Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Rhizomatic Snow Crash

I had a real snow crash this evening. Given that I was walking through a balmy twilight beneath an ultramarine south Florida sky, a snow crash was the last thing I expected, but there it was:

I have profoundly misunderstood cMOOCs.

Yes, that's a bit dramatic, but that's how it felt, dramatic, and judging by how often I read others complain about the low participation and completion rates in MOOCs, I think they misunderstand cMOOCs as well.

The feeling has been swelling in me for sometime now, almost like the first whimpers of a baby from another room, before you have even heard it, though your body is already aware. You aren't yet awake, but your feet are kicking off the covers. You can't yet say to your other what it is, you don't even know if it was a sound, but you're getting up, your mouth searching for mumbles as much for yourself as for the other. Then the cry and clarity. It's that sudden. A long, slow sudden. A snow crash.

Ideas have been accumulating as strange as snow on South Beach: spaces, noise, emptiness, lurking, flow, complexity, defining from the inside, soccer, complexus, a complex, a weaving, an embrace.

I have minimized cMOOCs, trivialized them, and missed their importance. I did it for good reasons, mostly because I was having such a fine time. As I've said before, several cMOOCs, including Rhizo14, have been among my richest educational experiences. I have delighted in the connections and conversations, but they distracted me. Rather, they focused me too narrowly. cMOOCs are complex, multi-scale systems, and I was treating them merely as a class, as my class and a fine class, but they are so much more. It's time for me to expand my head. Just now I have only hints and shadowy figures, but I think I can add flesh.

A few things precipitated, now that I think about it, though this could just be hindsight. Still:

Just two days ago, I read a blog post It is my own messy chaos: on a new understanding of learning spaces and connecting by Peter Bryant, in which he discusses how students are basically creating their own learning spaces to meet their own needs, and institutions can fit in, or not:
The new learning spaces exist inside and outside the academy. They provide an environment where learners can engage with faculty and then link with connected others and sources of information, contrary and advocating those coming from the curriculum. These learning spaces are being formed now, because of the needs of the learners to interact, share, vent, collaborate, understand and vindicate. They happen in cafeterias, Facebook pages, IM groups, happy pics in Snapchat and in text conversations. They don’t need flip top desks, they need Wi-Fi and devices, and most importantly they need platforms to connect. And in most cases they are outside of the academic or the academy. In fact, if they are owned or setup by the university, they are often turned into ghost towns. The learners own these new learning spaces, quite happy in the knowledge that they are the product for these sites and platforms. But they are in control of who accesses it, who sees it and whom they share it with. They choose what gets put on the walls and whether everyone can see it or just their closest friends. They choose if it is a site of rebellion, of collegiality, of relationships or of creativity.
This was inching toward crash, but not quite there. Then tonight I was reading Michel Serres' marvelous book Genesis (1995), in which he writes of the noise at rugby matches:
Background noise is the first object of metaphysics, the noise of the crowd is the first object of anthropology. The background noise made by the crowd is the first object of history. Before lan­guage, before even the word, the noise. … Sporting events are not entirely what we think. … Contrary to what you see, there is no audience at a rugby match, there is no distance between the group and its team. … The traces of the most deeply buried archaisms are not in the places we think, they are here, in front of us and in us, terrifically live. … Listen to what is shouted in the clamor of the stadium. The secret lies in that noise. That chaos-noise is primitive, like the wind of violence, unleashed, mastered, lost, retaken, delirious, and disciplined. It subsides and swells like action, but it is noise like action: disorder and danger to be controlled. … To say that the experience, the regulation that ensues, are cultural, means nothing, it is the source of culture. Just listen to these cries: they are the echo or the encore of the most deeply buried of archaisms. This ceremony is a religious one, by religion I mean the things forever forgotten, barbaric, wild things, for which we have lost the words and which come to us from far, far away, without a text. From bodies to the collective, in a lightning short­ circuit, without language, through the groundswell of violence and pandemonium.
I would say soccer match, but no difference, rugby will do. There is no audience at a rugby match [soccer match, cMOOC], there is no distance between the group and its team. I have been thinking and acting as if the cMOOC, the class, was merely those players on the field—the ones who talk on the Google Hangouts, chat in the back channels, tweet, blog, and discuss in Facebook, complete the assignments, even make up new assignments—those who play the ball. All the others are audience, lurkers, or worse, dropouts. This is such a sad view, so small, so trivial, that I am ashamed. Really. Ashamed.

And I knew better, somewhere. I have been to games large and small. I've been in the stands with the hundreds or thousands of others, and I have felt the energy that ripples through the stands, through all those people, and I know that energy is as much a part of the weave of the game as anything that happens on the field. And the larger that crowd, the more energy it has. I have been part of the chants and songs. I have watched the WAVE ripple around a stadium, feeling the percussion as it sweeps through me. That spectator energy is woven into the game, it IS the game as much as the energy of the players. I am not minimizing the players here; rather, I'm broadening my view to include the stands, and I insist that some of the most important things happen in the stands, on the sidelines. This is where the energy on the field is first pushed out, stored, processed, and amplified, and eventually carried beyond the stadium to the city, to everyone else. If the game (cMOOC) is to be successful, it is the spectators, the most valuable spectators—the ones who watch, who drop out for a bathroom or beer run, who come back, who murmur, yell at a good play, groan at a bad one, cheer and sing songs because their neighbors are doing it—it is those spectators who roll up the energy of the game, give it meaning, and push that meaning out into the wider world. It is those spectators who feed the energy from the wider world back onto the field itself and the few players. Without the spectators, the players would be silly boys kicking a meaningless ball. Without the players, the spectators would be a confused mob.

I have been putting all the value on the players and none on the spectators. This is an abomination. I really can't speak too strongly. It's as if we put all the emphasis on the mitochondria and none on the cellular membrane, but what are the mitochondria, the players, the active students, without the cellular membrane? It's the membrane that forms the space for the players. It's the membrane that shuttles energy onto the field and back off the field and into the wider world. If a cMOOC is to succeed in challenging and changing its ecosystem, it must do it through the spectators, the membrane, the lurkers. I thought that the boundaries of the game were the sidelines and end lines, but this isn't so. The spectators form the boundaries of the game. The field sidelines merely distinguish the zone across which the spectators and the players exchange energy and information. The game includes them both. The cMOOC includes them both. Without the mass of people on the boundary, a cMOOC would be nothing. A cMOOC, like a soccer match, is truly a body without organs, a smooth space, one assemblage, and that includes the spectators. It includes the students in Maha Bali's classes who did not attend one online session in Rhizo14, but who hear about it from Maha.

Listen to the noise of the crowd. We like to think that MOOC lurkers are silent, but this is not so. They are a murmur, a drone, a background out of which the players emerge and perform in relief, against which the players achieve some kind of meaning, without which the players would be meaningless. The players, in turn, provide focus and meaning for the spectators, a point on which to direct its attention and energy. The spectators and players are not symbiotic, they are one. We can separate the players from the crowd about as well as we can separate our hearts from our skin—a really bad idea. Distinguish, yes. Disjoin, no.

cMOOCs are large and open. Much larger and more open than I have thought, and I refuse to accept any longer the denigration of spectators in a MOOC. A cMOOC can't survive without them, and the more the merrier, hundreds or thousands. I say we try for a million registrants with only 20 completing the course. That's something to aim for, and it will have more impact than we can imagine.

I also say that the auto ethnography must find a way to engage the spectators more, including those fine presenters who quoted Rhizo14 without ever attending it. Our cellular membrane is deep and rich and textured, and ultimately most of what emerges from Rhizo14 will necessarily be filtered through it.

And this, I think, is the problem with traditional education: class walls do not a membrane make. Students hear the murmur, the noise from beyond the classroom walls, and they are drawn to it, as they should be. We keep them from it. We try to focus them on the drill and practice, when what they really want is to engage the show, play in the game, merge with the spectators. That's where all the fun is.
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