Wednesday 24 April 2013

Forms of Knowledge and Forms of Interaction: Some thinking about MOOCs

What is the relationship between the 'aboutness' of something - the topic - and the way a topic is engaged with, or the way it is taught?

MOOCs are an opportunity to study this. Since they encompass the range of the curriculum, and since their operation is largely transparent, some easy comparisons can be made. Whether MOOCs are any good or not (in general) is perhaps beside the point. Indeed, delivering content is probably not in the deep business model of MOOC corporations (I suspect they are instead a back-door to providing 'shared services' for Universities.. but that's another post!). But taken as a content-providing platform, which is how they appear at the moment, there is - I think - something to study.

The idea that different subjects have different 'forms' is an idea that goes back to Plato. In the 1970s Paul Hirst wrote a very influential paper on "forms of knowledge" which still creates a lot of interest (why?). Hirst's focus is largely on the conceptual structure of knowledge. There is less emphasis on the activities that are engaged in when learning within a domain of knowledge (although he does acknowledge the specialised "skills and techniques for exploring and testing").

I have been interested in Forms of Knowledge for a while (see and But whilst the structuring of concepts may be important, I think the activities by which something is taught is equally important. A music lesson is characterised as much by the activities with which a teacher will typically engage the class (composing, improvising, etc) as a maths lesson is framed by its activities (doing exercises) or a computing lesson (writing a program, listening to theory)

Not all MOOCs are the same. I must admit I've tended to focus on the bad stuff in the past - the boring web pages with too much text and too little thought about the experience of reading it. But it needn't be like this. And, if the MOOC experiment is going to succeed, there is likely to be considerable diversity in the ways that teachers approach teaching online, or the kinds of activities they engage their students in. Moreover, the innovative stuff isn't going to be confined to Coursera or EdX or even ds106. Leading academics are setting up blogs as effective MOOCs for people to come together to do close-readings of new work (see for example Geoff Hodgson's blog for his new book "Darwin's Conjecture": Eventually I guess the hype will die down and people will realise it's a web-page... but the hype will have changed us to the point that the idea of large-scale online engagement with teaching is less strange. (Of course when the MOOC mystique has gone, Coursera will be undercutting the University Student Information Systems companies because they will have positioned themselves as the market-leader for student authentication services!)

In this diverse and now easily examinable world, there are new distinctions to be drawn - particularly distinctions about the kinds of activities and interactivity that learners are engaged in, and the relationship between those activities and the  knowledge domain pertaining to them. Fundamentally, this is about the way teachers manage 'variety' (a cybernetic concept - typically used as the 'unit of complexity'). How is the complexity of the subject managed through activity? How is the complexity of the students managed with the technology? How is assessment organised (if it is used)? How is progress monitored? How are individual needs addressed? and so on. And most fundamentally, "what is the experience?"

Some of these questions have been addressed in work on "Learning Design" (particularly the Educational Modelling Language). But that work, on the whole, takes a rather shallow view of what actually happens between learners and teachers in the classroom (it just considers that teachers coordinate activities). With MOOCs there are deeper things we can measure. These certainly go beyond the rather basic and crude 'analytics' that is much talked about in MOOCs. There are ways of analysing the content; there are ways of analysing the tools; there are ways of analysing the activities (I would recommend Klaus Krippendorff's work as a starting point with regard to the tools and the content).

I also think there is an opportunity for deeper thinking about the ontology of learning. What interests me most is  the possibility of overturning a fundamentally positivist epistemology (despite the fact that it's dressed up as 'constructivism'). It may be that the MOOC experiment can reveal to us just how important what "isn't there" - within a teaching and learning situation - is! (It may be the "negative ground" of interaction which is the most important factor in effective engagement.)