Friday, 14 December 2012

Why I stopped believing in MOOCs

Coursera, Pedagogy, and the Two Faces of MOOCs : E1n1verse | Discovering Blended Learning |

When I was starting out in education, I really longed for an exciting range of technological solutions that could engage students from a distance, and encourage online interaction - or what we now refer to as MOOCs. It never seemed to come though, and as the years went by I found myself becoming disillusioned, and later disappointed. My faith in MOOCs as an educational solution wilted.

I had believed that online courses could provide a level social playing field for students in a way that no other educational forum could - but when eventually the technology did start to be readily available, it didn’t seem to achieve what it promised. No matter what I did, I could not seem to get students to engage with it. They seemed fixed, rigidly, in a distrust of educational technology, and unwilling to take that leap of faith into the world of discussion forums and online chats.

As the years went by, I began to understand why. These students were able to achieve everything that MOOCs promised by using non-educational tools like Twitter, Facebook and Google. Indeed, they seemed more comfortable with social media which did not imply an educational authority overseeing their activities.

I started to realise that there was a fundamental flaw in the idea that MOOCs can provide an abstract forum in which learning can grow organically, socially and deeply. The flaw was that the odds of that happening are so miniscule that only having faith in magic could make it so.

There were, then, logical flaws in the idea of the MOOC. It was a difficult idea for me to accept at first, because having spent much of my career working with technology I had a solid schooling in the belief that the internet can always provide answers to our problems. Every day I would religiously work to identify problems and explore each new emergent technology which might help address them. I had a habitual liturgy of places I would go to for solutions (Visual Basic, VLEs, html, cloud-based apps) and it was difficult to let go of these familiar and comforting securities against what I perceived as pedagogical despair. More significantly, my growing doubts alienated me from much of my own academic and pedagogic community, who saw my doubts about MOOCs as an attack on their own confident beliefs. I was filled, therefore, with a sense of both terror and of guilt.

Eventually though, I overcame these fears and my confidence grew in the logical conclusions which led me to believe MOOCs were not the answer to our problems, and that they could not achieve what they promised. MOOCs, I began to be certain, were a myth.

It itself, this was not really a problem. Certainly I did not feel inclined at this point to force my own views on others and actively oppose those whose faith in MOOCs remained unshaken. I did start to become irked though, that those who believed in the power of MOOCs felt obliged to try and shove their beliefs down my throat.

‘Isn’t it professionally arrogant’ they would argue, ‘to assume that the learning process can only effectively take place through your own individual control?’

‘How can you’, they would insist, ‘refuse to accept the important of MOOCs when they are clearly here, and here to stay?’

It occurred to me at this point, that these expressions of confidence in MOOCs appeared to be expressed more as a resignation than as a enthusiastic embrace. I realised that it was not that their belief in MOOCs was genuinely providing solutions to their own problems, but that they did not believe that there was a viable alternative. Take away MOOCs, and what would you replace it with?

Well, I wanted to cultivate more respect for myself and my students than that. I suspected that the only reason so many academics clung to MOOCs is that they had been let down by their educational system and didn't understand the vast and exciting range of non-technological options on offer. It was difficult to articulate this view because it appeared strangely taboo to criticise the now-established tenet that education must be embedded within technology in today’s culture. Book critics or theatre critics could be derisively negative and earn delighted praise for the trenchant wit of their review. A politician could attack an opponent scathingly across the floor of the House and earn plaudits for his robust pugnacity. But let a critic of MOOCs employ a fraction of the same direct forthrightness, and educational professionals, student groups, and Quality Assurance practitioners will purse their lips and shake their heads.

This was unfair. It was ignorant. Why should I not declare with as much forthright certainty that MOOCs are a myth? I do not believe in them and - more importantly - anyone who does believe in them is deluded. The focus of Universities on MOOCs is detracting from our focus on genuine academic and educational concerns. Much has been made about the negative effects of government cutbacks and tuition fee rises as the source of our current academic crises, but this is a distraction from the real threat to academic integrity and the education of the nation: MOOCs.

So after a long and difficult personal journey I have come to the point where I feel it is my moral duty to disillusion people about MOOCs. They are a myth. They do not exist, and those who are dedicating more and more time to them are working towards the devaluation of education and the corruption of society itself. A society of people deprived of genuine, valuable education because they have been forced to follow a MOOC, will be a society with no ethical or moral foundation, and no grasp of proper knowledge. MOOCs are therefore dragging human societies back down the evolutionary path towards the anarchy of the Stone Age.

If society is to progress, we must abandon our mystical trust in MOOCs. Marx pointed out that any social revolution would be violently opposed by those whose interests are being attacked, and the same could be true here. There are many who now make a living out of MOOCs. They will forcibly defend them, and use every power they have to persuade students to sign up to them. I have already had students arguing (with apparent sincerity) ‘MOOCs do exist’, or ‘I’m on a MOOC’, or ‘I got my degree through a MOOC and I now have a very good job’ - but such students have merely become the junkies of education: Pushed into a dependency on an irrational faith in technology, which has led them to hallucinate.

As painful as it may be, and no matter how violently they are defended, I do not believe that Academia can progress until the spectre of MOOCs is removed.

Oh pants. This is going to be embarrasing.

This week saw my students undergoing their assessed discussions in a module on cultural theory. Since a central theme of this module is to explore popular culture and to apply methods of textual analysis to it (see Peter Childs’ excellent 2006 book, Texts), this semester I took my students into the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford and invited them to explore that desperate hell-hole in the light of the theories and topics we had been exploring.

I have done this kind of thing before, and it generally produces really exciting responses - and this time was no different. We had discussions about how some shops market the idea of elite bourgeois values to the masses as a material commodity rather than as a hegemonic power structure. We had discussions about how banks advertise themselves. We had discussions about paradox, the media and political power in The Hunger Games.

The discussion which caused the biggest stir though, was the one which took for its topic a rather exclusive lingerie shop.

I must admit, I was nervous and uncertain when the idea was first proposed - and my reasons were partly selfish. Because frankly I am a bit of a prude, I did not relish the prospect of a largely female group of students revelling in how easy it is to make their tutor red-faced and embarrassed. I did have other concerns though. I was uncertain how such a topic could be effectively discussed without resorting to the kind of images and symbols employed by such a shop - and those images and symbols border perilously on the pornographic. Was this kind of thing acceptable? Even if it was borderline acceptable, how could I ensure that boundaries were not crossed which might upset other students (or me)?

I needed to do some reading. With great care I began to search for evidence of the academic studies of cultures of sexuality, and was immediately confronted with vast arrays of material. Clearly this is a field of study which is growing at a stupendous rate, and is equally clearly a point of increasing significance for academic study. This should not really have come as any surprise. It is difficult not to be made constantly aware of the extent to which sex and sexuality are at the heart of many contemporary concerns - commercial, cultural and political - and how they fundamentally shape social and political constructions of self in (especially) British societies through the media and through consumption. In spite of my prudery and ethical qualms, I certainly could not say that a cultural analysis of a lingerie shop was anything less than perfectly valid from an academic perspective - and extremely valid in terms of an analysis of consumer culture.

I noticed something else in my brief literature review though. The field of sociology appears to have embraced the study of sexualities with full-throated vigour, carving out a huge field dedicated exclusively to the study of pornography. The field of literary studies, likewise, has built up a healthy area of studies in sexuality and sexualities. However, in both instances references to the details and processes of the marketing of each is studiously avoided. Sociological studies seem to favour studies based on statistics about rates of consumption, frequency of sexualised imagery appearing in mainstream media, and highly theoretical studies on representations of sex in terms of deviation from a social norm. Of the countless Universities offering modules on sex in their English degrees, most restrict themselves to the relatively ‘safe’ territory of studying representations in various canonical texts - Cleland, Defoe, Lawrence, Nabobkov, etc.. - drawing on feminist and queer theories to explore representations of (again) deviation and difference.

In other words, even within such a vast field of study there appeared to be a rather scrupulous balancing act which meant that images or extremely explicit descriptions could be avoided.

No wonder. Neither would I have it any other way. It does strike me as a little strange though, that in a field of study which clearly relates to one of the most fundamentally significant and influential areas of social construction, academic study is obliged to engage with it in broad theoretical or indirect terms, and cannot (in the case of literary studies) apply the same methods of close reading and analysis to sexual ‘texts’ which would otherwise be considered a basic requirement for any other form of literature.

As it happens, the discussion never caused me any ethical concerns or embarrassment. It was, indeed, a fascinating discussion which explored the ways in which a lingerie shop presented sexuality as an embrace of moral contradictions (linking to Baudrillard): With mannequins sporting angelic ‘wings’ (albeit not much else), and photos of women presented as both pure and alluring. These images were compared (following the model of Williams' Ideal, Documentary and Social cultural formations) with images of nudes in classical art, and the point made that while one was ostensibly intended as a representation of beauty for its own sake, the other was a representation of beauty for the sake of creating a transferable fantasy (the fantasy that no matter who you are, you can look as sexy and beautiful as these models if you are willing to simply fork out the £120 it would cost for a little bit of lace). The images of semi-clad women were contrasted with the relative prudishness of having underwear discreetly hidden away in drawers, and this rather Edwardian sensibility was further related to the decor - which was described at one point as being a little like a French 19th Century Boudoir of the Moulin Rouge variety. Perfumes were on display, in exquisite packaging but with names that generated connotations of sexual attraction as lust or sin. The availability of sex toys in the inner recesses of the shop was again related to the sense that a respectable ‘surface’ hid a darker sexual desire - but that the situation of this shop re-located the notion of sexual desire from the dark and dirty realms of basement shops in Soho to the clean and respectable shininess of Westfield - bringing the acceptability of behaviour often perceived as deviant, closer towards a social norm.

All good stuff - interesting, theoretical, relevant and important.

Thank heavens it’s over.

Monday, 3 December 2012

But why not?! The questionable conjunction.

So I ended last week questioning the recieved wisdom about conjunctions.  I imagine like many educators, I have become habitually familiar with adding marginal comments on essays firmly declaring that you should 'never begin a sentence with a conjunction'.  In case you are unaware of the phenomenon, conjunctions are words which are designed to act as a pivot between the two clauses in a sentence.  Common examples are words like 'and' or 'but' (what we might refer to as 'co-ordinating conjunctions) or 'if', 'when' and 'because' (what we might refer to as 'subordinating conjunctions).  If you are still unsure of what we mean by conjunctions, you could do a lot worse that sit back and enjoy this masterful 1973 song:

It's a wonder more people don't write songs about grammatical or linguistic conventions, isn't it?  Perhaps Justin Beiber's next hit could be 'Beauty and a Compound Subject', or perhaps Olly Murs' next no.1 will be 'These are a Few More of my Favourite Bound Lexical Morphemes'.

But to return to my point.

When I see an essay which includes a sentence like 'And Shakespeare developed a new mode of presenting the thought processes of  his characters', or 'Also, Chomsky argues that human beings are endowed with common sense', then out comes my red pen.  Indeed, in these modern days of electronic submissions I have even set up a custom 'Quick Mark' comment so that I simply click on a button and 'Do not begin sentences with a conjunction' appears next to the offending passage.

It has occurred to me though, that to be so definitive about this issue is not really fair.  Because let's be honest, it is something we do in common speech all the time, while many writers of note have made frequent use of conjunctions at the beginning of sentences in order to generate rhetorical impact.

How could William Blake have written 'And did those feet in Ancient time / Walk upon England's mountains green?'  How could Sherlock Holmes have exclaimed 'But my dear Watson'?!  If we were to obliterate every example of starting a sentence with a conjunction we would have to deride much of the King James Bible, the works of Dickens, Carroll, Locke and Austen, and the speeches Churchill or Obama.  Even Shakespeare would be instructed to go back to the grammatical drawing board.

Actually, the more I look into the matter the more there appears to be a consensus among the grammatical and linguistic know-it-alls that actually there is no rule which precludes beginning a sentence with a conjunction.  Linguist David Crystal argues:

There was never any authority behind this condemnation. It isn't one of the rules laid down by the first prescriptive grammarians. Indeed, one of those grammarians, Bishop Lowth, uses dozens of examples of sentences beginning with and. Henry Fowler, in his famous Dictionary of Modern English Usage, went so far as to call it a 'superstition'. He was right. Joining sentences in this way has been part of the grammatical fabric of the language from the very beginning. 

Case closed, you might think.  Although not just yet.

Discussing this issue on Twitter, Alison Iredale argued that starting a sentence with conjunction is something we should still be wary of.  "For me" she said, "its about coherency and flow of the paragraph. I struggle to follow the sentence when it seems to start half way through."

This is actually a very important point.  When you read through various examples of great writers using conjunctions to begin sentences, the feeling you get tends to be one of surprise.  'Wow!' you think, 'I had no idea they did it so often!'

Well of course you didn't.  Because when you were reading their work, unless the writer was specifically trying to unbalance you it never seemed as though the sentence was starting half way through.  It simply worked.  But this is not an easy skill to master - and it is particularly difficult when attempting to write in a style which is as highly formal and technical as academic writing. You have probably noticed my multiple efforts to start sentences with conjunctions throughout this blog - and if you have then it just goes to show that I am not very good at it.

Perhaps then, it comes down to this.  There is actually nothing inherently wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction.  Indeed when used well it is a device which can add impact and a rhetorical flourish to the development of your argument, and a creative variety to your modes of expression.  However, managing this without it sounding awkward or merely clumsy requires a complex and difficult balance that eludes even experienced writers.  Given this, perhaps it is sensible to stick with the recieved wisdom which discourages students from the attempt - if for no other reason, then because it is really far too complex and time-consuming to explain the difference between doing it well, and doing it badly.


Ok.  So, the next question - again courtesy of Alison Iredale.  How important is rhetoric in academic writing?  Hmm...  Answers on a postcard?

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