This post grapples with an idea that I’m still coming to understand, but that feels important: namely, who participates in open online courses, what are the elements of privilege that we overlook in planning and running course, who benefits, and why?
When we first opened up Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2008, Stephen and I weren’t expecting the response that we received. We had to quickly scramble to organize the course to reflect, first several hundred and then several thousand participants. And the term massive open online course (MOOC) was born. We approached Dave Cormier to help us run the course, especially the live sessions.
Since that first course, we’ve run almost a dozen open courses with over 10,000 participants. I’ve often had the pleasure of meeting former course participants at conferences or, increasingly, other open online courses. It has been a great learning experience for me.
I’ve never really thought about “who are these courses for”. I always figured that they are for whoever decides to show up. Similarly, when I published Knowing Knowledge and the Handbook of Emerging Technologies for Learning, my goal was not to target a particular group, but rather to just open things up and share.
However, after several years of running open courses and meeting colleagues from around the world, I’ve slightly changed my mind as to the ideal participant that I hope will benefit from the course. Many educators are in an environment of embarrassing abundance. As much as I whine about closed journals, I can still access any article I want through the university library. If someone doesn’t want to take an open course with us, there are many others to choose from. Better yet, they can tap into their personal network and setup their own course. Lean on a few personal connections and suddenly you’ve got a reasonably well-organized course with at least some level of technical support. To promote the course, share it on educational listservs, online publications, and blogs.
We can move from idea to open course to promotion to delivery in a fairly short period. Underlying that process, however, is a wealth of support that is easy to overlook. And it’s easy to forget that even being able to run an open course requires a certain degree of privilege. We say “free, open, online” and forget that we host our own servers, have some degree of institutional support, have an existing network that we can tap into to develop and promote the course, etc.
Stephen Downes and I have had several chats about why connectivism seems to have a greater impact in certain parts of the world. For example, I receive a significant amount of correspondence from South America. Why? I haven’t a clue. This past week I was in South Africa and received numerous comments from educators on the value of the Handbook for Emerging Technologies for Learning in helping them to understand how to use technology. Apparently it is being used as a bit of a text at the University of South Africa (UNISA).
It has dawned on me that MOOCs, and openness in general, are not necessarily for those who are trying to work within the existing education system. Open online courses and resources seem to impact those who outside of the traditional education system and in countries that don’t have universities in the “global top 100”. For example, UNISA has over 374,000 students. Harvard has less than 5% of UNISA’s total. Who makes a greater impact in the world? Harvard and other elite universities conduct research that might well alter the course of human history. UNISA and other similar universities alter the lives of single individuals.
Openness in research, education, and scholarship may well have the capacity to alter society and universities. Big changes change big institutions. There is, however, something very gratifying about interacting with individuals, with people who have taken an open course and have been able to improve their teaching practices and their connections with students.
I’m not comfortable with how I’m communicating my thoughts on this. I had a long conversation a few weeks ago with Athabasca University colleagues – Terry Anderson and Jon Dron – about the value of informal publishing in contrast with traditional journals. Publishing an article with a well-regarded journal is important for gaining recognition with peers. Publishing on the open web is important for making an impact with people who might lack the privilege that many of us take for granted. Interestingly, this is often in parts of the world that are forecast to be major regions in future economies. These emerging countries are jostling for identity and place in the world. The ideas they encounter, at least the educators, are those that are open and accessible.
Perhaps it’s time to see the question of openness less from an economic perspective and more from a perspective of contributing, in a very limited but personal way, the shape of education systems in emerging economies. As much as I value positive comments from colleagues, the experience of a teacher shaking my hand and thanking me for posting something online is deeply rewarding.
But it is here that my unease increases. Do I actually think I’m making a difference? Doesn’t it seem very arrogant to proclaim “look, I’m helping people in country XX”? I’m well aware of the prospect of arrogance. I had this feeling several times at UNISA when someone was overly complimentary about my work. On the one hand, I didn’t mind the praise. But on the other hand, I certainly didn’t feel worthy of it. This post holds those same tensions for me: I want to influence those people who don’t have the privilege and access that I, and many of my peers, have. But, in declaring that “I want to help or influence”, I find that unpalatable sense of over-reaching and attempting to inject ideas into areas and regions that should be developing and exporting *their* ideas, not simply importing those from well-meaning, but largely clueless, people from other regions and contexts.