A Prickle in the Throat

Watched George Siemens giving a recent keynote at Learning with MOOCS 2015 here:


His main point seems to be about wanting MOOCs to "make us better as people and as a society" and lamenting the inequity and horror that goes on in Higher Ed. Laudable stuff but the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening and arguably regressing back to where it was pre-Enlightenment (see Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Picketty and Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West by John Ralston-Saul).

From the perspective of the goat, MOOCs is something a cow does when she has a prickle in her throat. And, there is no gap that cannot be jumped. You either have something or you don't: food, sleep, trees, play, work and oh yes, love.

A goat, now long deceased, called Thelma, once fell madly in love with a Saanen goat called Chariot.  This was never a match made in heaven on account of difficult ears. Thelma had lop-style Boer goat ears and Chariot had sticky-up Saanen ears. I did see the offspring of such a match once, and it was unfortunate: horizontal flying-nun ears. On the plus side, Thelma and Chariot's liaison was a lesbian affair with no possibility of offspring. Nonetheless they played hell with my fences and in the end there was nothing for it but to allow the two smitten goats to commune in the same paddock.

But I digress. The difficulty with making us better is the stampede of capital interest and power which accompanies every fresh and well motivated development or idea. Hapless teachers in higher education are barely getting to grips with the implications of the latest thing before it has spawned a gaggle of start-ups, been swept into a lather of bubble and froth by early adopters, and bought in a rush by university management because a higher-ranking-than-us university already bought it in a rush to retain their position, their power and their competitive edge. Educational Technology researchers and practitioners are left flailing about in the backwash of progress trying to piece together a meaningful research agenda...or even more thankless, to practice teaching with integrity.

And flailing we are. I guess Siemens and Downes are often credited with the first MOOC but their let's-all-learn-together-and-in-the-open cMOOC was nothing like the MOOCs that actually propelled us all into the present fuss. The game-changing xMOOCs were in the main, started by computer scientists or mathematicians who were and doubtless are still, very good teachers and very well meaning. What MOOCs are evolving into now, it seems to me, has little to do with MOOCs themselves or with the good folk who started them but with the perennial old villains; power, control and access to resource. Until what we value in higher education changes do not expect any new game-changer to change much at all.

For the best example of this, consider Sir Tim Berners-Lee who, bless him, gave us the World-Wide Web. If a stunning, elegant and democratic invention like the Web itself cannot reverse the tide of inequity, MOOCs surely are unlikely to have this effect? The shape of higher education may well change and arguably is changing. But, whether for the better is another matter. Take your pick, a crusty old University model (originally based on inculcating an unruly bunch of Jesuits with prescribed doctrine, I believe) or an unbundled Brave New World. In either, our basic values will sadly remain true and as people and a society we will be no better than ever. Sorry, George.

So, confronted with this gloomy reality, take a leaf from the Book of Goat. Never be pushed. Avoid bubble and froth, especially when it comes from cows, and always follow that which offers a tangible reward. And don't forget to look skywards. Sometimes the best rewards are just over our heads.

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