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.

12 Responses

  • I’ve visited your blog frequently in the past, but this is probably my first comment. Long time listener, first time caller. I was intrigued by your tweet about the CFHE12 MOOC: “Interesting that even cMOOCs are content-focused. The reading-centred syllabus is a tough habit to break, evidently.”

    I was trying to envision alternatives to pre-selected readings as the basis for course content, and had a few (not well-defined) ideas. Your suggestion is both sensible and easy. By easy, I mean it is easy for the participants to understand what you’re asking, fairly easy for them to find something local is it exists, and if not – then they have the task of writing about the local change themselves and add to the collective knowledge of their local educational community.

    I spent 27 years working on the inside of higher ed (out on parole now) and I couldn’t agree more that the academy suffers from a deeply buried “Taken-for-grantedness.” Thanks.

  • Hi Barry

    I’ve been reading your comment again while listening to Jeff Selingo’s webinar for the course. Although the webinar made me increasingly uneasy at the tendency for north American discussion to treat American higher education as the global taken for granted, I think the rest of us need to be realistic about this.

    For example, Jeff is currently talking about the possibility that US employers will start to accept other forms of credential than the completed college degree, and this will radically change the market stability surrounding US higher education, which is already up to its ears in debt. This shift to the recognition of non-degree learning credentials is exactly the development that Ferdinand von Pronzynski, from a Scottish vantage point, doesn’t feel is likely.

    Who’s right? The answer is simple in terms of market muscle: Jeff. If US employers, in partnership with US content providers, US edtech and US credentialling services, come to terms with work-readiness being marked by something other than a full degree, smaller economies will either have to aggressively differentiate (and that’s an option) or fall in line. This is just the way size works in the playground, but I think educational institutions have been slow to admit that it’s the case.

    Welcome to the deckchairs, it’s lovely to have your thoughts and experience here in the conversation.

  • “Curating these in a wiki or social bookmarking system” – does the class Diigo group work towards this goal?

    • Hi Bryan, I was wondering about this. You’d need a recommended tagging system in place that included, say, country tags, because these wouldn’t be the only thing you’d want that general collection to do. But George’s straightforward use of a google doc to crowdsource suggestions for improvement was really what set a little thought ticking about what else the simplest environments can do well, when opened up to a large number.

      I did also wonder whether the featured country profiles could achieve that goal, but that’s still the same expert-to-many broadcasting style, rather than a community built structure.

      • Hm. A coherent tag scheme would be fun and instructive to create.
        On the other hand, I like the simple wiki/Google Docs approach as well (my favorite audience support tool for presentations and workshops).

  • Interesting; I wonder if one of the issues here is a balance in the recipe for an effective commons. In a formal course (bounded at least by a cohort and schedule if not physical meeting place and time), user generated reading lists can work great. Yet, all communities need some degree or sense of shared context for accessibility and communication. I’m a big fan of open and decentralized myself, but many of my colleagues experiencing MOOCs for the first time are already struggling to orient themselves even with assigned readings and weekly webinars. I guess I sort of like the “nominal center” provided by a modest reading list, if only as a provocation to participants to argue with, supplement, or replace. In fact, most of my MOOC reading so far has come from the ad-hoc networked reading list provided by other participants via Twitter, the Daily, Diigo, etc.

    • “An effective commons” — that’s it, exactly. Creating common resources is easy, and quickly overwhelming when there’s a large crowd contributing.

      Creating a commons is much more subtle challenge. Could the same practical structure be built around shared questions, answered with recourse to different resources? I’m really interested that in a practical way we have both been more drawn to the resources that others have provided.

      Welcome, and thanks for this comment. I’d really like to keep thinking about the assumptions that we have in all kinds of teaching about where the common ground can be.

  • Linda Keesing-Styles

    Excellent discussion here and this is exactly the kind of discussion I had hoped to engage in during the MOOC. As a complete newcomer to MOOCs and outside the US and not a blogger and not a big user of Twitter or other platforms BUT a deeply interested participant in and observer of HE and a willing learner, I’ve found myself floundering around trying to make meaning on my own. I’ve dipped in and out of other people’s blogs, I’ve done all the readings, attended all the webinars (though today’s one didn’t deliver at least where I am in NZ – kept getting the message ‘waiting for organizer’) but I’ve found it difficult to really engage and have been looking at my own experience through a student’s eyes. This week’s readings and presentations have indicated that blended tops online in most cases. It’s been hard to blend.
    As a beginning observer, seems to me that MOOCs have the potential to bring some innovation to online learning rather than just offer bigger.

    • Hard to blend … indeed. I think the antipodean version of this course is much more television-like because of the extreme time difference. Welcome.

  • Have had a similar experience regarding the structure of the course…trying to find time to blog about it! Getting a bit mooc overloaded I think. Great post though, thanks for sharing!

  • Finally catching up with Siva Vaidhyanathan’s talk, I’m really struck by his scope, how he prefaces his remarks about general tendencies in higher education with “Universities in the US and the UK”. In one way, I’m glad to hear this limited range qualified so carefully, as I think it’s a concrete acknowledgement of the primary axis of influence on the future of Anglophone higher education. But stuck back in week 1 as I am (having failed to get up in the middle of the night of any of the week 2 talks, so I’m still waiting for them to be uploaded which is entirely the experience of Australian fans of American TV shows …), I find myself wondering what better questions could be asked that would better enable us to see how our different systems connect.

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