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The Ed-Tech MacGuffin
March 23, 2012 - 6:04pm

Ed-tech intrigue. Coercion. Amnesia. Villainy. Surprise endings. Described like this, education technology sure begins to feel rather Hitchcock-ian.

Or perhaps that's the movie playing in my head after several harried weeks of conferences and travel, pursued across the countryside, if you will.

Or maybe -- and this is more likely the case -- my thoughts about Hitchcock and ed-tech were triggered by comment made in passing in Stephen Downes' OLDaily -- a comment about online learning, Khan Academy's video content and the MacGuffin: "something [that] provokes learning, but which isn't."

Is Khan Academy the MacGuffin? Is ed-tech? If so, what's the larger plot we're being swept up in to?

The MacGuffin, of course, was a term popularized by Hitchcock to describe the suspense techniques in his films. Among of the best known examples: the $40,000 that Janet Leigh's character steals in Psycho, the spare key to the apartment in Dial M for Murder. The MacGuffin is the thing that initiates the plot, but it's not the driving force -- or, at least, it isn't the driving force for long. Rather, it's the "hook" that the suspense of the film is hung upon, that is until Hitchcock draws us in to sympathize for the characters. Then, as Hitchcock himself once admitted, the MacGuffin really is "nothing at all."

If the MacGuffin is "nothing," then what should we make of Downes' formulation of online educational video content as one? He wrote that these videos -- and by extension, perhaps, other education technologies -- "provoke learning." But as a MacGuffin, that provocation is just the beginning of the "movie." (Although too often, I'd add, ed-tech is expected to carry the weight of the whole story. Very un-MacGuffin-like.)

Ed-tech objects do make good MacGuffins nonetheless. The hardware, the software, the online content -- they're all very compelling. They generate plenty of that initial intrigue and interest. We want the new iPad, for example, because it's new. It's shiny. It is attractive. It is desirable. We care about the story of education (I use "we" very broadly here) thanks to the technology featured now in Act I.

But the MacGuffin, remember, is just the thing that draws us in. It isn't what drives the plot forward. That requires people, human connections, processes (and okay, in the case of Hitchcock, things like greed, vengeance, and other complex psychological motives.)

I should clarify here, I suppose, that I don't want us to confuse MacGuffin with "red herring" -- something that occurs quite frequently in "common parlance." A MacGuffin isn't a distraction from the story, and as such I don't mean to say that ed-tech is a distraction from learning. The MacGuffin is what compels our interest. The question then -- for all of us -- is how we're going to script the rest of this. The MacGuffin, after all, is nothing. It can't be the main character or main motivation of the story.

 

 

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