GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Archive for the ‘Bonnie’s Posts’ Category

Digital Literacies 101 – What MOOCs Really Teach

In Bonnie's Posts on 2012/12/13 at 08:14
Bonnie Stewart, writing from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in Canada.
In my world, fall means back-to-school.

This fall, across the world, back-to-school means MOOCs. For somewhere close to a million people.

When edX launched its first two courses in October this year they had 100,000 people registered between them. Coursera, which alone reported over a million registrants from their April 2012 launch to the following August, are offering over 100 courses this fall. As of September, they had about 680,000 registered for those. Udacity stood at nearly 740,000 registrations to date as of August 2012, with over 100,000 ‘active’ at the start of back-to-school season. And then there are the smaller, more grassroots MOOC offerings like Current/Future State of Higher Ed, which collect a few thousand people around shared topics of interest.

That’s a lot of people, all told.

Many, of course, won’t finish their courses; the attrition rate in MOOCs is notorious. There’s no filter on the front end – people register for free and thus very literally don’t have to buy in to the program of study.

But the scale of those numbers may still have effects.

Because most of those people start, at least. They get some kind of taste for what the particular platform offers, whether the content engages them, how the learning process is structured. They are engaging with – or at the very least coming face-to-face with – what it means to be a digitally literate learner.

Two years ago at this time, there were 1300 or so people enrolled in Personal Learning Environments and Networked Knowledge 2010 – the PLENK10 MOOC. One of the original connectivist model MOOCs, PLENK10 was the only MOOC going under the name that fall. PLENK10’s 1300 registrants were the only people formally engaged in a so-called MOOC at that particular moment.

Two years makes a helluva difference.

And so, while the march of the MOOCs rolls on from its summer of buzz into autumn with the Battle Hymn of Disruption still trumpeting from various corners, there’s something about those crazy, boggling numbers that has me feeling hopeful.

The idea of nearly a million people engaged – however briefly – in the kind of semi-networked learning experience that even the most rigid, traditionally-structured MOOC courses inevitably offer makes me want to believe that we may eventually get our societal minds around the messy, distributed, traceable, remixable, quantified literacies of the digital age.

And that if we do, we may also get our minds around what to do about education.

Not next week. And not in the guise of MOOCs, I don’t think: anyone who hails them as a one-size-fits-all solution is selling something. But maybe, eventually, mass hands-on participation within networked learning environments – where a peer may play as profound a role as a professor and that’s part of the system – may help us get past the impasse we’re stuck at.

It’s a truism that education is broken. We live in a time when across the increasingly partisan camps of politics, that’s one of the few statements you’ll hear – almost equally vocally – from all sides of the fence.

Of course education is broken, at least as a system. The system in its many forms is still predicated, historically and technologically and ideologically, in economies of scarcity and linearity. And as a society, that’s simply not where we are anymore.

As Will Richardson put it recently: “Every day we have access to more information, more knowledge and more people. In many ways, I can’t imagine there has been a more amazing time to learn.

I also, however, can’t imagine a more challenging time for schools.”

Interestingly, schools have tried to change. Pedagogy has offered alternative frameworks for approaching learning for generations now, and schools – across all levels – are significantly different animals than they were in our parents’ generations.

But the aspects of the traditional educational model that are premised in scarcity have proven deeply resilient and self-replicating. A big part of that is about roles.

Familiar modes of knowledge and behaviour by which we define concepts like “teacher” and “student” – and the parts we expect to play when we walk into those roles – operate on the idea that learning is about scarce content and the linear progression by which a student is initiated into its mysteries.

We get stuck in our roles, even more so as learners than as teachers.

Which is where MOOCs and digital literacies come in.

George Siemens pioneered the first MOOCs, with Stephen Downes. He claims that at their core, MOOCs are the Internet happening to higher education.

The Internet makes it possible for things to scale, and to be copied and remixed indefinitely. It changes our concepts of what counts as knowledge, and what counts as education. No longer can higher ed be the bastion of content, because most of the content it contains is actually available on Google.

Even the biggest, most formalized MOOCs, some of which are built on linear talking-head videos and automated grading, change the game a little. Not in the tools. Simply being online doesn’t develop digital literacies terribly quickly or effectively.

But interacting at scale, even in a large network aimed at having the teacher at the traditional centre, does. Because when there are 30 or even 300 students in a course, the teacher can be expected to be the audience for that student’s engagement.

But in a course of 3,000 or 30,000 or 100,000, that expectation fails. Fast. Maybe even fast enough that the students who only dip into a MOOC long enough to get disoriented and confused about the whole process begin to understand that it’s possible to be a student and still be self-directed, not teacher-directed.

To me, is the most important digital literacy there is. And it is the one that will gradually – maybe – bring change to education.

We’ll see. With a million people dipping their toes in the abundance and decentered knowledge of MOOCs this fall, maybe we’ll see soon.

Bonnie Stewart is a Ph.D. student at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada. In higher ed since 1997, Bonnie has lived and taught on all three coasts of Canada and in Eastern Europe and Asia. Her research explores social media identity and its implications for higher education. Published at and winner of the 2011 PEI Literary Award for creative non-fiction, Bonnie blogs ideas at Find her on Twitter at @bonstewart.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Unpacking the MOOC as Buzzword

In Bonnie's Posts on 2012/07/28 at 19:13

Bonnie Stewart, writing from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada.

When I pitched this series of “Postcards from the Participatory” back in November of 2011, I’d intended it to be a small collection of narratives exploring Massive Open Online Courses from the inside.

I was engaged in the almost year-long #change11 MOOC, and I wanted to explore how the experience intersected with – and departed from – my teaching and learning within university walls. I thought the series might share a few stories about the resonances and challenges of participatory education, and explore the implications of distributed learning networks for conventional higher education.

Basically, I thought it was time for higher ed to start thinking about MOOCs.

Ahem. Apparently bigger fish than I had a similar idea.

Days after my first post in the series was published, MITx was announced. In the months since, I’ve watched agog as the word MOOC proliferated and spiralled into the higher ed buzzword of the year. Trying to keep on top of it makes me feel vaguely like the sorcerer’s apprentice in Fantasia, frantically scurrying as the brooms divide and double.

When you have worked in academia for fifteen years, you get used to a relatively glacial and circular pace of change. This nouvelle vague of MOOC hoopla, then, has been disorienting. But there’s no denying it. In major media newsspeak, it appears “MOOC” now signifies some kind of material manifestation of the “disruptive innovation” everybody’s sure is upon us but can’t quite pin down.

They’re everywhere, and it’s overwhelming. Educational enterprises tagged with the letter X are fruitful and multiply. University presidents are dismissed – if later reinstated – for failing to change fast enough, though the terms and targets of change are never explicitly specified. And Udacity and the xEd mega-MOOCs, with their overt emphasis on data collection and vaguely-defined business models, begin to look like trojan horses for mass-scale automation of teaching and grading. When the cavalry charge is being led by the most prestigious higher ed institutions in the market, it’s hard to assume it’ll all just blow over.

Clearly, higher ed IS thinking about MOOCs.

And the tone of that thinking gets a little bit more portentous and apocalyptic all the time. In this final postcard from what started off as a small participatory phenomenon on the fringes of academia, then, I find myself musing on Yeats, wondering what rough beast the MOOC is morphing into?

Words become buzzwords because they capture a sentiment or zeitgeist burbling under the skin of a culture. They give name to latent hopes and fears, and they capitalize on our secret hubris – rampant in academia – that we are knowers, that we can name the future. We love buzzwords on the rise, open signifiers that speak to possibilities.

The problem, of course, with buzzwords is that they end up empty.

In this case, each new media iteration of the term “MOOC” seems to tie it more closely to the behemoth of elite power + rapid change that drives the frenzy around disruption in higher ed.

Yes, higher ed is changing. Its funding structures and its knowledge structures and its place in culture have shifted drastically in the past generation or two, on multiple axes and in often-conflicting directions. It’s under intense pressure to function in an increasingly corporate fashion, and with increasingly little public funding. Knowledge abundance and globalization and the push for participatory collaboration all challenge the role of the traditional classroom. The question of what an education is for is ever-contested, and in a post-industrial world, ever-complex.

Things fall apart, we hear from every corner. The center cannot hold.

The problem with apocalyptic thinking is that it predisposes us towards simple solutions and salvation narratives, even in complex situations.

If we’re interested in being part of the conversation around the future of higher ed, we need to stop talking about MOOCs as buzzwords. We need to begin talking about the interests that determine the specific shape of particular MOOCs as they emerge.

The danger of buzzwords is that they can come to feel inevitable.

MOOCs are not any one thing, unless we permit them to be. MOOCs will not inherently gut faculty positions in higher ed. MOOCs do not have automation and robot grading built into their conceptual structure.

They certainly offer the capacity for these things, if backed by scale and prestige and neoliberal values of efficiency and market niche domination: they offer the potential to look like disruptive innovation while consolidating the market interests of elite brands within higher ed.

Udacity’s partnership with Pearson? Perhaps a case in point

But MOOCs’ conceptual structure is actually loose enough and flexible enough that they are no one rough beast in particular. They grew, initially, as learning networks of emergent knowledge focused around educational technologies: in other words, around complexity and disruptive innovation in higher ed. Oh, the irony

MOOCs in their first inaugurations, led by George SiemensStephen Downes, and Dave Cormier, weren’t especially aimed at disrupting the university at all. They weren’t about the university, but about an alternate environment for learning. As Downes put it, “MOOCs don’t change the nature of the game; they’re playing a different game entirely.”

I’ve participated in a couple of MOOCs within this Connectivist tradition. Instead of leaping to grand-scale automation, they’ve gone the opposite route, and attempted to build sites for participatory conversation and networking around emergent technologies, practices, and ideas. There will be another, the biggest yet, offered this coming fall. Its topic? The current and future state of higher ed.

The truth is, this is what disruption IS about. The world of higher ed has become an emergent sphere.

Real innovation is not just in expanding scale and efficiencies. A few elite institutions carving up the global pie for automated instruction doesn’t necessarily give us any guidance or insight into how to deal with the complexities of learning and teaching in an age of knowledge abundance.

My final postcard from the participatory, then, says forget the buzzwords. The hype around MOOCs only clouds the conversation, consolidating power back in the hands of those who have the most to lose if the universities as business entities do not adapt. But those of us who teach and learn have ties to these entities too…just little to gain from robot grading.

It’s complex, this future of higher education. Consider joining the discussion in the coming CFHE12 experience. Maybe MOOCs can be a different kind of Trojan horse for change.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

The Problem With EdX

In Bonnie's Posts on 2012/05/16 at 01:05

Bonnie Stewart, writing from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in Canada.

Since it started last fall, I’ve heard the 36-week experimental #change11course referred to – half tongue-in-cheek – as “the Mother of All MOOCs.”

Back when the course started in September, it seemed like a reasonable description. #change11 was designed and run by Massive Open Online Course pioneers George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and Dave Cormier, and had 36 separate facilitators lined up to cover everything from soup to nuts in the grand scheme of instructional technologies and 21st century learning.

Apparently, however, George and Dave should have kept the crystal ball from their Edfutures MOOC a few years back.

Because in thinking about the Mother of All MOOCs, it seems none of us in #change11 were thinking big enough.

Today, the New York Times announced that Harvard has paired up with MIT in a new non-profit partnership called EdX, which will offer free online courses from both universities, following the MITx model begun over the winter.

The New York Times called EdX a MOOC.

#change11, I think you’re gonna have to give that “Mother of All MOOCs” tshirt back.


It’s too early to say what EdX is going to mean for higher education in North America. That two of the most prestigious universities in North America, however, have seen fit to join forces to go down this road of free and open online courses means the rush to figure that meaning out? Is on.

And the stakes – in a time when universities & colleges are already struggling with smaller demographics and tightened purse strings – are high.

For a while now, MOOCs have been hailed as “the Great Disruption” in education.

EdX is staking out serious ground in this new model of course delivery, framing itself as a clearinghouse platform on which other institutions can offer their own courses under the EdX brand. It’ll be open source, enabling other institutions to host their own courses if they wish, without having to pay for or license for-profit software. This challenges not only the traditional pay-for-learning model of academia, but the growing encroachment of startup edupreneur-style companies into the territory of higher ed.

EdX is clearly setting out to be the mothership.

And it may well succeed: reputation has always carried a lot of weight in education. When you combine two of the biggest names in academia with unlimited access to courses, you get interest. People want to affiliate themselves with what carries cache: in network theory, this tendency to connect to hubs that are already well-connected is called “preferential attachment.” If EdX turns out to be good at what it does, it will have the potential to take over the market in terms of massive open online courses.

It doesn’t stop there. EdX also has designs on research, not just teaching and learning. Its stated intent, according to today’s press release, is to “research how students learn and how technologies can facilitate effective teaching both on-campus and online. The EdX platform will enable the study of which teaching methods and tools are most successful.”

And this is where I begin to itch.

It’s not that I don’t think free learning is a great idea. Or that I don’t welcome Harvard & MIT’s interest in the enormous and interesting task of researching effective online learning.

We live in a time when frictionless sharing of information makes massive open courses possible. And when learning analytics make massive amounts of data available from any online venture. These things are going to affect academia, make no mistake, and our current institutional models – our business models, our learning models, and our research models – are all going to have to adapt in response.

Until this sudden explosion of major institutional interest in the idea of Massive Open Online Courses, I’d thought the adaptation might actually move in the direction of – gasp – complexity.

The original MOOCs – the connectivist MOOCsa la Siemens & Downes, and the work of David Wiley and Alec Couros and others – have been, for the most part, about harnessing the capacity of participatory media to connect people and ideas. They’ve been built around lateral, distributed structures, encouraging blog posts and extensive peer-to-peer discussion formats. Even in live sessions showcasing facilitator’s expertise, these ur-MOOCs have tended towards lively backchannel chats, exploring participants’ knowledge and experiences and ideas.

They’ve been, in short, actively modelled on the Internet itself. They’ve been experiential and user-driven. Their openness hasn’t stopped at registration capacity, but extended to curricular tangents and participatory contributions and above all, to connections: they’ve given learners not just access to information but to networks.

They’ve been messy, sometimes, but they have definitely not been business as usual.

The problem with EdX is that, scale and cost aside, it IS essentially a traditional learning model revamped for a new business era. It puts decision-making power, agency, and the right to determine what counts as knowledge pretty much straight back into the hands of gatekeeping institutions.

Those who complete the courses will get a certificate of mastery, and a grade. Their data will be harvested to determine what learning methods help them succeed.

I see value in this, and suspect that for many it will open doors. But.

If you want to deliver mass courses to enormous numbers of people, and mastery and measurable, extrinsic success are your aims, you will be inclined to keep your offerings to the concrete and the certain.

Some types of knowledge are privileged in this kind of decision-making climate. Experimental, experiential knowledge tends not to be.

Particularly when the course delivery is itself an experimental undertaking to which sizable reputations – in this case, the good names of Harvard and MIT – have been attached.

Big reputations make careful, strategic changes, not great disruptive ones that go against self-interest. And thus the courses that EdX will offer and the research that EdX will produce are not likely to be modelled at all on the messy, distributed, peer-to-peer versions of knowledge production that the internet and the original MOOCs encouraged.

Words change with usage, of course. And “MOOC” certainly fits the EdX model, perhaps better than it did the original connectivist offerings: EdX will be more massive and far more a traditional course than the originals.

It’s ironic, though: this brand-new Mother of All MOOCs is, in the end, likely to do as much preserving of the traditional structures of education – especially in terms of learning – than it is to disrupt them.

This post was first published at http://theory.cribchronicles.comand was cross-published with permission from the author.

Bonnie Stewart is a Ph.D. student at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada. In higher ed since 1997, Bonnie has lived and taught on all three coasts of Canada and in Eastern Europe and Asia. Her research explores social media identity and its implications for higher education. Published at and winner of the 2011 PEI Literary Award for creative non-fiction, Bonnie blogs ideas at  http://theory.cribchronicles.comand identity and parenthood at Find her on Twitter at @bonstewart.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Massive Open Online Courses: How “The Social” Alters the Relationship Between Learners and Facilitators

In Bonnie's Posts on 2012/05/10 at 08:34

Bonnie Stewart, writing from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in Canada.

We’re getting close to the tail end of the 36-week-long experiment called #change11, or “the mother of all MOOCs.”

How can I tell?

First, I’m getting ready to facilitate my week, exploring Digital Identities. I’m second-last in the lineup, so the fact that I’m on deck means the whole undertaking is drawing to a close.

But it’s also clear we’re winding down because the #change11 conversation hubs have begun to resemble, uh, ghost-towns.  Once there were lively debates and intense exchanges. As the winter wore into the spring of the year, though, the tumbleweeds began to tickle.

Note to self: next time you facilitate a MOOC module, pick Week #2, not Week #35.

Any course that runs from September through May requires stamina. When that course is voluntary on the part of both learners and facilitators, and runs as a series of totally separate modules, the drop-off can be fairly significant. Erm, even my own participation as a student has crawled to a stop over the last month or two.

I find myself wondering if the other learners will be keener than I’ve been? Am I going to throw a MOOC and have nobody show up?

I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’m a teacher at heart. I’ll put the work into developing my one-week course whether there are going to be 3 students or 300. But as I’m preparing, I’m thinking about what it means to facilitate in a truly social, networked, voluntary environment like #change11.

Or the internet.

As the awareness of the MOOC experiment grows, the term is being increasingly applied to grand-scale enterprises like the Stanford AI course and MITx. While heady, this blurs some very important distinctions.

The MOOC model from which #change11 originates was built on the connectivist learning theory of George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Highly social in format, these courses tend to be experimental, non-linear, and deeply dialogic and participatory. Contributions from participants frequently direct the course of discussion, and the connections and ideas built between learners can be considered as valuable as the knowledge expounded by the facilitator.

On the other hand, the MOOC models offered by the big universities tend towards formalized curricula, content delivery, and verification of completed learning objectives.

Far more embedded in traditional paradigms of knowledge and teaching, these courses only harness the connectivity of social media insofar as they enable masses of people to link themselves to the prestige of a big-name institution. They offer discussion boards, but their purpose is content-focused, not connection-focused.

If I were teaching in an MITx-style course, I’d have a very different module ahead of me, one far more familiar to me as a higher ed instructor.

I’ve been teaching for eighteen years. I profess to be in favour of learner-centered classrooms. But until this MOOC module, every single course I’ve taught has on some level obliged the students to be there. I am accustomed to having the institutional powers of status, credentialism, and grading backing me in the classroom.

In the connectivist MOOC model, I don’t.

There is no bonus for learners who participate in my week of #change11. They won’t get a badge at the end, and there is no certification announcing they completed anything. There’s nothing specific for them to complete, unless I design an exit goal as part of the week’s activities. But that would be MY exit goal: not theirs. They don’t get to put the word MIT on their CV. And while some weeks of the #change11 MOOC have allowed participants to connect with leaders in the learning and technologies field – Howard Rheingold, Pierre Levy – I’m among the less well-known of the 30-plus facilitators in the year’s lineup. They won’t even get the relational perk of engaging with somebody famous.

Nope. But what they will get – in addition to what I hope will be a fascinating exploration of the idea of  Digital Identity – is hands-on practice in what it means to learn and connect and simply be in this networked, distributed age.

And I will get the opportunity to practice what it means to lead in the age of the internet: to share what one knows in a way that invites others to engage, to contribute, to participate.

Both models of the MOOC serve a purpose, but it is the connectivist one – for all it is less massive and far less a traditional course – that teaches both teachers and learners new ways of coming together to explore ideas.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Learning in – and from – the Great Disruption

In Bonnie's Posts on 2012/03/27 at 23:40

Bonnie Stewart, writing from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in Canada

Ever since MITx got announced last December, the voices of the futurists have been out in grand numbers, predicting what it all might mean for higher education. They’re calling it “The Great Disruption,” a brand name worthy of Nostradamus.

The Globe and Mail says it‘s about time.

The Atlantic is envisioning a post-campus America.

For those of us actually enrolled in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), though – or those like me who’ve enlisted both to teach and learn within these experimental course environments – this “great disruption” feels more like an augmentation than anything else.

I think higher ed has something to learn from the experiences that I – and learners like me, merging non-traditional avenues with formalized classroom experiences – are engaging in. Those of us who’ve chosen graduate studies in spite of the much-lamented death of the tenure-track professoriate have little reason to assume that we will have any sort of protected or privileged place in the academy’s next incarnation. Yet here we are. We are, at least for the moment, part of the system. But many of us are wary of being fully subsumed into it, because we’ve been cautioned against betting the farm on that tenure path. So we keep a foot outside the tower, seeking out alternative paths to augment our learning and research; we are keeping options open.

Yet neither do we necessarily reject the academy. For myself, I don’t belong to the Do It Yourself University camp that sometimes suggests that MOOCs and unstructured online network participation are The Solution to education in the 21st century. Our world relies too heavily on credentials for me to believe that the #change11 experience would remain as open as it is if it were suddenly forced to carry the burden of standards that falls, rightly or wrongly, on formalized higher education. The logic that drives open online credentialing experiments is, thus far, only experimental.

MOOCs do disrupt business as usual, yes. Those of us in the #change11 MOOC are engaged in the course at no cost, and nobody except us is holding our learning or performance to any particular external standards. Unlike MITx, the 36 week #change11 course offers no credential. These factors all make it a significantly different experience from studying at my bricks-and-mortar university.

What #change11 gives me, though, is access to a multitude of semi-organized ideas and expert facilitators, plus a semi-coherent network of peers to work through the weeks with. That network remains largely stable even as topics and facilitators rotate weekly.

It is this participatory element – the learning of being part of a large, distributed network of people from varied backgrounds, focusing on the same topic – that enables open online experiences to offer value, even to those of us already studying in conventional institutions. That, and the speed and flexibility inherent in networked learning.

In a Google-able culture replete with neo-liberal demands for reform, efficiency, and innovation, MOOCs help those of us interested in emergent ideas participate in a public learning experience that is otherwise not really available by conventional means.

As I forge ahead with my own research, the lack of fit between learning and success on academic terms and those that social media rewards and reinforces become increasingly apparent. Journal publications lag years behind blog posts in my area of specialization. The theory that guides my research seldom addresses the online contexts in which I’m trying to apply it. But my MOOC peers and facilitators do. And so I apply the ideas shaped by traditional academic environments to those shared in distributed digital environments.

The MOOC augments my Ph.D studies by making it possible for me to be a public thinker and learner; by giving me up-to-the-minute access to the conversations shaping and driving my field, and the opportunity to participate in these conversations. They are available on the wider internet, certainly. But MOOCs help curate and cohere them, and also overtly create them. MOOCs don’t just bring disparate networks and opportunities into focus; they carve out explicit teaching and learning spaces within the information overload of contemporary social media.

Will these type of practice ultimately have an impact of the teaching and learning spaces of traditional institutions? I hope so. But not necessarily in the ways heralded by media.

Too often, MOOCs – particularly the emergent big-name university offerings that have essentially harnessed the capacity of open online learning and scaled it – are written about primarily as dramatic new business models.

It’s true that there’s potential in that direction. And Sebastian Thrun et al seem intent on mining it, while all of watch breathlessly.

But that market lens on massive open coursework misses one of the central elements of the great disruption: education is not solely a business, or a credential-machine. It’s also about learning.

And with MOOCs, those of us acculturated to academia have the opportunity to learn new, responsive, participatory ways of fostering public knowledge, both inside and outside of traditional institutions. The disruption may be profound, certainly. But so may be the possibilities.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed