Structure

Chapter Three

As we explored in Chapter one, the MOOC itself is not a singular construct; instead, the MOOC can fall into two sub-categories based on its structure, namely c-MOOCs (connectivist) and x-MOOCs (traditional cirriculum alignment). However, we have also touched on the permeance of such structures, with some newer MOOCs beginning to experiment with combinations of the two, e.g. Edinburgh’s E-Learning MOOC. This in itself raises some interesting questions around just how different the two types really are, or is it this notion of available blurring which suggests they are structurally more alike than perhaps initially thought. And how, if at all, does this link to posthumanism?

As new systems arise, so do new possibilities and new laws that cannot be anticipated, even with the most intimate knowledge of the components or agents comprising the new system

David & Sumara – “If things were simple…”: complexity in education (2010)

Let us begin by dissecting the ‘course’ element of the MOOC structure.

According to the OED 2013, a course is defined as “onward movement in a particular path”. The notion of a prescribed path does not automatically align with the posthuman woven mindset – in this respect, the naturally limiting nature of the course could be deemed implicitly non-posthuman. However, this interpretation assumes that all entities following a path are being subjected to the same experience and engaging with the materials identically, plus in future iterations others will follow suit accordingly.

The oxbow lake is a natural example of how prescribed paths can change. Despite water flowing in a fairly uniform manner through a prescribed river channel, over time the path changes due to erosion and a new path for the rive emerges. Paths ebb and flow over time as a result of engagement. Holding with the river analogy a little longer, a shoal of fish following this bounded river channel will not have the exact same journey, despite swimming in the same river – some may be eaten, all will eat but from different plants, and some may not make the jump over rocks. A structure can not and will not fully prescribe the course of engagement an individual will undertake.

Bringing this back to MOOCs, it is not unreasonable to suggest that despite a 5-18 week course structure being present on the MOOC site, that every participant on the course will have a different total experience with the materials, as a result of their learning style and personal environmental factors influencing their path. On the other hand, it could also be argued that those who follow the structure exactly in the order prescribed by the course site are not having such a unique experience, instead fulfilling Pederson’s observation that “the formal education system is thus embedded in, and is also a co-creator of, particular forms of species performativity that are the basis of posthumanist critique” (Pedersen, 2010).

Both c- and x-MOOCs share this ‘path’ feature – by definition, in order to be a MOOC, there must be a course-like structure assigned to it. But this does not limit the engagement per-say – the conversations and interactions with materials do not stop in tandem with the ‘end’ of the course, as many learners continue to engage with resources (providing they are still accessible) and peers even once the course time-frame has elapsed. For example, the University of Edinburgh launched 6 MOOCs on 28th January 2013 and all courses technically finished delivering new content by 15th March 2013; 8 weeks later (10.05.13) there is still activity seen on the course sites, with thousands of learners still accessing Edinburgh MOOC pages (approximately 2500 users per week in total) and Twitter hashtags still active, e.g. #edcmooc. Users transgress the boundaries of the learning environment for their individual learning needs.

This ability to transcend course structures and engage with materials flexibly (more on user engagement later) suggests a more fluid model of MOOCs (general) than perhaps would have been initially expected by the notion of ‘course’. Laroche et al. (2007) note that “fluid environments have fuzzy and penetrable boundaries; they blur distinctions between schools, universities, nature and society, while juxtaposing formal and informal educational settings. Fluid environments are conducive to emerging non-orthodox forms of educational research” – it is this latter section which emphasises the convergent nature of c- and x-MOOCs; both types permit blurring of structural distinctions, facilitating an emergent learner experience.

The ultimate goal is not to replace [classroom] learning with this style of learning, but to create greater flexibility.

Carol Aschenbrener (interview quote) in Harder (2013)

The application of boundary blurring does occur in very different ways between c-MOOCs and x-MOOCs as a result of their underlying pedagogical approaches. The typical x-MOOC design facilitates fewer opportunities for transformational course design during the lifespan of the course itself – some courses may use wiki-tools to encourage peer interactions and cooperative group tasks, whereas for the majority of cases, the class is streamed through a fairly rigid content layout, e.g. a series of video lectures and readings for discussion on the forums. Although the forum discussions themselves will not be identical (but may be very similar), future iterations of the x-MOOC can be identical in design and populated with the same course-team generated content. This is completely flipped for c-MOOCs which, although topic seeds are planted during the course of the MOOC, the content itself is user generated and aggregated by the course-team for the class to interact with additionally.

Organic pedagogical models correspond to and embrace vital conditions of self-organization, including fluid realm, openness to the information flow, turbulences and changes; freedom within flexible boundaries, richness of possibilities, interconnectedness of all parts of the system, and collective emergence.

Laroche et al. – New venues for science teacher education: Self-organizational pedagogy on the edge of chaos (2007)

The notion of constant flux and emergence is an inherent part of the c-MOOC design (de Waard et al, 2011) – the application of connectivism pedagogy within a MOOC gives the entity the characteristics of a complex system, according to Makness, Mak, and Williams (2010) and Bertuglia & Vaio (2005) note that a MOOC displays emergent properties as a result of its environment, comprising of continual feedback and development cycles relating to its actions. These implicit, networked principles of diversity, openness, and emergent knowledge are characteristics also mirrored by posthumanism.

Furthermore, the notion of emergence is questionable within a structure which does not change itself. Reigeluth (2004) states that “transformation occurs through a process called ‘emergence’, by which new processes and structures emerge to replace old ones in a system” – on the other hand, piecemeal change only affects a part of the system rather than changing the structure or organisation of the system. An x-MOOC which adopts a fixed structure from the get-go, by Reigeluth’s definition, can not technically adhere to the emergent stipulation of a fluid organic pedagogy.

To this end, the typical x-MOOC lacks the posthuman agility of c-MOOC design, yet aspects of connectivism and posthuman ideals can be fed through the users’ interactions with the materials, e.g. blogs and social media discussions with peers.

However, what this discussion on structure has emphasised is the learner-centrism of the MOOC experience. Although the audience interaction itself will be further dissected in the next chapter, does putting the learner at the centre of the MOOC rehumanise the focus of this educational experience to the point a MOOC can no longer be considered a posthuman construct?

MOOCs, like other forms of education, are a process of self-betterment, self-development. Intrinsically human-centred. Yet the connections made and the content covered may have wider implications for understanding how the learner fits within the wider complex system of their environment, with the potential to empower the learner to apply such experiences in the future for more posthuman ventures. I would argue that the overt humanist structure does not preclude posthuman development – but this potential may be more susceptible to personality of the individual engager.

The school may even be viewed as an institution which, through a complex web of social processes and interactions, not only continually reinscribes and ‘closes’ categories of ‘human’ and ‘animal’, but also tends to sustain and reinforce the incorporation of animals into capitalist-specific modes of production and consumption. The formal education system is thus embedded in, and is also a co-creator of, particular forms of species performativity that are the basis of posthumanist critique.

Pedersen – Animals in schools: Processes and strategies in human-animal education (2010)

References

Bertuglia, C. S. and Vaio, F. (2005). Nonlinearity, chaos and complexity: The dynamics of natural and social systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

David, B., and Sumara, D. (2010). “If things were simple…”: complexity in education. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, vol. 16 (4) pp. 856-60

Harder, B. (2013). Are MOOCs the future of medical education? (online article) – http://www.bmj.com/content/346/bmj.f2666

Laroche, L., Nicol, C., and Mayer-Smith, J. (2007). New venues for science teacher education: Self-organizational pedagogy on the edge of chaos. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, vol. 4 (1) pp. 69-83.

Mackness, J., Mak, S., & Williams, R. (2010). The ideals and reality of participating in a MOOC. Paper presented at the Seventh International Conference on Networked Learning, Aalborg, Denmark. Retrieved from http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fss/organ¬isations/netlc/past/nlc2010/abstracts/PDFs/Mackness.pdf

Pedersen, H. (2010). Animals in schools: Processes and strategies in human-animal education. West Lafayette. IN: Purdue University Press.

Reigeluth, C. M. (2004). Chaos theory and the sciences of complexity: Foundations for transforming education. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA. Available online: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.127.4233&rep=rep1&type=pdf

de Waard, I., Abajian, S., Gallagher, M., Hogue, R., Keskin, N., Koutropoulos, A. and Rodriguez, O. (2011). Using mLearning and MOOCs to Understand Chaos, Emergence, and Complexity in Education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, vol. 12 (7). Available online: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1046/2026

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