digital humanities digital rhetoric Teaching

Do MOOCs need guilds? #edcmooc

Life interfered a litle last week, so I got off-track on this MOOC, so today I will be responding to both week 3 and 4 of the eLearning and Digital Culture MOOC. These weeks deal with the topic of posthumanism… so something on which I've written a great deal. The instructors also offer up transhumanism. I can see the point of comparision on some surface level, but, at least in my view, these are two very different things and the comparision might lead to some serious misunderstanding of posthumanism. I'll get to those details in a moment, but I want to arrive there through a consideration of this question: do MOOCs need guilds?

What do I mean by that? While I am not a player of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, I am aware that much of the activity in these games is carried out by collectives of players known as guilds. Many of the missions in these games require the concerted effort of 20 or more players, so a fair amount of coordination is required both during the live event of adventuring and in-between. I realize I am an ususual participant in this MOOC as I am operating more as an observer than as someone who has specific learning goals. However I started thinking that serious MOOCers might benefit from being part of a small (20-50 person) group of participants who would commit not only to a single MOOC course but might undertake multiple courses over time. Different participants might offer different skills. For exmaple, some would have more or less time to devote to a particular course and bring more or less expertise to the content. As such their roles might change over time, sometimes being more like a mentor and sometimes playing the students. Members could divide the work of investigating different parts of the course and reporting back to the group. 

I suppose one's response to this suggestion might have something to do with how one views the ethical practices of learning. Do we really want students taking courses as a group, collaborating and strategizing independing of the instructor? Or do we ultimately want students to be independent in some fundamental way that would make a guild-type strategy unethical.

In part, this also has to do with how one envisions learning on a MOOC. In an email list discussion I had a few weeks back on the potential of a writing MOOC, I suggested that learning in a MOOC couldn't simply be measured by what individual students had learned, that instead the pedagogical activity of the MOOC needs to recognize what the collective network learns. This is not a spurious suggestion. Part of the premise here is that IF MOOCs are the "future of education" then that is partly because the future of professional labor and citizenship will take place through this kind of collective, networked activity where expertise is not so much about what is inside your head but how well you can connect your head to a larger network of cognition. 

Of course this brings to the matter of trans- and posthumanism. Transhumanism, at least as it is represented for the course in this article, is a political position that advocates for technoscientific experimentation and a legal system that promotes wide freedoms to adopt technological innovations. Posthumanism though is not well-represented, even though the instructors offer this introduction to a collection titled Posthumanism, which largely conflates posthumanism with poststructuralism. Unlike transhumanism, posthumanism is not about something that will or might be made to happen through technoscience. It is not even something that did happen, as in once upon a time we were humanist-type humans and now we are posthuman. Instead, posthumanism is about reconsidering what humans always already were/are. Basically, even though poststructuralism is certainly a critique of humanism, it does not do what posthumanism seeks to do in its attempt to understand the intersection of humans and nonhumans.

As a posthumanist, at least my version of it, one would look at MOOCs as networks of distributed cognition (which work with varying degrees of success). While the apparent goal of each course is mastering the content, the other, less obvious goal is teaching users to participate in a particular kind of information network, where knowledge is developed through a certain range of techniques. Of course we could say the same thing about the 20th-century industrial classroom. So, for example, 20th-century academic writing (e.g. first-year composition) was about

  • close reading of print texts
  • using a print library
  • writing a linear text (e.g. thesis statements, paragraph development, etc.)
  • working independently.

The 21st-century learning environemnt and digital composition is perhaps more akin to the wiki page

  • distant reading of digital resources
  • accessing information over multiple networks
  • producing digital media artifacts with multiple audiences and access points
  • working collectively

I don't mean to suggest that 20th century skills disappear, but I do believe they must operate within the context of the 21st century environment. For example, we still need to read closely. However, close reading is no longer enough and must be integrated with an ability to handle more information than one person can be expected to read in the time alloted for any given project. There will still be linear texts but they will not operate as they once did.

MOOCs can teach students to operate in these new environements. However I do think something like a guild approach would be useful in making that happen. 


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