MOOCing the Prison?

February 20, 2014

My last post, MOOCing the Liberal Arts? concluded with this suggestion: “For those of us in higher education, including our students, our work is to provide MOOC alternatives by using technology, and other means, to improve what we do and to open access to what we have.”

Today, along with four of my students and a visiting scholar, Gabrielle Foreman, we taught our first of seven classes on Technology at the Norco prison. A little background: our class is one of many being offered through the PEP program (Prison Education Program), run through the visionary leadership of Dr. Renford Reese at Cal Poly Pomona. “The overarching philosophy of PEP is to use the resources in the backyard of each of the state‚Äôs prisons to make change e.g. university student and faculty volunteers. There is a college within a 15-20 mile radius of each of the state’s 33 prisons. PEP’s goal is to collaborate with these colleges to assist the CDCR in reducing recidivism in the state by 1% by 2015.” Our class “Technology in Prison,” is a seminar connected to the yearly speaker’s series that I run as director of the Munroe Center for Social Inquiry at Pitzer, this year’s theme being Technology. For seven weeks, some of my speakers and students from the seminar will move our inquiry in place to see how our conversations change, and expand, when engaged with a student population denied access to most of the (digital) technologies that those of us on the outside now take for granted.

But back to my opening remarks about MOOCs. Our class today, a conversation at the highest-level with seventeen eager, intelligent, and open inmates had NOT ONE THING of a MOOC in its infrastructure. While we had paper, the pencils had disappeared; there is no access to the Internet in this classroom; and while we did have several photographs of the work of Dave”The Potter” Drake approved for Dr. Foreman’s use, they also had not materialized by class time. While more technologies could have enhanced our opportunities, we did just fine without them (although, our students hastened to remind us that we did have chairs, and lights, and our own bodies, minds, and will as our quite supportive technological infrastructure.)

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As Dr. Foreman explained, Dave the Potter used clay, glaze, tools, his hands, his words, and his many intellectual and political desires, within a system of brutal confinement where both his literacy and his relationship to the market economy were both illegal, and successfully engaged in expressive technologies from which we continue to learn today. So, too, did our students, today, knowing as we did technology through our conversations and community with no need for bigger (massive), even as desire for (more) access was uncontainable. As we struggled to define technology in a space where access to much of (modern, digital) technology was prohibited, we expressed that the tools that we might make, and that just as well might make us, are also only as principled as the humans who desire and engage them. And thus, we did not and can and need not MOOC the prison.

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One Response to “MOOCing the Prison?”


  1. […] I taught a portion of the class at the nearby Men’s Prison, Norco, with four of the seminar fellows and several of our speakers taking on this extra commitment, we […]


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