Joy and conformity – two sides of the ‘massive’ coin?

The title of this post is a conflation of two things I want to think about more. It also follows on, down a slightly winding path, from one of Jeremy’s posts yesterday, where he described his concern about people seeking ‘correct’ strategies for dealing with the large amount of content flowing into and through the MOOC.

First is a very lovely description of what – at its best moments – EDCMOOC can feel like. This was written by Kathy Fitch in the discussion forum, where she described witnessing and finding a sense of

joyful engagement and absorption

in the MOOC experience. She explicitly frames the pleasure of the MOOC as something that is not – metaphorically or literally – a classroom. Its excitement comes from being ‘massive’, from being a happening.

Second is an observation from Desi Pedeva about sameness – the way that MOOC participants are responding, all across the web, to the same set of resources, at the same time, in (in her view) many of the same kinds of ways. She argues that this happens in smaller courses, too, for the same reasons – the way that teachers control “the choice of what to include and what to exclude in their courses” – but at scale it becomes oppressive:

I can’t escape the feeling that my unique internal ideas have been trivialized by being exposed and multiplied by thousands on the Internet.

She goes on to argue that smaller courses avoid the “homogenisation of knowledge” primarily because they are small: “The small classes create pockets of diverse knowledge and diverse learning communities”.

So, here we have the “massive” as both an engine of joyful engagement, and an engine of trivialisation and conformity. I don’t believe that these perspectives are mutually exclusive, but I do think we are urgently required by the emergence, and our adoption, of the MOOC to consider what the implications of the “massive” may be for both knowledge and learning.

When the EDCMOOC course team started talking about developing our course, we didn’t ask how to teach 40,000 people at once, but rather what 40,000 people could do together. That’s one of the reasons why we wanted much of the work of the course to happen in the open web. But it seems to me that the thrill of being part of something so big, so public, and so distributed – finding resonances, making unexpected connections – is not without its difficulties. I think Desi has indicated one way these difficulties might be understood. If MOOC teachers and designers value difference and diversity, how do we design for this, while also for massive happenings?

Jen (@jar)

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9 thoughts on “Joy and conformity – two sides of the ‘massive’ coin?

  1. Does this quote not seem kinda strange: “I can’t escape the feeling that my unique internal ideas have been trivialized by being exposed and multiplied by thousands on the Internet.”

    It seems almost as if she is saying “it felt so much better to believe that these thoughts were something unique that no other beings seemed to harbor, but now that I can see myself as exposed and similar to thousands of other people, I don’t feel quite as introspective and observational. I just feel like one of the heard.” Even though there is, apparently, nothing terribly unique about her thought process. If your thoughts are the same as 40k others, then the uniqueness is only self-relevant.

    The concept that less minds participating in a classroom setting is more unique then thousands of people participating across the world is both interesting and worth inspecting. There does seem to be quite a lot of “herdism” among the community, but I am thinking that some of that is coming from a glance at the source materials. Regardless, as there is only really two or maybe three positions one can really take within the subject matter at this current time, the importance is to delve into the materials and find those things that really excite us, and then bring those to the table as major themes throughout the course. For me, I am going to focus on Cost Management and how eLearning can help to end poverty and bring education to the uneducated — but that’s a division of Utopian philosophy. The class is centered on “Utopia v. Dystopia” right now – maybe the views will diversify as the class does?

    • hi wook, and thanks for your thoughtful response. My reading of Desi’s post is that she is suggesting what you are – that the source materials profoundly shape the responses that are possible and (maybe?) legitimate. At scale, that is going to result in noticeable patterns of sameness. In a smaller class, each legitimate position can appear to belong to just one person, who came up with it. In a much bigger class, the range of positions won’t necessarily grow.

      I think you may be right, though, that as a course progresses people will splinter off into working on particular ideas and problems that emerge for them. I suppose I wonder if we then lose the ‘happenings’, though, the energy of a lot of people working together at once on the same thing. Does it stop feeling massive, at that point?

  2. Hi, edcmooc team,

    The paradox here is that by writing about one’s thoughts being lost in the thousands of posts out there in the blogosphere world, my blog have actually been noticed (another unintended consequence of participating in a MOOC :)).

    As you pointed out- the excitement of learning and the feeling of sameness- are not necessarily mutually exclusive feelings. I have learned more in the last few weeks than in a whole semester in one of my graduate classes and have met some amazing people along the way; simultaneously, I experienced the unnerving feeling that everything has been already said and that my writing is just contributing to the redundancy of information along this process. As to how to reconcile preserving diversity and distributing/sharing content and “happenings” on a mass scale, I guess that would remain work in progress. Perhaps, MOOCers would reach the plenty of “un-plugged” individuals in their own communities through the old-fashioned word of mouth and, in this process of communication, content and ideas would evolve, change, and adapt to each unique environment.

    • yes, I thought the paradox wouldn’t be lost on you, Desi!

      Maybe we have to expect that moving forward (into our own communities, into related but different issues), once shared territory has been established, means a lessening of that thrill of massive connection – that ‘buzz’ of shared activity and insight. The network then unfolds into smaller, more private and distributed connections which are probably no less significant, even if they reverberate less. I think I could live with that.

  3. First at all, I think that a course like this is an extraordinary massive event and both, teacher and students, have a lot to learn. Secondly, I agree with Kathee about “joyful engagement and absorption” but I don´t think, like Desi, that “my ideas have been trivialized by being exposed and multiplied by thousands on the Internet”. I think that, with a few exceptions, everybody tryes to do the best of their own, and value the commentaries of others according to she/his preparation and intelligence. It´s impossible to get an uniform profile with so many people. You only could do it in smaller group, but, in my opinion, this is that become MOOC´s special: learning of each other not only of our teacher´s staff. In my case, for instance, I don´t have an excellent level of English but that encourage me to struggle harder.
    Besides, I suppose our teachers are engaged with this idea, that is not only an experiment but a firmly project to being improved in the future with a better metodology based on the experience.
    Moreover, I think it´s extremelly difficult to value the work of a student in a MOOC course. The apparent work is shown in forums, in the tasks, participation in Social Media… but sometimes is only the tip of iceberg. So the task of the teacher in this aspect is hard complicated.
    Finally, one strongly goal about the philosophy of Learning courses is favoring access of culture and formation to people that can´t do it because their situation (work, family..). Moreover, in the case of MOOC´s courses, people without resources but with motivation have an opportunity to access to formation.
    I hope this experience have a good end. Particulary, I´m learning a lot and I enjoy with the lectures and videos. But, I´ m little worried about the artifact…;)

  4. Francisco, thank you very much for your comment. I really like the idea that the work we see in the form of posts and blogs is only what is above the surface. I think that might be true in the sense you mean, and also in the sense that it is impossible for any one person to see all of what happens in a MOOC – so everyone’s ‘tip of the iceberg’ is likely to look somewhat different! I guess that is another possibly answer to the worry about conformity – the power of abundance and serendipity to throw things together in ways that might spark new ideas and thoughts.

  5. One of the biggest joys of seeing this mooc unfold for me has been the very phenomenon that Desi draws attention to, because however momentarily odd and uncomfortable, I think in the end its a potentially great opportunity for more people to experience the reality (that we rarely get such a well illustrated and ‘real’ sense of being so true) that discourse speaks us rather than the other way round, and that our traditionally cherished sense of self and uniqueness and importance is a rather strange illusion… and that, moving along to the week 3 readings, it is actually pretty good and liberating to let go of it and see the ‘self’ in quite different terms, and embrace the focus on representation, the spaces where we exist, socially, and pay much closer attention to the constraints but also the choices we have in making new representations… this seems to me what the course is all about, and its very medium, as a mooc, makes it all the more possible I think to make that interpretation and get going into a ‘post human’ way of being.. Ie breaking free of some of the more extreme and now obvious constraints of traditional modes of representation and therefore ‘being’…. maybe it isn’t the mooc, maybe it’s just that I am already familiar with these ideas, and am enjoying the reminders, but I tend to think no, there is much more to this specific mode of exploring these ideas… I don’t think most people ‘get’ the message when the medium representing it is not so suited… it seems to me the mooc itself, for the reasons you’ve been discussing above, ‘affords’ (to use a current term I don’t like but maybe fits best here) these very considerations, by demonstrating them in action, more so than traditional small group seminars based on readings only…

  6. Emily, this is my kind of utopia! From my perspective, you are really on to something in considering how the medium of the MOOC might facilitate posthuman representations, and understandings of self. Thanks very much for this comment. Will you link to anything you’ve posted on this topic? I’d like to read more.

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