Month: December 2012

MOOCspace and meatspace (at MIT and beyond)

I was fortunate to attend this past semester a presentation at MIT by Tomás Seraceno, the Argentinian-born artist, in residence on campus as the inaugural Visiting Artist at MIT’s new Center for Art, Science & Technology.  Trained as an architect, Seraceno works largely though not exclusively in forms that defy traditional architectonic logics of mass and order.  A good example of Seraceno’s innovative approach to architectural form is his installation Cloud City, which appeared for a time on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2012:


Where architectural forms have traditionally suggested mass and durability — “the gilded monuments / Of Princes”, “the work of masonry” — Seraceno’s forms are relatively immaterial, light, multi-dimensional, and ephemeral.  His is the architecture of the spider, his métier the creation of forms that are at once there and not there – or such as we cannot say that they are not there.  As Leonard Cohen sings of democracy in the song,  “It ain’t exactly real; or it’s real but it ain’t exactly there.”

Seraceno’s art does not assert the immateriality of material spaces or the materiality of the immaterial so much as it explores and traverses the tenuous borders between these.  His work inhabits spaces where distinctions between material and immaterial cease to exist, and where it ceases to matter greatly whether such distinctions exist or no.

Perhaps it is inevitable to think about these ephemeral entities and imaginary spaces brought into provisional reality on this closing day of 2012, a year which — if in America it is remembered for more than Hurricane Sandy and a litany of senseless gun violence — may well be remembered as The Year of the MOOC.  For if there is anything in higher ed today of which it could be said (as Leonard Cohen says of democracy) that “it’s real but it ain’t exactly there,” the MOOC is surely it.  2012 has seen an terrific amount of attention given to online education, disproportionate beyond all measure to its real impact thus far.  Not surprisingly, the advent of the MOOC and its meteoric rise has been accompanied by considerable hype and hand-wringing.  (For the hype, see for example Clay Shirky’s blog post of November 2012; for the hand-wringing, see for instance this piece in The Guardian, which forecasts a dire future in which MOOCs destroy humanities higher education.)

In an excellent essay casting a skeptical eye on the role that edX and online learning more generally have to play in humanities education, my colleague Ruth Perry wondered whether MOOCs represent for humanists “a solution for which we are asked to develop a problem.” If the “problem” is taken to be the higher and higher cost of higher ed (along with mounting levels of student loan debt), some do see MOOCs as a solution, though I doubt that many who are or have been affiliated with universities will much relish the idea of getting rid of residential education altogether, or of confining it to a privileged few.  I recognize the legitimacy of concerns that MOOCs will offer informational content delivery-as-usual in a diminished, impersonal form; the fear, not baseless, that MOOC will become a commodity sold for profit by Coursera, Udacity, edX, and other providers no doubt still to emerge, to those who can’t afford a residential education; that the instrument of the MOOC will be employed to further reduce the (small, and shrinking) number of full-time faculty members on the tenure track.  These and other fears place (in my mind, at least) a severe curb on any utopianism and sense of unbounded possibility latent in the format.  

But those who proclaim a MOOCpocalypse, like those who envision a MOOCtopia, have it wrong, I think, insofar as the format has not proven itself to be much of anything as yet.  With so many colleges and universities now jumping on the bandwagon, with many more to come, we can forget perhaps that the MOOC is a thing still largely imagined and imaginary.  Excepting a few experimental trials, the utility of the MOOC has yet to be established.  We can speculate on the perils and possibilities of the format, but neither of these are yet adequately known.  The skepticism and even cynicism that some have shown towards online education is surely directed towards its assumed business models, but also I think represents a form of aggression against that which is as yet unproven and unknown in the format.  

I don’t intend to defend the MOOC so much as I wish to hold open some alternative futures for it.  Some have been asking why universities are currently investing so much time, energy, and (yes) massive amounts of capital into thinking these imaginary or semi-imaginary spaces.  Quite apart from the potential for monetizing MOOCS, the answer seems to me obvious.  For the imagination, as Percy Shelley observed long ago, is an effective instrument for feeling out and bringing into provisional reality “the before unapprehended relations of things” (SPP 512); it opens out onto spaces and things not previously existing, or to things that only exist at the farthest reaches of intelligibility.  For better or for worse, the MOOC is largely that imaginary thing in the higher ed right now, and is attractive to me chiefly on this account.  

There is a sham version of MOOC potentiality, and a true one.  Clay Shirky describes the disruptive innovation of the MOOC, like that of the MP3 format before it, as “a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible.”  As Aaron Bady rightly observes in his cogent response to Shirky’s essay, however, Shirky has already imagined the future direction of this “possible.” For Shirky, the MOOC will disrupt the ordinary way of doing things in the academy; spread education to the many, releasing it from the hands of the privileged few; will eventually revolutionize if not altogether replace residential education.  In place of Shirky’s ethos of disruption as a predetermined, self-fulfilling end in itself, I would think instead about the MOOC as a technology whose potential consists precisely in its open-endedness and capacity to mark what Shelley calls “the before unapprehended relations of things.”  Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel are I think exactly right to describe the MOOC as a technology for enabling sites of “learning without being told when and where it’s going to happen” — or even, as the authors add, without knowing in advance what learning is, or in what learning may consist.

This, then, is the sense in which I believe in MOOCs — a sense limited, fugitive, and fraught, perhaps, though undeniably real — :  as an instrument for the production of strange and beautiful spaces of learning and encounter in higher ed:

Consider Saraceno’s exhibit sketches for the installation On Space Time Foam (2012), currently on exhibition in Milan.  On Space Time Foam is a transparent, floating structure comprised of three levels across and between which participants (not “spectators”) can move — walk, or rather crawl — , fall, get lost, sink and rise, in concert with others.  The movement of one person within the work of art will affect the movement and relative position of others; another person’s movement within the installation will affect your movement, and even change the nature of the space around you:


The curators of this exhibition describe Seraceno’s work of art as “an experiment that nevertheless requires the willingness to interact, individual and collective sense of responsibility and special behavioral conditions.” I want to see a MOOC capable of executing a similar experiment with similar demands on the learning communities that it reaches.  There is a worry, understandably enough, about impersonality in the delivery of online education.  When Al Filreis (English, U Pennsylvania) visited MIT this semester to talk about his experience teaching the Coursera MOOC “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry,” he posed a vital question:  how to generate intimacy in an online format that is famous (infamous) for its impersonality?  The course that Filreis taught set to meet this challenge by modeling in the video clips produced for the class a small interpretive community (of 8 people around a seminar table;  the clips themselves were recorded in one take, with no editing.)  This modeling of spontaneous, intelligent discussion by a living community may have had its desired effect, at least among a number of the 36,000 people who took ModPo, some of whom reportedly met in person on a regular basis to discuss the class and the readings in progress.  

I applaud these initiatives in creating humane spaces for humanistic learning online, and wish if anything to see them go further.  There is to my mind no good reason why the MOOC should not, in coordinating a networked, multi-modal, online space, also foster relations of mutual dependency and mutual responsibility as well as of mutual learning.  Some months ago I tweeted the half-serious proposal of a MOOC on “The Theory and Practice of the Wretch” — a course that would have among its course objectives King Lear’s counsel to “Expose thyself to feel as wretches feel” (III.4.33). Though offered half in jest, the idea captures fairly enough my hopes for how the polymorphous space of the MOOC could foster a sense of mutuality, empathy, and care among those who know each other as well as among those who don’t.  I have since learned about a new edX MOOC for Spring 2013, taught by MIT economists Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, on “The Challenges of Global Poverty.” Among the questions to be posed by the class is the following:  “What is economic life like when living under a dollar per day?”  Perhaps some of the empathic, imaginative work I envision and wish to see created for a humanities MOOC will be done here.  In any event, it is the first MOOC I registered for; I am excited to learn and to experience more.  

Imagine, then, an online education that roves promiscuously between MOOCspace and meatspace; fosters engagement beyond the keyboard and monitor to facilitate various kinds of “real world” encounter; makes possible new forms of involvement with one’s own local community, as well as with tens of thousands of learners worldwide.  

A MOOC to believe in — whether it presently exists or not.  


All images from Tomás Seraceno’s website.