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.
In the non-mainstream developments in “open” online learning–such as the wonderful rhizo14 community started by Dave Cormier who was part of developing the original idea of MOOCs as a community-based, connectivist phenomenon and who remains an inspiring figure in terms of understanding the importance of context and other complexities–the complexity of context is now being addressed fairly well. However, most proponents of xMOOCs (especially the media, MOOC celebrities and star professors, and academic media such as the Chronicle) remain nonchalant about contextual differences.
Mainstream and academic media are largely in the same echo chamber as the likes of Coursera, continuing to ignore the simple fact that even when specific “topics” for teaching, say, math or physics may be the same or similar across the world, the “teaching” and “learning” of them—-the questions asked while teaching or otherwise investigating the topic, the application of knowledge gained from learning about it, the cultural worldview and social value regarding the issue, the academic system and methods of teaching and assessment—-will all vary, often vary vastly, across contexts around the world.
They don’t care because they are willfully blind.
For example, in an applied computing MOOC that I observed some time ago, the instructor asked students to think about a “gap” in their day-to-day computing needs. In response, one local/US student presented the idea of an app that would help her partner “track” her menstrual cycle. Imagine how a randomly assigned peer “grader” from say, Burundi, Bangladesh, or Bolivia would assess this ostensibly non- culture-specific assignment in a computer science course! Every time I take or observe any mainstream MOOC, I am amazed by how “local” the examples, analogies, definitions, and explanations—-even in pure science or technology—-tend to be.
I tried to follow up the conversation in the Chronicle by providing a few concrete examples, including examples from the STEM fields. But when it came to the innumerable contextual factors that shape “teaching” and “learning,” many commenters seemed unwilling to consider their effects on the courses, on how they were shaped and taught, and on how non-local learners performed or participated.
Quite often, the proponents of mainstream MOOCs are too excited by Thomas Friedman’s kind of view of the world where MOOCs will help “lift more people out of poverty” and to “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems” or the worldview of Anant Agarwal, founder of MOOC provider edX, who believes that his company is helping make education “borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind, and bank account–blind.” They don’t pause to consider that at the very best, the intellectual leaders of mainstream MOOCs like the above think that “translating” the content delivered by the “best professors” of Boston into different languages will take care of all the challenges. Especially if the translation is done, Coursera-style, by students themselves, the model can be high quality BS in the world of cross-border education—-but I haven’t heard a peep about that BS from a cross-contextual/cultural perspective even in the academic media. In the mainstream MOOC world, many are busy sounding almost like rapturous evangelists who have found a virtual way of “saving the souls” of millions of “uncivilized” masses across the world.
Unfortunately, even beyond the promoters of xMOOCs, the understanding that teaching/learning is hardly ever context-neutral tends to be marginalized by other concerns. Even the savvy thinkers tend to be excited by how “convenient” it is for those who “lack” good education around the world; they tend to forget epistemological and intellectual access (and not just technological conveniences), which is essential for effective learning. Questions such as whether MOOC participants around the world can understand the course material or conversation, whether assignments and activities will make sense to them, and how sociocultural and other differences can affect the entire process of teaching and learning don’t matter much to most people.
It is possible that the “star professors” teaching the big MOOCs are unaware about how contextual differences can obstruct learning, about the larger dynamics of economic exploitation of people around the world, and about their own megalomania leading them to embrace the worst pedagogy of video-lecturing even by local standards. It is also possible that their altruism blinds them into believe that simply throwing some leftovers from their educational dinners out of the global window, through the wonderful internet, will serve millions of knowledge-hungry poor people around the world–that it is for them to solve that hunger problem. (By the way, asking someone to take home or, even worse, come back to pick “leftovers” from a party/dinner can be extremely offensive in many societies. Find out first!)
But when I consider how the subject of context is altogether missing and even gleefully dismissed in most of the discussions about mainstream MOOCs, I often begin to think that the blindness is a function of deeply ingrained parochialism, of geopolitical power structures forming the very worldview of people with privilege, of their lack of knowledge and experience and desire to learn about the world. Privilege can powerfully normalize such willful disregard toward other contexts and cultures; it can make people consider their local realities as universal, the “default.” Indeed, for anyone who wants to dismiss complexity of contexts, English is the “global” language (especially that of science and technology), the objective of education is for “them” to learn “our” language and discourse, the opportunities afforded by open online learning is the eventual opening up of “our” cache of knowledge for them who never had any. For those who can’t access the content at the center, the solution is to crowdsource translation, build partnership with local “providers,” and even create local communities—-all based on the content at the center. With subjects in the STEM fields, the content is objective and universal, so that’s no big deal; in the case of humanities and social sciences, it is “they” who need to catch up and learn contents of Greco-Roman-Euro-American civilization. Anyone who critiques these grand ideas are simply whining about nothing.
Okay, that was a bit cynical, but it is not because I believe that people at the global centers are bad, that they are consciously trying to take over the world of education, that they are evil. Not so. I think that it is predominantly because of where people are, what privileges they have, what incentives there are for going beyond their comfort zone, what experience and knowledge they have of different contexts and cultures, what dispositions they’ve learned or chosen to cultivate about others who are excluded or treated unfairly, whether they want to challenge unfair states of affairs in the world.
But I tend to get frustrated because I think that thoughtful people have been largely silent in this regard so far.
(… the other side of the coin and a few other observations to follow in Part II…)