Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Belated and Limited MOOC MOOC Post-Mortum, OR: What Does Thomas Friedman Have to Do with MOOCS?...

Some years ago I read Thomas L. Friedman's 2005 book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. I'm actually not writing about that book, though: thinking about MOOCs, I'm actually pondering an interview with him by Tom Nissley that was posted on Amazon that I read before I read  his book. When I read it, this is the part that jumped out at me:
Friedman: There is no substitute for face-to-face reporting and research. But it is now much easier to do all the things that go with it. I basically did all the library research for this book on Google, and it not only saved me enormous amounts of time but actually gave me a much richer offering of research in a shorter time. Many interviews that I conducted first face-to-face, I followed up with e-mail questions and answers. It was enormously helpful to just be able to shoot off a question to Nandan Nilekani or Vivek Paul and get the answer back within 24 hours. I do, though, have a set of e-mail pen pals from around the world whom I have never met, or only met once or twice. Many of them, interestingly, are Muslim women, who use the Internet to reach out, communicate, and question in ways that their traditional society would have normally prevented.
This, to me, encapsulates much of my thoughts about MOOCS, in both positive and negative ways.

First, let me talk about my own MOOC MOOC experience. The MOOC started the week before classes began at WSU. As a librarian, I had a lot to do (especially after a bit of a lost summer due to a concussion, but whatever). Anyway, with every will in the world to fully participate, I actually became a common statistic, effectively dropping out of the class pretty quickly. I did do the first assignment, however - a short video responding to the prompt "Where does learning happen?" (you can see my video at the end of this post). I spent a lot of time on the first assignment and watching other people's videos, and I followed the #moocmooc hashtag on Twitter, and I *meant* to go back and catch up on what I missed because it was interesting, just never happened. Life and work happened, instead.

There has been a lot of discussion about MOOCs in the Chronicle of Higher Education , Inside Higher Ed, and all over the Web on blogs and other conversation places. I'm not going to jump into those conversations; I just want to note a few things that I considered during and after my experience.

Research. Sources. In the interview excerpt above, Friedman boasts that he did not use libraries for his research, relying on Google (Google Scholar did not appear until November 2004 so its unlikely that he was able to make use of it; it's also likely that there was less open access academic/peer reviewed research available at the time, although I'm speaking out of my hat on this). That was his choice (and I personally think it was an irresponsible one, but he's sold millions of books and has a column in the New York Times, and I...have neither ;-). He's got the ear of movers and shakers; his calls and emails get returned and people are eager to talk with him and be quoted by him.

The thing is, some of the people who participate in MOOCs are like me - people who have academic affiliations and access to scholarly resources (including scholarly monographs,databases full of fulltext peer-reviewed journal articles and more) through our institutions. But many others don't have access to those kind of resources, and are limited to what they can find through the open Web. The growth of Open Access means that there is a lot of scholarly work available for free, but it is still (unfortunately) limited. If you don't have access to a really good public library or an institution of higher education, you are on the red ink side of the research access divide...  On one hand, MOOCs are opportunities (if the MOOCer can fully take advantage); on the other hand, there are inherent inequalities that affect the work you do and the expereince you have (access to previously published is only one of them...).  Friedman may have been able to write a big book without using a library, but woe betide any of the students at my university who turn in a research paper that does not cite appropriate and quality sources (some of which came from other institutions via consortial borrowing and interlibrary loan). Friedman may have been able to contact people directly, but he knew who to talk to, and he is someone who's (whose?) calls get returned. (Although that reminds me about the old joke about "Mike Wallace from 60 Minutes is on the phone"...)

On the other hand (I think I may be up to at least four here), Friedman was also able to communicate via his "e-mail pen pals" with people all over the world. What an amazing database that is! Direct interaction with people - people of power, but also people who so often seem to be voiceless or marginalized. In the context of my discussion here, that is a huge strength of MOOCs - the ability to communicate and learn - from and with - people all over the world who bring their own voices, histories, experiences, and more with them. The ability to interview and engage with someone via email or Skype...if they respond to you.

So what am I left with? If you don't have quality and appropriate resources, its hard to create what you need at the level you want to create it at. As a librarian, I worry about the people who don't have connections (through their own affiliations, or...).  When you take a class at a physical college or university, in theory all students in the classroom  have access to the resources available through their institution. It may not always work out that way, but everyone has a library card and remote database access. As far as I know, no MOOC comes with academic library privileges. I wish they did - I wish Coursera and EdX and all the rest of them negotiated article databases and ebook access for their participants, but the Magic 8 Ball says its not gonna happen any time soon, and certainly not for MOOCs that don't charge (oh yeah, that's the "open" part of them, isn't it?). So right off, there is an inequality of access -- a research access/research library divide -- that has a significant chance of affecting the quality of work. Sure, there is lots of good research freely available online (much via colleges and universities and their faculty), and sure people can get around it, but it is a limiter. And it sets people up to have less of a chance to succeed - to learn, and to create their own knowledge built, as knowledge is, by participating in the scholarly conversation that takes place via reading, understanding, synthesizing, integrating,and citing research (and other scholarly or creative work) that has come before.

1 comment:

Lorena O'English said...

An addendum in February, 2014 - Here's a video of an OCLC-sponsored symposium that looks at this question: