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How To Take On the MOOCs—And the Rest of Higher Ed Too

How To Take On the MOOCs—And the Rest of Higher Ed Too

Yesterday, registration closed for my ISIS 640 class, History and Future of Higher Education.”  Thirteen students all had to apply to be accepted: undergrads, grads, PhD and MFA students, a computer scientist, an artist or two, humanists, information designers, and assessment experts, from Duke, UNC, and NC State. Five were already in the graduate class that wrote, edited, and published Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies:  A Guide to New Theories, Methods, and Practices for Open Peer Teaching and Learning, which is one of the key texts for the new course, the MOOC, and the #FutureEd movement.  They are the core team with whom I’ll be strategizing our contribution to what we hope will be a worldwide movement to, first, change the scope and the voices in the conversation about higher education, and then, second, to actually begin to change higher education.  We call this #FutureEd. 

How? You name the ways!   There is no one answer.

In big ways and small, in our classrooms, our departments, our fields, our institutions (or in alternative spaces outside them), many of us (not a few, many) are experimenting with alternative ways of thinking, teaching, learning, doing research, and making assessments of what we are doing. We are collaborating together, letting our students inspire one another, themselves--and us!  And we are working magic in the system and around it.  Whatever we do, wherever we succeed or fail, even the trying is important.  And when we succeed, in whatever realm, we’ll tell others about it.   We want any ideas, reading recommendations, pedagogical experiments, curricular overhauls, requirement changes, major and minor re-envisionings to be celebrated and shared here on HASTAC, to serve as a model to others and also as a "justification" (See!  If X did it, we can too . . .).  Sharing success helps others to achieve it.  And it helps us to get in the news and not let MOOCs be the only conversation about higher education out there.  So much has to change.  MOOCs are trivial in what they actually aim to change in higher ed--and they are quite conventional in form (although some folks like Al Filreis, in his Modern and Contemporary Poetry course,  have taken the MOOC's limits the way a poet takes the rules of a sonnet:  these are the conventions, now let's make something beautiful in and around them).  We need to tell all those stories.

The other main point:  this conversation must begin with students.  It is shocking how little of the conversation about educational transformation includes students intrinsically, at the beginning, as real motivators and movers of the process.   The reform of higher education cannot be about preserving the status quo of the current curriculum.  It cannot be data collection and score achievement.  It has to be students thinking through together (really seeing) what their education is and has been and thinking together about what it might be.  That's the final project in ISIS 640:  small teams of students will design a model of the university from scratch.  They will think about who will be their students, what admissions requirements there might be, how it will recruit those students, what kinds of learning opportunities in what knowledge areas it will offer them, and how their university will measure, certify, and credential the mastery of that particular knowledge.  They will come up with a business plan for supporting this school and analyze what changes with what model.   They will do a napkin sketch of the physical plant--if there is one.  (I just learned of a high school competition where students in Red Deer, Alberta, won by designing a school that, among other things, had a sloped roof that would support produce--raised by the students, of course--for the families in some months and that would be a snowboarding run in the winter. Cool.) 

After the ISIS 640 student teams have come up with their model of higher education of the future, they will put it up on the Coursera Forums and see what the 5000 or 20,000 or however many participants there are think about it, what they will add, subtract, define, recast.  That's pretty exciting.  And certainly will be for the students engaged in such an endeavor.  And hopefully their teacher(s) will learn a lot from this as well. 

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HASTAC’s two mottos are:  “Learning the future together”  and “Difference is our operating system.”   There is no one way.  There is no right way.  One thing is certain:  There is a lot to lose if we don't make the effort.  HASTAC is creating tools (they’ll be ready in January) where participants can upload the details of their discoveries, set backs, ambitions, and successes so others can see a model, learn details about what it takes, what it means, and how it works to change a classroom or an institution.  We already have a place where you can sign up to participate: And you can add your name and ideas to the Comments section below, too.

Here’s the bottom line:  the educational system we have now was designed for another era, the era of the Model T and the assembly line.  Frederick Winslow Taylor, the architect of scientific labor management, was the first distinguished professor at America’s first freestanding professional business school, the Tuck School at Dartmouth, where he promulgated what I call “scientific learning management.”  We’ve been perfecting that model, regulating it, enforcing it, standardizing it more and more ever since, in the U.S. and in different formats worldwide. 

Here’s the paradox we have to get past: in the US, public education has been drastically, painfully defunded, jeopardizing the future of the next generation.  That is a reality.  But it is also a reality that the status quo of higher education (regardless of funding) is in drastic need of rethinking for a new era—not for the Model T.  You can fight for better support of higher education and be looking to better future models for education.  It’s a false binary to think supporting the status quo is how you support an embattled higher education.  No.   It’s not worth defending the status quo because the status quo is antiquated and has been badly eroded by defunding of public education, excess costs of private education, insane amounts of credentialing and standardization, and a lot of foot-dragging on the part of some people who would rather lose all their students than look inward, collectively, to think about better ways they might be addressing the needs students today.  We need to improve the model and the funding streams.   You cannot have a profession (college teching) that is 70% adjunctive, contingent labor. Whose future is that? Reform the system--and fight for better ways of funding it.

Here’s the purpose behind this larger HASTAC initiative: If we who have the most at stake in higher education—professors and students to begin with—aren’t taking charge of thinking about what comes next, then who is?

You know the answer.  The big “game changer” in higher education for the last two years, the big “disrupter,” has been the MOOC, Massive Online Open Courseware, financed by venture capital, driven by a handful of elite universities, massively scaled so millions can take online videotaped courses (EdX at Harvard and MIT is apparently even talking to Matt Damon to have him “teach” courses prepared by “real” Harvard professors and scripted by professional screen writers).  I’m not against MOOCs.  In fact, part of my own assault on the higher ed status quo is a Coursera MOOC on that topic.  (Hey! As Jean-Paul Sartre, by way of Malcolm X, said: “by any means necessary.”)

What we cannot do is just sit back and let MOOCs and for-profits and corporations say that academics have no ideas, that the only way to change education is for massive influxes of venture capital from outside (even as, in the U.S. and so many other countries too, state legislatures are choking funding to public education).   And we cannot have a serious conversation about higher education without students being seriously involved.  It’s their future, isn’t it?

Okay, back to ISIS 640, now that we have our thirteen-person team.   First assignment, before the term even begins:  watch (again) Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic, Seven Samurai.  Ostensibly a story of 16th century Japanese villagers who know they are about to be besieged again by bandits who will steal their crops, the town decides to bring in seven samurai to protect them.   Of course, keep in mind this is 1954, World War II has ended, the atom bombs dropped, the Occupation Forces (U.S. mainly) are now out of Japan, so viewers in Japan are watching a movie set during what is known as the Warring States Period (a time of tremendous, constant wars and violence in Japan), but they are also watching, in real historical time, their own country try to recover from its own warring states, as aggressors and as victims, defeated and recovering. In Seven Samurai, the farmers bring in seven astonishing professional warriors: one untested, one world weary, one charming, one mercurial, and one serious philosopher-swordsman.  

I’m not going to spoil the movie for those of you who haven’t seen it.  But here’s the basic point.  The samurai don’t defend the village.  They teach the villagers how to be bold, how to defend themselves, how to assess their own areas of weakness and fortify those, and how to prepare for battle against marauding bandits.

The bandits, in the movie and in this blog, are a metaphor as well as a reality.  If you think the forces of destruction are only the band of culprits who happen upon you this time, you aren’t think clearly enough about what you need to defend and how you need to defend it.  And sometimes the biggest enemy is inside yourself.

Okay, enough of that.   We at HASTAC have no idea where any or all of this might lead.  We just know there is a lot of interest, and there is going to be a lot of press, and we want all of us (and that means you, dear reader) to make a lot of noise.  Here, again, is the place you can sign up to be involved.  Click on the “Suggest an addition” button and you’ll be able to fill out a small form and we’ll respond:

We hope, at the end of this, there will be so many possibilities that we all are energized and inspired in new ways—and may even find some partners, too, even among our most resistant-seeming colleagues.   Why now?  Because in an era of warring interests and marauding bandits, sometimes a little bit of resistance and leadership can go a lot further than handwringing and critique without real, substantive change.

Spoiler alert:  In Seven Samurai it’s the farmers, not the professional warriors, who have most to lose and most to win. To repeat what I said earlier:  When it comes to educational transformation, there is no one way. There is no right way. But empowering students to think deeply about how they have been educated and what kind of education is needed for the future is, itself, transformative.  It is about learning a disposition to openness which is to say a disposition to change which is to say a disposition to learning. 


There are many improvements we can tackle together. And one thing is certain: There is a lot to lose if we don't make the effort.  

Join us!  #FutureEd


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