MOOCs and aesthetic experience

In the humanities at least, and especially in conversations around first-year composition, the opposition to MOOCs focuses on the value of small, face-to-face classes. But what is it about these classes that we find valuable? I want to answer that question in the context of John Dewey’s conception of aesthetic experience.

The value of the small class lies in our belief in its ability to generate “an” experience (in Dewey’s terms) for the students. “An” experience is a kind of singular event that produces meaning and value. It is in part the way one feels about an experience, that it all coheres rather than dissipates, but it is also how one thinks: it’s the composition of an important realization. Dewey’s concepts can be put into operation alongside the Vygotskian zone of proximal development or Csikszentmihalyi’s flow. In a smaller classroom as faculty we can have a sense of our students, we can better orchestrate conditions, and most importantly, students have a better opportunity to become engaged in course activities. Certainly one can be skeptical of these matters. As students, we’ve all sat in small classes that were dull and where there was little opportunity for engagement. However, I would still contend that the value placed on the small, FTF class is a valued hinged on this aesthetic experience.

One of the toughest things for me as a teacher of regular online classes is that it is very hard to get a sense of whether or not my students are having these kinds of experiences. In the regular classroom it’s something that you can sense. You can see it in their faces, in the tone and pace of conversation. Or at least it feels like you can. After all, as a teacher, you can have an experience too. However, when I look at the writing they produce, the quality is just as good. By all the evidence I can see, at least in my classes, students seem to do as well online as they do face-to-face. It’s just harder for me to feel that they are learning. I think this has as much to do with the asynchronous nature of online education as anything else. The few times I taught in Second Life, the experience was quite different. Of course part of that was operating in that space, but I think the real time conversations were just as important. However it is very uncommon for online education courses to have set meeting times that would facilitate real time learning. It’s understandable that they don’t though. After all, being able to learn “on your own time” is one of the great affordances of online learning. If I have a class of 20 or so online students, as I do now, and we were going to meet on a regular basis, we might as well do that on campus.

One of the things we can learn from MMORPGs is that people can have aesthetic experiences online in a space shared by 1000s of players. The spatial element is helpful here. Even though you’re on the same server with 1000s of others, you can only see dozens of others at most. Here the scale of MOOCs becomes an advantage. As a student you can learn on your own time, but any time you choose to go on, there are likely to be 100s if not 1000s of others also online. In theory there must be a way to turn this state of affairs to our pedagogical advantage. A few months back I suggested that MOOCs might benefit from having MMORPG-style guilds for this reason. However that would be more of a student-driven initiative. A similar kind of approach might be taken from the teacher-designer position.

So let’s play this out. Let’s say I had 5000 composition students and offered 60 weekly hours of real-time instruction (M-F 9-9). For illustrative purposes, let’s assume the average student spent as much time in the MOOC as they do in the conventional classroom: 3 hours per week, which means 15,000 user hours per week. I’ll be a little extravagant and say I need one instructor hour for every 30 student hours to facilitate online, real-time learning. That’s 500 instructional hours per week. I don’t know how you want to fit that into a job description. These instructors are probably also doing offline feedback. Maybe this MOOC is combined with some element of FTF instruction. Who knows. The point is that it would be possible to do this within the frame of how composition is currently offered. As you got more advanced, you could set up some scheduled, real-time programming as well. E.g. sign up and come to a site at a given time for a discussion of revising the first assignment. It then also becomes possible to build groups around interests. I’ve noted this before. Who are the students who are interested in writing research papers on environmental issues? Let’s set up some meeting times for them to gather. Let’s create some blogging spaces where they can share their writing. Let’s produce a webzine on the topic. Maybe we can connect these students with other faculty who research in this area. Maybe a librarian can come in to offer them some targeted help in doing research.

In the end, I think it is possible to generate aesthetic experiences through MOOC environments. Maybe not via the current xMOOC platforms on offer, but somewhere, out there.

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