On November 21 at the OpenEd Conference in Washington, DC, Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel will present on critical digital pedagogy and MOOCs. This is the second of three articles that inspired that talk. The first, Critical Digital Pedagogy: a Definition, appeared on November 18; the second, A Misapplication of MOOCs: Critical Pedagogy Writ Massive, appeared on November 19.

“I am hopeful, not out of mere stubbornness, but out of an existential, concrete imperative.” ~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope

In a recent UW-Madison event focused on building community in MOOCs, Al Filreis offered a keynote, “The Non-automated Humanities MOOC,” in which he remarked, “Don’t talk about MOOCs as courses. That’s a slippery slope to creating a thing that doesn’t hybridize but colonizes.” To see the MOOC as a course, as that which reinforces ossified hierarchical relationships in learning environments, is to carry forward a banking model of pedagogy that does nothing to empower students or teachers. As Sean says, “The openness the MOOC presages is one where agency trumps position, where a student can become a teacher, a teacher a student, and the whole endeavor of education becomes a collaboration.”

The pedagogical value in openness is that it can create dialogue, and can deconstruct the teacher-student binary, by increasing access and bringing together at once disparate learning spaces. Openness can function as a form of resistance both within and outside the walls of institutions. But open education is no panacea. Hierarchies must be dismantled — and that dismantling made into part of the process of education — if its potentials are to be realized.

In our own work with MOOCs this has been always at the forefront: make a space for open dialogue, and change can occur. The sooner people feel empowered to speak and act honestly, the more quickly problems will be uncovered and solutions wrought.

MOOC MOOC, a seven-day meta-MOOC about MOOCs, ran in three iterations across 2012 and 2013. The course took the approach of a wildly open pedagogy, playfully investigating the form of the massive open online course with an eye toward adapting its pedagogies for other learning environments. MOOC MOOC: Dark Underbelly (MMDU) was a fourth iteration that diverged from the format of the other three with topics for discussion that were emergent and participant driven. Where MOOC MOOC sought to understand the MOOC and its place within education, dissecting it with an almost laser focus, MMDU was designed to unearth deeper (and sometimes darker) issues implicated in the past, present, and future of education. The goal of our work has not been to make better MOOCs, but to examine MOOCs and our experiences in them to put open education more deeply into conversation with Critical Pedagogy.

What Critical Digital Pedagogy can Teach the MOOC: 6 theses

MOOCs and Critical Pedagogy are not obvious bedfellows. The hype around MOOCs has centered mostly on a brand of sage on the stage courseware at direct odds with Critical Pedagogy’s emphasis on learner agency. Despite this — or, more to the point, because of this — we remain, like Paulo Freire, hopeful Critical Pedagogues. In Pedagogy of Hope, he writes, “I am hopeful, not out of mere stubbornness, but out of an existential, concrete imperative.” The simple truth is that we must be hopeful, for in hope lies possibility. But, also like Freire, we recognize that hope must be balanced with action and struggle. There is no use in mere hopefulness. Ceding authority is an active endeavor. Critical Pedagogy requires an engagement with reality that is persistent and demanding, and that engagement must result in real action, even if that action is exemplary and minute. To effect any change is to effect change.

We offer here 6 theses that work to reimagine MOOCs — and open education more broadly — as potential sites of resistance and liberation. These theses are tentative, meant to invite conversation, in the nature of Freire’s notion of dialogue.

Thesis #1: A course is a conversation, not a static reservoir or receptacle for content.

Audrey Watters writes in “5 Things I’ve Learned from MOOCs about How I Learn,” “When the C in MOOC feels like ‘community,’ I’m far happier than when the C feels like ‘course.’” And so, the body of the course must have as its limbs no less than the number of participants. Twenty-five, fifty, or two-hundred thousand — each one must be allowed the agency to be a co-author. In “Rhizomatic Education : Community as Curriculum,” Dave Cormier argues that “curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process.” A course is a starting point, a space in which learners can experiment with their agency, discover the complexity of their oppression, and begin to work toward more liberated action.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire writes, “It would be a contradiction in terms if the oppressors not only defended but actually implemented a liberating education.” This work cannot originate from teachers alone. Participation is key and must be presented always not as an injunction (for participation that is forced is mandatory, not emancipatory), but as a call toward invention, self-invention, and humanization.

In most MOOCs, content replaces the teacher, making the interchangeability of the teacher’s and students’ roles impossible. Content is static, and governed from the podium. It is written before there are students available to read it, consult on it, change it. Content cannot relinquish its authority. The teacher is not approachable, if indeed he is active in the MOOC at all, but he is seen and read — and thus becomes irrefutable. Even if he asks students to refute him, to question or append him, the teacher-as-content is always at the center of the operation of education.

Our pedagogical imperative is to let a course unfold according to the whim and determination of the group — to replace teacher-as-content with learning-community-as-content-maker.

Thesis #2: Education cannot be compulsory. The work of learning starts with agency.

To protect academic freedom in education, we must start in the classroom by fostering agency and inviting dissent. The first step in advocating for students and learners is to be one. We cannot demand that this is when students will learn that; instead, we must approach learning as collaboration. This is at the heart of what Freire calls “co-intentional education,” in which “Teachers and students (leadership and people), co-intent on reality, are both Subjects, not only in the task of unveiling that reality, and thereby coming to know it critically, but in the task of re-creating that knowledge.” The collective knowledge of a group of students will almost always exceed the expertise of one instructor.

While connectivist MOOCs have made great strides in reimagining learning experiences as co-intentional, the majority of MOOCs do not ask questions about student agency. In general, they do nothing to innovate online pedagogies; but worse, almost as a response to the massive nature of the courses, MOOC designers have removed even further the opportunity for students to take control of their own learning by disconnecting them utterly from the power of the teacher. Teacher-as-content is unavailable for negotiation, inflexible not in the sense that a live instructor might be strict, but in the way of a museum display under glass: within most MOOCs, there are few options to make changes, to meddle, or to get our student fingers dirty.

In Chapter 3 of Net Smart, “Participation Power,” Howard Rheingold writes, “In the world of digitally networked publics, online participation — if you know how to do it — can translate into real power. Participation, however, is a kind of power that only works if you share it with others.” In the classrom, and in what we can now call the traditional MOOC, the role of the teacher is imbued in advance with authority. Critical Pedagogy demands the act of teaching be focused on abdicating and not guarding that authority. Critical Digital Pedagogy demands a consideration of how we abdicate authority within digital environments. Given the degree to which the LMS can assert its own authority (“management” is, after all, one letter of the acronym), participant pedagogy demands both that the teacher abdicate authority and also actively invite students to subvert the control of the platform within which they’re working.

Thesis #3: Best practices are snake oil.

In “Best Practices: Thoughts on a Flash Mob Mentality,” Janine DeBaise writes, “Too often, faculty design pedagogy around the worst-case scenario and then apply that pedagogy to every student.” The critical digital pedagogue sees imminent danger in any sort of “best practices.” Best practices, as they’re conventionally understood, are not about meeting and working mindfully and collectively with students, but about keeping us from needing to. Freire writes, “In a humanizing pedagogy the method ceases to be an instrument by which the teacher (in this instance, the revolutionary leadership) can manipulate students (in this instance, the oppressed), because it expresses the consciousness of the students themselves.” The best best practices are those that are, as DeBaise also writes, “‘Practices Worth Considering’ or ‘Things You Could Try’ or ‘Stuff That Just Might Work.’”

The MOOC, perhaps in part because of its massive nature (and the timidity of its innovators), relies far too heavily on the crude persistence and adequacy of the “best practice.” As a designer constructs the course, she will endeavor to create an environment where the majority of students may succeed; she creates quizzes, content, and discussion fora meant to encourage engagement and learning. She does this before she knows who will join the course; a necessary evil, some would say, because the course, once launched, will be a largely unmanned ship. Best practices, in MOOCs, buttress the content and allow a designer to sleep at night, knowing that the course will turn a deaf ear to any riots fomented by the participants.

But we argue that a MOOC should have no buttresses. The best best practice is to imperil best practices. For example, having a video of the instructor(s) at the head of each unit is often declared a best practice for online learning. However, we have decidedly avoided using talking-head lecture videos in any of our MOOCs, choosing instead to include videos of participants at the head of each day’s activities, allowing the voices of authority to proliferate rather than congeal. Our goal is not to avoid showing up for the course, but to make ourselves part and parcel, sometimes a catalyst for the dialogue that unfolds, but never at the center of the conversation. Courses can be built in advance certainly, but we argue that they’re better when they quite literally build themselves.

Thesis #4: Outcomes should give way to epiphanies.

The work of Critical Pedagogy is emergent; the notion of outcomes needs to be reimagined. Outcomes are bureaucratic devices employed to keep learning organized, predictable, and efficient; but bureaucracy, according to Freire, is the enemy of liberation. “The moment the new regime hardens into a dominating ‘bureaucracy’ the humanist dimension of struggle is lost and it is no longer possible to speak of liberation.” Outcomes tell learners what is important in advance, making the act of learning neat and tidy, while deterring the unexpected and unruly epiphanies that arise organically from within a learning environment. Invention arises from self-governance. Henry Giroux says in On Critical Pedagogy:

“I have stressed that these new sites of education, which I call the realm of public pedagogy, are crucial to any notion of politics because they are the sites in which people often learn, unlearn, or simply do not get the knowledge and skills that prepare them to become critical agents, capable not merely of understanding the society and world in which they live but also of being able to assume the mantle of governance.”

While outcomes theoretically prepare students to meet the requirements of an industrialized world — where deadlines and measurable productivity are the backbone of labor — they do not empower students to question labor practices, to demand change, or to genuinely innovate. Outcomes prepare students to be dull, listless participants in labor-for-labor’s-sake.

Outcomes are programmed into the code of a MOOC, within the LMS itself. As flexible as a given LMS may be, the code behind the design assumes that outcomes, assessments, and grades will each be an integral part of the instruction. A course is taught in predetermined segments or modules, each building in some way from the previous segment, and each reliant on students meeting the outcomes of the previous modules. In some cases, new information is hidden behind an outcome firewall, so that content remains invisible until an outcome is met.

In our MOOCs, and in all our courses, we avoid predetermined outcomes. We assume, with the participants, that we will generate more questions than answers, and that we will do something together that none of us could have anticipated (and that none of us could have done on our own). We do not say: “At the end of this unit, you will know / be able to / understand…” Instead, we offer trajectories and then ask students what they’ve learned, what has surprised them, what questions remain unanswered, and what participants want to do with their epiphanies. Freire writes, “The pedagogy of the oppressed, which is the pedagogy of people engaged in the fight for their own liberation, has its roots here. And those who recognize, or begin to recognize, themselves as oppressed must be among the developers of this pedagogy.” It cannot be the LMS designers, the administration, nor the teachers — masters of outcomes, all — who make pedagogical determinations; it is the learner who must participate actively in that pedagogy. We begin to make this possible when we reimagine outcomes — and the technology that supports them.

Thesis #5: Learning should not be structured to conform to assessment mechanisms.

Structuring learning toward assessment is another bureaucratic choice, one designed to create streamlined instruction, not to encourage learner empowerment and agency. In truth, learning is not a process that can be structured in advance without first hobbling it, like fitting a body to box by chopping off its limbs. Much goes missing when we remove learning from learners’ hands, and manicure it for ease of instruction. When we ask students to conform their learning to the mechanisms by which we measure it, we are not permitting students to learn, we are asking them to pull the right lever at the right time to the right effect — automatons.

Assessment is too often the enemy of innovation. Our inability to quantitatively assess something is often in direct proportion to its pedagogical value. The best work confounds us. Because of the rampant culture of assessment that devalues students and their work, we’ve internalized grading as compulsory in education; however, grading is done in many more situations than it is actually demanded. In “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment,” Peter Elbow writes, “assessment tends so much to drive and control teaching. Much of what we do in the classroom is determined by the assessment structures we work under.” We find ways to grade, even inside learning environments, like MOOCs, where grading isn’t required.

In MOOCs — and online learning more generally — assessment has political implications. Without measurable successes, alternative instructional delivery methods cannot prove themselves viable. Administrations and those who hold the purse-strings of funding for education (or educational technology) want quantified results. But a MOOC whose participants score well on quizzes is not necessarily teaching well. In “The Costs of Big Data,” John Warner asks,

What if one of our goals for students is the development of agency, the ability to negotiate and exert control over their own lives? What if we believe this is an important goal because it is significantly correlated not only with success, but happiness and well-being? What if we believe that a student’s education should extend beyond “tips, tricks, and hints,” for getting better grades?

These are questions that standardized assessments can’t answer; indeed, that their design doesn’t acknowledge. In truth, assessment should not really be a mechanism at all. Assessment should be about curiosity and critical inquiry, a reflective and recursive process that emerges from within a learning community rather than structuring that community in advance.

Thesis #6: In education, we rise and fall together.

Critical Digital Pedagogy demands that we rethink labor conditions within education. A system that mistreats teachers is a system that mistreats students. There is a justified anxiety that MOOCs will further damage the tenuous role of teachers in higher education. To be clear, we do not believe technology like the Web or platforms like MOOCs can replace teachers. Thinking critically about our technologies, though, can help assure that technology will never replace teachers.

Few MOOCs have reflected on their own political economies. In MOOC MOOC, and through our editorial practices on Hybrid Pedagogy, we have proceeded under the supposition that there are accidental pedagogues everywhere, teachers without classrooms who left the academy but kept their ears and eyes open for discussions of a new future for higher education. As Freire has said, “The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.” We have tried to build spaces where voices that were unheard could find audience; and we did this not simply out of a practice of Critical Digital Pedagogy, but because none of the problems of higher education will be solved without the help of those it has made adjunct.

A rallying cry for open education

We will be required to cede our authority many times over. Critical Pedagogy is, according to Freire, “made and remade.” And, “Critical reflection is also action.” This means that educators and students will need to return again and again to their fundamental assumptions about education, about open education, about MOOCs, about assessment, about outcomes, and about what it means to be part of a community of educators and students.

The field of Critical Digital Pedagogy is yet nascent. As Jesse says, it “will not, cannot, be defined by a single voice but must gather together a cacophony of voices.” So we find ourselves, appropriately, with more questions than answers about how this work might continue to take shape: How can we cede authority? What technological tools are missing that will permit greater openness, more rampant empowerment? How shall the scholarship of pedagogy — words like these ones right here — words that aim at action, gape at world-changing — give way to the voices of learners, gathered together, a networked community of radical generosity?