Blog Post

What ‘Learning the Future Together’ Means: HASTAC’s Weekend of MOOCs, Badges, and Lady Gaga

In 2002, when we first came together to form HASTAC, we had really only one idea:  if we used the principle of the open architecture of the Web to reimagine education as a network of possibilities and connections, then the sky was the limit.   We came up with an inclusive nickname that fits well within the genre whimsically called SLA’s (six-letter acronyms) famous in the sciences but annoying outside them (“haystack” from HASTAC: really?).  We built websites over the years that would afford as much openness and connection as Drupal and our budget (we don’t charge dues!) would allow.  And we invited anyone who signed in and who abided by our implicit community rules of respect to join us.   We didn’t come up with other labels because the whole point was not to make it a point but nodes, lots of nodes, on an interconnected network of people, subjects, projects, ideas, theories, softwares, institutions, disciplines, nations, movements, opinions.   

We called it “learning the future together.”   And then, to be clear on what we meant, HASTAC Scholars Director Fiona Barnett came up with another motto for us:  “Difference is our operating system, not our deficit.”   That one, too, is rooted in the open Web idea that you need as many people with as many different assumptions and forms of training and cultural backgrounds and objectives as possible to work on code together if you’re going to get out the bugs and make the whole system better.  

So what does HASTAC look like ten years on?   This weekend is a good snapshot.

(1) On November 3, the New York Times had a lengthy discussion of “The Year of the MOOC” and called out a number of our partners who are engaged in MOOCs but also wondered how much the MOOC was a revolution and how much a replication, online, of some basic structures of the university.  The piece cited the experimental course I’m going to be teaching with Dan Ariely in the Spring, “"Surprise Endings:  Social Science and Literature", in which our students will be turning the course content into a MOOC--a rare moment in the history of MOOCs where someone actually remembers students might want to have a voice in this “revolution” in their education!    

In a blog response to the NYTimes piece, I argue that we’re at the very early “horseless carriage” of MOOCs, where the current form carries with it features of the old form--hierarchy, discipline, courses, “sage on the stage,” and so forth--that eventually may be rendered irrelevant.  If students can pick and choose what they study and with whom, it changes “prerequisites” and challenges status in interesting was that no one has figured out yet.  We’re hoping the students in “Surprise Endings” will come up with some novel ways to MOOC that go beyond talking heads.    For a good resource on MOOCs, you might also want to check out our guide, The Scoop on MOOCs.  

(2)   On November 4, badges made their way, also into the New York Times in a big way with "Show Me Your Badge," a long article that talks about the badges movement and alludes to our HASTAC/MacArthur/Gates/Mozilla “Badges for Lifelong Learning” project this year.     Here's my favorite part of the Badges article, a wonderful tribute to Mozilla and its open source commitments in the world:

"It’s no coincidence that Mozilla is leading the badge movement. The organization was born from the wreckage of Netscape, whose multibillion-dollar I.P.O. touched off the 1990s dot-com boom before the company ultimately lost the “browser wars” to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. A group of Netscape programmers didn’t like the idea of Web access being dominated by a browser owned by a gigantic profit-seeking company. So they spun off the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, which built a lighter, faster browser — Firefox — and gave it away. Explorer’s market position has since badly eroded.

Mozilla sees the digital badge effort in similar terms. Erin Knight, its senior director of learning, says that “the browser was the first example where there was a monopoly and we decided to provide an open-source alternative.” A system whereby only accredited colleges can offer valuable degrees, she says, is a “shared monopoly across education, where you have to go down a very prescribed path to get learning that quote-unquote counts. We want to open that up.”


"Opening up" education's credentialing monopoly is partly what has inspired HASTAC too.  Having access to learning, inside and outside of schools, kindergarten to lifelong, is our mission---and helping to ensure that the learning that happens within education is as powerful, creative, and flexible as possible is part of our mission.   Badges, especially those awarded by peers, offers possibilities for credentialing in areas (collaboration, for example, or leadership) where formal education rarely treads.    If you want to learn more about badges, you can go to a resource guide we've curated here:    Badges for Lifelong Learning:  Resource Guide.

(3) And then there’s Lady Gaga.  This summer, I was approached by Professor Kathleen Pryer, President of the American Fern Society and a colleague here at Duke.  Her team had found a new genus of ferns, including nineteen species, some of which are new to science.  Admirers of Lady Gaga, they wanted to do something almost unheard of in the annals of science and name an entire genus for her, but couldn’t do so without her permission.  The MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative had worked with Lady Gaga to establish the Born This Way anti-bullying foundation and we’d been at a meeting at the White House with Lady Gaga’s manager Troy Carter, one of the biggest names in the contemporary music business, and a man of singular intelligence, seriousness, and, like Gaga, passionate concern for young people.  We were able, through this connection, to get Lady Gaga’s enthusiastic permission to use her name.  We learned she’d been a brilliant young science student as a kid as well as an arts student.   And, with the scientific community’s publication of the paper on this new scientific discovery, Professor Pryer and her team also introduced the species name and its GAGA, GGAA, and so forth DNA sequences.  You can read about this here, in the Duke Press release:    The delight magnified this weeked, when we heard that Lady Gaga was on tour in Costa Rica, home of the Gaga fern, and was able to actually have someone find her the fern so she could be photographed with it for her tour. On her fan website is a photo and she announced:  "The Lady Gaga Fern Is Here!  I'm a Plant!"

What do MOOCs, badges, and Lady Gaga have to do with one another?   “Learning the future together.”     Those are only three of the more prominent things we’ve learned about this weekend that relate to the work we do collectively.   No one knows what tomorrow will bring.  Thank you, HASTAC network!   I’m glad, whatever the future is, that we’re all in this one together. 


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