Tuesday, 9 April 2019

The OER, MOOC and Disruption Confusion: Some thoughts about @gsiemens claim about MOOCs and Universities

George Siemens made a strong claim yesterday that "Universities who didn't dive into the MOOC craze are screwed". Justifying this by acknowledging that although the MOOC experiment up until now has not been entirely successful, the business of operating at scale in the environment is the most important thing for universities. The evidence he points to is that many machine learning/big data experts taught themselves how to do it through online resources. Personally, I can believe this is true. George's view prompted various responses among many who are generally hostile to the "disruption" metaphor of technology in education (particularly MOOCs), but the most interesting responses suggested that the real impact of the MOOC was on OER, and that open resources were the most important thing.

I find the whole discussion around disruption, MOOCs and OER very confusing. It makes me think that these are not the right questions to be asking. They all seem to view whatever activities which happen online between individuals and content through the lens of what happens in traditional education:
Disruption = "hey kids, school's closed. Let's have a lesson in the park!";
MOOCs = "Hey kids, we're going to study with 6 million other schools today!";
OER = "Hey kids, look a free textbook!". 
The web is different in ways which we haven't fathomed yet. It's obvious now that this difference is not really being felt directly in education: as I have said in my book, and Steve Watson said the other day in Liverpool (see https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/cybernetics-and-de-risking-the-universities-talkdiscussion-tickets-59314680807#), education is largely using technology to maintain its existing structures and practices. But the difference is being felt in the workplace, in casualisation, among screen-addicted teens, and in increasingly automated industries which would once have provided those teens with employment.

The web provides multiple new options for doing things we could do before. The free textbook is a co-existing alternative to the non-free textbook; the MOOC is a not-too-satisfying but co-existing alternative to expensive face-to-face education. What we have seen is an explosion of choice, and an accompanying explosion of uncertainty as we attempt to deal with the choice. Our institutions and technology corporations have both been affected by the increase in uncertainty.

What we are now discovering in the way we use our electronic devices provides a glimpse into how our consciousness deals with uncertainty and multiplicity. On the surface, it doesn't look hopeful. We appear to be caught in loops of endless scrolling, swiping and distraction. But what we do not see is that this pathological behaviour is the product of a profit-driven model which demands that tech companies increase the number of transactions that users have with their tools: their share-prices move with those numbers. Every new aspect of coolness, from Snapchat image filters to Dubsmash silliness and VR immersive environments, serves to increase the data flows. Our tech environment has become toxic resulting in endless confusion and double-binds. But we are told a lie: that technology does this. It doesn't. Corporations do this, because this is the way you make money in tech - by confusing people. It unfortunately, is also the way universities are increasingly operating. Driven by financial motives, they have become predatory institutions. Deep down, everything has become like this because turning things into money is a strategy for dealing with uncertainty.

All human development involves bringing coherence to things. It is, fundamentally, a sense-making operation. Coherence takes a multiplicity of things and orders them in a deeper pattern. Newman put it well:
"The intellect of man [...] energizes as well as his eye or ear, and perceives in sights and sounds something beyond them. It seizes and unites what the senses present to it; it grasps and forms what need not have been seen or heard except in its constituent parts. It discerns in lines and colours, or in tones, what is beautiful and what is not. It gives them a meaning, and invests them with an idea. It gathers up a succession of notes into the expression of a whole, and calls it a melody; it has a keen sensibility towards angles and curves, lights and shadows, tints and contours. It distinguishes between rule and exception, between accident and design. It assigns phenomena to a general law, qualities to a subject, acts to a principle, and effects to a cause." 
This is what consciousness really does. What Newman doesn't say is that the means by which this happens is conversation. And this is where the web we have falls down. It instead acts as what Stafford Beer called an "entropy pump" - sowing confusion. The deeper reasons for this lie in fundamental differences between online and face-to-face conversation, which we are only beginning to understand. But we will understand them better in time.

I find myself agreeing with Siemens. I do not think that the traditional structures of higher education will survive a massive increase in technology-driven uncertainty. In the end, it will have to change into something more flexible: we will dispense with rigid curricula and batch-processing of students. Maybe the MOOC experiment has encouraged some to think the unthinkable about institutional organisation. Maybe.

A university, like any organism, has to survive in its environment. They are rather like cells, and like cells, they evolve by absorbing aspects of the environment within their own structures (those mitochondria were once independently existing). In biology this is endosymbiosis. That is how to survive - to embrace and absorb. Technology is also endosymbiotic in the sense that it has embraced almost every aspect of life. It feels like we are in something of a stand-off between technology and the university, where the university is threatened and as a result is putting up barriers, reinforced by "market forces". This is also where our current pathologies of social media are coming from. Adaptation will not come from this.

Creating and coordinating free interventions in the environment is at least a way of understanding the environment better. Personally, I think grass-roots things like @raggeduniversity also are important. MOOCs were an awkward way of doing this. But the next wave of technology will do it better, and eventually I think they will create the conditions whereby human consciousness can create coherence from conversations within the context of uncertainty in the challenging world of AI and automation that it finds itself in. 

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