MOOC While You Sleep

by Jesse Stommel



Online learning requires a meticulous attention to the container and the permeability of that container. We need to recognize that the best learning happens not inside courses but between them. Every course must outgrow its container. Digital pedagogues learn best by forgetting -- through continuous encounters with what is novel, tentative, unmastered, and unresolved. It’s especially important that we open our discussions of the future of education to students, who should both participate in and help to build their own learning spaces.

These are words I have spewed upon the internet over the last year, as I struggled to grapple with rapid changes in thinking about education and online learning. It began with this, the last sentence of the first paragraph I wrote publicly about MOOCs back in July 2012: “A MOOC isn’t a thing at all, just a methodological approach, with no inherent value except insofar as it’s used.” In this article, which marked the birth of the MOOC MOOC monster, I argued that MOOCs were monstrous, potentially gangrenous, but also trainable.

MOOCs and open education, even prior to the now infamous year of the MOOC, have always asked questions of me, demanding I think about teaching beyond the bodies perambulating in and out of my face-to-face classrooms. My work as a teacher does not begin and end at that threshold. Almost every course I've taught since 2001 has lived to some degree openly on the web. No matter if this sounds overly-abstract or sentimental, I must say that teaching has always been, for me, deeply ethical work. It is something I find myself doing whether I’m being paid for it or not. It is something I promise to my students even after our classes are done. It is something I do not just for the paying students at the institutions where I work. Teaching is something I do in the middle of the night when I wake up sleepless.

Over the last year, I’ve watched education rise and I’ve watched it fall. I’ve made things go, and I’ve watched them sputter listlessly to a halt. I’ve learned as much from education’s successes as I have from its failures, both of which have been grander than usual for me this year. The MOOC, in particular, has made for many a sleepless night, demanding I lay my pedagogies bare and reexamine the lot of them.

I’m an insomniac. I wear a wrist-band that monitors my sleep, and it reports hours of sleep per night for the week so far: 6h 47m, 2h 42m, and 4h 57m. I’ve had chronic insomnia my entire life. When I was younger, I thought it normal that my personality was subject daily to the pitch and throw of my head upon a mattress the night before. In college, I missed many days of school for lack of sleep. I’ve developed coping strategies, taken various medications, and I’ve mostly conquered this beast, though not entirely, as this week’s data reports.

A 2012 study, published in Nature Neuroscience, found that humans learn while they’re sleeping. And it isn’t just that sleep reinforces learning, forming neural pathways and helping move information from short-term to long-term memory, but that we can actually retain information from new stimuli experienced during sleep.

And so if learning is my business, then being concerned for the sleep of my students and fellow teachers is germane to my work. I don’t want to make better MOOCs. That is not my goal. The question I want to ask here is: how can we create learning experiences that persist beyond our ability to make them go? What kind of ethical learning experiences can we create that persist beyond the bounds of the course -- and beyond the bounds of the institution that offers the course? Can we create discussions that spread beyond our ability to facilitate them? What pedagogical techniques can we use as teachers (and as learners) to make more space for our own sleep? What work is worth losing sleep over?

Some Proposed Tenets

The teacher’s voice is not the fulcrum upon which the discussion tilts. Even as we build and guard space for discussion, we must think carefully about when and how we step back. If my goal is to foster a persistent community of learners, it is important that I not make that community reliant upon me. It is important that when I think about “peers,” I number myself among them -- with all the accompanying possibilities and responsibilities.

The teacher must be willing to “abdicate authority,” which means actively (and visibly) stepping off the stage. This does not look like absence but a reimagined sense of presence. It also does not mean that we should diminish our own expertise. Rather, the development of new expertise (not championing of existing expertise) becomes the focus. We must also interrogate the nature of authority, recognizing that abdicating authority is itself an act of authority.

We should build learning experiences that make our courses permeable, asking students and ourselves to do work both in the classroom and also in the world. A course should live outside the institution in which it’s housed, beyond the semester during which its taught, and even off the continent where it’s born. Creating conversations that bridge continents and time zones has been something I’ve found well-worth losing sleep over.

We need to create flexible learning experiences with multiple points of entry. This means recognizing that every learner is different, has different skills and background, and that rubrics and outcomes are only maps and not destinations.

Sometimes less is more. Can I say just enough to inspire a dialogue but not so much that I shut it down? Can I build a platform just big enough for something to emerge safely upon it? Can I design an assignment with just enough guidelines to inspire something truly generative? Can I model the first motion in a series of motions and trust learners to fumble their way through the rest?

Some Additional Material to Explore

Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel, “Pedagogies of Scale
George Siemens, “The Complexification of Education
Cathy N. Davidson, “Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century
Cathy N. Davidson, “On Shifting Attention
Steven Johnson, “Where Good Ideas Come From