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Critical Perspectives on Educational Technology

Provocation Paper Attempting critical analysis in educational technology: the MOOC phenomenon

Carlo Perrotta Introduction

This event is an invaluable opportunity to discuss the possibility of critical analysis in educational technology. This short paper provides some suggestions as to how one such analysis might be applied to an emerging, high-profile topic in educational technology: The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). The article is the result of an on-going process of theoretical reflection and should therefore be considered as a draft meant to stimulate debate. In the space of a few years MOOCs Massive Online Open Courses - have come to dominate many discussions about instructional technology, the sustainability of traditional universities and, more broadly, the future of education in the 21st century. At its core, a MOOC is a university course delivered through the internet. In a typical MOOC experience, large numbers of students hence the word massive - will watch video lectures and then complete assignments which will be automatically graded or, alternatively, peer-assessed. Additionally, students will also have access to online communities to discuss difficult topics or to collaborate on specific tasks. The MOOC model of instruction revolves around content delivered through video streaming technology. By and large, MOOCs employ fairly standard connective technologies to stream such content, which is presented or marketed as high quality as it often originates in prestigious universities. The content is also presented as open - indeed, openness is often touted as the most defining trait of MOOCs. In this sense, the spiritual roots of the MOOC phenomenon are arguably to be found in the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. This movement saw the release of freely accessible

educational materials as a form of democratisation of knowledge and a way to combat the perceived commoditisation of learning in traditional institutions. The first recorded use of the word MOOC was in 20081 in the context of an online course called connectivism and connective knowledge, attended free of charge by 2,300 students. The course was held at the University of Manitoba in Canada. In 2012 MOOCs burst onto the international stage thanks to the near-simultaneous announcements of three high profile initiatives: Udacity, Coursera and edX. Udacity and Coursera, both off-shoots of Stanford University in partnership with other elite academic institutions, are explicit business ventures backed by investment capital. EdX, on the other hand, has been branded as a not-for-profit entity, financially and academically supported by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What transpires from these well-publicised realities is that MOOCs are being portrayed as transformative experiments with the potential to revolutionise education. At the same time, MOOCs are presented as extraordinary business opportunities, bearing all the traits of digital economy start-ups with their familiar investment pattern. As in many other high-profile digital business ventures, financial investment in MOOCs is driven by the belief, or perhaps the faith, that initially unprofitable technologies or digitised services will be monetised at a later stage. Since 2012, other start-ups have entered the fray and the phenomenon as a whole has been growing at a remarkable pace. For instance, as of 2013 Coursera has partnered with a total number of 85 institutions, including leading universities in Europe, the Middle East and Asia2. Other notable developments are taking place at the time of writing. These include, for instance, high profile contracts renegotiated due to disappointing results from student assessments3. The debate is in many respects rather polarised - in response to several very public endorsements, vocal groups of critics from within academia4 are warning against the trivialisation of teaching and learning that MOOCs may bring about. These critics condemn MOOCs alleged disregard for the social and colocated dimensions of learning, and suggest that corporate interest are threatening the liberal, public mission of higher education, possibly leading to the weakening or worse the disappearance of mid-ranking institutions. Part of this undermining process is, according to critics, the emergence of a two-tier model where only those who can afford it have access to traditional high-quality education, whilst students in less affluent universities see 'faculty being replaced with cheap online education'5. In many respects the current debate surrounding MOOCs brings to mind the distinction noted by Bigum and Kenway (1998) between Boosters, Anti-schoolers, Doomsters and Critics. During the boom years of e-learning, Bigum and Kenway introduced these four discursive categories to describe a broad set of beliefs that were converging around the use of information and communication technologies in education. Now, as then, informed criticism seems to offer the only antidote to the extremes represented by the three other positions. MOOC Boosters are still
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captivated by an unswerving faith in technologys intrinsic capacity to improve education; Antischoolers hope MOOCs will finally usher in a long-awaited techno-utopian revolution, and ultimately will hasten the disappearance of those institutions that refuse to meet the demands of the global economy. MOOC doomsters, finally, still retrench into anti-technology arguments fuelled by slightly dystopian visions of machines radically replacing human teachers.

Messy Online Open Courses

With MOOCs still in their infancy, relevant insights from independent research are still lacking. There is certainly a palpable interest within the research community and beyond. For instance, in 2013 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched a high-profile initiative to 'explore the potential of MOOCs to extend access to postsecondary credentials through more personalised, more affordable pathways'. The programme is chiefly interested in funding studies that 'examine the efficacy of early MOOC models for various learner audiences and in a wide variety of contexts'6. Other notable early contributions include exploratory work carried out at Harvard University to study the home-grown EdX (e.g. Breslow et al. 2013). This work focuses mostly on the unprecedented opportunities to build data-based analytic and predictive tools afforded by MOOCs. The connectivist literature, on the other hand, is generally credited with providing seminal insights into the emergent, self-dened qualities of MOOCs, which 'integrate the connectivity of social networking, the facilitation of an acknowledged expert in a eld of study, and a collection of freely accessible online resources' (McAuley et al. 2010 p.4). While similar views are upheld by several MOOC advocates and bandied about by entrepreneurs, the experience of some early participants point to a potential paradox between autonomy and self-direction on the one hand, and the need for structure and closure on the other (Mackness & Williams, 2010). As the seeds of scholarly activity are being sown at the time of writing, the safest option would be to concede that the jury is still out on the educational value of MOOCs. On the other hand, it could be argued that now is the perfect time to examine the assumptions which will shape future research in the area. With this in mind, the key contention of this paper is that MOOCs should be studied through a critical appreciation of their hybrid indeed messy- nature. Like many other sociotechnical phenomena, the MOOC, viewed as a broad collection of events, technologies, networks and interests, is assuming the fluid connotations of an assemblage where discourse, materiality and sociality are bound up in each other. In this respect, drawing on the theoretical and linguistic repertoire of Actor-Network Theory (ANT), aptly summarised by Bruno Latour's words, can be a productive exercise:
The ozone hole is too social and too narrated to be truly natural; the strategy of industrial firms and heads of state is too full of chemical reactions to be reduced to power and interest; the discourse of the ecosphere is too real and too social to boil down to meaning effects. Is it our fault if the networks are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society? Are we to pursue them while abandoning all the resources of criticism, or are we to abandon them while endorsing the common sense of the critical tripartition? (Latour, 1991).

Having established the foundational assumption that MOOCs are messy and hybrid, it follows that any attempt to analyse them from a purified perspective, for instance from a specific disciplinary

angle, will not suffice. In fact, by doing so the MOOC analyst may find herself trapped in a familiar form of dualism: a) She will uncritically observe phenomena as they unfold, adopting an essentialist stance that views MOOCs as an innovation emerged out of the blue in the educational arena, without interrogating its claims to existence but focusing only on its evaluation against established, and unproblematic, educational or economic criteria (do MOOCs work? Do they lead to better grades? Do they enable costs savings? And so forth). Hanging over this position is the shadow of instrumentalism: the belief that technology is a neutral tool in a cause-effect relationship a belief that disregards the socially constructed, even ideological, nature of the very notion of cause-effect relationship in education (Feenberg, 2005; Howe, 1994; Knox, 2013). Knox (2013) notes that this tendency is already gaining ground in the MOOC space, as many celebratory accounts draw credence from the OER movements literature where, in fact, technology is often treated as a mere instrument considered only in its capacity for enhancement. b) She will critique MOOCs from the traditional viewpoint of critical sociology certainly a worthwhile endeavour but one with somewhat predictable outcomes. As remarked by Bigum and Rowan (2013), the contribution of critical sociology to the study of educational technologies is invaluable (e.g. Cuban, 1986; Bromley & Apple, 1998), albeit one highly indebted to traditional sociological categories like power, domination, exploitation, reification (see also Latour, 2005, cited in Bigum and Rowan, 2013). Although likely to produce more valuable insights than an instrumentalist approach, this perspective would struggle to appreciate the complexity and dynamism that result from a more inclusive method where all that is worth studying is admitted: humans, non-humans, discourses, economic factors, local practices and actions, and so forth. Therefore, adopting an inclusive method would allow our analyst to study assemblages in a less deterministic fashion: not (or not only) as the result of forces, influences and disembodied interests and agendas but as dynamic phenomena continuously and practically - made and unmade (Law, 2012). This approach would resist the appeal of totalising explanations to favour instead emergent, eclectic accounts of how socio-technical events take shape and develop, never in a complete way but producing 'gaps, holes and tears' (Fenwick & Edwards, 2010, p4). In relation to MOOCs, this approach would resolve the dualism described above, allowing the analyst to explore the ontological politics (Law, 2007; Law and Singleton, 2005; Law and Urry, 2004) that are creating the MOOC assemblage as a multifaceted reality, actively produced through events, technologies, negotiations and alliances. The hope is that this will enable a brand of critical and empirical research committed to symmetry that is, neither anthropocentric, nor technocentric, nor sociocentric, but inclusive of all that is worth investigating: nature/reality, technology, society, discourse, practice. An important disambiguation is needed at this point: a commitment to symmetrical analysis does not imply the attribution to all actors human and non-human (e.g. technologies) - some kind of intrinsic essence independent from the semiotic forces which, according to the established social constructionist consensus, produce reality through ideological or political discourse. The real potential of symmetry lies instead in the opportunity to study the variable ontologies uncovered by an eclectic analysis. Variable ontology means that essences are not given or immanent, instead they emerge from the trajectories that are drawn and the events that take place across and within networks this process is what ANT authors call translation or mediation (Fenwick & Edwards,

2010; Latour, 1991; Law & Bijker, 1992). Translation is the process that creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture. This is opposed to 'purification', which instead creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: human beings on the one hand, nonhumans on the other. Most importantly, it is a dialectic and dynamic performance -what actors actually do in connection with other human and non-human things, which eventually stabilises to a greater or lesser degree around a particular essence.
What Sartre said of humans - that their existence precedes their essence - has to be said of all actants () We do not have to choose between (...) a reality of external nature whose essence does not depend on any human, and (...) a representation that Western thinkers have taken centuries to define. Or rather, we shall be able to choose between the two only once they are stabilised () nature and society are not two opposite trascendences but one and the same growing out of the work of mediation. (Latour, 1991).

The main point so far can be summarised as follows: trying to understand the MOOC phenomenon from either a purely educational, or purely socio-economic, or purely technological perspective is likely to be insufficient. On the other hand, a commitment to symmetrical analysis and an emphasis on the messy dynamics that operate simultaneously within the MOOC assemblage can yield valuable insights. The plethora of actors and topics that can be considered thus expands considerably, to include any possible object actively involved or recruited in the process of network creation and reproduction.

While it is relatively easy to draw connections and 'weak ties' between the various human agents (e.g. the institutions and companies) active in the MOOC space (see fig. 1 - from The Chronicle of Higher education) it is trickier to describe the relationships between the plethora of actors - human and non-human - through which the all-important work of mediation is carried out. What are the elements to be foregrounded in order to adequately describe the variable ontologies of MOOCS: the alliances, the co-opting, the sponsoring and so forth?

Figure 1 The MOOC network in 2013 - source:

A more ambitious descriptive attempt might make use of a geological metaphor. The phenomena we are discussing can in fact be seen as spanning across two contiguous domains, each with its own rich, multi-layered terrain: a) Education in the 21st century, where different regions lie side by side or intersect: the crisis of legitimisation, the imperatives of competition in the global education market, the privatisations, the challenging relations with 'intellectual labourers' (teaching and research staff) - last but not least the new, competing models of attendance and accreditation, with the established presence of different flavours of 'blended' provision with varying degrees of technological integration. b) The socio-technical and economic digital landscape, which is made of: new behavioural patterns emerged around digital content (consumption, production, sharing), fragmented participation in a variety of social media and complex practices of identity/reputation management, the dynamics of financial investment that recur in the digital economy - last but not least the forms of individualisation and self-entrepreneurship fuelled by the rhetoric of openness, unrestricted access, democratisation and independence.

As the boundaries between these domains converge, additional entities and phenomena form and emerge. Some are concrete and tangible; others are more 'meteorological' and diffused in nature, but just as real. In addition to the MOOC start-ups, the leading institutions and the various stakeholders, a more accurate description will therefore include the new breed of users/customers/students, the media coverage, the outrage of university staff, the hype and unwarranted enthusiasm registered in the blogosphere, counterbalanced by the gloomy predictions of doomsters not least the business plans and monetisation strategies that are seducing financial investors and university deans alike. The list could go on: the software engineers, the content digitisation technologies and the algorithms used to streamline, automate, collect and analyse user data. In other words, symmetrical analysis means considering ' the whole shebang' (Latour, 1991). In order to carry out any form of empirical analysis on such a hybrid, messy aggregation we must make some choices, so to establish from the outset what is to be foregrounded, while the rest shifts out of focus in the background. It is important to emphasise that not one perspective is more worthy, or more 'true' than the others. Many equally interesting, and empirically worthy, stories can be told from the viewpoints of several small or large players, human and non-human. In short: embracing the full complexity of socio-technical realities enables us to appreciate the plurality of vantage points - some otherwise out of sight - from which phenomena can be observed and understood.

Reference list (selected)

Bigum, C., & Kenway, J. (1998) New information technologies and the ambiguous future of schooling Extending educational change (Ed by Andy Hargreaves)Hargreaves, Andy, et al., eds. International handbook of educational change. Vol. 5. Springer, 1998. Bigum and Rowan (2013) A gorilla in their midst: rethinking educational technology. Breslow, L. B., Pritchard, D. E., DeBoer, J., Stump, G. S., Ho, A. D., & Seaton, D. T. (2013). Studying learning in the worldwide classroom: Research into edX's first MOOC. Research & Practice in Assessment, 8, 13-25. Feenberg, A. (2005). Critical Theory of Technology: An Overview. Tailoring Biotechnologies, 1(1),pp.4764. Fenwick, T., & Edwards, R. (2010). Actor-network theory in education. Routledge. Howe, K.R. (1994). Standards, Assessment, and Equality of Educational Opportunity. Educational Researcher, Vol. 23, No. 8, pp. 27-33. Knox, J. (2013). The limitations of access alone: Moving towards open processes in education technology. Open Praxis, vol. 5 issue 1, JanuaryMarch 2013, pp. 2129 Latour, B. (1999). Pandora's hope: essays on the reality of science studies. Harvard University Press. Latour, B. (1991). We have never been modern. Harvard University Press. Bijker, W. E., & Law, J. (Eds.). (1992). Shaping Technology/Building Society: studies in socio-technical change. MIT press. Mackness, J., Mak, S. and Williams, Roy (2010) The ideals and reality of participating in a MOOC. In: Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Networked Learning 2010. University of Lancaster, Lancaster, pp. 266-275. ISBN 9781862202252. McAuley, A., Stewart, B., Siemens, G., & Cormier, D. (2010). The MOOC model for digital practice. Howe, K.R. (1994). Standards, Assessment, and Equality of Educational Opportunity. Educational ResearcherVol. 23, No. 8, pp. 27-33.

Disclaimer: This provocation paper was written to stimulate debate at the critical perspectives on educational technology event at the University of Brighton on October 15th 2013. It is clearly neither comprehensive, nor does it necessarily reflect the views of the author, rather it is written solely as a stimulus document to support and set a broader context for discussions.