Premature Stabilisation of MOOCs and other things

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I have already posted on the recent discussion on MOOCs, and I was quite pleased with the discussion that ensued in the comments. There does seem to be some interest in the nature of the MOOC discussion, at least in the outer fringes anyway.  I had thought of posting a follow up but didn’t do so until I found myself posting an incredibly long comment on Dave Cormier’s recent post about the need for a philosophy of learning. Hmm, I thought – you really do want to write a blog post about this.

I liked the pragmatic tone of Dave’s blog post, particularly his recognition that in teaching and learning that we sometimes deal with ‘points’ of knowledge as ‘facts’ to move us on to the really interesting and challenging learning  that inhabits (or is banished from) the lines and spaces between points (read his post for a better explanation).

Dave’s post led me to reflect on the (in)stability of knowledge in the context of the recent discussion on MOOCs and on Connectivism.  My main experience of both of these phenomena was CCK08 a MOOC on Connectivism and Connective Knowledge in which I participated in 2008.  I have critiqued Connectivism as a theory, questioning its premature stability  “If Connectivism is mutable knowledge as it extends its network, then it will behave like the knowledge and networks it describes in the theory.” link to Networked Learning paper.  I have argued that Connectivism is a useful phenomenon rather than a theory and suggested ways in which it might be developed and used.  In those papers I compared Connectivism with Actor Network Theory that deals with the concept of stabilisation but I was pleased to find a somewhat more accessible treatment of stabilisation knowledge in Engestrom’s writing.

Stabilization knowledge is constructed to freeze and simplify a constantly shifting
or otherwise bewildering reality. It is used to turn the problematic into a closed phenomenon
that can be registered and pushed around rather than transformed. It
commonly takes the shape of fixed and bounded categories, but also narratives may
be used to stabilize. Stabilizing categories often become stigmatic stamps on objects,
both human beings and things. Engestrom 2007.

(Note: I just found Engestrom’s writing on stabilisation and possibility knowledge – other examples of the (in)stability of knowledge very welcome)

So we are sitting in a room at something that we call a table and we acknowledge that this table means something different to all of us but we can somehow suspend these differences and have a worthwhile conversation about the table that increases our personal knowledge of this table thing as long as we acknowledge the differences and are listening to each other.
In the part of the recent MOOC discussion I saw, this was not always happening.  I would characterise some of the contributions as either trying to solidify and stabilise the concept of a MOOC, or perhaps in Wiley’s case reject it.  To me it seemed like a bit of a power struggle between Knowledge as fact to be transferred, preferably via OERs, and Knowledge as implicated in the ‘new’ concept’ of MOOCs.  In both cases, there is the risk of a premature stabilisation of knowledge taking place: in the first case of fixed knowledge artifacts: and in the second case that MOOCs are a label for something that has happened in other ways in the past, and the label and premature stability could impede future development.

So why does this matter?

I would say because premature stabilisation removes the possibility of development and can exclude valid and relevant perspectives, as I argued in my previous post.  I don’t know if Siemens, Downes and Wiley complete the assigned Belenky reading;)

Let’s have some possibility knowledge in the OER and connected learning discussions.

Possibility knowledge, on the other hand, emerges when objects are represented
in fields with the help of which one can depict meanings in movement and transformation.
One traces transitions of positions in a field, which destabilizes knowledge,
puts it in movement and opens up possiblities. In this sense, possibility knowledge is
agentive knowledge, the instrumentality of agency at work.Engestrom 2007

I am a simple soul who needs to ground ideas in my personal experience or other examples, and so my reflections led me straight back to my own personal contrasting experiences of CCK08. (Warning: these are neither points nor facts but my own subjective interpretations of what happened within my own experience).
1.Once the disrupter had left, there was some great discussion on the (disapproved) Moodle forums where I was learning and observing others (appearing to be) learning. There was a great tolerance for different views and pragmatism of approach.
2. External speaker sessions where new ideas could be introduced and these may have sparked discussions amongst participants in the chat window, on blogs or in forums (suggesting learning).
3. Friday sessions which tended to be broadcast-only by George Siemens GS and Stephen Downes SD, with slightly quizzical moderation from Dave Cormier, plus a bit of lively chat window interaction often strangely disconnected from the monologues (at least in the ones I observed before giving up on the Friday sessions).

I think that 1,2,3 are in order of greatest to least learning taking place.

If we look at each in terms of who was (apparently) learning: in 1 participants learned frequently, GS sometimes, SD rarely; in 2 participants sometimes particularly if followed up, GS and SD more likely than in forums, presenter very little if at all; in 3 if learning was taking place here I couldn’t see it except in chat window interaction.
My own very personal views were probably highly influenced by my own reactions to the different environments, and by my own growing certainty that connectivism was something to be tossed around and critiqued not ‘learned’. I argue that MOOCs and connectivism are organic phenomena that are not ready for being tied down and ‘judged’.

Useful questions are:
How are MOOCs and Connectivism like and not like other phenomena X Y Z?

How do people make effective use of them?

What can the protoganists learn?

I think that Dave’s pragmatic approach might help – that OK we know knowledge isn’t really ‘transferred’ but sometimes that simplification of what is really happening can move things forward a bit. Attempting for precision of definition of things that are still a bit fuzzy for everyone doesn’t always help matters.  It’s still time for possibility knowledge in the areas of informal learning in a digital environment and modes of organisation (such as MOOCs, networks and virtual communities).
I found it interesting that Dave referred to parent/child interactions where provisional/revisional approaches to ‘knowledge’ are most helpful for learning – parents are there for the long haul, they don’t need to the last detail on the first attempt.
I would question every letter of the MOOC acronym with the possible exception of online but that’s not to say I think they are a bad thing – I am just not yet sure what they are going to be.
I think they can really maximise learning when participants can tolerate different philosophies of learning (including “I don’t have a philosophy of learning”), be good-humoured and willing to learn.

doi: 10.1177/1350507607079026 Engestrom,Y.  Management Learning July 2007 vol. 38 no. 3 271-275