Filling a pot, lighting a fire, and delivering a pizza

*** This has been sitting in the draft box for some time, and what better motivation to write it up than coming back from #coursera14? ***

I didn’t mean to turn this space into a MOOC diary, but as the course development happens to be taking up the biggest chunk of my time lately, I can’t help it…

I felt secure with my identity as a researcher from very early days. As a teacher, however, not as much. Not so bad as to experience the so-called imposter syndrome, but enough to nod along when someone is talking about ‘teacher anxiety‘. So, when a panelist at the Coursera Partners Conference likened his experience of running a MOOC to ‘walking naked in the market’, he wasn’t helping. (In all seriousness though, his talk was my favourite at the conference.)

The anxiety shared by many teachers is not really surprising, is it, as teaching is an interactional process and hence one has only so much control over outcomes. However, how I feel about teaching personally has a lot to do with my culturally-grounded perception of teaching as a one-way, even top-down, transfer of knowledge and provision of answers. As Wu (2010) distinguishes through amusing yet powerful use of metaphors, in the part of the world I am from, teaching is like ‘filling a pot’, as opposed to the Western notion whereby teaching is considered more like ‘lighting a fire’.

With this in mind, the more I think about teaching, the more convinced I become that it all boils down to expectation management. And if my theory has some truth in it, I see two more challenges ahead of our MOOC.

First, I have noticed that there are certain expectations of how a MOOC should look and operate, and those expectations are formulated and expressed in quantitative terms. This is partly because of the conventions that MOOC platforms and course providers have so far set, but more importantly because of the scalability issue that everyone in this business has been dealing with.

Walking and learning (Kate Bowles, Music for Deckchairs, 5 March 2014)

If you’ve ever watched 8 year olds walk a school route, you’ll know that their progress is circular, wandering, attentive and distracted all at the same time. They stop to pick things up. They run about in circles for a bit. They dawdle and notice things you miss. Adults and older children nag at them to do it properly, to pick up the pace and make orderly, timely, productive progress. There’s an implicit schedule which we think they should follow, so that everyone achieves the walking-to-school outcomes on time.

But suddenly I realised that what they’re doing is learning: they’re learning about their community by making tracks through it, remembering that yesterday there was a lizard here or a dropped bit of trash there. And this is exactly the point smart people like Patrick Masson and Mark Smithers have been quietly making about online learning and MOOCs: what really threatens the privilege of universities as regulators of approved learning is the internet itself, because this is where we all go to learn, to “make the path by walking”. […]

What MOOCs represent is a brand-driven effort to corral this massive, extraordinary, networked practice of wild, collaborative learning back from the open internet, and to return it to a stable, disciplined marketable state. That’s why MOOCs are disrupting precisely nothing about universities, nothing at all.  It’s why the rhetoric about MOOCs introducing unparalleled learning opportunities to out of the way places is such rubbish: learning isn’t something you deliver like a pizza.

Funnily enough, the point made against MOOCs above precisely illustrates what my ‘co-conspirator’ and I are hoping to facilitate through a MOOC. Given our subject matter as well as pedagogical stance, we are intending to do things a little differently, consciously distancing us from the usual ‘video lectures, quizzes and homework’ model, and working towards a more ‘organic’ one. (By the way, in the School, this adjective is often interchanged with ‘SOASy’ as an in-joke. 😉 )

At this week’s conference or otherwise, I have met a good number of colleagues who support our idea, but when it comes to the operationalisation of the idea, many seem to picture it still in terms of video lectures, quizzes, and homework, which will then together lead to a numerically expressable grading system. So, the question for us to ponder is how to reconcile the conflict between the quantitatively oriented settings where our MOOC will sit and the qualitative nature of the experience that we aim to create through that MOOC – or to put it another way, how to facilitate rhizomatic learning but at unprecedented scale.

The other challenge I see is tied in with the point I made earlier about cultural variations in what students expect from a course. Our MOOC is structured around ‘e-tivities’ as Salmon (2002) terms. The ORM project provides a good explanation of what an e-tivity is:

[…] E-tivities generally involve the tutor providing a small piece of information, stimulus or challenge, which Salmon refers to as the ‘spark’. Learners then take part in an online discussion or activity which requires them to respond in some way to the ‘spark’.

That’s right, the spark, as in ‘lighting a fire’. Now, referring back to the aforementioned metaphors of differing conceptions of pedagogy (Wu, 2002), will the Socratic nature of e-tivities be compatible with the ever-so-global composition of our students? Will students from cultural backgrounds where teaching is all about ‘filling a pot’ experience frustration, as Wu described, with the lack of us telling them how to, for example, design a questionnaire or to conduct a discourse analysis?

Of course, I don’t know the answers yet. What a foggy world I am entering. The researcher in me can’t wait to get on with it and find out more about all this from empirical data, à la Robert E. Park, while the teacher in me is losing sleep anticipating various scenarios and possible complications.

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