This week’s issue explores the (now notorious) pitfalls of MOOC-ish thinking and how superbig online learning communities might benefit from the guild model of online roleplaying games. We also offer a brief retrospective of this year’s THATCamp CHNM and muse on the power of the THATCamp ethos to resist posture and encourage curiosity.
As always, please join in the conversation by posting comments and questions below!
A lot of unfavorable talk has been circulating about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Critics have raised some very important questions about MOOCs’ success rates, metrics, and sustainability, asking whether they fit education missions or simply appease hollow financial and philanthropic goals of the university?
There does seem to be a strange faith in MOOCs. Sebastian Thrun left his tenured position at Stanford to found the terribly named Udacity.com. In the New York Times, David Brooks seems to have made such a compelling case for MOOCs that the Board of Visitors beheaded the University of Virginia in what I can only imagine as some kind of cargo-cult sacrifice to the philanthropy gods.
Whether MOOCs are self-driving off a cliff (Thrunma & Louise?) or are indeed the future of education is not for me to dwell upon (too much). For better or worse, I think MOOCs could be an additive, rather than substitutive, actor in the Higher Education Industrial Complex. But, more attention needs to be paid to students. How can MOOCs best serve students?
Many students, like myself, do not “complete” massively open online courses. Why? There are a number of reasons: I was busy, the cost was low/free, I didn’t have institutional pressure, etc. There are a thousand reasons why students don’t complete MOOCs; someone should probably study them. What incentive, carrot or stick, might have made me, and others like me, complete the course? I don’t know, but I have this crazy idea.
Guilds. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) like World of Warcraft are socially supported by a social structure, guilds, which enable learning the mores and norms of in-game sociality as well as practical how-to-play concerns. Furthermore, they promote participation through social reciprocity. How many WoW players have stuck with the game, for good & bad, because of social obligations to their guild-mates? Most of my understanding of WoW guilds come from the web comedy “The Guild” . Maybe I’m completely wrong about the social function of WoW, but according to Nicolas Ducheneaut and friends, “[g]uilds facilitate the formation of groups when they are needed, encourage players to play more often and more regularly, and act as an important and ever-present source of support and socializing via the “guild chat” channels, where guildmates are always available.” How might we leverage social formations like guilds to support MOOCs?
I imagine MOOC guilds enabling students to take online courses together, similar to online study groups, but coherent beyond the boundaries of any single course. Cohorts are a less entertaining analogy, but don’t fully capture the togetherness of guilds. MOOC guilds could provide a sense of collective identity and agency to students within the sea of online anonymity. While the official forums provide a discursive space for some student-to-student interaction, not everyone is comfortable asking strangers questions. Furthermore, official forums are not a private space. MOOC Guilds could be local or online, they could be small or large, they could be formal or informal, they could have t-shirts.
I have no idea if such a social formation would or could work, but I do feel MOOC students need a space–independent of academic administrators, funders, professors, journalists, and everyone else currently arguing about the future of (online) education–so we can start making sense of MOOCs for ourselves. MOOCs will succeed only if the students succeed. I am the Lorax. I speak for the students.
THATCamp and Productive Naiveté
I recently returned from THATCamp CHNM and still have a lingering brain halo of good cheer brought on by a mixture of vibrant idea exchange and sleep deprivation (this last having mostly to do with the fact that I spent my THATCamp nights literally camping, in a delightful nylon bag on the equally delightful cold hard ground of Burke Lake Park in Fairfax, VA). My second THATCamp was yet again an example of why the format has become so popular: genuine, productive collegiality.
Humanist scholars like to lay claim to a good bit of, well, humanism, especially the oft-touted capacity for holding—and synthesizing—a lot of conflicting ideas at once. Of course, this kind of big-hearted open-mindedness is not always the feature attraction at major disciplinary conferences. THATCamp seeks to change this, explicitly outlawing grandstanding and encouraging a mode of productive naiveté that leads to rich interchanges between technologists and humanities scholars.
The power to be naïve, to reveal lack, and to react to the near-universal sense of imposter syndrome not with repression but curiosity: it’s something that disciplines, discourses and graduate programs attempt at every turn to professionalize away. And it’s something, thankfully, that THATCamp is bringing back into the fold.
One example of this productive interchange came from DCW’s own Matt Burton, who led a provocative workshop on “Interesting Things You Can Do with Git.” Git, which is a version control system created by Linux creator Linus Torvalds, is nothing if not tricky, requiring a working knowledge of command line operations, file directories and repositories…not to mention the idiosyncratic taxonomy native to the Git language itself (“push,” “pull,” “commit,” and other madcapped verbs being among the easier to wrap one’s head around).
Burton did a noble job clarifying the basics of Git and its social networking counterpart GitHub, and talking about how humanists might benefit from this kind of version control. His overall point was that Git was an engine capable of powering the loftiest and thorniest of development projects. But that doesn’t mean it can’t equally be applied (with a fair bit of tweaking) to scholarly data networking, syllabus sharing and modifying, even writing and revising poetry. The session was a great example of productive naiveté at work—a chance to talk candidly about seemingly esoteric tools that can be ported from the seemingly esoteric world of software development into the equally odd realm of humanities scholarship, and to imagine how these new kinds of applications might change the texture of each field.
If genuine interdisciplinarity is about the confluence of subject matter, it’s equally about the merger of discursive ticks, methodological approaches, and the very media within which disciplines conduct business (be those media GitHub or the Proceedings of the Ogden Nash Society). Pretending to know can only get us so far–what I’d call the doctrine of “fake it ’til you have to fake making it.” THATCamp CHNM was proof that making it in the interdisciplinary realm of DH requires leaving fakery at the door, inviting curiosity, and productively owning our naiveté.