Higher Education

the seminar is the worst form of pedagogy

…except for all the others.

Churchill’s famous line about democracy reflects well the general sentiment I’ve seen in the wake of the recent announcements about the expansion of Cousera into SUNY and other state university systems. Jeff Rice has an excellent post about this, on the assumptions that fuel these conversations on both “sides.” And as I think Jeff is suggesting, it would be more useful to follow the networks that are being developed by these xMOOCs than in spinning yarns founded on assumptions.

The assumptions run fairly deep here. You need a theory of thinking/cognition to have a theory of learning. And you need a theory of learning to have a pedagogy. It’s clear that people learn things in many contexts. But wait, what do we mean by “learning”? How is learning different from thinking? It’s a semantic problem. E.g., I woke up to learn I had an email from an old student. That’s not really what we mean by learning; we mean a more sustained endeavor that builds upon this simpler ability. But even given this we mostly learn in contexts that are not classrooms, not primarily designed as sites for learning. Schools and their pedagogies are then one site of many. The familiar classroom activities we practice today–lecture, class discussion, group work, writing, testing–are obviously all historically developed in the context of these institutions. Meanwhile, a different set of learning practices develop online, without schools, via affinity groups, for example: youtube videos, wiki pages, discussion forums, and so on.

All of that is very familiar to us. Or it should be. So why do we then go about thinking of academic online pedagogy as the importation of face-to-face learning into an online environment? The xMOOCs, like Blackboard before them, design platforms to facilitate importing online the lecture/test practices of large sections. We criticize the web for not giving us what the seminar room does. We mistake pedagogy for learning. We confuse the objectives of teaching with the practice of teaching. We say that we cannot teach our subject or our students without the specific affordances and structures of the academy. And to a degree that might be true. What would it mean to say that we cannot teach students to write the conventional essays of FYC without the FYC classroom and its curricular structures (semesters, meeting times, grades, etc.)? I suppose it would mean to recognize, as activity theory does, that writing is produced through a network: change the network, change the writing. But what does that tell us about the value of our practices?

Is it really possible for us to uncover our key disciplinary assumptions? Not the vague conscious-raising of ideological critique, but a mapping of the more targeted networks that produce our activity? Can we see in the humanities, in English Studies, in rhetoric, how our scholarly practices circulate through particular technologies and institutions? Maybe it is right to say that writing can only be taught, that literature can only be taught, within certain networks, or at least it might be right to say that our disciplinary understanding and practices surrounding these subjects can only be deployed within certain networks. What do we suspect will result from this realization?

A negative feedback loop is what results. As a discipline we cannot perform our teaching or scholarship outside our historical network, so, for the most part, we don’t. In turn, others, who are not invested in the discipline, step into these new contexts and start delivering some alternative/substitute for our work. We complain that our work can’t be done in those spaces, at least not properly. We say those interlopers are not interested in teaching/learning; they are not interested in scholarship. And that may be right. The xMOOCs of the world may be more interested in fame and fortune than learning. Or they may be more interested in disrupting traditional learning structures than in supporting them. Our unwillingness to take up the challenges of digital learning over the last decade created the opportunities for these entities to step in. Maybe it would have happened anyway. Blackboard was the product of university faculty. So are these xMOOCs. But it seems patently obvious to me that insisting on the seminar is not a long-term strategy. It is a strategy whose foundation is that pedagogy can never change. Of course this doesn’t mean embracing xMOOCs either.

It isn’t hard to imagine what a digital affinity group of faculty and students studying a common subject might look like. It isn’t hard because those communities already exist. However those communities relate to some future pedagogy in the  way that a library and a local reading group relate to our familiar pedagogies. We have a good history of small, online classes, but those are clearly remediations, the horseless carriages of digital pedagogy. My concern is that the justified skepticism with xMOOCs makes it more difficult to find a better solution as faculty become more entrenched. Can we experiment with large communities of students and faculty developing new pedagogies and perhaps even new curricular goals without giving ourselves over xMOOCs? Certainly the cMOOCs are an example of this, but they seem to get further obscured in the hype. I’m hoping that as SUNY jumps into this Coursera contract that this decision will not shut out other experiments.

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