MOOCs and teaching: a reply to Stephen Downes

Stephen Downes is unfairly hard on teachers and teaching in this post (The Great Rebranding), or may have fallen into a (rare) category error. Yes, given the way the world is organised the 25:1 or 50:1 ratio of students to teachers can be seen as a luxury that few can afford. Downes says, “Having one instructor for 20-50 people is expensive, and most of the world cannot afford that cost.”

MOOCs (x or c) provide some remediation. The cMOOC model is a radical challenge to institutionalised education. But, I do not think it is the elitist preciousness of “instructors” – or not JUST their preciousness – that seeks to preserve a 25:1 kind of interaction. I do not really even need to preserve the 1. But, I care a lot to preserve the 25, or some number between maybe 7 and 35 people as an optimum size for a culture circle, a seminar, a class… or a tutor group.

And, I do think there is something useful about having skills to help the 25 or so to learn. I do think teachers are – or can be – important. If this is a luxury, that is a problem with the world of money and power, not the form. I have made suggestions in this direction in recent posts about stadium rock and my big question. Teaching does not have to be done by institutionalised academics. Groups can self-organise. Freire struggled with the problem of educators who were not from the social milieu of those in education. There is a fine line between liberation and neo-colonialism.

We, as human beings, need to have meaningful relations with other human beings in order to learn meaningful things. I do not suggest we can’t learn stuff on our own from books or other forms of resource-based learning. I do not mean that this stuff is not (or cannot be) meaningful. But to put whatever we have learned into practice we need to do it with (or for or even to) other people. As far as I can see the purpose of learning is to be able to have some kind of influence, some autonomy, some self and community realisation. Media of all forms can be a surrogate or a simulation for some of this. We can practice with a tape in front of a mirror. But at some point we are going to have to inter-act (I hyphenate deliberately) with other people.

Therefore the challenge for me in working with a team to design a MOOC about learning how to teach in higher education (#fslt) is how to make sure that this MOOC is about enabling people to communicate with other people.

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