A lot of people are talking about the absence of theory in MOOCs and MOOC research. Here are some posts from a few of my favorite people about this topic:
Bonnie Stewart, The post-MOOC-hype landscape: What’s really next?
Mike Caulfield, Short notes on the absence of theory
Martin Weller, The iceland of Dallas
Mike Feldstein, Why big data mostly can’t help improve teaching
Simon Buckingham Shum, Learning analytics: Theory-free zone?
This important dialogue reminds me of another discussion of theory I joined years ago while in graduate school: the theory and practice of feminism. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes an entire chapter on Theory as Liberatory Practice. Here is one paragraph from that chapter:
“Often individuals who employ certain terms freely–term like ‘theory’ or ‘feminism’–are not necessarily practitioners whose habits of being and living most embody the action, the practice of theorizing or engaging in feminist struggle. Indeed the privileged act of naming often affords those in power access to modes of communication and enables them to project an interpretation, a definition, a description of their work and actions, that may not be accurate, that may obscure what is really taking place” (p. 62).
Let’s revisit that paragraph with a few slight revisions to the text:
“Often individuals who employ certain terms freely–term like ‘open’ or ‘learning’–are not necessarily practitioners whose habits of being and living most embody the action, the practice of theorizing or engaging in true open education. Indeed the privileged act of naming often affords those in power access to modes of communication and enables them to project an interpretation, a definition, a description of their work and actions, that may not be accurate, that may obscure what is really taking place.”
Now, while hooks is not talking about a lack of theory, but rather use of theory as a mechanism for hegemony and exclusion, her views on the liberatory role theory should have are on target for MOOCs, too. Those in power claim openness and learning within their MOOC practices and they control the narrative and communication channels in a way that obscures both the problems of the models they are proffering and the possibilities sparked by models of true open networks of learning (I realize that was a run-on sentence, but I just couldn’t stop myself). And lack of theory becomes a mechanism of controlling that narrative in a way that keeps critical dialogue on the periphery.
Later, hooks writes:
“Within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, we have already witnessed the commodification of feminist thinking (just as we experience the commodification of blackness) in ways that make it seem as though one can partake of the ‘good’ that these movements produce without any commitment to transformative politics and practice. In their capitalist culture, feminism and feminist theory are fast becoming a commodity that only the privileged can afford” (p. 71).
Similarly, the worst outcome of the commodification of learning:
“…one can partake of the ‘good’ that these movements produce without any commitment to transformative politics and practice.”
I think our call to action is clear, and we heard it at MRI13 and we continue to hear it in colleagues’ blog posts like the ones listed above: it’s time to engage with MOOCs in a way that commits us to transforming politics and practice. Or better yet, commit to transforming politics and practice in education without relying on the MOOC. We cannot do this without theory. We cannot do this by only giving voice to the elites. Or by glorifying Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller (I’m looking at you, every damn finance and education mass publication out there).
hooks finishes her chapter talking about a place from which theory often begins, from a place of pain. In feminist research and practice, it is often the pain of hegemony, of exploitation, of racism, of imperialism, that is the place where theory begins. And think of the COURAGE it takes to start from those places of pain.
What are the places of pain for transforming our education research and practice? Are we ready to talk about them? Are we courageous enough to do something when we face them?
“I am grateful to the many women and men who dare to create theory from the location of pain and struggle, who courageously expose wounds to give us their experience to teach and guide, as a means to chart new theoretical journeys. Their work is liberatory” (p. 74).
Reference (and, I mean, READ IT ALREADY)
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.