December 7, 2012


Filed under: education,imagination,invention,MOOC,writing — jrice @ 7:19 am

About a month ago, Clay Shirky posted a short piece on MOOCs entitled “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy.” Beyond his defence of MOOCs (and that defense critiqued in InsideHigherEd), Shirky writes:  “The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled.”  We might – beyond Shirky’s love of hyperbole and over enthusiasm for social media – take that unbundling seriously.

We live in a period of unbundling. The newspaper has been unbundled into RSS aggregation (Google News a prime example, but Huffington Post, Aldaily, and others, as well, aggregate so that you don’t have to read one bundle). Pinterrest unbundles interests into appropriated items. The Weblog unbundles events and ideas into posts. Facebook and Twitter unbundle our day into short statements. The university – which Shirky alludes to – bundles learning into majors or departments. We don’t really need a complete unbundling, but we might consider types of unbundling that more properly address a given situation or moment or object of study which cannot fully be accounted for without unbundling.

I’m drawn to unbundling stories. Unbundling makes visible the components of larger items in order to either utilize those items or learn how there is no whole, only a series of aggregations . I used to reference this profile of Will Wright in the New Yorker because it unbundled The Sims as a number of disciplinary moments juxtaposed as invention: a family moment, architecture via the book Urban Dynamics,  the Game of Life biological simulation, the book A Pattern Language, Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation,” and Charles Hampden-Turner’s Maps of the Mind. Invention is unbundled. The Sims is a video games (bundled) but also a process of other moments brought together by Wright (unbundled). The unbundled items are distributed (in various ways) as broken pieces until aggregated by Wright into something called The Sims. Wright picked and chose among the parts of influence he was exposed to.

I often feel the need to unbundle. I see the world and its various moments as parts in constant distribution and circulation. Rather than say I wrote a book about Detroit (bundled), I’d rather say, I wrote a book about

  • Detroit
  • Networks
  • Rhetoric
  • Myself
  • Decision making
  • Interfaces
  • Maps

and so on. In this way, I present the unbundling (the items that make up the thing) rather than the bundle (the grand narrative or the thing). I pick and chose among the parts of Detroit to do so (Woodward, Maccabees, Michigan Train Station, 8 Mile). Both Digital Detroit and The Rhetoric of Cool were organized as unbundling moments networked (the ways I performed the chapters). The thing about Napster, despite Shirky’s enthusiasm, is that it didn’t totally unbundle music. To use Napster, I had to download a song – as is – from someone else. It wasn’t a complete unbundled process even if the song was removed from the album.  Eventually and post-Napster, bittorrent broke that song into little pieces and unbundled the process from a complete object sent from another, complete individual to a bunch of pieces sent from a bunch of pieces.The pieces are reassembled at the user destination (unlike the Napster song which was never broken apart, and, thus, took longer to arrive as is).  It’s still not clear how MOOCs unbundle education. From what I’ve seen so far, those classes offered through MOOCs are mostly reproductions of lectures (how else to accomodate so many people at once). The Coursera course hyped by professor X is not really unbundled either since its presence is based on the reputation of the professor’s university (a complete, unbundled ethos). Coursera is promising a type of educational aggregation – a course from School X, from School Y, from School Z – but it’s not a complete aggregation since the courses are basically individual pieces meant to stand as is and on their own (instead of part of a whole). That’s not to say that an unbundling won’t happen; but it really hasn’t occurred yet.

There is no doubt that university education resists unbundling. I come from a discipline, after all, whose pedagogical gestures are typically interpreted at the first year level as having students bundle an entire idea or concept into a single sentence strategically placed somewhere in a first paragraph. Ideas are taught as unbundled moments, unfortunately. When I wrote “I am McLuhan,” I imagined a type of homage unbundling, a process of unbundling those items that construct me as McLuhan. Of course, I am not McLuhan. I am an aggregation of various items (pick and choose) that cause me to relate to McLuhan, to see a type of heritage in myself (a gesture I’ve written about again with Jim Corder for an upcoming Rhetoric Review).  Critics of MOOCs have tried to perform a critical unbundling – pointing out the economic issues, the business creep in higher education, the legacy of distance education that precedes the MOOC. But critical unbundling is not what Shirky is after, and I often find – in the spirit of Latour –  that it has run out of steam. I don’t need to critically unbundle MOOCs.

In pedagogy, we usually turn to critical unbundling over any other kind of unbundling activity. We have always, it seems, been bundled structurally and ideologically. .

  • Our semesters HAVE to be 16 weeks (not 4, 8, 10, or any other staggered study).
  • Our areas of study are bound to the fixed major (and now that we shift more to Value Based Budgets (or whatever the new phrase is), there is no incentive to have students enroll outside of that bundled object for learning purposes.
  • We are bound to place (classroom place or campus place as opposed to non-places such as online environments or even Auge’s vision of places without apparent relationships or history).
  • We are bound to Distribution of Effort models.
  • We are bound to majors in terms of as is learning.
  • We are bound to General Education.

To bundle, we can add, is to gather, to assemble, to group together. Tighter. And tighter. And tighter. And in this tight gathering, we assume convenience instead of unwarranted pressure (the tightness hurts). All of the items listed above are easy to perform and are convenient. They are manageable. If there is some value in Shirky’s romantic and hyperbolic vision of digital music distribution, it is in the image of manageability. When record labels had difficulty managing their products – the move from as is to broken pieces – they panicked. Steve Jobs rescued the labels – to some extent – by offering a novel managed product (Napster was difficult to manage; iTunes is not). If we yield a bit on the manageability aspect of bundled education, we will experience a bit of the online distribution (“I CAN”T FIND THE SONG”) and a bit of a novel experience (picking and choosing parts). Unbundling, in other words, may have more to do with a vision of manageability than with the points Shirky raises.


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