Where Does Learning Happen?

While students wander across my campus, looking helplessly for where their classes will be held, the MOOC MOOC asked a related question from an entirely unrelated perspective: “Where does learning happen?”

As has often been the case with this course, a simple question lead to complex responses.

My response looks at the places learning happens within a MOOC, but then questions whether that type of distributed (or “connectivist”) learning can be appropriate for a first-year composition (FYC) course.

My video (because the task asked for a video) is posted to Vimeo and appears below. Below that, you’ll find the transcript.

Where Does Learning Happen? from Chris Friend on Vimeo.

I say learning happens when a person figures out a new way of doing something. That something doesn’t need to be an action or a process; it can include a way of thinking. This figuring-out process can happen far away from educational institutions, other people, and books. It’s just that those three things sometimes try and help.

One of the biggest concerns I have about the MOOC format, especially given our conversation about the limits of accountability, is the role of a solitary MOOC within a larger context of official or authorized education. If a single class is presented as an open-access MOOC, what follows it? Do we use MOOCs as pre-reqs to say, “Go get yourself ready for X,” or do we use them as final products to say, “Show us what you can figure out about Y”? The flexibility of massive courses goes against the push toward standards-based education that permeates the primary and secondary grades in America. How much of what students learn in a MOOC is at all standardized or testable? (Notice that I didn’t say “practical”; that kind of learning, I think, a MOOC does well.)

Along these lines, though somewhat off the topic of the initial question, I’ve been struggling with how a MOOC would handle what I see as a distinctive characteristic of FYC courses: These courses serve as gatekeepers—occasionally to the discipline, often to the institution, sometimes to both. As Stephen Downes wrote in his HuffPost article, effective MOOCs have four core elements: Aggregation, Remixing, Repurposing, and Feeding Forward. Feeding Forward seems a perfect fit for a gatekeeper or introductory course, and Aggregation seems natural for any reading-intensive class (as opposed, perhaps, to applied project-based courses). But the Remixing and Repurposing parts are giving me pause. I’m not sure those standards can be applied to a course/curriculum. Perhaps they apply better to a teaching (facilitating?) method. Students use remix and repurposing as activities to help manage the course material; they are instructional tools, and I haven’t yet given enough thought to how those tools would work for FYC.

At my school, we try and teach our students the concept of intertextuality. Much of what I’ve seen so far in #moocmooc has been explicit intertextuality, and our daily Twitter chats are a perfect example: While the simplest questions get us started, the best conversations become tangents on tangents. The @mentions and conversation views show the origins and dispersion of ideas. The conversations seem to start with a question, then have other questions asked, opinions offered, and consensus eventually built…usually. It’s a simple process, but it’s not one that follows the typical Q&A format of instructor-led conversations/lectures. I can’t help but wonder how much the interest level of the participants is responsible for the success or failure of these conversations. Constant interest and participation are supremely dubious and unreliable in a MOOC.

The humorous persona of @moocmooc becomes relevant here. With the ability to eat up everything in its path, the @moocmooc monster feeds on the actions of the participants within this course. What we build becomes evidence of our learning before it then becomes his lunch. The blog posts we make, the videos we post, the tweets we send out…all of these get gobbled up by the @moocmooc monster and become a part of the learning experience.

So where does the learning happen? I’d say it’s in the process of making things. We’re learning through our experiences. Through reflecting on our contribution to a vast conversation. Again, this ties in with my FYC curriculum: We teach an introductory research course with an emphasis on conversation as the nature of knowledge-building. The fun (or scary, depending on perspective) part of a connectivist MOOC is that the course can start with the smallest snippet of information or opinion, and the course participants can work together to explode that snippet into a vast montage of ideas…and distributed, connected thinking.
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