Literacies of Participation | Bonnie Stewart & the MOOC as Trojan Horse

With thanks to Michael Wesch

With thanks to Michael Wesch

Alongside my focus this year in TALONS on the concept of engagement, I’m buoyed to read Bonnie Stewart‘s paper in the MERLOT Journal of Online Teaching and Learning which looks at MOOCs and the open course structure as “a Trojan horse for an ethos of participation and distributed expertise.” Bonnie begins with an acknowledgement of the popular discourse surrounding open courses and how this distracts from the conversation the original authors of the MOOC story were having:

This variety of responses to MOOCs is indicative of the fault lines becoming increasingly visible in the terrain of contemporary higher education. The term MOOC gets conflated with online education, with globalization, and with networked learning – to the point where public conversation about the topic becomes what Jackson (2013) calls “that most dangerous topic of discussion: a subject about which everybody needs to have an opinion” (para. 2).” “

Some voices position MOOCs as synonymous with the privatization of higher education (Bady, 2013), while others – looking at very different course models – claim that they do not so much change the game of higher education as they are “playing a different game entirely” (Downes, 2012, para. 4).”

Rather than wade into this arena of the debate, Bonnie looks at the implicit ends of learning in the open:

“This position paper takes up MOOCs neither as the future nor the death of academe. [Instead, it will] consider the possibilities of the phenomenon, in all its forms, for the sociocultural growth and spread of digital literacies. Rather than argue for or against a single perspective on MOOCs, my premise is that it may be productive to consider their potential as large, immersive – and largely unintentional – environments for acculturating people to new digital literacies.

I get a similar distaste for conversations about educational technology that revolve around this sort of Savior / Beelzebub duality, and am generally much more excited to conceive of the ways in which digital tools can support and extend physical communities. We spend a lot of time in my classes working on group processes, collaboration, communication toward a synthesis of ideas; and I like to think that taking these skills – some of which are outlined in our courses’ prescribed learning outcomes, some of which fall beyond their scope – onto the web bears immense potential for the state and future of our global community.

What is exciting about teaching courses like Philosophy 12, or Introduction to Guitar, or the TALONS Socials cohorts in a blended – face-to-face and online atmosphere is in one sense the support digital tools bring to the course’s content areas. But I think my real passion is lit as I see the implicit ethos of the web finding its way into my students practices, online and off.

In other words, the implicit focus of the course moves beyond information to communication: 

When communications are seen as key to learning, the numeric focus of the information-centered paradigm cannot be reconciled with the significant and varied body of educational research which foregrounds the importance of interactive (Dewey, 1938), situational (Lave & Wenger, 1991), and critical (Freire, 1970) perspectives on learning. The communications approach focuses on the Internet not as a technology but as a medium for human engagement. “The Internet encourages discussion, dialogue and community that is not limited by time or place. The role of educators in this world is to facilitate dialogue and support students in their understanding of resources” (Weller, 2007, p. 6).

Which brings me back to engagement, and learning design as a means of bringing about positive collective engagement, in the physical classroom, and beyond its walls.

The skills learned in one realm cannot help but influence the other.

Here’s the full pdf of Bonnie’s paper: Massiveness + Openness = New Literacies of Participation? 

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