Inventing Learning

by Sean Michael Morris

“A class is a process, an independent organism with its own goals and dynamics. It is always something more than even the most imaginative lesson plan can predict.” ~ Thomas P. Kasulis

“Writers,” I used to tell my creative writing and composition students to “invent writing as they do it.” No one taught Shakespeare. No one taught Milton. No one taught Shelley. No one taught Woolf. Sure, they may have received solid educations for their time; but no one taught them to do what they became known for doing.

So much of learning is a creative, inventive act. When we take ourselves out of what Melanie Booth calls the “delivery / teaching / pour my knowledge out of my full head into their empty heads paradigm of education”, we discover that learning happens of its own accord, outside the parameters of our lesson plans, assessment tools, and expected outcomes. Often, what students learn in a class is less what we taught them, and more what they taught themselves, or what we didn’t teach them. For this reason, we must approach teaching and learning as an activity that takes place just this side of chaos, just this side of unpredictability.

I like to imagine that MOOCs are a creative act, almost a sort of composition in and of themselves. They’re a composition that begins with one person or a team of people who design the course; but no MOOC is truly finished until the participants have had their say. To be creative in course design is to be both author and audience. We are the author of the themes and ideas behind the course, and the audience to how students / participants interpret, mold, revise -- and what they fashion from -- those themes and ideas. This is true in a classroom. This is true in a MOOC.

Perhaps what frightens us most about MOOCs is the loss of control. In the new model of online pedagogy, the classroom has exploded; or rather, theories of classroom practice, in the absence of a brick-and-mortar classroom, have fissioned, detonating a havoc of new approaches. Hybrid pedagogy, open source content, and of course MOOCs have some some of us thrilled and some facing an existential crisis.Stephen Carson and Jan Phillipp Schmidt note, in their article “The Massive Open Online Professor”:

These are exciting times for educators, but it remains to be seen how these developments will change the structure of education, influence the purpose of institutions, and shape the role of the professor. These developments may feel threatening, but they also offer exciting opportunities to reach a much larger and broader audience with our lectures, to spend more time advising and mentoring students, and to improve the overall learning experience for all.

The role of the teacher has changed, or is changing, or could-maybe-might-be changing, depending on your perspective and your attachment to traditional teacher-student models. Where we teach affects how we teach; the technology available to us in our classrooms or on the Web alters our approach to instruction. Staying calm in the face of this mushroom cloud of new technologies and new approaches takes effort. But one thing is clear: as teachers, we have a job to do. All these new resources, all these new avenues for delivering instruction demand decision making on our part. It is up to us to make our classrooms more open, more engaging, more shared. Our students are no longer students, they are participants. And we are no longer teachers, we are “chief learners”.

In the MOOC model, learning happens within the array. It is the result of the chemical reaction between materials, a multitude of online resources and delivery systems, the instructor’s subject matter expertise, and participant interaction. So, when we undertake a MOOC, we have choices before us. We can provide loads of content to “pour … into their empty heads”, we can have well-tailored discussions with specific parameters, or we can allow participants to create their own content as the course goes along, discussing with one another wildly and in many forums, depending entirely upon the participants’ needs, desires, and imaginations.

Teachers and pedagogues can no longer expect to affect learning all on their own. Instead, we need to open the conversation of pedagogy to our students and to the larger extra-institutional community of learners, to step away from the podium and let someone else have the mic for a minute. Or, better yet, pass the mic around. We are learners again, as well as leaders; experts, as well as students.

And we must invent learning, invent teaching -- invent MOOCs -- as we do them.

Some Additional Material to Explore

Jesse Stommel, “Online Learning: a Manifesto
Chris Friend, “Guiding Principles
Mike Caulfield, “The mixably Open Online Course (mOOC)
Teresa Chahine, “Pushing MOOCs the Last Mile
Audrey Watters, “The Language of MOOCs