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 public squares are filled once more.” ~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

If 2012 was the Year of the MOOC, then 2013 was the year the MOOC died. The public imagination around the massive open online course has faded, become niche, and now it is the playground of political and social theorists, a dedicated (and mostly academic) audience, and learning hobbyists. The conversation has gone to its corners, and the biggest impact that MOOCs have had on education is to catapult edupreneurs like Sal Khan and Daphne Koller into a national spotlight that includes appearances on NPR and CNN. Lackadaisically, other universities are joining the MOOC movement, perhaps hoping for some windfall of either a larger student body or just some good local press, or perhaps simply as a great “why not?”; but the MOOC moment has passed.

So why do I keep writing about MOOCs? Because the MOOC remains largely unconsidered. In July 2012, when Jesse Stommel and I launched our MOOC inspection of MOOCs (MOOC MOOC), it was not to investigate the practical applications of either connectivist vision or an iteration of the use of learning management systems; we entered the fray because MOOCs excited (molecularly) education. There was value in even the desperate attempts, the banal efforts, the comical forays because of the conversation they initiated. But that conversation has become no more than a cloistered murmur now.

I have said variously that a MOOC is not a thing, that it is not a course, that it is not a classroom. The MOOC is seen as a mere extension of a distance learning experiment that’s been going on for over a century; or, as a neoliberal, capitalist enterprise to co-opt traditional education and make learning into a for-profit, corporate product. In certain ways, and in examples that continue to proliferate across the educational landscape, the MOOC has become an engine for poorly-considered pedagogy (in the same way that most online learning is that engine). Companies like Coursera quickly scrambled, shortly after their initial production of massive courses, to drum up a financial yield from their otherwise free offerings. And Udacity, an unabashedly Silicon-Valley-based endeavor, within a year of launching its first MOOCs admitted what to many academics looked like defeat, and changed its curriculum into one of massive open online training. In cases such as these, learning became a product, and the humanitarian ideals of the university seemed to fall on fallow ground. But it was not the MOOC that caused this capitalization of education and its dialogues, nor the disillusionment and disappointment that followed.

The MOOC was an empty space — a potential site of resistance — upon which we might have writ different expectations, not a product, not a thing.

When I say that the MOOC is not a thing, then, what do I mean? If it is not a course one enters and exits, if it is not the content bound up within its learning management system, if it is not a product of which we can dispute the value, intentions, and results — activities that have been the centrifuge of the MOOC debate — what is it?

The MOOC is a strategy. In “March of the MOOCs: Monstrous Open Online Courses,” Jesse writes, “A MOOC isn’t a thing at all, just a methodological approach, with no inherent value except insofar as it’s used.” As with all methodological approaches, the MOOC is neutral. Much the way any tool is inherently neutral — a screwdriver in a toolbox, a chalkboard in the classroom, a phone in the pocket — the MOOC isn’t this or that, positive or negative, good or bad, well-intentioned or malicious, until it is put into play. Many people will argue with this position, and I’m quick to admit that it’s politically fraught, but it is this neutral space, this imaginative space, this generative space that we must hold in order to understand what it is that we missed about MOOCs, and which we must not miss again. Also, for this exegesis to work, we must refuse to see “MOOC” as a mere acronym and must instead interrogate it alongside words like “approach,” “lens,” “pedagogy,” “praxis.”

“Massive” and “Open” suggest the typical limitations of the classroom have been lifted, including the strictures of social norms and power structures of the traditional (dysfunctional) teacher-student relationship. Most efforts to realize the MOOC in any practical sense (Coursera, Udacity, and others) first begin by divesting themselves of true openness, instead inventing a partial openness, or a strategically reframed idea of “open” that can yet include enough of the banking model of education to keep instructors, institutions, and also students anchored, fixed. The reduction of “open” to mean “access” or “free,” for example, is the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of what openness in education entails. “Free” suggests a product or transaction; “access” requires gatekeepers and permissions; whereas “open” suggests community. 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. It is not openness like a door is open, it is open the way a mind is open.

If, as bell hooks writes in Teaching to Transgress, “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy,” then the MOOC is the most radical of such spaces outside the academy. This is important: the MOOC represents a departure from the university-centric model of learning; not just a departure from the oppressive banking model, but a relocation of education into previously unacknowledged learning spaces. In order to understand how I am seeing the MOOC as a site of resistance, we must be ready to embrace its inherent value, even in its misapplication.

The MOOCs of Coursera, Udacity, EdX — the MOOCs that still rest upon the limestone of the banking model of education — while under-realizing the potential of the MOOC, nonetheless tinker with elements of true openness. Early Udacity MOOCs, for example, included high school students in courses that college seniors might take, and encouraged on-ground “meet-ups”. Coursera, too, encourages on-ground collaboration and support for its students. The motivation, though, is to provide student “TAs”, rather than student-teachers. This is an innovation — a dipping of the toes into a new pedagogical pool — but it is also fastidiously aligned with the banking model that limits the agency of those students. Still central to the learning experience is the teacher of the MOOC, the “content expert” who, in a strangely deft move by most MOOC providers, is less and less involved in the actual learning process. (In most cases, MOOCs are “led” by previously videotaped instructors delivering lectures — a phenomenon Audrey Watters addresses when she says: “Part of this is a failure of instructional design. Part of this is a failure of pedagogy. Part of it is a failure of community — a failure of both certain online education startups in fostering community and a failure on my part in joining it.”)

But even in these misapplications of the MOOC, there is the germ of radical possibility. In “What is a MOOC?,” Dave Cormier says, “A MOOC is a course, it’s open, it’s participatory, it’s distributed, and it supports life-long networked learning.” When learning is established online, it automatically enters a new space, one where distribution, collaboration, participation, and networked learning become possible; even if they remain ghosts in the room, they are natural parts of the environment. Where online learning has failed, by mimicking an off-the-Internet classroom, the MOOC offers the potential for greater integration with the vast creative and educative possibilities of the web. The connectivist MOOCs, as opposed to the more corporate “xMOOCs” of the Ivy Leagues and Silicon Valley, seek to bring into alignment the learning environment with the web, making an Internet-as-learning-space. George Siemens writes about the connectivist MOOC model, “At the core of the MOOCs that I’ve been involved with is a power question: what can learners do for themselves with digital tools and networks?”

Within the connectivist MOOC model, student agency is not only more possible, but it is often entirely necessary, because the environment of the MOOC is literally built by students as they carve spaces and make connections across the web. If there has been one complaint about the connectivist approach, it is that it leaves too much unstructured; so much so, that the learner cannot know where to begin her learning process. Keith Brennan writes in his “Guide to Understanding the MOOC Novice,” “One of the most important aspects of the learning experience is motivation. And one of the most important aspects of motivation is our sense of our own capability, and our sense that the environment we are learning in will allow us to achieve.” Radical possibility and liberation do not any more arrive from an anarchic learning environment than they do the banking model. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire writes that “the oppressed must confront reality critically, simultaneously objectifying and acting upon that reality.” A do-as-you-will learning approach does little to motivate critical engagement with reality; even if the stage is set by an instructor, mentor, guide, or content expert, the freedom to do or not-do can actually wrest critical engagement from the learner’s hands. Mere freedom to roam the Internet can result in a drowning sensation, and this can be just as debilitating to agency as oppressive leadership. Omission of leadership can result as much in oppression as can the misuse of power.

The teacher never disappears for Freire. Instead, she must become repositioned, abdicating her authority and joining the students in the learning process. About this Critical Pedagogy is quite clear. The oppressor cannot free the oppressed without relinquishing his place as oppressor — and the mind, inclinations, and prejudices that go along with it — and joining the oppressed in their struggle for liberation. The teacher cannot preach against oppression from behind the podium, he must leave the podium behind entirely, removing it from the environment and mind of the classroom. In this way, the movement toward a liberating education does not become leaderless, but rather leader-saturated. Whether realized or not, this is the inherent promise, the ideology, of the MOOC.

My work (here, and in the various iterations of MOOC MOOC) is an intervention. I have come with my colleagues to sit the institution of education down and discuss its addiction, its dependency on poor pedagogy. The university balances on a precipice of irrelevance and refutability, bordering on becoming but a credentialing corporation; the knowledge aristocracy of the academy finds itself awash in an information age where authority based on reading, publishing, and experience is a negligible authority. What is happening, and why Critical Pedagogy and the MOOC are so mission critical, is not that the edifice of education has lost its value; it’s that now, unless learners are given agency within those walls, they will take agency elsewhere. They will leave, they are leaving (burning their textbooks on the mountain of Wikipedia), because they can find agency and information elsewhere. I believe there is room for the MOOC (conceived as an approach, and not a thing) at the academy (conceived as the inevitable site of either the rise of a new liberated front, or a bloodbath).

I do not use this language lightly, nor really as metaphor. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire writes, “Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects.” Educational institutions are, increasingly, sites of real oppression, anguish, and uprising. The academy is full of discontent masses, and while dissenters often take themselves to a minimum safe distance before openly voicing their objections on blogs and social media, one cannot ignore the contingent labor crisis, students overburdened with debt, the radical reduction of tenured positions, increasing corporatization, and the deep, wounding cuts to funding given over to the actual work of educating at these institutions. The university, like 75% of its faculty, is in a precarious position; that which consists primarily of adjuncts may yet become adjunct itself.

Freire also writes, “Education as the practice of freedom — as opposed to education as the practice of domination — denies that man is abstract, isolated, independent, and unattached to the world; it also denies that the world exists as a reality apart from people.” Open education as a practice, then, must necessarily also be rebellion. Openness is not simply an approach, but an incendiary device that brings into conversation matters of learning, pedagogy, and power that classrooms with closed doors omit.

I am peeking through a pinhole when I look at MOOCs. Like any tool in the wrong hands, MOOCs can become agents of continued oppression — of the learner or the teacher, in a pedagogical sense or in a poli-economic one. But what I continue to see through the pinhole is possibility, radical and social as much as educational. In “Massiveness + Openness = New Literacies of Participation?,” Bonnie Stewart writes, “[The] variety of responses to MOOCs is indicative of the fault lines becoming increasingly visible in the terrain of contemporary higher education […] Even if few of the largest MOOCs are currently designed to resemble Trojan horses for participatory culture, they nonetheless have the potential to expose large sectors of society to new literacies and meta-level processing around the idea of learning as a communicative practice.” This is not mere idealism, and I should be clear that the potential does not lie within the MOOC itself — that thing — but within the zeitgeist that made the MOOC necessary and inevitable. Just as Twitter fueled the Arab Spring, or just as Luddites organized against the misuse of industrial technologies, so may MOOCs point out the much-needed shift in its base pedagogical practices that the academy must attend to, and signal new, critical conceptions of education, learning, and learners.