Higher Education

the double bind of open education #edcmooc

For week two of the eLearning and Digital Culture MOOC, one of the assignments is watching Gardner Campbell speak at Open Ed 12 from last October. Here's the video:

One of Gardner's key points of reference is Gregory Bateson, specifically Ecologies of the Mind. Having been up and down the cybernetics business, Bateson is familiar to me from that angle, but my first encounter was through Deleuze and Guattari, right at the start of A Thousand Plateaus, where they write: "A plateau is always in the middle, not at the beginning or the end. A rhizome
is made of plateaus. Gregory Bateson uses the word "plateau" to designate something very special: a continuous, self-vibrating region of
intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination
point or external end."

This is perhaps not so far off from what Gardner is seeking in his use of Bateson: open education as a "continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities." However, there's a problem, as we all know. And it is a problem that Gardner, through Bateson, terms the double-bind. The double-bind is when one is giving two conflicting messages or goals to follow. My favorite example from the talk is the description of a blogging requirement and rubric from a syllabus. There's a long description of rules and procedures to follow and an extensive description of requirements… followed by the injunction to "be creative" and foster a community. This isn't meant to poke fun at the anonymous professor, because we are all in this double-bind. Bateson suggests that the responses to the double-bind take the form of paranoia (this is a trick), hebephrenia (screw it, let's get drunk), and catatonia (what?). Certainly these are the typical faculty responses I have seen to the double-bind of a university strategic plan (or online education) for that matter. So it's not just students. But what are we to do? If we have a syllabus, don't we need to have requirements and grade criteria? 

The central double-bind for digital literacy education–whether it is FTF, traditionally online, or open and online–is between the demand to reinvent/be creative and the expectation of meeting traditional standards. Gardner relates a story of one academic who responds to the idea of open online education by saying "it may be learning, but it's not academics." If that is true, it's because academics is tied to certification, and certification is tied to reaching specific, predetermined goals. I don't think anyone wants to do away with the practice of certification, especially for certain professions. In fact, the badges movement looks to expand the micro-certifications of academics (e.g. the course credit) into extra-institutional learning experiences. My inclination would be that we need to move in the opposite direction, distancing learning from certifying. But I don't see us doing that, in part because higher education is a research and certifying machine far more that it is a teaching and learning one. However just as importantly our student-customers want certification more than they want learning. They want jobs not an education. Are jobs and education mutually exclusive? No, but they overlap in rather impoverished ways, at least in the eyes of our students. As WPA I read through 1000s of FYC course evals each year. There is a running theme in those responses that no one should find surprising: students don't believe that a writing course is relevant to the education they are pursuing. Likely many of these comments come from prospective STEM majors, but also business, which makes up 1/5 of our student population.

I don't wish to romanticize open online education as Deleuzian plateau. However the idea of openness might imply eschewing the definition of specific culmination points or external ends: a problem for institutions (and students) who are more interested in external ends than self-vibrating intensities. When it comes down to it, I don't think faculty are all that interested in opennes either. Faculty are interested in replicating the closed systems that award them with expertise.

So, for example, a writing or digital composing MOOC is easy to imagine. DS106 digital storytelling is one. A writing MOOC with 40000 students could work without problem… as long as no certification is required, as long as the particular writing and the particular ends are not important. As long as it doesn't even matter if the students write or don't write, learn or don't learn. Of course the trick of good design would be to invite participation. But is this what the many students these MOOC's hope to attract want? Do they want "open education" or do they want "free certification"? (preferably with a minimum of work or learning).

This is the great double bind of open education: to reorient prospective students toward an open-ended education and away from the symbolic capital promised by higher ed. It's an interesting project but I wonder how it works for any of the people who are involved?

2 replies on “the double bind of open education #edcmooc”

I’ve been reading a lot about MOOCs in the past few months. Other than in the writings of a few scholars like Steve Krause’s blog posts (very insightful) I haven’t come across much discussion about MOOC in the specific context of “higher ed” that we provide as teachers of writing–broadly defined. This post was probably the most insightful for me as a writing teacher. Will be reading other posts on your site. Just a thank-you-for-sharing-good-ideas shout out. -Shyam


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