April 13, 2015
On Sunday, April 5, an invaluable opinion piece was published in the New York Times: “Help Us Learn in Prison” by John J. Lennon. An inmate at Attica Correctional Facility in New York, Lennon makes a nuanced request about education and technology within the American prison. He considers why inmates are allowed and even encouraged to watch television all day while their access to the Internet is limited or more often than not prohibited. He ends with a plea: why not change the accessible technology of choice from TV to MOOCs?
In this post, I’d like to use Lennon’s piece as an opportunity to continue several avenues of thinking and activism of grave concern for me, namely:
- a situated critique of MOOCs
- a situated critique of education and technology in the prison
- a situated critique of education and technology outside the prison, particularly on YouTube and social media more generally
As a founding member of FemTechNet, the collective that successfully offers the DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Course) at places of higher learning around the world, I have worked with others to criticize MOOCs from feminist perspectives on education, technology, and neo-liberalism. One of our ongoing claims is that education needs to be situated in the lived environments of learners, whether that be institutional (are you at a community college or an art school?), regional (California or Calcutta?), cultural (what traditions and values matter where we live and learn and how do we speak about them?), or personal (what matters to me?) In their top-down, one-size-fits-all, elitist, scale-and-profit-driven underpinnings, most MOOCs are not particularly responsive to or even interested in the situated, lived differences that make learning (and teaching) both exciting and challenging.
This situated critique of MOOCs allows me to heartily second Lennon’s request. I believe that MOOCs are terrific for prisoners and support unlimited access to them as part of a technologically-assisted education.
I began to understand a critically unnamed truth about social justice and social media only made visible through the structuring denial of access to the Internet and other technology as a fundamental feature of contemporary punishment: technologies of care, conversation, and personal liberation through education need no more tools than access to each other. I was more than ready and able to teach about YouTube this Spring without an Internet connection. I was going to assign books on the subject (with a few pages excised, mostly due to their discussion of sexuality on YouTube), exercises where prisoners would write screenplays to be shot by their fellow-students who had access to cameras and the Internet, and conversations about the meanings of all of our varied and regulated access to technology. (Along this vein, prisoners’ near universal access to cellphones as a contraband of choice, despite prisons’ concerted efforts to keep phones out of the prison, radically underlines what it means to say “prisoners don’t have access to the Internet or social media.”) I had learned before that while the prison and its administrators can systematically strip me, and my students, of tools and technologies (pens, videos, the Internet), our desires and abilities to communally learn—and thereby escape its lines, signs, limits, and holes of available information, if only fleetingly—falls completely outside the of logic of technology-based punishment.
That is until I was denied access to teach and learn inside.
Which gets me to my conclusion: my situated critique of education and technology outside the prison, particularly on YouTube. For I am indeed teaching the class, again, for the fifth time since 2007 at Pitzer College. I did not get to stretch and learn and teach as I had hoped with my prisoner students who have so much to teach us about technology, as they are denied access to social media and are therefore uniquely situated to see it, but I have learned about social media and social justice this semester from other students and teachers.
Since I began teaching the class in 2007, in the matter of just these few short years, access to social media has exploded (for those not denied it as a condition of their punishment). We have been told (and sold) that this access is critical for our expression, community-building, political citizenship, and well-being. We have been led to believe that access to social media is a form of liberation. As Nicole Rufus, a current LFYT student explains in her class video below, YouTube matters because it has made her a better person and contributed to her education, just as Lennon suggests.
But two more related things have also become quite clear in the 2015 iteration of the class Learning from YouTube (sans prisoners):
- In contra-distinction to the experience of prisoners, for my students, the Internet is the very air they breath in a way that was simply not true in 2007 (as much as my students thought it was). Young people today (as is true of their teachers) inhabit the Internet, speak its language, and have an agility, familiarity, and jaded acceptance of its norms and (aspects of) its history that is at once stunning and enervating (see Samantha Abernathey’s class video on memes below):
Stunning is the speed and complexity of this familiarity; enervating is its occlusion of familiarity with and interest in the other norms, places, and histories that we might once have understood as part of being institutionally, culturally and personally “situated.” The current version of the course makes me feel at once stimulated and enervated because I have seemingly nothing and everything to teach them. Nowhere and everywhere to go. “The internet does not exist. Maybe it did exist only a short time ago, but not it only remains as a blur, a cloud, a friend, a deadline, a redirect, or a 404. If it ever existed, we couldn’t see it. Because it has no shape. It has no face, just this name that describes everything and nothing at the same time. Yet we’re still trying to climb on board, to get inside, to be part of the network, to get in on the language game, to show up in searches, to appear to exist.”
I long for the views of my prisoner students: humans who can teach us a thing or two about place, liberation, punishment and control sans the Internet.
- for, this place of liberation, the Internet, has quickly become its opposite (“emancipation without end, but also without exit” according to Aranda, Wood, and Vidokle)—a prison (although not a punishment, as it is always entered willingly and ever with the promise of pleasure); a highly-structured corporate-dominated sink-hole. “In the past few years many people—basically everybody—have noticed that the internet feels awkward, too. It is obvious. It is completely surveilled, monopolized, and sanitized by common sense, copyright control, and conformism. (Hito Steyerl)
“This moment,” according to my students, is defined by anxious, cynical, consumption-based Internet experience that is linked to ever more desperate Internet-based attempts at escape into a nostalgic (“old”) Internet that is imagined as low-tech, slow, user-made, fun, real, innocent, awkward, less-sexualized, and de-politicized (outside or before the petty, bitter Internet “politics” about the Middle East, feminism, racism, rape, and the environment from which escape deeper into the Internet is so desperately needed.) The new Internet is a prison from which escape is to fantasy of an older, innocent Internet.
In her contribution to the eflux journal issue “The Internet Does Not Exist,” from which I’ve been quoting extensively in this last section, video artist Hito Steyerl pens an article entitled “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?” There she answers herself: “the internet is probably not dead. It has rather gone all out. Or more precisely: it is all over.”
But of course, Steyerl knows, as must we all, that while the Internet feels like it is the whole world, or perhaps too much world, there are blank spots on the map where the Internet can not see, there are ways not to be seen, and there are dark spots in our situated communities where the Internet can’t or perhaps is not allowed to go.
If we theorize the Internet, or education, from these blank spots, from the place of too-little, (in)access, quiet, and darkness (as does Lennon), we see values, uses, and needs for MOOCs, YouTube, technology, and education that are not clear from an anxious state of hyper-abundance. This is not to romanticize the punitive lacks of the prison. Rather I ask us to draw from what becomes visible when we situate thinking about learning, technology, punishment and escape in places where education is not primarily linked to tawdry pop-songs, tutorials, consumer goods, flame wars, and self-reference to Internet culture but rather to the fundamental questions of liberation, learning, and empowerment that those stripped of technology have unique access to in the quiet and (in)access of their punishment.
March 14, 2014
FemTechNet, collaborative makers of “the anti-MOOC,” were graciously, no I’d even say studiously received by leaders of the bellies-of-the-beast at last weekend’s Online Learning Summit, hosted by Berkeley, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford (the great research institutions who put money and a spotlight on what would first be the year, but quickly the boondoggle of, the MOOC.). President Hennessy of Stanford started us off by indicating that the Massive of MOOCs should really be rethought as the moderate; and Open ended up generating a host of problems people hadn’t quite predicted (particularly the great differences of skills, knowledge, and attention of the masses who came; demonstrating “a dynamic range of ability.”)
The speakers at the Summit were interested to name both what MOOCs have proven to be good and not so capable at:
- not good at generating revenue
- not good at “human content-enhanced learning” (Ellen Junn, Provost, CSU, Dominguez Hills) or feeling connected to what one learns or the “human touch”
- not good at much besides content-provision, and isn’t learning more than this?
- great for book-clubs for life-learners (alumni, people with little access to quality education)
- great as text-books to be used by working professors in their own classes; in a new world of “more content” teachers will be able to use MOOCs and other open content to choose between and enhance their own teaching
- great opportunities to learn about learning; educate the educator
- great at further stratifying an already-stratified higher education system whereby elite institutions (like the ones hosting the event and the one at which I teach) can continue to provide and even improve face-to-face and residential education with the selective, thoughtful use of technology while less-privileged institutions will use technology to try to save costs, educate more “efficiently,” and/or through the noblese oblige of elite institutions who will share their highly produced and exceedingly expensive content for free or at lost cost with the lesser-thans. It appears only 1 million Americans within higher education (1%) currently receive the “Classroom, Quad and Lab” that were once the gold-standard of our liberal education; this 1% will greatly improve through smart uses of digital learning! (Patrick Methvin, Deputy Director of Postsecondary Success, U.S. Program, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation)
We went on to hear from administrators, professors and technology professionals about better models—and some wacky experiments, too; all agreed that this was the time for innovation, experimentation and even play (for those with the support to do so)—for digitally enhanced learning (including our own DOCC). Such experiments would use technology to help professors be more than content experts, but also expert pedagogues; thereby “amplifying the effectiveness of professors and students”:
- Learning Management Systems that allowed for live, synchronous classes that are socially networked
- the building of flexible curricula and pedagogy from “units of learning” or self-contained modules (Eric L. Grimson, Chancellor for Academic Advancement, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
- tools to provide more individual and individuated attention
Of course, feminist pedagogy has been making just such claims, and theorizing and practicing from them, for generations (see our white paper), and it’s a thrill, really, to see leaders from across academia listening to our old, successful, and next-gen models!
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’s 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.)
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.
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.
November 26, 2013
I am recently returned from the 9th Annual Policy Summit, Rise of the MOOCs: Foreshadowing the Coming Transformation of Higher Education? held by the Mid-West Higher Education Compact. While I have become a frequent public speaker, most recently asked to explain my several innovative projects within technology and education, I have never had the opportunity to speak and listen to this particular, and highly engaged audience.
I was pleased, albeit a bit intimidated, to be speaking on behalf of FemTechNet and our DOCC2013, a collaborative feminist rethinking of the MOOC, in this decidedly red-state environment, and to a large number of powerful people who are seriously considering the many ramifications of Open, Free, and otherwise digital education initiatives in relation to policy and Higher Education. Yes, people in this audience in a great many ways have more power than do I over what will happen to MOOCs evolution, rise, or decline in that they are in control of purse strings, policy, and large institutions.
I was placed on an elegantly curated panel of fellow professors (Bryan Alexander, from NITLE, Ronald Rogers, San Jose State, who has authored two really interesting MOOCs, and Ray Schroeder, a specialist on online learning) who are each thinking critically, seriously, and actively about the huge ramifications of these many technological changes.
While I learned a great deal at the Summit, let me briefly point to a few of the most important things that I heard several times over which all point to why I titled this post Evolution of the MOOCs: they are being challenged from many angles; they are being changed and modified by many of us; and, whether our concern is cost, access, ownership, content, structure, or completion rates, people want MOOCs to develop past this first consolidation. It is my sense from this and some other recent conversations that a great many of us who are wanting to use technology to improve Higher Education share concern about:
- the current MOOC-osphere, where for-profit or other highly-funded models are dominating the landscape
- and leading to top-down, static, one-way delivery flows that are surprisingly ill-suited for their web 2.o home
- teachers not driving teaching and learning and teachers not retaining control of their intellectual property (even if this is to let it be free through a Creative Commons license)
- learning systems that subscribe to the limiting terms behind the MOOC. What would digital class delivery look like that was Local, Closed, Hybrid, and/or Modular (this is from Stacey Clawson from the Gates Foundation).
- The quick loss of the cMOOC (which was Open) for our current xMOOC (“broadcast, amplified, online learning”; this is from Bill Meinke from Creative Commons)
- that like anything else on the Internet, expanding access to courses or free education is only a first step; students and professors need support structures not just (free) platforms (Mark Johnson, Educational Policy Studies, U WI)
- that professors will always be needed to create (new) content (knowledge); why are we handing delivery (profit and ownership) over to someone else?
- that MOOCs not be only huge, expensive, and fancy things but rather that little pieces of MOOCs, as modules, might allow for all kinds of usability within any particular (for-credit) class; that pieces of (free) MOOCs can also be well-used to flip traditional classrooms
May 1, 2013
Here is the info graphic, hot off the press, for the DOCC 2013, the pedagogy project that FemTechNet is producing for Fall 2013.
Image produced by Tony Germano for Anne Balsamo, 2012.
Use with permission under a CC BY-NC-SA license.
August 15, 2012
“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.”