The Case for Creative Paradox
In the swirling debate about the “openness” component of the MOOC acronym, participant pedagogy is perhaps one of the most problematic concepts. Teachers in higher education know pretty well how to define, encourage, assess, and measure student participation in face-to-face or hybrid courses. But such practical and theoretical knowledge is not easily transferable to the MOOC format–nor should it be, since MOOCs offer entirely new sets of challenges and chances for individual as well as peer-to-peer as and group interactions that implode the confines of the traditional “Participation/Attendance” grade. What forms can, should, or must “participation” and “attendance” take in a MOOC to be successful, both on an individual level, for each student, and as a contribution to the success of the course, as an individual and group learning project? And more importantly, what should the “pedagogy” be that informs these new forms of participation online?
In particular, what does this mean for humanities MOOCs, which are still such a new and undertheorized phenomenon at this point? As a traditionally trained humanities teacher of literature, cultural studies, film, and writing courses, I wonder what to do with that “massive” and “open” component online, when so much of my own best teaching and learning focuses on the details and nuances of texts, delves into contexts in depth, and thrives on interpersonal debate and argument where ideas are weighed, compared, and contrasted, accepted or rejected, added to or thrown out, and bounced off of one another in creative interchange. Participation and presence are absolutely vital to the success of a traditional humanities seminar, but these only become meaningful if the points made, and indeed the participants themselves, can be identified and followed within an argument or debate. As humanities courses are starting to wake up to the possibilities of MOOCs and online higher education and starting to explore the new tech tools, how do we make sure teachers and students do not fall into chaos, drown in the cacophonous chorus of too many voices all speaking at the same time, lose sight of important threads of thought and writing in discussion fora, when faced with all these discussion trees, twitter hashtags, Facebook pages, online aliases, barrages of possibilities and invitations (not to mention irritations)? How can we find a productive balance between true openness, with the results of students’ learning and interests not fully predictable, and our wish as teachers–I would actually say, responsibility–to help guide them through the fray?
As the etymology indicates, the concept of “pedagogy” (at least in its Urform in ancient Greece) involves the idea of “leading” (>ἄγειν, to lead) or actively guiding students: from ignorance to knowledge, passivity to activity, theory to practice (or practice to theory), initial insecurity to independence and a sense of self-possession, and so on. Is there still a place for such active leading and structured guiding on part of the teacher in the wide-open participant pedagogy of the MOOC? And does “wide open” necessarily mean unstructured? Not teacher-led, only student-led?
I wouldn’t pose these questions if I didn’t want to make a case for the place of structure and for the teacher’s role here: not always (not everything should be structured like this, all the time), and not thinking of the teacher as the sole arbiter of wisdom and knowledge, of course. Rather, I think of the teacher here as an informed, experienced arranger and leader of participatory activities that can become better and more productively open, precisely because of the teacher’s skilled initial arrangement of questions and tasks.
Let me illustrate what I mean, with the start of a list of concrete, structured online activities that build on “traditional” literature and cultural studies teaching ideas but could potentially work really well for the MOOC format, all geared at TEACHING CLOSE READING (a topic I’ve committed myself to for next year). Feel free to add your own! I will add more to these in the future.
EXAMPLES OF STRUCTURED MOOC PARTICIPATION ACTIVITIES FOR CLOSE READING
1. GAME OF TEXTUAL TELEPHONE:
Set up shared Google document (or use online discussion forum). The task is to draft a spontaneous group essay that delves into a particular text (it could be a passage, a poem, a scene in a play or film, etc.–need to specify ahead of time) and develops a coherent line of thought, with each student building upon previous students’ ideas. (Initially, a specific passage, a short scene, or a short poem might work best since the text to discuss is more contained that way; eventually, you could experiment with writing about a whole work of literature or film that way.) The rules: each student can only write one or two sentences, then it’s on to the next student (over and out). There does not need to be a formal “end” to this crowd sourced essay. The value of the exercise lies in the brevity/clarity of each individual idea, and in students’ connectivist skills, as well as in the variety of things in the text that can be discovered or debated in such a close reading. After activity closes (deadline, or next f2f class session), there should be a discussion on learning outcomes, of course. I’ve just made this exercise up today, but I can’t wait to try it out in class this fall. I expect surprises! Please let me know your experiences if you decide to adopt this idea for your course.