And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singin’ a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out? They may think it’s an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singin’ a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out? And friends they may think it’s a movement.
And that’s what it is , the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacre Movement, and all you got to do to join is sing it the next time it come’s around on the guitar.
My post on Jim Groom’s DS 106 MOOC generated a lot of discussion, both in the comments thread and on other blogs. However, I would like to see it also generate action, which is always one of my goals as an edublogger. At one point in the comments thread, I wrote,
My main concern is that we keep our eye on the ball. What kinds of problems can the techniques behind ds106 (for example) solve for which people? Who can they help in what ways? Who do we not yet know how to help using the current techniques of open education? How can we stretch what we are learning from ds1-6 and other experiments to reach other people and solve other problems? In particular, while I hear a lot of talk from open education proponents about democratization, most of the experiments around MOOCs and the like seem to take as students mostly…well…people who are blogging about how great MOOCs could be. There’s nothing wrong with that if the purpose is to learn how to do better MOOCs, or if the goal is just personal fulfillment, but it’s not clear to me how these translate into broad educational success that is “rhizomatic” for people who haven’t already gone to (conventional, industrialized) graduate school to learn what “rhizomatic” means. Yes, there are some great success stories from Jim’s class, and I’m sure, from other MOOCs, about people who didn’t come in as ed tech gurus and were lifted up by the course, inspired to better their lives. But you can tell the same kind of stories of people who come through conventional classrooms. What I want to see is that those successes aren’t accidental to the model. I want to see that the MOOC can be tuned to reach people who haven’t graduated college or even gone to college. When I say I want to see that, I’m not expressing skepticism. What I mean is that I want to see it.
Today, I am going to make my contribution to that goal by proposing a campaign to scale out MOOC adoption in order to reach many more and different people.
A Rose by Any Other Name…
There is a wide range of experimentation in open educational experiences, so before I go any further, I should explain what I mean here. Let’s start with the term “MOOC.” I don’t like it.1 I don’t think it reflects what is essentially interesting or useful about the movement. As far as I can tell, the term “Massively Open Online Course” is derived from “Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games” (MMORPGs). First of all, I see no evidence that the idea of achieving scale by getting many, many people into one class is a particularly effective means of scaling. More importantly, I don’t see that massiveness is essential to the idea underlying the various experiments that people are calling MOOCs. The essential characteristic, in my view, is “open.” And “massive” is not the right modifier for “open.” Rather, I would say they are “radically open,” in the sense that all content is freely accessible and anyone can come and do however much or little as they want, when they want, and leave when they want. This lack of accountability and follow-through is sometimes criticized as a bug, but actually it’s a feature. In fact, it is the essential defining characteristic. The very thing that makes a course like DS 106 work is the fact that people make it into what they need it to be. It is a Radically Open Online Class, or ROOC.
But that’s not quite right either. The experiments that we recognize as MOOCs or ROOCs have typically been class-like, but I think that’s mostly an accident of history. They don’t need to have a teacher, be associated with a university, or be limited in time to the length of a semester. In fact, time is one of the more interesting dimensions to play with in ROOCs. On the one extreme, a ROOC could be completely unbounded—essentially a community of interest in which people give themselves assignments. Consider the 365 project, where people voluntarily take a picture a day for a year and share them to learn about photography and themselves. People start whenever they want. They can participate for a year, but they also can participate for a day or for ten years. They can take pictures every day religiously, or they can skip if they want to. There are educational activities taking place within a minimally social context, but that’s about the extent of it’s class-like characteristics. On the other end of the duration spectrum, you have something like the 11eleven project, where people contribute pictures, video, or sound recordings to a collection from which will be stitched together a two-hour movie of what happened in the world on 11-11-11. It’s a one-day event—almost an educational flash mob. For that matter, I don’t think these things even need to be online. I would think that an unconference is pretty much in the same spirit of the things we call “MOOCs.”
In short, what we are talking about (or, at least, what I am talking about) is Radically Open Education, or ROE, which is a modifier for a kind of event. You can have a ROE class, a ROE flash mob (virtual or physical), a ROE community, or a ROE conference. The essential characteristic of ROE is that it increases access to all kinds of voluntary learning experiences. The motto of all things ROE could be “Practice Random Acts of Learning.” There will still exist a thing called a MOOC that is defined by historical practice, but as such it is simply one genre of ROE. I don’t care about MOOCs; I care about ROE.
The Big Idea
Now, we want to massively scale our radically open education. We want to offer many, many people lots of opportunities to practice random acts of learning. We want to get the whole world addicted to enlightenment. I’m talking about Free as in “The first one’s for free, kid.” And we want particularly to hook those people who most need to be hooked—the people who have not had good educations and have not been empowered.
Where can we start to get that kind of scale?
How about at…uh…you know…school? Schools have lots of smart people who are interested in learning about all kinds of things and committed to the idea of helping other people learn all kinds of interesting things. I’m talking about the community in a school. The people. Specifically, I’m talking about a school as a community of interest. We can harness that intention.
But we can also harness the institution. Every organization, culture, or institution develops its own set of survival reflexes. It begins to exist for its own sake and act to preserve that existence. We may sometimes feel like that is the tail wagging the dog, but in this case we can harness that impulse and the energy behind it.
Here’s what we do:
Every college “wants” to recruit students. That’s part of the of institutional survival instinct. How do schools do this? Lots of ways, but a big part of it is making prospective students feel like they have personal connections, and that the college experience will be fun for them. That’s why it’s not terribly uncommon for schools to put on educational events as recruiting tools. When my alma mater was trying to recruit students into the honors program, they brought prospects on campus for mini-lectures by a couple of the most entertaining and fascinating professors and then did a meet-and-greet afterward. A ROE online class could help create exactly the kinds of connection and positive associations that these recruitment events are trying to foster. What I propose is a kit for building ROE classes to be run by community colleges that are aimed at creating fun online educational experiences for high school students. A recruitment MOOC in a box. Professors and students alike could create lessons and assignments that are freely available for the high school students to participate in—or not. This could be coupled with some in-person outreach to the high schools (which potentially means grant money for the colleges). Because it is ROE, you can sustain such a class/community with small contributions from many college teachers and students, who participate as much as they would like, plus probably some sustained effort by one or several people. The institution will see this as a recruitment effort, which is fine but beside the point. The ROE class wouldn’t just be recruiting students for higher education; it would actually be educating them. Some of them might choose to continue by enrolling in college, which would be great. But wherever the students go next, the main point would be to get them addicted to learning.
Around this ROE kit, you’d probably want to create a ROE meta-community comprised of the people who are most involved in the nuts and bolts of running the program on the campuses. This could be structured very much like DS 106, where the participants are learning the technology skills they need to create meaningful online experiences, but it would also be a forum for sharing ideas for the respective college-hosted ROE communities.
This is something that could be done affordably and sustainably at every community college in the United States. I strongly suspect it could increase high school graduation rates, college enrollment rates, and even college achievement for a huge and underserved population. All of which would be icing on the cake. The main thing is, people would be learning.
I want to focus this post on goals and actions rather than academic debate, but since there has been so much discussion of the value of academic language in general and of the term “rhizomatic” in particular, I feel compelled to address the question of language. I am neither anti-intellectual nor anti-Latinate. Complex words have their place. But there are several reasons why I think they should be used sparingly in this context. First of all, if we are talking about the democratization of learning, then using academic language strikes me as antithetical to that intention.2 During the Protestant Reformation, one of the first things the reformers did to democratize their religion was get rid of Latin in the service. If you want to get all neo-Marxist, Poststructuralist, or post-neo-whateveralist, you could say that the language of academia is itself an architecture of control. People shouldn’t have to learn both botany and social criticism in order to have a conversation about why ROE has value to them.
Second, wrapping this work in ideologically charged language unnecessarily makes enemies and scares away potential friends. This need not be ideological. Learning is Good. More learning is Gooder. Nobody should object to creating opportunities for everybody to be both a teacher and a learner at all times. The first rule of fight club is don’t talk about fight club.