Institutions and Communities

by Pete Rorabaugh

“What we’re experimenting with is the dissolution of the boundaries that an institution controls that permit or inhibit learner interaction and to have that exclusively under the control of the learner.” ~ George Siemens

I cut my teeth in the classroom teaching The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In both high school and university classrooms, the conflict between Malcolm’s formal and informal learning experiences always becomes a central topic of discussion. Malcolm adapts to new environments constantly throughout his young adulthood, choosing new clothing, practicing new speech, acquiring new skills, and carefully studying the power structures around him. Throughout the text, I ask students: “Is this learning? and if so, how is it different from the learning that happens in school?”

Schools as we know them are relatively new. Horace Mann, who sat on the first state Board of Education in the U.S., popularized and promoted the concept of public education in the mid nineteenth century. Almost 200 years later, contemporary critical pedagogues blast most models of public schooling for its complicity in institutionalized inequality. John Taylor Gatto argues in “Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Currriculum of Compulsory School”: “School is like starting life with a 12-year jail sentence in which bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know.” Gatto taught in public schools for 26 years, and, after quitting in 1991, became an advocate for radical school reform.

So what is a school? If compulsory public primary and secondary schooling is inconsistent or, in some places, broken, where can we look for effective school models? Do institutions of higher ed do it better? What about beyond the formal school? Is a Karate studio a school? What about a skate park? Do graffiti artists working together constitute a school? Is a library a school? What about a MOOC?

Open access education has been a central component of the web since way before the MOOC model arrived, as evidenced by Patrick Masson’s most recent blog post “I’ve been in this really good MOOC for the past 20 years, it [sic] called the Internet.” Masson argues that MOOCs are a fad-ish marketing tool for universities and that communities like are older, more open, and more functional educational experiences. He asks, “What specifically are the goals for MOOCs and the institutions that provide them?” The implication is that online education gets diluted when it becomes institutional. It’s too much flash and not enough pith.

xMOOCs and cMOOCs

But let’s consider the value of institutional MOOCs (xMOOCs). In a recent #digped chat on the value of video lectures nested inside MOOCs, David Stavens at Udacity linked to this:

In the video, Udacity brings some muscle to the lesson. Flying to the Netherlands and capturing footage of unicyclists juggling flaming torches might not be in the budget for The script, the multiple camera effects, and the narrator are all thrilling additions to what we might receive in a textbook or threaded discussion forum. In short, Udacity has money to spend, and, in this case, that capital translates into a more engaging lesson. Anyone can read the script of the lesson here, but that wouldn’t compare to seeing the equation walkthroughs and the quaint windmills that the videos offer.

Institutional MOOCs, like the ones from Coursera and Udacity, are predated by the connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) pioneered by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. In a Huffington Post article introducing the #Change11 MOOC, Downes remarks: “knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. Knowledge, therefore, is not acquired, as though it were a thing. It is not transmitted, as though it were some type of communication.” The connectivist MOOC model is radically uninstitutional, an intellectual adventure enabled by social networking and zero-cost digital publishing.

In “Occupy the Digital: Critical Pedagogy and New Media,” I worked to tie together the strands of critical and digital pedagogy. Digital spheres offer new opportunities to explore the work that Paulo Freire began half a century ago -- the same work students do when they tease out the value of the education that Malcolm X received on the streets of Boston and Harlem -- the same work that many of us want to see happening in authentically engaged learning landscapes, whether physical or virtual. That work -- the analysis, remixing, and socially engaged construction of personally relevant knowledge -- often happens when the institutional framework is disrupted, diverted, or left in the dust.

Yet, the institutions remain because they make a compelling case to students and faculty -- to donors, investors, and the press.

Some Additional Material to Explore

Howard Rheingold, “George Siemens on Massive Open Online Courses
Stephen Downes, “Welcome to the Change MOOC
Pete Rorabaugh, “Audrey Watters Wrestles with MOOCs
Alan Dunn, “Udacity -- The Future of Education
Jacques Berlinerblau, “Survival Strategy for Humanists: Engage, Engage
Sebastian Thrun’s interview on Tech Crunch
Frances Fukuyama, “A Conversation with Peter Thiel