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When I pitched this series of “Postcards from the Participatory” back in November of 2011, I'd intended it to be a small collection of narratives exploring Massive Open Online Courses from the inside.

I was engaged in the almost year-long #change11 MOOC, and I wanted to explore how the experience intersected with – and departed from – my teaching and learning within university walls. I thought the series might share a few stories about the resonances and challenges of participatory education, and explore the implications of distributed learning networks for conventional higher education.

Basically, I thought it was time for higher ed to start thinking about MOOCs.

Ahem. Apparently bigger fish than I had a similar idea.

Days after my first post in the series was published, MITx was announced. In the months since, I've watched agog as the word MOOC proliferated and spiralled into the higher ed buzzword of the year. Trying to keep on top of it makes me feel vaguely like the sorcerer's apprentice in Fantasia, frantically scurrying as the brooms divide and double.

When you have worked in academia for fifteen years, you get used to a relatively glacial and circular pace of change. This nouvelle vague of MOOC hoopla, then, has been disorienting. But there's no denying it. In major media newsspeak, it appears “MOOC” now signifies some kind of material manifestation of the “disruptive innovation” everybody's sure is upon us but can't quite pin down.

They’re everywhere, and it's overwhelming. Educational enterprises tagged with the letter X are fruitful and multiply. University presidents are dismissed – if later reinstated – for failing to change fast enough, though the terms and targets of change are never explicitly specified. And Udacity and the xEd mega-MOOCs, with their overt emphasis on data collection and vaguely-defined business models, begin to look like trojan horses for mass-scale automation of teaching and grading. When the cavalry charge is being led by the most prestigious higher ed institutions in the market, it’s hard to assume it’ll all just blow over.

Clearly, higher ed IS thinking about MOOCs.

And the tone of that thinking gets a little bit more portentous and apocalyptic all the time. In this final postcard from what started off as a small participatory phenomenon on the fringes of academia, then, I find myself musing on Yeats, wondering what rough beast the MOOC is morphing into?

Words become buzzwords because they capture a sentiment or zeitgeist burbling under the skin of a culture. They give name to latent hopes and fears, and they capitalize on our secret hubris – rampant in academia – that we are knowers, that we can name the future. We love buzzwords on the rise, open signifiers that speak to possibilities.

The problem, of course, with buzzwords is that they end up empty.

In this case, each new media iteration of the term “MOOC” seems to tie it more closely to the behemoth of elite power + rapid change that drives the frenzy around disruption in higher ed.

Yes, higher ed is changing. Its funding structures and its knowledge structures and its place in culture have shifted drastically in the past generation or two, on multiple axes and in often-conflicting directions. It's under intense pressure to function in an increasingly corporate fashion, and with increasingly little public funding. Knowledge abundance and globalization and the push for participatory collaboration all challenge the role of the traditional classroom. The question of what an education is for is ever-contested, and in a post-industrial world, ever-complex.

Things fall apart, we hear from every corner. The center cannot hold.

The problem with apocalyptic thinking is that it predisposes us towards simple solutions and salvation narratives, even in complex situations. 

If we're interested in being part of the conversation around the future of higher ed, we need to stop talking about MOOCs as buzzwords. We need to begin talking about the interests that determine the specific shape of particular MOOCs as they emerge.

The danger of buzzwords is that they can come to feel inevitable.

MOOCs are not any one thing, unless we permit them to be. MOOCs will not inherently gut faculty positions in higher ed. MOOCs do not have automation and robot grading built into their conceptual structure.

They certainly offer the capacity for these things, if backed by scale and prestige and neoliberal values of efficiency and market niche domination: they offer the potential to look like disruptive innovation while consolidating the market interests of elite brands within higher ed.

Udacity's partnership with Pearson? Perhaps a case in point

But MOOCs' conceptual structure is actually loose enough and flexible enough that they are no one rough beast in particular. They grew, initially, as learning networks of emergent knowledge focused around educational technologies: in other words, around complexity and disruptive innovation in higher ed. Oh, the irony

MOOCs in their first inaugurations, led by George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and Dave Cormier, weren’t especially aimed at disrupting the university at all. They weren’t about the university, but about an alternate environment for learning. As Downes put it, “MOOCs don't change the nature of the game; they're playing a different game entirely.”

I've participated in a couple of MOOCs within this Connectivist tradition. Instead of leaping to grand-scale automation, they've gone the opposite route, and attempted to build sites for participatory conversation and networking around emergent technologies, practices, and ideas. There will be another, the biggest yet, offered this coming fall. Its topic? The current and future state of higher ed.

The truth is, this is what disruption IS about. The world of higher ed has become an emergent sphere.

Real innovation is not just in expanding scale and efficiencies. A few elite institutions carving up the global pie for automated instruction doesn't necessarily give us any guidance or insight into how to deal with the complexities of learning and teaching in an age of knowledge abundance.

My final postcard from the participatory, then, says forget the buzzwords. The hype around MOOCs only clouds the conversation, consolidating power back in the hands of those who have the most to lose if the universities as business entities do not adapt. But those of us who teach and learn have ties to these entities too...just little to gain from robot grading.

It's complex, this future of higher education. Consider joining the discussion in the coming CFHE12 experience. Maybe MOOCs can be a different kind of Trojan horse for change.

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Bonnie Stewart is a Ph.D. student at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada. In higher ed since 1997, Bonnie has lived and taught on all three coasts of Canada and in Eastern Europe and Asia. Her research explores social media identity and its implications for higher education. Published at and winner of the 2011 PEI Literary Award for creative non-fiction, Bonnie blogs ideas at Find her on Twitter at @bonstewart.

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