Here come the planes
They’re American planes. Made in America.
(Laurie Anderson, O Superman)
Being a terrifically slow learner, I’ve signed up for another MOOC. In my defense, I enrolled a while back and forgot, and now it’s come around just as I’ve been forced to admit that there are only so many chocolates you can eat or stuff down your cleavage before it all falls over.
So now I’m in with x thousand others, trying a constructivist MOOC focused on the current and future state of higher education.
But this time, something’s different. I’ve scanned the assigned readings, and I’ve even printed one. (Although as ever, being a MOOC student is causing my sympathy for all students to double by the minute, as I realise how much of an obstacle to engagement these practical steps prove to be, and how misleading the sense of achievement when the staple finally goes in. That’s it! My work is done. The reading is on my desk. OK, back to email.)
Now I’m looking at achieving a personal best by completing the first task, which is why I’ve slumped into a deckchair to reflect on the pressures causing change in higher education, and their possible consequences.
This is a whole skip bin of questions, so I just want to grab a bit I can reach: why isn’t higher education a powerhouse of change, given the innovation talent pool a university typically represents? I have a feeling the devil’s in the small print on this one. We can change big things, but in the banal and everyday routines we’re not seeing anywhere near the rate of change that most commentators predict. A significant cause of this is that most higher education institutions—whatever the impression created by international rankings—are at heart really parochial. We compare internationally, but we compete locally, and we’re governed by local cultural habits as much as by our locally enabling legislation.
I’ve been thinking about how parochialism operates as a brake on change since reading Ferdinand von Pronzynski’s discussion of the introduction of a Higher Education Achievement Report for British students. To Australians, the idea of a transcript that looks at what students have actually done while at university isn’t revolutionary, but the view from the British system is this:
The expectation that students, employers and others will abandon grades [degree classifications] in favour of a general report is probably naive. Grades are too much part of the culture of higher education and recruitment for employment, to mention nothing else, for that to happen.
And this is how change doesn’t come about: because people look at the way things have always been done in the system of which they’re a part, and they can’t imagine how it could be otherwise, no matter how much evidence there is that this change has already happened somewhere else and everyone is going about their business without fuss.
Taken-for-grantedness is buried deep in our capacity to evaluate the properness of any higher education innovation within our own culture, but it’s also highly exportable if you have enough cultural muscle. This is why education systems in many younger, smaller economies stick with taken-for-granted habits borrowed from somewhere else, from the Oxbridge-esque sandstone quadrangles of Australia’s Big Eight, to the ceremonial language and even the canned music of our graduation ceremonies. And don’t get me started on hats with tassels.
It’s also how the whole world got used to “Facebook”, even though a facebook was a distinctly north American campus phenomenon before it was a social network.
At one level, it does look as though MOOCs have driven a truck through this, by being so big, so free floating, so global. But what’s actually happening is that MOOCs are still mostly made in north America, and the rest of us have an interesting opportunity to experience first hand how they do it, watching their classes, seeing into their lecture theatres, learning about the culturally particular interaction between professors and TAs, figuring out what typical assessments they use. And in this case, we’re also using resources that are for the time being predominantly drawn from north American media commentary on changes to the north American systems, even though there’s a clear mission by the (Canadian) team involved to challenge this somehow.
And there are global taken-for-granteds in play, the hardest ones to unthink—despite our mission as researchers (and teachers) to make change thinkable in many other spheres. Here’s one: even an open, constructivist course that’s not delivering itself as a form of potted TV can’t do without a selection of weekly readings. George Siemens refers to these preselected readings as a “starting point that people want — a contract“, and this expectation certainly matches my experience of removing assigned readings from my own teaching, at which point people looked as though I’d told them I was planning to teach in my underwear.
The capacity to assign the right sort of readings turns out to be a habitual signal of academic expertise, one that we don’t even notice ourselves reinforcing. I know there’s a risk of disingenuous countersignalling in choosing to avoid this when I teach. But for me the alternative is riskier: that we focus our entire teaching strategy on replicating our own expertise in the minds of others, and we close off the possibility that learners may engage more effectively by finding their own resources to share and then seeing how others respond. That’s what keeps Twitter ticking over for many academics, after all.
We were asked in week one what CFHE12 could do better, and after a bit of brooding, this is my practical answer, as a way of thinking about how higher education could change one of its most unexamined habits, and in the same move MOOCs could really make good on their global promise.
Instead of asking participants to introduce themselves “to the class” (awkward, given the constituency) in the first forum, and then respond to the assigned readings in the next, what if participants had all introduced themselves by linking to a locally relevant reading that speaks to the way in which higher education is changing (or not) right where they are? Curating these in a wiki or social bookmarking system would have created an instant bibliography of the most up to date higher education research and commentary sorted on a country-by-country basis.
It’s a concrete example of something the constructivist MOOCS—who seem to me to treat their mass enrolment as a capable resource, not just an audience—have the capacity to create, that your local university can’t.