MOOC, DIY-U and Edupunk

I was reading with interest Stephen Downes’ critique of Anya Kamenetz’s approach in her book DIY-U. I am reading Anya’s book, but could not help writing this post, even though that exercise is incomplete, so I beg your indulgence.

The point Stephen is making is definitely not just academic. The term DIY (do-it-yourself) affords primacy to the individual and is application based. Over time sites like eHow and companies like Home Depot, realizing different needs (cost saving, interests, job compulsions), put together a set of material (books, online guides, community trouble-shooting and advice etc.) to put structure to “learning” specific things with the objective of being able to apply them in a specific context.

This took the form of learning packages, not unlike our monogamous WBTs (web based training) formats. Now these are being extended by the affordances of the networked digital economy like open access, social search, social networking and location awareness. This is very akin to the way our LMSs have evolved. They started with learning packages (which evolved into standards based packaging like SCORM), and then as the network surfaced, they added the “social” to it and called them the next version / next generation social collaborative learning management systems. That is also why these vendors cannot seem to position the Edupunk version as the alternative and have ended up creating a “me-too” add-on feature set for “informal learning”.

There is a deeper malaise, one that Stephen also points to. We are thinking inside the box (very un-Edupunk), when we do try to map an existing system with a new alternative way of doing things keeping the existing system as the base reference. Edupunks (I am hoping) will not look at taking the affordances of an educational system and propose an alterative that will map to its “benefits” or affordances. Rather, they will stand outside the box and raise questions about whether the box really is what we need (why not look at the sphere next to it or why look at all at a closed bounded object). This is similar to combating the oft-heard argument or stance – “technology cannot replace the classroom”. Stephen is right to remark – “It’s establishment thinking combined with a good dose of offloading costs.”

A direct consequence of thinking like that is the “objectification” of learning and the learning process. The approach is to “objectify” or treat learning as a structured process with pre-identified participants, an approach which tries to build a marketplace and commodifies learning. Teachstreet, for example, has the tag line – “Learn Something New” – exhorting us to “find great classes and courses”. Similar to how Anya talks about “content and skills”.

The MOOC Edupunks have demonstrated the way to think outside the box – of becoming rather than doing or getting, of being able to measure your performance. And in doing so, they have exposed core principles of how learning happens (at least their perspective). There is great learning happening as well, as the MOOCs & accompanying deliberations evolve. No one claims to have the final recipe (maybe because none is needed or even possible), which is also why DIY is perhaps a bit presumptuous. But the focus on thinking outside the box rather than inside it is the biggest contribution being made to start with.

What is required is greater investigation into “design” of connected environments, into techniques/patterns that underlie the conversation itself, into technologies and designs that support these connections – in a way that does not translate into “design” of learning, like in the traditional system.

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