interaction. Conversations between teachers and students are no longer constrained by the expectations and coercive force of an eventual grade. Freed from the task and the position of awarding the grade to her own students, teachers (and students as peers) can find new learning moments evaluating the efforts of other students in the badge’s networked learning community. Removing the power of the grade from the face-to-face learning environment may also have some unintended consequences. Mostly it will favor students eager to learn. Teachers will still have access to their students’ test scores and other evaluated efforts (papers, blogs, videos, comments, tweets, etc.). Massive online peer evaluation (MOPE) systems for badges can use their size to become more internally analytic and available to improvement.
I am sure some readers are noticing that if MOOCs deliver content everywhere, and if badge communities do the testing everywhere, then the jobs of actual faculty are perhaps even more tenuous. I would argue against this notion. The act of teaching is what is left, and in a form that suits this well. I would propose that small conferences are a good venue to take full advantage of MOOCs and MOPEs. Freed, at last from the lectern and the curse of the “B+” whiners, faculty can explore the limits of critical discussion and peer evaluation as tools for learning.
Lanier, Jaron (2013-05-07). Who Owns the Future? (p. 84). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.