December 16, 2012

Aggregating MOOCs

Filed under: MOOC,writing — jrice @ 8:00 am

When we did Keywords in Markup, I wrote a chapter for our collection entitled ”English <A>”.  The move from Harvard’s English A to contemporary <A>, I wrote, rested with new media logics (as opposed to the print logic of English A), among them aggregation. Cathy Davidson writes recently that “We have a potential for a learning mash-up of the loftiest, most creative, learner-centered kind.”  Davidson is interested in a merger of logics: MIT’s highly productive Media Lab and MOOCs. “In the future, merging a Media Lab 2.0 with some form of MOOC’s might prompt traditional educators to think seriously about new learning models, methods, and audience.” Davidson suggests the mashup as focus of online learning, a new media logic that, in fact, has been with us for some time (only now highlighted by new media). In addition to mashup thinking, there is also aggregation.

Typically, I spend parts of my morning reading over aggregations. My RSS feed – where I browse sites’ posts, Facebook – where updates vary from the comical to public mourning, Twitter – where I catch a remark or two centered around my focused interests, Google News – where summaries are assembled from the day’s headlines. This morning, my kids are up – as usual – before 7 am. As part of their weekend ritual, they watch Arthur, the cartoon about an aardvark and his school friends. Today, Arthur begins with a scene that features Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries” and a bow and arrow allusion to Apocalypse Now. Mashup of two or more unlikely texts (cartoon and canonical movie scene)? Or aggregation (cartoon and canonical movie scene)? Both, more than likely.

Some aggregations, such as Facebook and Twitter, assemble the everyday into one space. A local brewery has new fermenters. A friend’s kid said something funny. Newspaper headiness. Local restaurant’s menu. Another friend’s daily recap. A sports update. Of course, these are my aggregations prompted by my interests and emerging worldview of the everyday.  There are writers who draw upon the banal or everyday for scholarly inspiration. Geoff Sirc is among our most notable figures – proposing the A&P and the Sex Pistols as inspiration for writing pedagogy. My career began with the proposal of hip hop as composition pedagogy. And long before us, Benjamin and de Certeau explored the everyday. In the Parisian arcades, we were supposed to find the allegories of contemporary life. Jameson thought The Godfather explained capital (as part of the larger project of cognitive mapping). Ulmer reminded us that popular culture sits at the nexus of identity formation (along with personal anecdotes).

The problem with the everyday in higher education is that  its study often is reduced to decoding. As James Berlin demonstrated for composition pedagogy so long ago, a popular TV show like Roseanne merely shows us the struggles of labor or class.  Stuart Hall really wasn’t interested in James Dean as heuristic; instead, he set forth a form of study whose focus was largely meant to reveal the way the everyday (ads, popular culture, politics) is meant to dupe or deceive.  Instead of aggregating Dean into a larger network of references and shows and music and moments, Dean is reduced to a decoded message that, when read, will allow us opportunity to resist future coded messages (Barthes never bought into such logic, recognizing that decoding does not provide enlightenment).

When I enrolled in the World Listening MOOC, I was completely bored. Any sense of aggregation was ignored by the pre-recorded vide lecturers and message boards. Blackboard, a typical university online CMS, resists aggregation as well; its gated course sites prevent the streaming of information by students, teachers, or the system itself. I would watch a lecture in World Listening, and when I wanted to click on a link in the video, I couldn’t. I’d have to stop the video, go to the syllabus site, find the lecture listed on the syllabus, and check if the link was there to either click on or copy into a browser tab.  There was no aggregation of course material with participants with current events with online media, etc. The awkwardness of the MOOC is not surprising. Any given course in the university typically treats its subject matter accordingly – the narrow lens through which to study influence, context, support, connectivity, etc. I once sat on a dissertation committee in which the director told the student to remove non-academic studies of hip hop (such as Nelson George’s work). “Not scholarly enough,” she said. And yet, those texts sat in a larger field of aggregation. To not read them would mean not participating in the larger network of meaning at play. The key to any moment of aggregation is the identification of patterns and points of connectivity among the assembled texts, sites, moments. Digital aggregation provides the site to do so.

Of course, a MOOC is not built on that logic, and there is no surprise there since most of our face to face courses are not either. I enjoy the keywords genre for how it aggregates a variety of meanings into one space (volume). Despite Williams’ legacy as a central figure in the cultural studies decoding methodology, his keywords has demonstrated how aggregation exists within any body of study. If I had done a better job aggregating disciplinary interets as a kid, I now might be able to take some of the more advanced MOOCs offering science and math courses. Unfortunately, I was the perfect product of public school education: I saw the world through the very narrow lens of one interest (in my case, that was English). It took me a long time to understand the value of aggregation. To take a MOOC now, I’m pretty limited to courses that don’t require math or advanced science. As a high school student, I never understood how to draw connections among subject matter (even if I wanted to remain focused on the study of English). Humans, by nature, are limited in their focus. They don’t aggregate well on their own. As McLuhan showed is in the 1960s, we see subject matter through very narrow bars. Digital media has provided a necessary prosthesis (and so has popular culture) for aggregation.  Yet, even with so much aggregation around us currently, we build even more narrow worlds through which to build academic study. Administrative love of MOOCs (from university presidents to Boards of Regents)  is confirming this claim.

Recently, my five year old daughter checked out Mary Poppins, the book, from her Montessori school’s library. As she flipped through the pages, she grew upset.  The text and pictures did not mesh with the film she watches at least once a week. “There aren’t four kids!” she yelled showing the book to me. “There are only two! And where are the penguins! And what’s this!” For her, aggregation has meant viewing the film and book in the same space, and then noticing the differences. I’m amazed that a five year old can do this (but, as her father, I’m probably amazed all the time at her – as is any father of his kids). And what she is doing should be familiar to any contemporary Humanities course – online or in person. She compares and contrasts an object in a space to decode it. The problem is, she’s five. It’s impressive that a five year old can handle aggregation as decoding. For a university course, it’s banal. It’s everyday. And in that, it’s not very impressive.


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