I once heard an interesting story about my former collegiate marching-band instructor, Dr. Richard Greenwood. According to legend, Greenwood once held up the score to an extensive piece the band was working on, pointed to it, and said, to the surprise of those around him holding instruments, “This is not the music we are playing. This is not the song we are performing. This is only a map. It’s a guide to get us where the composer wants us to go.” He then went on to discuss the merits of interpretation, flexibility, and improvisation within a framework.

In Greenwood’s view, every performance of a musical work is a unique destination, a one-of-a-kind, in-the-moment unification of performance and interpretation. I can’t help but agree. Different combinations of musicians and conductors can produce drastically different sounds and feelings from the same set of printed notes. Those notes and the musicians playing them work together to create their unique destination, built from the map provided by the composer, and the combined work of performance thereby becomes the work of creation.

Finding a Place for Performance

If we apply the idea of performance-as-creation in a classroom environment, we go against the current trends of standardization and measurement that often distract attention from actual learning and place it instead on drills and test scores. When a student’s explicit goal is to earn a certain score on a certain test, the test becomes the student’s adversary. Learning becomes an act of competition in which the student — young and inexperienced — is pitted against the examination, often created by a team of “experts” in the name of instructional design. Endless assessment creates a school environment in which students are challenged to prove that they can outwit an exam. Learning, in this system, happens by accident or according to the strict expectations of the test.

But what of the expectations of the student? If we look outside the context of the classroom, we find that learning happens whenever it can, in whatever order is necessary, in response to real performative needs. For instance, a child struggling with a video game will continue to practice or will seek out resources to make continued progress. Or think of the projects that go on inside people’s garages or on their workbenches. Some unfinished, some imperfect, but each of them a small performance demonstrating the learning that took place to solve the problem at hand. Learning outside the classroom is organic, growing out of necessity, and intentional, done with a performative outcome in mind. The learning that happens outside the classroom works very differently than the artificial, forced, test-inspired learning common in today’s schools.

I can’t help but wonder how different our education system would be if we focused on learning for learning’s sake, rather than for the sake of tests, exams, and homework checks. How different would education be if performance was the only thing that really mattered?

Taking Performance Online: The MOOC

Recent discussions about changes in education have centered on Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. New enough to still be considered “an experiment”, MOOCs are getting quite a lot of attention. Some of that attention comes from concern: How can massively large classes afford sufficient attention to the students? Some of it from curiosity: How does teaching change when the classroom walls are taken down, the admission requirements obliterated? While these questions have no clear answers, they present an excellent opportunity for exploration.

Shortly before the start of the 2012-13 school year, I participated in a Massive Open Online Course about Massive Open Online Courses — affectionately known as MOOC MOOC. Hundreds of people interested in current trends in online education joined the experience to explore a specific delivery format and discuss its implications and applications. The course itself was only seven days long and very loosely structured. There were no grades, and all reading selections were provided as a suggested menu from which to skim and select, rather than a required list to fully digest.

The open and massive nature of MOOCs demands that kind of flexibility. With hundreds of students, only four instructors, and no college credit on offer, there was no practical reason to attempt the impractical task of tracking and assessing performance. Because students dramatically outnumber instructors, the attention to minutiae that sometimes accompanies the assignment of out-of-class work becomes prohibitively tedious. In many of these large-scale classes, the only viable solution is to ignore the problem: why check homework if there is no way to do so effectively at this scale?

But then again, why check homework at smaller scales? (As a ten-year veteran of high-school English classrooms, I fully recognize that statement as blasphemous.) If performance is creation and learning happens to allow that creation, then where does homework-checking fit into the equation? The approach used in the MOOC MOOC — allowing  participants their level of involvement according to the demands of the task — shifted the nature of homework and the onus of responsibility. Participants chose how much value they saw in the readings and used them accordingly. By letting go of the tedium of assigned readings, the instructors gave the students authority to control their own learning.

Why don’t we give students that authority in all classes? If we stop worrying about the assignments, we might start letting real learning happen, for learning’s sake.


During the week, MOOC MOOC participants started wondering whether the design, approaches, affordances, and constraints of a massive open online course could apply in other contexts. If students gain greater authority in selecting beneficial preparations, what other improvements could transfer from the way massive courses work? Teachers began discussing the “MOOCification” of their existing classrooms. In effect, participants saw that the collaboration and openness of the MOOC MOOC promoted genuine learning and creative performance, and we started exploring ways to implement the strengths of the form outside the form.

What, then, are the characteristics of MOOCs that would allow for or encourage genuine learning? Defining what a MOOC is can be challenging enough (as discussed in this recent Hybrid Pedagogy article), but isolating the components that lead to learning poses even greater challenges. The variety of approaches that fit into the category of MOOC makes it impossible to label something “the MOOC way of doing things.” Instead, we can only talk about the affordances and constraints of the MOOC scenario. Massive online courses allow flexible student involvement in assignments while they limit instructor involvement in detailed assessment.

Exploring the balances between student and teacher involvement in a large-scale course unsettles many assumptions about traditional roles in a classroom. As such, MOOCs present a challenge for both application and classification. Are MOOCs an administrative structure for increased student enrollment and cost-effective content distribution? Are they a pedagogical approach for task management and assignment completion? Or are they a method of connecting people who share a common interest in learning about a topic?

The promise of MOOCs lies not in what the format lets us do, but in what the format lets us question: Where does learning happen? What are the requirements of effective collaboration? How can assessment become more authentic? How much structure and direction are best in a classroom? Although none of these questions was definitively answered during the week-long MOOC MOOC experiment, those who participated developed new perspectives from which to address those questions. The course may have been brief, but the conversations it sparked show no sign of abating. The MOOC MOOC illuminated a direction of inquiry for the participants, getting us to think not simply about the potential of MOOCs, but more importantly about the implications of MOOCs on our existing pedagogies.

Those of us who participated in MOOC MOOC were given a map for a week-long live performance. That act of creation was one-of-a-kind, dynamic, and enriching. Like the musical score Dr. Greenwood held up years ago, the MOOC MOOC provided an excellent map. I look forward to the next movement of its performance.