The Course Hath No Bottom: the 20,000-Person Seminar

Jesse Stommel

Sean and I wrote in “Pedagogies of Scale,” “Meaningful relationships are as important in a class of three as they are in a class of 10,000.” In the rest of that article, we wonder at questions of scale: how to scale up, when to scale down, and what it might mean to scale sideways. My question here: is it possible to scale up and down simultaneously — to create more and more intimate learning experiences for larger and larger groups of learners?

As I’m co-teaching Shakespeare in Community, a Massive Open Online Course from University of Wisconsin-Madison. The goal of the course is to bring thousands of learners into conversation. While I’ve taught MOOCs since 2012 on several platforms, this is the first time I’ve developed a Coursera MOOC. Coursera is a platform well-oiled for content-delivery. In fact, when I sat down with Daphne Koller, the founder and president of Coursera, she used the word “content” several dozen times. I asked about “conversation”, “dialogue”, and “community”. Her responses showed that these are, for Coursera, an afterthought. And after playing around inside the guts of the tool, it remains clear to me that these are, indeed, an afterthought. All the proof I need is that it’s about ten times easier to upload a video, and track the watching of that video, than it is to administer the discussion forum. But Coursera does content-delivery incredibly well. My content feels stroked and adored by the platform. It feels genuinely loved. As learning management systems go, I am happy to go on record saying that Coursera is one of the best.

However, I remain certain that learning is not something that ought to be managed. The better we become at managing learning, the more damage we do to learning. This is the cruel irony of the learning management system. The better designed it is for doing its core function, the worse off the learning that happens inside of it. As a technology, the learning management system is genuinely Orwellian. I like best the learning management system when it is still a baby, before it has fully grown up, before it has earned its stripes. But every learning management system is almost immediately on its way toward extinction. They die quick deaths at the point they forget that learning is an encounter, not a spreadsheet. The gradebook, and the demands it places on every single other feature, ultimately kills the learning management system. (Thus, I wouldn’t blame the technological systems so much as I’d blame the institutional and political climates that drive them.)

If we are to use these systems, we need to carve out more space in them for nuance — fashioning simpler platforms that serve as launching pads to places outside their own orbit (both physical and virtual). And every course inside a learning management system should ask students to reflect on the “rhetoric of the room” — the ways the shape of the room affects the learning we do inside of it. We either critically interrogate our tools or are subject to them. There is no middle ground between these two.

The MOOC’s the Thing

At this point, every MOOC fails if it isn’t, at least implicitly, about how we learn in a MOOC.

There has been much pontificating about MOOCs. Much discussion of the ifs and whys and whethers. There has been decidedly less practical discussion of how we might make better MOOCs. There has been little discussion about what the MOOC can teach us about learning. And I don’t mean what we can learn from machines, from big data, from so-called “objective” or “quantifiable” research. I don’t mean what we can learn from IRB-authorized participant surveys or some other “study” that proves what is proven already through plain observation. Instead, we need more deeply subjective work on MOOCs. Many of us don’t have time for the years that can pass in legitimizing the double-blind-peer-reviewed claims of an academic article. The folks for whom this work can do the most good are designing and taking courses right now, this week, not in two years. What can we learn from (and with) them?

The bulk of the MOOCs I’ve taken or eavesdropped upon have not been particularly well-designed. And I find this equally true of the connectivist MOOCs I’ve encountered and the ones from Silicon Valley MOOC-providers like Coursera and Udacity. The problem is not that the MOOC is experimental but that it is often not experimental enough. The MOOC landscape has been cut up into neat and tidy categories, and too many MOOCs conform to pre-established scripts. Most Coursera MOOCs, for example, look identical to traditional online courses circa 2005 or earlier, and efforts to scale up those courses has meant more content and less attention to interaction. Coursera is a triumph of marketing a decade-old approach to online learning, not a triumph of learning design.

I say this, and yet I am just now teaching a MOOC using Coursera and have been more often than not delighted by the elegance of the platform — especially the stark lack of feature bloat I’ve seen infect almost every other learning management system I’ve worked within.

Connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs), which encourage a conversation that is distributed across the web, have also fallen into the trap of conforming themselves too often to a script. The cMOOCs I join now, with a couple exceptions, do not feel as though they’ve evolved from early cMOOCs, as much as they feel beholden to them. Most cMOOCs are disasters of learning design. Beautiful disasters. Joyous disasters. Productive disasters. But disasters nonetheless. As if a course literally exploded onto the internet, leaving a smear of barely intelligible bits across the web.

I say this, and yet I have designed a half-dozen cMOOCs. I love them all like children, but I find myself wanting to kill all of my darlings. And not just in the name of experimentation. But because killing our darlings is at the root of pedagogy. Never do the same thing twice, because the same thing twice is already rotten. We learn from every one of our successes and mistakes, and we encounter each learner and each learning environment anew. Sean and I write in “If Freire Made a MOOC: Open Education as Resistance,” “the best best practice is to imperil best practices.”

All of which is to say that even if I’ve become a genuine fan of the MOOC medium, I continue to wish the medium would ask more questions of itself. And not the kinds of questions that can be answered by an objective study. The control group is a violence we can not afford. Surveys do not with patient ears attend. And snark or dismissiveness is not the answer either. Instead, we need to sit right down in the MOOC. But be always so light on our feet as to remain unentrenched.

The folks most poised to think with the MOOC are the ones building and rebuilding them. The folks most poised to think with the MOOC are the ones taking them. Everyone else is a cipher to this great accompt, working only upon imaginary forces.

And this is why I continue to teach online — not because I love teaching online, but because I’m determined to get to the bottom of online learning. Determined to see that it hath no bottom. There are many things about which I remain uncertain. What I know thus far is that content can not be poured neatly from one container to another — from the face-to-face class into the online one. What I know is that none of these technologies will save education or us — except, perhaps, from the urge to look to tech (and not to ourselves) for saviors.

Content is Dead and Gone

At the point that our content feels stroked and adored, we know that actual learning has stopped. Learning is at direct odds with content. In fact, learning does battle with content. If content wins, learning loses. We do, instead, in the best learning environments, grapple with content — we kill it on the road when we meet it there.

And so, I approached Shakespeare in Community, my latest foray into MOOC-development, with the goal of creating content that was, at every turn, self-undermining. My aim was, from the start, for everything I created for the MOOC to facilitate and be secondary to the dialogue among the learners. And I created more content (at least twice as much) than I’ve ever created for a course, but this MOOC wears its content with a difference.

Some choices I’ve made in my work on this MOOC and how they are motivated by its pedagogy:

  • Before the Shakespeare MOOC, my own face (aside from a mere avatar) has never appeared in a single online course I’ve made. Best practices for online learning insist the teacher should be present and that one of the best ways to show this presence is through lecture videos featuring the teacher at the head of every unit within the course. My consistent response to this imperative has been to put videos featuring students (and not myself) at the head of the MOOCs I’ve taught.
  • With this MOOC, I determined that I’d approach the production of lecture videos like I would a documentary film shoot. My goal was to find the collaborative energy of Al Filreis’s Modern Poetry MOOC — but asynchronously. Ultimately, I filmed over 40 hours of interviews with just under 70 experts, from child actors at the Young Shakespeare Players and the Children’s Theater of Madison to adult actors from the American Players Theatre, students from George Washington University and the UW Odyssey Project, faculty from GWU and UW-Madison, administrators from the Folger Shakespeare Library, and more.
  • From this footage, I edited about two hours of video (all of which is also available outside the course). While I shot much more footage than is likely shot for most Coursera MOOCs, I included in the course much less video than is included in most Coursera MOOCs. This was a design decision. I wanted to leave as many gaps as possible in the conversation for learners to fill with their own voices. Long monologues do not encourage dialogue. My hypothesis, though, is that 15-minute video documentaries, each with many voices, do.
  • The first moments of the course, the first remarks in the videos, the first text on the page reflect uncertainty. There is no authority in this course, except insofar as everyone is an authority. I did not select and highlight footage that foregrounds what is known. Rather, many of the videos begin with a stumble, a glitch, a false start, a moment that shows even experts at their most vulnerable. And, ultimately, every video champions discovery more than knowing or certainty.
  • Facts are shared, details are offered, and content is delivered. But never at the expense of questions or openings to discussion. I aimed not to withhold content, or obscure it, but to make it secondary. Content comes as a relief to many learners who are primed by Coursera for a pedagogy that equates content-delivery with learning. Admittedly, the videos I’ve made pull the rug out from under some learners, because I am not also offering the trappings of traditional education, like quizzes, grades, one static path through the material, etc. My approach is not to alienate these learners, but to give them just enough stability to find their footing as they venture into the course. There are no imperatives, though, so efforts to merely follow instructions are frustrated.
  • I decided to bring myself more fully into this MOOC than any of my previous online courses. I position myself in the videos as a conductor, what Howard Rheingold calls a “chief learner,” showing up quite a bit in the first video, orienting learners to the course, but less and less as the videos proceed. However, I do appear, even if only briefly, in most of the videos. (My co-instructors also appear consistently but infrequently.) My goal is to establish presence the way I would in a classroom — by making eye contact with every student — even if the bulk of the learning happens with me not at the front of the room or on the sidelines, but in the midst of (and as a member of) the rest of the learners.
  • I wanted to teach this course with as large a group of co-instructors as possible. I believe massive courses should be massively taught. In this case, I’m working with three other primary instructors: R L Widmann, Sarah Marty, and Catherine DeRose. And, while I directed and produced the videos myself, I worked closely with Mark Neufeld, the graphic designer for the course, in thinking about the MOOC’s pedagogy. The course also features guest instructors for one or more weeks, including Sean Michael Morris, Joshua Calhoun, Eric Alexander, and James DeVita. Finally, every one of the nearly 70 interviewees becomes a defacto instructor, as do all the learners in the peer-driven learning environment.

In my introduction to the course, I write,

Shakespeare begins Hamlet with the words, ‘Who’s there?’ The question is deceptively simple, but it is one that opens a whole host of potential rabbit holes for us to tumble down. What I know is that how we begin something new is important. The first thing we say. The first question we ask. The first part of ourselves we show.

I am, from these first words in the MOOC, showing my pedagogical hand, talking about Shakespeare and also about the nature of the course itself. Then,

The second line, ‘Stand, and unfold yourself,’ is a command in response to the first question […] Taken together, the two lines offer uncertainty, curiosity, and also distrust. They wonder at humanness but worry at its edge.

R L Widmann (my long-time collaborator and mentor who inspired this MOOC) writes in her introduction to the course,

My Shakespeare, the one I love best, offers me an opportunity to explore the world in which I live and those worlds to which I will never be able to travel in real time.

And in our first posts to the discussion forum, we each reveal something of ourselves, something personal and honest, not scripted. But our posts are lost there almost immediately, among the hundreds of other posts, none clamoring for attention more than the others. The notion that one or two or even four experts could deliver knowledge of Shakespeare to the world is, honestly, incredibly strange to me. The work in this course is an encounter with the text, and there are lots of guides and lots of people to engage in discussion about what we find. The course functions much like a face-to-face class does when I break students into small groups. I can’t possibly be in all of the groups at once, and it is better for the learning environment that I’m not. Instead, the voices in the room break from murmur to cacophony, and we leave having deeply heard several of our peers and having heard beyond them the hum of a much larger room.

Those That Are MOOCs Already — All But One — Shall Live

Shakespeare in Community launched a little over a week ago and currently has over 18,500 students enrolled from 157 countries. But numbers are not what the course is after. Most of the seminars I’ve taught have been groups of 15 – 35 people. My task for myself in this much larger course is to find a space where I can be both “lost” (in productive ways) and “found” in the sense that I see people and let them see me. My goal is to help create an experience in which the learners can do the same. Functionally, it doesn’t feel all that different from a class of 15 – 35 people (although a MOOC could never replace that). This course scales the experience, not up but across, through the network of participants — which changes the nature of the experience in all manner of ways.

In a thread from our public Facebook group, a student remarked that the course, to her, felt “scattered.” It also feels scattered to me. In the way that Central Park in New York City is scattered. I can’t be everywhere at once, and I’m easily overwhelmed by the scale, but if I find a calm corner to hang out, I start to meet people and see stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. And the course is glad to have me, even if I end up just passing through.

The key for me is to recognize that almost 20,000 students means lots of different kinds of stuff will be happening that appeals in different ways to different students. Not all of these things will appeal even to me. And there will be corners of the course that I never see (could never even hope to see, because of the sheer volume). But there are people here, ones I would have otherwise never met. They talk to me about Shakespeare and also about their own learning. And there is something marvelous about every syllable they write, tapped out in the incessant vibration of my various devices that beckon to me throughout the day and night. Because of them, and the hum of their voices, I go to sleep bleary-eyed and wake up bleary-eyed.

O brave new world, that has such people in’t!


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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Jesse Stommel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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