“Movement”: A Story of my Life & Education
In the winter of 1987, my father decided to take me along with him on a visit to our home country, Nepal. Due to increasing conflict between the government and extremists in India’s northeastern states at the time, traveling across five states and returning safely to the remote little town in the south of Manipur (close to India’s border with Myanmar) was not easy–not to mention traveling with a ten year old. But daddy had with him good documents from local government offices, one of which was a “movement certificate” for me, written by my school’s principal. After a nifty subject line of “Movement Certificate,” it addressed “whom it may concern” and said: “This is to certify that Master Ghanashyam Sharma s/o Gopi Chandra [Sharma], a resident of Tangpizawl Village, Churachandpur District, Manipur, has been a student of this school since 1980.” It went on to request anyone reading it to kindly let me travel to Darjeeling (in the state of West Bengal in India) and return home to Manipur.
This document, as daddy told me before the trip, would serve at least two purposes: first, it was proof that I was his child–one of the things that a foreigner-looking man might have to prove when inevitably hassled by bad cops, of which there seemed many–and, second, it was a clever way of showing them our home address in India. Daddy had better documents of his residency, but they did the disservice of revealing that he was a foreigner (from Nepal), unlike my document, which only said what part of India we were “residents” of, so this would be a good piece of paper to dig out when questioned where we were from and who we were. Darjeeling, I found out, was the “permanent home address” in the school’s record, a reminder that ethnic outsiders needed an outside address. Never mind that 1) the border between India and Nepal is open by treaty and we shouldn’t have to conceal our identities, 2) those who were paid to be good guys protecting the vulnerable were being bad guys (making money, using hatred of outsiders in the name of law and order, etc), and 3) the effect of good guys acting badly can be very damaging to people’s trust in systems of justice and security.
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. . . . When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me. – Nameless character in Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man
The inability to realize that others may not have the same stakes, interests, or understanding about a given issue or situation that we do is perhaps wired into our biological makeup as humans–as well as ingrained in our social experiences and positions. But in the world of big bad MOOCs, this problem tends to be taken to a whole new level: willful blindness. The majority of students/participants in most of the xMOOCs are from outside the local context and country where they originate; however, that majority is NOT considered in the making and running of most of the courses. In other words, MOOC providers and teachers are as yet blind to the basic fact that for MOOCs to function in the transnational context, curriculum, pedagogy, and other aspects of education that they embody/perform must make a paradigm from the “context-bound” to the “context-crossing.”
Even worse, those who follow the blind leaders of the revolution treat them as great, insightful educators and facilitators for a new era of higher education in the entire blessed world. In reality, the non-local majority—-the participants who are as invisible as the nameless character in Ellison’s novel—-come from vastly different contexts. Many of them don’t understand much of what is taught/discussed. And few of them can use what they learn in their local society and professions in meaningful ways. But that’s how hegemony works: the underdog, the cheated, the abused somehow believe that it’s all in their interest.
I started thinking about the first side of the coin (willful blindness reinforced by willful invisibility– more about the latter in the next post) when I read some of the responses to a blog post I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education last summer. Sharing some challenges that I had faced when trying to teach a basic course in a new academic culture and country, I wanted to suggest that MOOC instructors shouldn’t get too excited about their ability to “educate the whole world” from the convenience of their laptops and high speed internet. While a lot of the commenters were positive, many challenged the argument (including a prominent MOOC scholar, who refused to “approve” a response to his critique of my essay on his site) by saying that cross-contextual barriers to students’ understanding and engagement in the courses don’t actually exist or weren’t a big deal, and so I was essentially saying (in the words of one of the critics): “MOOCs will never fly, Orville.” I wish that they genuinely did. Continue reading
In the previous post, I wrote about the unwillingness or inability of proponents of xMOOCs as the future of international higher education. But what I find even more amazing about the current state of affairs about mainstream MOOCs is that the participants from around the world—-including their universities and often their teachers and scholars—-are complicit in the fraud. (MOOCs are actually a blessing in terms of their potentials, especially the affordances they have for truly improving cross-border higher education, but they are a fraud as they are currently pushed by venture capitalists who see nothing but a market and their “star” professors who are too busy delivering their video lectures to the world.
Whether the dominant market-based models will ever be interested in harnessing the real powers of open online learning for cross-contextual higher learning is a huge question at this point.) But from the perspective of the participants around the world, too, the line between honest excitement about their “access” to Harvard and Princeton (i.e., mainly through video lectures and quizzes in all disciplines) and just being stupid is very thin.
I once informally interviewed a college teacher back home in Nepal who had been taking a Coursera MOOC to ask “how effective” he had found the course he was taking. He said that he was “very excited” about the possibility of “going to Harvard”! When I repeated my question about the “effectiveness” of the model of teaching/learning, he emphasized the issue of “access” and of the “prestige” of the providing institution and the teacher. I gave up after a third attempt. This is how hegemony works. Continue reading
That title is really weird, right? So was the experience that I’m about to share here at first–although it started making great sense when I got used to the academic culture that I am in now, after some time.
In a graduate seminar and practicum on teaching college-level writing that I took as an MA student in the US, the professor gave the class a literacy/teaching narrative essay assignment. Most of the writing tasks given by professors in various other courses that I had taken until then were all challenging because I was not used to writing “assignments,” but I had been doing fairly well by starting early and working very hard. This assignment caught me off guard! At first, it sounded much easier to write than all the others that I had done, but I was totally stuck because the “idea” behind it made no sense to me and I couldn’t find anything meaningful to say on the subject. Continue reading
Thoughts about a Cross-Context Twitter Summit
Sixty minutes of class time today felt like six. A community of educators along with their students, their colleagues, and other professionals that they invited… had an extremely engaging conversation. In the words of Mark McGuire, one of the participants and instructor of Design in the Department of Applied Sciences at the University of Otago in New Zealand, the Twitter Summit we had today “was a good party. [Too] many (mostly) strangers squeezed into a kitchen, all making new friends. The buzz all we remember.” I couldn’t say it better.
Instead of the web being a lonely place, with each individual staring at their own individual screen, as the “kitchen” metaphor powerfully conveys, the web was a community, a network, a rhizomatic flow of ideas and a friendly place where time and place collapsed. For an hour, a few dozen people from Egypt and New Zealand, Australia and Nepal, and cities in New York/New Jersey and California and Florida and Missouri discussed their thoughts and experiences about writing in their professions/disciplines and how it is changing, how new media are affecting those changes and creating new possibilities as well as challenges. Participants that students talked to included a microbiologist (Egypt), a hydrologist (US), college administrator (Nepal), and among others, a number of teachers/professors from different countries. Continue reading
I have been following a variety of news and discussions about the big MOOCs as a means of bringing millions if not billions out of ignorance, poverty, and lack of civilization around the world for some time. Lately, there have been far fewer people on the national scene here in the US who say the kinds of amazing things that they did until a few months ago about giving higher education an extreme makeover right here in America. But while the hype has significantly subsided on the local front, the MOOCery of higher education on the global front has been evolving into a mountain of BS. I usually tolerate or ignore the mind-bending lack of critical perspectives in the current discourse about educating the hungry masses out there, but after reading many news reports about a particularly interesting development in Rwanda today, I couldn’t help express some frustration once more.
What most bothered me was a news article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (a venue that I highly respect), which followed the pattern of a barrage of similar articles in less reputable venues; like everyone else, the writer of this article jumped on the bandwagon to essentially celebrate a group of entrepreneurs from “not” Rwanda with an utterly paradoxical vision to save that nation (plus the rest of the developing world).
As someone who has lived in some of those third world places, I found the whole project only slightly better than some of the educational scams that I have observed on the ground. Amazingly enough, in describing the Rwandan revolution in higher education, reporters on this side of the world have used words like “magic,” “game changing,” worldwide “waves,” and even “the turn” for the entire field of higher education. Continue reading
At the end of this summer, after reading a LOT of MOOC news and discussions and writing a lot in emails, blogs, and discussion forums, I almost promised myself to not write a word about MOOC anymore (at least for a year or so). But some of the more recent conversations have helped me learn and think about a few things that may be worth writing. Of course, I don’t mean that there’s nothing good about MOOCs. But the waters in the mainstream discourse about MOOC continue to be so murky that one wants to avoid catching frogs and water snakes when trying to catch pedagogical fish anywhere in the MOOC lake. Continue reading
I have taken or at least closely observed a few massive open online courses, or MOOCs, and I want to say out loud that in the case of my own discipline of writing studies, the teachers/scholars running them were wonderful. No, I’m not simply bragging about my own discipline, but like most writing teachers tend to be, the instructors whose courses I took were very thoughtful about students’ learning and in the case of the Ohio State University course, they also seemed highly aware of and sensitive to cultural/contextual differences that can affect students’ participation/success.
However, the more MOOCs I observe, the more it seems to me that no amount of awareness/ sensitiveness is going to be enough. The vastly different academic backgrounds, language proficiencies/differences, sociocultural worldviews, material conditions, digital divides, geopolitical realities. . . make MOOCs fundamentally a paradox. (For convenience, let us call these complex and multilayered differences and barriers just “differences” or “learner differences.”) Here’s why I call MOOCs a paradox: unless the objective of a course is to teach/learn about the differences themselves, trying to accommodate those differences will result in a mess, just because there will be TOO MANY of them in the MOOC setting. For instructors to be able to address enough of the differences, the courses will have to stop being massive, being open, and being asynchronous and online at the same time. That means there is a double bind between teaching effectively and accommodating for the many differences that affect learning. Or is it a hydra? Continue reading
. . . an extension from a previous post . . .
In the last post, I wrote about how I am catching myself making the odd excuse “What about Monday?” instead of finding and making connections among my research, new ideas that I learn at conferences or from reading, theoretical discussions on and off line, and the opportunities for engaging in/producing research and scholarship. In this entry, let me share how I am making, finding, and valuing such connections–which I encounter especially when I am working/talking with scholars within and beyond my local department and institution, on and offline. Continue reading
When we face uncomfortable situations or experiences, our impulse is to escape or overcome the discomfort. Whenever we can, we do not deliberately choose discomfort.
Yes, there are powerful theories and beliefs that uncomfortable experiences are useful. Teachers, preachers, motivational speakers, and parents—or people who don’t have to show what they mean by example—are the biggest advocates of such theories. “Get out of your comfort zone,” many dads will say, “In the end it is good for you”!
However, regardless of the theories (and lectures), the same fact remains: we rarely “experience” discomfort as a good or pleasant thing in the process itself. Continue reading