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Peer Learning, Online Learning, MOOCs, and Me: Response to the Chronicle of Higher Education

Peer Learning, Online Learning, MOOCs, and Me: Response to the Chronicle of Higher Education

I was very surprised this morning to find my photo placed right at the summit of a Chronicle of Higher Education infographic on "Major Players in the MOOC Movement":  I'm right there at the top,  holding down the fort for the nonprofits, in a sequence that includes Phillipe Laffont (described as one of the world's forty largest hedgefund managers) and Jonathan Grayer (former CEO of the Kaplan empire).   That's pretty comical, on the one hand, since I'm hardly a billionaire venture capitalist . .. . and, more to the point,  I've been ambivalently interested in MOOCs, with more than a healthy degree of scepticism that the current form will persist in the future.   On the other hand, I am interested, vitally so, in all the ways we can learn from one another online.   So I'm uncomfortable with the "MOOC Major Player" sobriquet but flattered that my efforts over the last decade on behalf of digital modes of interactive and collaborative learning are being recognized here.   What's odd is the overarching MOOC label.   Its presence is, in some ways, simply a sign of our times, a sign that MOOCS are everywhere these days.  Personally, I am far more excited by all the non-MOOCy ways that we can be innovative, urgent, and important educators for a world that has been radically transformed by the Internet, the World Wide Web, and all manifestations of interactive media that we all use constantly outside of school.  


The CHE infographic brings home how blurred are the boundaries and how confused the world is right now about the differences and overlap between the following:   online learning, peer-to-peer networked digital learning, informal learning that uses technology to extend its reach, the use of educational technology in the classroom, the rethinking of pedagogical paradigms for the new ways that young people learn and socialize in their everyday life out of school, free online informal learning sources (from random YouTube instructional videos to Kahn Academy's array of videos), open access learning, and Massive Online Open Courseware (or MOOCs), the latest and, as I've said in other contexts, least disruptive of all the different new ways of digitally-enhanced and -enabled learning.    


There are so many exciting forms of learning that also take advantage of technologies but it is as if the MOOC is one giant monster that has swallowed up all the other possibilities for interactive collaborative and connected learning and also, in the same big gulp, swallowed the complex and varied other histories of extension learning and outreach too.   The differences are important, people   Until we can sort out the strands, it will be way to easy to shoot at the big MOOC monster when, in fact, there are other good things out there to be learning from peer- and online learning of the non-MOOC variety. 


So, since it is my photo on the infographic, I am going to try to untangle some of the stands simply by sorting through my interactions with online forms of learning.  Perhaps others will learn from this too.


Question:  Am I a key player in several of the different forms of connected, interactive, international, peer-to-peer, informal, pedagogocially inventive, and absolutely open and non-profit  learning?  Answer:  I certainly like to think so!   


Question:  Am I a key player in the MOOCs being supported by venture capitalists at a handful of elite or Ivy or near-Ivy institutions? Answer:  Hardly!


The point is those are not the same question but MOOC Mania has made it seem as if they are.   That's not helpful.  It's not helpful in thinking about where we are or thinking about where we might want to go next as progressive educators looking for the best ways to teach students coming of age in this particular historical moment. 


But because these differences are blurred so often, shutting down important conversations about new learning innovations out of fear that all teachers and professors will be replaced by videos emanating via Coursera or EdX, it is important to sort out some of these roles.   Because it is my picture up there at the top of the infographic, I'll make this discussion individual and personal but also illustrative.  I hope it will help people who are terrified of MOOCs understand that there is so much to be gained by a non-frightened embrace not of technology (ed tech is often too expensive and often not very effective) but of new ways of learning that help prepare our students for a constantly changing, technologically driven world, a world that needs serious critical thinking and creative contribution from all of us, in all fields

* * *

Let's start with why CHE would put me at the top of a MOOC infographic:   My only real role in MOOC world has been as (a) someone who got together with others, including Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, to think about what the basic "rights and principles" of online education are and should be [NB:  and MOOCs rarely satisfy all of our conditions]:      Also, (b) I am someone who, just two days ago, had her own proposed MOOC on "The History and Future of Higher Education" accepted as a Duke Coursera course for Spring 20014; and ( c) I am someone who, in this blog, has often written critically, pointedly, and ambivalently about MOOCs, hoping that what we see now is only a beginning and that the endgame of MOOCs is more decentralized, international, creative, peer-to-peer, inventive, and non-profit!  [See, for example: ]  


In other words, I'm hardly a mover, shaker, or "major player"   in MOOC world.  I have no fund to hedge with millions supporting MOOC ventures, by the way.  But that CHE is describing me as such is simply another indication of larger confusions and ideas right now.  Even scholars who should know better sometimes confuse ends, means, institutions, goals, ideals, and missions, insisting that anyone who thinks about any innovations that extend learning or even formal education through online learning systems is advocating MOOCs.  Not.  It's not the same thing.  Nor is it the case that one can be fascinated by the potential of tens of thousands of people learning online (as I am), reaching audiences that would not ever have a chance at an education, without unthinkingly embracing this particular version of technology now.   I don't believe the dystopic end of the story.   I do not believe that, before MOOCs, the status quo was perfect or even worth saving in its present form.  I have spent the last decade advocating educational hange for the world we live in now.   MOOCs address some of the issues but not all.   MOOCs are a symptom, not the disease, in a time of radical transformation, some of it beneifical, some of it awful, and lots of it ambiguous and in-between.

  Perhaps by explaining my own role I will help bring some clarity to the murky world where MOOCs have dominated a conversation without, in my opinion, truly disrupting or revolutionaizing the arrangements of higher education than most need transforming, revolutionizing, and disrupting.


1.  I have been a "major player"  (perhaps goalie or maybe point guard?) in the push to rethink the role of the human and social sciences in a technological age.  I blog often about all the various peer-learning experiments I engage in with my Duke students.   I am constantly pushing the pedagogical envelope, dedicating myself to finding the best ways to help prepare students not for expertise in a static discipline but for a world where, according to U.S. Labor Statistics, the average America now changes careers (not just jobs) four to six times.   Nothing about our current Industrial Age education system, with its silo'd knowledge and emphasis on professionalism,  is designed  for adaptation to rapid change, interactive thinking, iterative process, or collaborative methodologies, all informed by deeply humanistic and social attention to such major issues as intellectual property, security, privacy, freedom, and even the definition of the "self."   Everyday life and everyday work brings most of us into constant contact with these issues.   And education?   Hardly at all.   The world has changed drastically since April 22, 1993 when NCSA decided to make the Mosaic 1.0 browser available to the larger public, officially entering in the Information Age.  Education has undergone few structural changes in the last twenty years commensurate with these huge shifts in how we work, play, socialize, interact, exchange capital, and even pray in the 21st century.   I've dedicated a lot of the last decade to exploring new methods specifically designed to prepare my students for the world in which they live---not the world in which I received my own graduate education.  


Is this MOOC-like?  Not a bit.  It is labor-intensive, miniscule (not massive) attention to new forms of learning for my face-to-face learners here at Duke.   So that is a first distinction we need to make:  MOOCs are not about interactive new peer-learning pedagogies.  They can be but, essentially, they do not disrupt the role of the sage-on-the-stage pontificating to the students, in this case to the masses, in lecture-style videos, by famous profs at famous universities.  This is almost the opposite, structurally, of what I think society needs right now, and of the engaged, peer-learning experiments I offer my Duke students.  MOOCs are not primarily about peer-to-peer learning (although I hope that, when I teach a MOOC next year on "The History and Future of Higher Education" I can work the affordances Coursera offers us to be more peer-to-peer in design, methodology, and in the form of connected, community, global learning:  that is exciting to me:


2.  Instutionally, and professionally, I've certainly also had a vocal role championing new forms of learning, including those that keep the theoretical, philosophical, and social aspects of the human and social sciences at the core and center of any championing of technology.  In this I am hardly alone but, rather, am part of a movement of educators concerned about new ways of learning and doing research together.   Along with David Theo Goldberg (Director of the University of California Humanities Research Center) and a dozen or so other major thinkers across many disciplines, we cofounded HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) in 2002.  David and I and our HASTAC teams at Duke and UCHRI have been administering the truly innovative and remarkable John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions since 2008, and he also is the Executive Director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.   


HASTAC now has over 11,000 network memnbers.   We just met in Toronto this past week and I have never seen such inter-generational sharing, such intellectual vibrancy, such innovation, passion, optimism, and promise on behalf of higher education.   It wasn't a bunch of Pollyanna's---sure everyone knows that the tenure ranks in the US have been depleted, that public education is underfunded in the US, and that we face educational crises (450,000 students on the waiting list for community colleges in California alone??) right and left.  But what I saw at this meeting organized by York University was not nostalgia for a highly imperfect status quo that hasn't really existed for a good twenty years, but a brave, determined, exciting embrace of new methodologies, new theories, new interdisciplinary configurations, and new excitement about all the possibilities for learning.   There was no worrying and knee-jerk acceptance or opposition to MOOCs.  Instead, there was passionate online communication of new ideas, new learning (to the tune of 1000 tweets an hour, in fact, and crowdsourced livestreaming via smart phones, a way of sharing the conference at low cost to those around the world who could not afford to join us in person).  


It was thrilling.... and, sorry Chronicle of Higher Education, I didn't hear a single conversation about "MOOCs" the entire time--although I heard many about new ways of engaging online learning communities in exciting and meaningful new ways.   I'm sure there were some people responding to MOOC hype and/or hysteria but I was rushing often to two and three different sections at once, to hear this paper on one panel and that one on another, and no one even whispered the word MOOC in any of the really brilliant, awe-inspiring papers I heard/saw/felt/played (yes, they were mutlimodal as well as interdisciplinary).  Instead, they talked about new and better ways of interactive learning and research, including scalable ways that could reach audiences now excluded from higher education, and ways that the virtual could be tied to local online learning communities, where various forms of content, information, knowledge, and practice could be conveyed not from the sage-on-the-stage outward but in meaningful exchanges and dialogues.   Whether it was a famous historian such as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham of Harvard or a brilliant teacher such as Steven Berg of Schoolcraft (a community college in Michigan) or a graduate student like Nick Sousanis (who is writing the first dissertation on comics as a comic, at Columbia University), I found my head just swirling with excitement over new ideas, new approaches, new audiences for our work as educators, as colearners, as peer teachers, and as professional teachers, educators, and students (in non-hierarchical relationship to one another) . . .


MOOCs?  Not so much.  


HASTAC is dedicated to two goals that are almost mottos for our community:  "learning the future together" and "difference is our operating system." 


3.  The DML Competitions, like the larger MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Initiative under the visionary leadership of Connie Yowell, seek to find ways to engage youth in new modes of learning, informal and formal.  Connected learning, not MOOCs at all, but learning that is inspired by kids' own interests and inspires kids to learn, including those shut out by conventional educational systems.   That is the opposite of top-down, centrally-administered, sage-on-the-stage videos pushed out by elite universities to the masses.   This is personalized learning integrated into the fiber of kids' social and everyday lives.    In the MacArthur initiative, bold and innovative educators use the possibilities, affordances, and social appeal of new digital technologies to inspire and connect youth, many of whom are disenfranchised by contemporary school systems that are so heavily based in the class system, in traditionalism, and in end-of-term forms of standardized assessment that demoralize students and really demoralize educators (the drop out rate of great young teachers is even more of a national crisis than the drop out rate of high school kids in America).   These are both innovative, optimistic, idealistic communities. The DML Competitions are designed to find and support, through a competitive grantmaking process, innovative forms of learning, especially for those educators and learners (however loosely and creatively defined) who have been defeated, overlooked, neglected, or simply worn down by the formal education system, primarily K-12.   This is almost the opposite of Ivy League MOOC territory.   


That CHE could confuse the issue this much is illustrative of the kinds of misinformation circulating everywhere.  MOOC Mania is more like MOOC Panic.  It's time that we all calmed down, that we thought about the different strands of this argument carefully, and that we thought, together, about better forms of learning, pedagogy, research, scholarship, training, teaching, and learning that work best to prepare students for the world they inhabit beyond school.   We need better ideas.   Much better.  And we need them coming from humanists and social scientists and learning designers, not just from computer scientists and technology firms who are in the business of making technology, not of educating youth.


It's not as if our present systems work just fine and there is nothing to improve.  On the contrary, we've inherited a lot of clumsy apparatus that institutionalizes forms of learning and training that are not well suited to the demands of our era.   In fact, most of the institutional apparatus of education (K-22) was designed roughtly between 1876 and 1925 and has evolved since then.  It was explicitly Taylorist, with an emphasis on standardizing what was learned and how, what was taught and how, what was assessed and how, since "scientific management" of knowledge was part and parcel of the assembly-line and corporate-driven Industrial Age.  I'm talking about such things as IQ tests and multiple choice assessment; he idea of "deviation from the mea" which evolved into the concept of the Bell Curve;  disciplinary silos, majors, minors, distribution requirements and even the ideas of "giftedness" and "learning disabilities" all are developed and systematized at this dawning of the twentieth century.  It is about Taylorist "scientific learning management."   I'm not sure it ever worked all that well . . . but I am positive it's time to rethink the apparatus of our educational system---and our funding structures to reinvigorate support of a good, purposive, inspired and inspiring educational system--for the world we live in now, not the world in which most faculty members were trained. 


MOOCs are not the answer.  MOOCs raise questions, though, that all of us--thinking together and with difference as our operating system--should be working towards undefensively and creatively.   I do not want all the new ideas to come from elite institutions and from corporations.   But I do want new ideas.  That's why I was so excited by our recent HASTAC conference and, a few weeks ago, our Digital Media and Learning Conference.   Young scholars and senior scholars (all aware of the problems of neoLiberalism, the underfunding of education, and the wages of corporate for-profit eduation)  nonetheless were working together for new models of learning and teaching for the world in which we live.  


We need better ideas.   We need ideas that, as the HASTAC motto emphasizes, start with "difference as an operating system."   By that we mean that diversity of ideas, approaches, voices, peers, teachers, and learners is essential to the future of learning.  Now the ideas are mostly coming from computer scientists at elite universities and from corporations.   We need engaged educators, dedicated to the best forms of learning for youth today, to use this moment of transition to think carefully and creatively about the best ways we can learn and teach now.


That's the world in which I want to be a "major player."  Not MOOC world, but a creative and realistic world in which, together, we think about the best ways to make the most of new forms of connected, peer learning, teaching, and education. 




For the full infographic with more content and information, and a number of articles about MOOCs, please see:   " 





Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 11,000+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change.  Davidson teaches at Duke University where she co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge.   She is author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.  In October 2012, she and David Theo Goldberg, HASTAC's cofounders, were named Educator of the Year by the World Technology Network.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, .  The paperback of Now You See It was published July 31, 2012 :



It is ironic that Duke is also mentioned iin another "Chronicle of Higher Education" arrticle. I know you and a few others at Duke are very interested in creating great and engaging instructiion for your students. But I do not think  the majority of professor at Duke fell that way. And after interviewing at CIT, I do not think they feel that way either. I feel they are just trying to replicate their classroom instruction for online and it does not work.



Duke U.'s Undergraduate Faculty Derails Plan for Online Courses for Credit


Also "Inside Education"


Cathy, great piece on MOOCs and CHE.  I have often asked my students to complete the following sentence: 

"New technologies always tend to ..." and invariably I get the answer I expect, in some form or another, i.e. "... increase discrepancies in power".  So, plus ca change ... 

I also like your bill of rights.  I recently did a piece on affordances for learning (its a bit 'lateral', in that its in a book on political violence and terrorism, but there you go - it applies affordances to learning in many 'different' contexts), and it includes a bit on digital political rights in 'webworld' (see here: which may be of interest. 

More to the point about MOOCs, we have been researching and participating in MOOCs for some year now, and recently spent some time trying to find a way to 'describe the dynamics of what happens' - in cMOOCs, primarily -  as examples of open or 'emergent' learning.

To do this we have created a 3D palette, or 'footprint', which we developed using case studies in higher ed, preschools, teacher training, narratives, and installations for Autistic children.  (See here: It's and open wiki, and an open project, very much work in progress. 



Thanks, Roy.   This sounds like such interesting work. I look forward to learning more about your "footprints" and to learning more about emergent learning from MOOCs and other forms of distance learning.  I think we are just at the beginning of a variety of new forms.  Thanks for sharing your research on those forms as they emerge.