Thursday, October 30, 2014

The medium is the message, so pick your medium well

This semester I am helping out a colleague, and current M.Ed. student on the topic of MOOCs. He is taking a few MOOCs as part of his trying to grasp what it means to take a MOOC in order to create a MOOC.  Unsurprisingly, as is the case with most people, he's having some issues with Connected Courses because cMOOCs require the knowledge, and utilization of, certain literacies that we don't necessarily teach, or practice in school, even as graduate students.

So, in brainstorming with him over the past couple of weeks I've been  thinking a lot about the phrase: The Medium is the Message†.  One of the main pitfalls of instructional designers and instructional technologists, especially those who are currently going through their studies and are novices in the field, is that they tend to think of technology first, and everything else later.  This is true with MOOCs as well, especially people who've been enculturated to think that MOOCs are of the xMOOC variety, that they begun at elite Universities and platforms for such innovations were funded by venture capital firms, so that we may arrive at coursera, udacity and so on. So, the first question on my colleague's mind seemed to be which platform to use. This is the wrong starting point, for a variety of reasons.  First, the medium of an LMS, and coursera and co. are learning management systems, let's not kid ourselves,  comes with certain constraints in mind.  This concept isn't new, Lisa Lane wrote about it back in 2009, and I'm sure others have written about similar and related issues before this.

The pedagogy that was initially conceived for those initial Stanford MOOCs really has informed the design that has gone into coursera and co., and as a consequence to that, this design constrains all future courses "designed" for that platform to fit a specific mold.  I read something today on CogDog's Blog about people liking the LMS because they find the web too complicated‡. I guess this is people and institutions might also flock to MOOC LMS of various sorts and not think outside the box and devise solutions that work for them and their specific educational goals and outcomes for offering a MOOC. It's not like you can co-opt a MOOC LMS to do what you want to do, right?  You can try, and I think that the good folks at E-Learning and Digital Cultures did a good job with their MOOC, but they still needed to work within the confines and requirements of the coursera MOOC platform.

When you play in someone else's sandbox, you need to obey their rules. Disobey and at the best case scenario you will find yourself trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.  Worst case scenario you might get slapped by the provider and this could take many forms. So, at the end of the day, my advice to future educational technologists and instructional designers is to not start with the technology, start with your goals, aims, and how you'd like to reach them.  Go with technology after you've done part of your planning.  Also, it's worthwhile looking at the Terms of Service for what you are going to use.  You might be surprised at what you can, and cannot, do.  I came across a coursera ToS agreement a while back.  While I didn't read the entire legal document a few things popped out to me as concerning.  If things raise some red-flags, it's important to do something about it (or avoid the software) because you are not only thinking of your class and your learners, but also your university.

So, this was where this post was going to end, but I saw that Paul de Haye (probably known mostly due to #massiveteaching) posted on his blog a few things, including a statement of what happened with #massiveteaching, as well as a blog on the erosion of thick legitimacy by coursera. Both were interesting reads, so if you haven't read them yet they are worth reading and chewing on for a while.  They also seemed to connect to the overall message of this post: the medium is the message, hence a longer-than-usual blog post.

I am not going to summarize Paul's posts (you should read them directly from the source), but two things come to mind when reading them.  First, I agree with coursera, and other venture capital driven MOOC projects as riding on the coat-tails and reputations of established universities. Paul, if I am understanding this correctly, calls this Thick legitimacy.  This is the first time I hear of this concept, so I am interpreting it a bit through my own cultural expressions (like riding the coat-tails of someone).  I think this  thin legitimacy of projects like Coursera is inevitable for any new project, and any entity in that position would look for ways to make themselves look more credible, and hopefully in the future through their own efforts develop their own thick legitimacy.  We see this tag-along mode of being partly by the rhetoric of "take the world's best courses online, for free" (current slogan on coursera.com).  We also see this in the rhetoric from non-profits liked edx ("Take great online courses from the world's best universities" as the current slogan on edx.org).

I don't think that there is a problem with thin legitimacy to begin with, everyone has to start somewhere.  Even doctoral students, like myself, are basing their own initial thin legitimacy on their institution's thick legitimacy until we can prove ourselves and develop our own brand of thick legitimacy (a positive reputation).  I think the problem, as Paul writes, is that if those with thin legitimacy don't start developing their own, and leech of the legitimacy of their partners, then their partners are not only not gaining a benefit, but they are actively hurt by this thin legitimacy.  I'll give you a personal example from this. I work for a university who has been in online education for quite some time now (I think our first online courses were in 2000).

My home department is now entering our 9th year with a fully online, accredited, and respected program.  I can't claim any of the glory, others set it up before I came, but as an alumn of the program I am proud of what my department has achieved.  Enter the xMOOC with thin legitimacy.  Some learners who have taken xMOOCs are asking me advice about our online program. They equate the work done by coursera as being the archetype for online courses, and they are looking to transfer that understanding on how online learning works to traditional online, accredited, programs like the one I am working for.  This actively hurts us, as an established online program, because we are equated with the impoverished pedagogy of xMOOCs. We are not partners with coursera, but we are still feeling, to some extent the collateral damage from this. I can only imagine what institutions who partner with xMOOC platforms might get in terms of feedback in their traditional online programs. Wait, are there universities on coursera that have traditional online programs?

The second thing that jumped out is Paul's act of civil disobedience (for lack of a better term). Paul saw issues with Coursera's policies, and as we've discussed here, elsewhere, and in real life, MOOC LMS providers don't make deals with individual professors but rather with university administrators and university legal departments. Those legal documents are concerning to many, and there are ways of getting the word out and getting others concerned as well.  Paul's approach was to use the system to try to raise awareness of the system's issues. OK, that's one approach, and it certainly got a lot of notoriety (bad notoriety for Paul, unfortunately), but I am happy that his side is now out and available. I personally would not have chosen to use coursera to make a point about coursera's problems.  There are other ways of achieving this that would not be personally damaging to one's thick legitimacy. To some extent I think there is something European about being in the system to co-opt the system (or maybe I am reading too much into this), but I think that it's easier to have a grassroots campaign, and join up with others of like-mind, to achieve your goals.  The good news is that we now know how things went down.  The bad news is that Paul's name lost currency through all this and that trust takes time to re-develop.

That's all for now.  Thoughts on all this?















NOTES & SIDEBARS:
† I've been told that Canadians love McLuhan.  Is this an over-generalization, or is it true?
‡ CogDog thinks that this is a crap-filled point of view.  So do I. You are basically partially abdicating your responsibility as an educator to someone else.
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