Hold the Bus

Don’t go getting all unlucky on me, Friday the 13th, threatening to drop me off the yellow brick road on Beeminder if I don’t post 258 words today.

Right, you made me do it. Stream of consciousness.

I mean, I could always post some thoughts on the one-day elearning@ed conference I was at today, but that would be suspiciously like posting about work, which I superstitiously don’t really want to do here, except tangentially. Some of the thoughts were about that very superstition, actually. A lot of the presentations were about openness in its various forms, like Massive Open Online Courses, and like openly blogging and tweeting about one’s research and teaching, and yet some of the interesting discussions I was having at lunchtime were about the difference between the talk and the walk: many of the open courseware examples out there are patchy, and academic bloggers still keep things close to their chests if they’re working on a book in the background, because in neither case do people want to give away the farm.

There was also an interesting angle about responsibility—the question of the responsibility of institutions to motivate students to engage with these open courses like MITx’s Circuits and Electronics, versus treating it all as the student’s responsibility to be self-directed, and hey, they’re getting it all for free. But the institutions get an advantage out of doing these things too, or they wouldn’t do it—a reputational advantage, an advertising advantage, a warm fuzzy glow, and perhaps drawing in some students to their regular courses that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

It reminded me of the response we hear whenever some previously free Web 2.0 tool starts charging, or when Instagram sells to Facebook for a billion dollars and the users mourn what will be lost: hey, the response goes, it was free, what right do you have to complain? (Or it was a ridiculously cheap iPhone app, or whatever.) But those companies got something out of all this “free” activity—they got a billion bucks, in Instagram’s case, and others get mind-share and venture capitalist attention and advertising dollars and whatever. It’s no more something-for-nothing than Tesco handing over discount vouchers to Clubcard members. Similarly MOOCs.

And that joined up in my mind with another link doing the rounds, on the trouble with comments sections, with which I have much sympathy, because even in this tiny corner of the Web I have to wrestle with the issue of whether to switch them on by default (this year) or off (last). In most ways they’re not worth the trouble, as spam outnumbers the real comments by ten to one or more, and it all has to be filtered by a dedicated team of yours truly. But then, even with a minor personal blog like this, when you put something out there you’re asking something of readers, even if they’re largely hypothetical: some of their time and attention, at a minimum. And I do appreciate the occasional interjection from an actual human as evidence that I’m not completely talking to myself (though for the time being I’m comfortable with mostly talking to myself; or maybe the word is “resigned”).

And that links to lingering thoughts of the Internet as Total Perspective Vortex, this vast thing that makes you realise how small and insignificant your own efforts really are... and how we draw artificial boundaries around our efforts to convince ourselves that they’re important after all, at least in the self-defined pond in which we are conveniently a larger-than-average fish.

And how that’s what we do as students (and staff) in higher education: we venerate small class sizes because they give us that human connection that makes us feel like significant individuals within the boundaries of that class, not just ants in a MOOC-sized anthill of thousands. So are MOOCs just a recognition of where the trajectory of the whole Web is heading, or are they doomed to fail because they ignore that very human need to see ourselves as the heroes in our own personal journeys of discovery?

And that makes me think of Facebook and Google+ and other social networks, which trade on massive numbers of people signing up, but all of those people build human-sized spaces in them, these circles and lists of friends, with fuzzy boundaries, but still bounded; because without those boundaries they aren’t personal and they aren’t even social, they’re the equivalent of walking down a crowded street of strangers.

Some of these thoughts have been swirling around because of that report I’ve been writing for our Egyptian colleagues, and because of hearing about the situation that universities face there. Maybe I can allow myself a small self-quote from it:

In a field such as Commerce, a single institution can in one year teach 100,000 students, with class sizes in the thousands. Some colleges have enrolments of 20,000 students in a single course.

I still can’t quite get my head around that. My own undergraduate institution had no more than 10,000 students at the time across the whole university. I used to think 16 or 18 was a big tutorial group.

Anyway, there’s more thinking to do about all of this, and the above is all terribly half-baked. But there you go: stream of consciousness at midnight, 922 words, bam. Please don’t let me add an “e-learning” category to this blog, or I’ll never get any sleep.

13 April 2012 · Net Culture

Belatedly added the link on the trouble with comments. Whoops.

Added by Rory on 20 April 2012.