MOOCing the Liberal Arts?

February 19, 2014

I had the opportunity to speak this past weekend with my colleague and friend, Liz Losh, about the FemTechNet DOCC2013 as part of the Gaede Institute’s yearly conversation on the Liberal Arts, this one on MOOCs. The Institute’s director, Christian Hoekley, put together a compelling program where both critics and successful practitioners of recent MOOCs joined in conversation with a small, engaged, thoughtful crowd of interlocutors to think, in particular, about the challenges of technologically enhanced/corporate/computer delivered education within the context of a liberal education that might seem diametrically opposed to the aims of most mainstream MOOC‘s: bent as they are to serve many, many, many customers, efficiently, conveniently, for free (or at low cost or via the “noblesse oblige” of the wealthy few [Astin]), leaving in the dust the traditional teacher/professor, brick and mortar classroom, and its well-established norms of community, conversation, and care.

Alexander Austin, described by many in the room as the “guru of higher education research,” reminded us that his lengthy and lauded career of research allowed him to assure us that evidence has established, over decades and across thousands of undergrads at a variety of learning environments, that what students need to succeed is frequent interactions with faculty, student-to-student contact, co-curricular opportunities, writing, independent research opportunities, and a common core, none of which are usually available, or even attended to, in the production, selling, and use of MOOCs. He understands this “course content delivery” view of education as decidedly uninterested in other things that most colleges want to boast about: their institution’s unique purview on teaching young people leadership, citizenship, self-awareness, or critical thinking. Meanwhile, Peter Hadreas named similar qualities left under-attended to in the MOOC his Philosophy colleagues were being forced to teach on Justice (and for which he and he colleagues penned an infamous letter of refusal as a direct appeal to Professor Michael Sandel): education that needs to honor knowledge, good will for the student, and open speech.

What we learned in the meantime, from Owen Youngman who carefully studied his own tens of thousands of students enrolled in his MOOC on new media, “Understanding Media by Understanding Google,” was that the very many students from around the world who were successfully, happily, and gratefully taking his course for free were primarily older students, with undergraduate and even graduate training: people who were already prepared to learn on their own, or with the guidance of other students, students who were augmenting their already completed liberal education with extra stuff available for free on the Internet.

The conference left me no less suspicious about what MOOCs can’t and won’t do, and all the nefarious reasons that necessiate that liberal arts professors and our students should stay impassioned in our refusal of this upstairs/downstairs scenario [Hadreas], what I have liked to think of as a separate-but-equal set up, whereby some people get to take the Harvard class for credit, and the rest take the dumbed-down, paltry, technologized alternative for free. But this conversation did allow me to see how MOOCs can enhance, although never replace, what we strive to do well in college, and can provide a small piece of what people might want or need who are not (or will not get to be) in college. MOOCs can provide a form of adult or remedial education where they add information, access, learning, and knowledge to those with little access to these fine things without them. 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.


As part of the larger DOCC 2013 effort, I hosted a dialogue between Professors Radhika Gajjala and Sharon Irish—two devoted members of FemTechNet—about their feminist thinking on technology and place. We livestreamed the event from my “Dialogues in Feminism and Technology” classroom at Pitzer College on November 14, 2013. A video of that live event is now available on the FemTechNet Commons.

I hope you will watch this inspiring, interesting, and invaluable conversations between two amazing feminist thinkers (as well as their lively interactions with my amazing students). Here, I hope to provide a more personal frame for your viewing, a few ideas that were raised for me in the doing of this event, in its liveness, and lived-ness; things you can’t know, unless you were there, or I write them here for you online.

  • Our digital engagements take us to places and people we might never meet in person in material space and this is grand (most of the participants in the DOCC 2013, for instance). But when we do have the opportunities of funds, time, and bodily energy to meet face-to-face, new, complimentary, and deeply sustaining opportunities of the flesh arise! It is well worth the effort.
  • My students have loved “meeting” all the professors and artists we have read this semester on video, through the video dialogues. They discuss how this transforms the authors of the complex and empowering texts we read into people. My students say that they come to understand, by seeing diverse feminists’ interactions online, that real people write what students learn from, and they further realize, as real people themselves, they too are authorized to author.
  • And then again, to meet the thinkers in person brings ever more delights and possibilities. A different kind of sense of these scholars’ complex selves passes in a look, a smile, a nod, or even a touch. Given that the personal or affective or bodily is so deeply connected to feminist politics, theory, and practice, it is no wonder that engaging with otherwise distant “experts” has particular resonances that are of use to feminist students. Don’t get me wrong, I am aware of the possibilities for intimacy and enlightenment in purely digital encounters! I only want to add to that the particular affordances of the embodied.

Several DOCC 2013 students in conversation with Liz Losh, Radhika Gajjala, and President Maria Klawe, of Harvey Mudd College

  • When the official Dialogue concluded, my students ended up sitting in a circle quite close to our guests (something we had never done in class before). We seemed to want to signal that we were close, collaborative, and engaged together in something we all cared about. We signalled with our bodies because we could.

MS 134 pic

  • This is part of the DOCC challenge to the MOOC. The places we live in and learn in, the places where we come together as situated communities are different, with their own cultures of engagement and interaction and their own styles of and needs for learning.


  • This placed difference is as vital to our learning possibilities and needs as are the ways that technology expands this reach, opening us up to new places, as particular as our own. (interestingly these same students also LOVED their class with Professor Sharon Collingwood who generously taught my students last week on Second Life: they sat in a circle there, too.)
  • And that brings me to care, with which Radhika also ends the Place video dialogue. She expresses how hard care is to commodify, or off-shore (try as neoliberalism will to do so). The felt care that these travellers shared with myself and my students is part of our larger DOCC 2013 effort where we model together the many ways of feminist knowing and teaching, that always attempt to acknowledge the needs of humans in their many places, online and off.
Jade Ulrich, Scripps FemTechNet student, and Liz Losh, UCSD FemTechNet Prof who drove to Claremont for the event

Jade Ulrich, Scripps FemTechNet student, and Liz Losh, UCSD FemTechNet Prof who drove to Claremont for the event


Liz Losh continues her discussion of the FemTechNet effort with an interview with my collaborator, Anne Balsamo

“In an interview that complements my earlier interview with Juhasz, Balsamo reflected on the efforts involved in creating expansive networked projects that engage many participants in different contexts and roles.  The FemTechNet project — which was first conceptualized by Juhasz and Balsamo during friendly conversations in early 2011 — has an ambitious objective:  to create a course focused on the topics of feminism, science and technology, offered simultaneously around the globe by feminist teachers in different locations, supported by a shared network of learning materials, of digital resources, of participants, and of pedagogical activities.  This high-profile venture takes shape as a Massively Collaborative Online Learning Experiment:  it is a feminist manifestation and reinvention of a MOOC.  The risky but exciting “learning experiment” takes form as follows:  During September — December 2013, instructors around the world offer courses at their home institutions on the topic of “Feminist Dialogues on Technology and Science.”  The courses are created using a shared set of learning resources:  a series of eight videotaped “dialogues” among prominent feminist scholars of science and technology; a repository of digital learning materials; asynchronous online conversations; and collaborative activity called “Storming WikiPedia” — designed to write feminism and feminists back into the collective digital archive of important knowledge.  Students can enroll in courses at a particular institution for credit; or they can arrange to take an independent study elsewhere with a supportive faculty member; or they can participate as self-directed learners, or as “drop-in” learners.  The goal is to engage one hundred feminist teachers and thousands of students around the world.”

Unfortunately, I can not make the Digital Media and Learning Conference occurring at UCSD February 18-20 because I’ll be in Berlin for the premier of THE OWLS. I have organized my talk as a twenty-minute playlist on YouTube, moving between queer youth videos and my analysis of how copying, mocking, mimicking and faking are no longer queer.

Liz Losh and Jonathan Alexander write: “Eventually the YouTube platform may encourage more content creators to produce hoaxes, parodies, mash-ups, and digitally composited homage, but we would argue that those forms of production could also invite queer participation that contests normative ideas about authenticity and stability and could allow subversive rhetoric to be seen, disseminated, and iterated.”  I agree wholeheartedly with my colleagues. Via my playlist, I hope to show what might be lost, for queer youth, and anyone else with a political agenda, when making our work on YouTube by taking up the “hoax, parody, mash-up” or fake without a linked play within the terrain of identity and community. For, any formal tactic is only as relevant as is its applicability to real world goals, communities, and bodies.

The talk continues, with highs and lows, videos good and bad, fake and real. I conclude: “To be productively queer was never simply to copy and mock, even when marked with a flouncy flourish or some serious realness, it was always to do so with an actual change in mind: change in form as well as in seeing and being. If the self-conscious, self-aware, self-evident copy is no longer queer at all, no longer productive, I suggest instead that we must constantly adapt our forms to allow for that truly unsettling wedge that produces for viewers and makers alike queer ways of seeing and knowing that rub the wrong way, in the name of what is right: differences and dissonances that matter.”

Dueling Banjos

June 18, 2009

I get this eerie, bored feeling that internet scholars play but don’t listen. Myself included.

Where boosters see roses: See Howard Rheingold, Vernacular Video in Culture and Education.

Snarks like me see thorns: See Alex Juhasz, The Vernacular and the Visual.

Thanks to Liz Losh for marking this stupid stalemate on her blog.

This blog must be brief, mostly because I’m over-committed to other forms of writing, but I do want to make a few comments about the terrific conference I got to attend last week at Irvine, The Future of Writing, and how it impacted me. As “inter-disciplinary” as my work is, it is always shocking to be reminded of the neat little silos in which we inevitably operate. At this conference, as is perhaps even more true for the one I’m attending next week, E-learn, I found myself in fruitful dialogue with scholars and teachers of rhetoric, writing, and education as well as the technologists who support, code and theorize the moving of our diverse practices and interests into the digital. It reminded me how much of my typical conference experience is about “content” (i.e. documentary or youtube videos) rather than about “process” (teaching, writing, making–whatever the content). As always, I learned a lot from fellow panelist, Liz Losh, who is carefully theorizing from and documenting her own experiments with teaching digital writing at Digital Rhetoric.

Most dramatically, many of we singing detectives seemed to agree that all these gizmos that we’re enthusiastically adding to our repertoire don’t actually seem to be improving writing, or reading, or teaching. Professor of Rhetoric and Writing, Lester Faigley,  in his talk “Considering the Possibility of Writing 2.0,” concluded that blogging has certainly expanded the number of writers and their many pages, but has not necessarily made this writing any better. Furthermore, the sheer number of words at our disposal has turned us all into skimmers and summarizers, even when the task at hand (writing a letter of evaluation for tenure, for instance) demands better. Before this, at lunch, I was chatting with Mark Marino, who teaches writing at USC and its interfaces with new media, electronic literature, and visual culture. Remember, we’re the people out there playing with this stuff. And he too lamented that old-fashioned paper and pencil writing instruction might lead to just as good writing as all the stuff he was inventing with his students through the nifty spy-gear he introduced to his students.

I left feeling like we needn’t go back, but we also need to be better at labelling how these tools move us forward, what they’re good at enhancing, and when we might want to shelve them.