being open-minded on the future of MOOCs

I was having a conversation the other day about general education, and we were talking about the desire for students to become responsible and open-minded people. Sure. Why not? Of course, we wouldn’t want to suggest that students arrive as irresponsible and close-minded, so maybe what we mean is some advancement along the line to becoming “more” responsible/open-minded. My response was to wonder when the state of “open-mindedness” is reached and if it then becomes a permanent condition. In my view, open-minded is not a characteristic that I particularly associate with academics. If anything, because we are trained to be skeptical, because of the myopia that results from the single-minded pursuit of some esoteric subject matter, academics tend to be less open-minded. Now perhaps that characterization turns being open-minded into a deficit rather than a benefit. In the context of this general education conversation, being open-minded referred specifically to those issues we associate with diversity, so it means something like being accepting of those who are culturally different from oneself. I suppose we can have a debate over whether or not universities are particularly open-minded in their treatment of cultural differences, as we might discuss the open-mindedness of the faculty and staff in less institutional/bureaucratic terms. I think we’d probably decide that higher education is relatively more open-minded than many other spaces in American culture. Maybe not.

That’s not the conversation I want to have today though. Instead, I am interested in a more capacious definition of open-mindedness and cultural differences. At least since C.P Snow, we’ve recognized cultural differences that are specific to universities (all institutions have their own cultures). Not only do disciplines/departments have rivalries, but most departments have internal disciplinary differences. I mostly experience these things from my position in rhetoric and English departments. In these spaces, it is acceptable to be close-minded about STEM or business or other professional schools. It is acceptable for rhetoric and literary studies to be close-minded about one another. It is acceptable to be close-minded about technological innovations and their impact upon teaching and scholarship. Now perhaps the objection is to say “We aren’t being close-minded; we’re being skeptical.” Maybe, but skepticism is about reserving judgment. So, for example, we might say “MOOCs haven’t arrived yet.  Maybe teaching 100,000 students is possible. Maybe not.They require further study and experimentation.” That’s a healthy dose of skepticism in my view. Is that what you hear people saying? Sure, in some places, but that’s not the dominant tenor of these conversations.  You’ve probably seen the recent NY Times article regarding Sebastian Thrun’s recanting of some of his claims about the future of MOOCs. Such articles might be seen as some as the beginning of the end for MOOCs. No doubt there’s been a ton of hype. However, I don’t think the rejection of MOOCs has ever been about the technology itself.

There is a tension between the value of open-mindedness and the insistent myopia of academic research.  It remains to be seen if it can be made a creative tension. As I have said here and elsewhere in regards to MOOCs but really all digital media questions about pedagogy, if what one wishes to do is create the experience of sitting in a lecture, reading (text)books, and taking tests/writing essays, then probably there isn’t a better way to have that experience then actually having that experience. If the goals of one’s curriculum are deeply imbedded in the affordances and constraints of traditional learning spaces, then one is likely to find those traditional spaces work best for achieving those goals. Digital pedagogy is ultimately about redefining the experiences and goals of learning. Should we let technology drive the curriculum? Certainly not. And that applies to books, chalk, and word processors as it does to MOOCs, mobile phones, and media production software. But here is where that myopia arises. Digital media technologies impact disciplines in different ways. I would and have argued that they are paradigm-shifting for rhetoric and much of the humanities. I also believe they are paradigm shifting for pedagogy across the campus, which means they change some of our fundamental ideas about how we learn and what we should learn. This is not easy to respond to as an educator, and there is inevitable blowback into one’s research as well. Certainly in English, where research methods remain print-bound, any shift toward digital pedagogy creates tensions.

For these to be creative tensions, they have to move in two directions. One has to ask what one’s legacy research and pedagogy might contribute to digital pedagogy. That is, if/when one can extricate something of one’s practice from the print culture conditions in which it developed, one can bring that to bear on shaping a new digital pedagogy. And conversely, one has to ask what digital media could contribute to one’s research and pedagogy. It’s not objectionable to take up the tools available in the pursuit of a research question or pedagogical goal. After all, that’s what our predecessors did when they pawed through card catalogs and print indexes, climbed the library stacks, and banged out articles on typewriters. In the midst of such paradigm shifts we may discover that the old cultural boundaries we have maintained–and the value judgments we have assigned to them–no longer pertain.It may not be possible to replicate our traditional disciplinary paradigms in the digital media world. If so, then one must choose between holding on to traditional values and judgments and shaping new communities and paradigms. Perhaps it is not so easy to decide where open-mindedness exists in that context. Does tolerance include being tolerant of intolerance? To be open-minded must we be accepting of those who are close-minded? Or is open/tolerant and closed/intolerant really about who agrees with us? I hope not. Building something worthwhile out of digital pedagogy, massive or otherwise, will require some open-mindedness about the kinds of experiences we value and the goals we want to achieve. It might require asking new/different questions and being open to new methods for pursuing those questions.

Maybe that’s the open-mindedness that general education wants to instill in students, but I suggest starting with the faculty.

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