MOOCs, Mechanizations, and Machinations ~ Session C2


Review by Jason Tham

Read more about session C2 on the C&W conference site.


Chris Friend, University of Central Florida
Lillian Mina, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Phil Alexander, Miami University
Devon Ralston, Miami University

I walked into this session with much excitement and anticipation as the title of the panel was parallel to my research interest: machination and mechanization of writing. The panel combined conversations revolving around popular online trends such as MOOCs, Web 3.0/semantic search, Instagram, online games, and memes.

(1) As the education process today calls for more creativity and flexibility, Chris Friend reviewed the potential of adopting cMOOC features into creating lessons that will “prepare students for life.” Friend thinks students are more than cogs and that learning needs to be individualized, but instructors are constantly burdened by formative assessment responsibilities. The MOOCification of learning, i.e. turning to using MOOC features in designing first-year writing courses, will release instructors from their grading load. Friend focused on the potential openness of MOOCified writing classes, their tendency toward connectivity, and the benefits they bring to distant learners.

The open elements of MOOCs free students from institutional limitations (memberships, registrations, and pay walls) and allow students to become critical thinkers as open courses force them to consider their audience and context. The connectivity of MOOCs emphasized networked, collaborative learning. Due to the size of MOOCs, instructors are never able to grade all of their students’ work, which Friend thought was a “reprieve [that]moves a terrifying responsibility to our students.” He chose to take this as a moment of challenge as instructors must prepare their students for peer reviews on MOOCs. Finally, MOOC course design opens up a new possibility for students from around the world (with access to the internet) to participate in learning from an “always-on technology.” While current conversations mostly revolve around the condemnation of massively open courses, Friend urged teachers to consider exploring how on-ground classes can benefit from modern communication and collaborative strategies such as MOOCs. His positive outlook reminds me of Josh Coates’ keynote at SXSWedu 2013, “MOOCs: Hype or Hope,” where the CEO of Canvas took a measured approach to explore the past, present, and future of MOOCs, and predicted that the MOOCs model will be adopted in the future of higher education.

(2) Lillian Mina warned us about the potential “danger” of semantic web taking over the writing class (and our daily lives). She compared and contrasted Web 3.0 to its predecessors – Web 1.0 & 2.0 – and emphasized a more personalized experience with using the new web. However, that means students may get different results from their searches based on their personal online presence and search history. Mina advised teachers to consider rhetorical analysis as an opportunity for students to understand how the web works and promote critical thinking with regards to social and ethical dilemmas, and cultural consequences in the use of Web 3.0. She concluded by urging participants to “start challenging the power of machine” over us.

(3) Phil Alexander brought us back to the origin of memes and reference to Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” to reflect on the nature of memes. He summarized a good meme as having the following characteristics: a contained unit, easy to transmit, easy to replicate, and encourages replication and reaction. Alexander argued that we learn and gain mastery of many skills through memetic practices. Functional memes may impact the learning process and communicate cultures. So when we consider social learning, why not try out some memes?

(4) Devon Ralston discussed ways in which nostalgia is mechanized by tools like Instagram and Photoshop and how they impact the composition and production of creative work. Originally regarded as homesickness, nostalgia was treated as a psychological illness. However, when our culture shifted from using place as a marker to time instead, our notions of time, composition, and art were impacted. Ralston used the term Retromania to define a culture that is becoming too attached to the past. This may be why technologies are invented to make creating analog outlook easy. Maybe this reminds us of our presence and existence in time… or maybe it doesn’t, as Ralston exemplified how her few-year-old relative was indulged in Instagram filters though she had no experience with the “nostalgic” design. Ralston said we stylize nostalgia in attempts to create a specific kind of aesthetic, a way to associate with the past but dissociate from consumer culture today. And we cannot escape from it.

Ralston’s work concludes that nostalgia works in different areas, and aesthetically, new media create nostalgia for old media. She left the audience with this question: what does our use of nostalgia-creating applications and software say about the beliefs and philosophies emerging in our society today?

This panel touched on mainstream technologies and cultures today, and questioned the ways these innovations shape and reshape how we mechanize composition and learning in our society. Together, the sessions summarize a futuristic, optimistic approach to digital pedagogy. I value the viewpoints presented in this session and the conversations that it sparked. As educators, it is our role to understand how the latest technologies are impacting our students’ learning process. I think all the presenters, in their limited presentation time, have done an excellent job interjecting their wisdom on our routine moments of using technologies such as the presented.  More importantly, they all advised us to be mindful of increasing technological control and to challenge power. My biggest pedagogical takeaway from all four presentations is this: advances in digital learning software and technology will in fact provide the answer to our educational problems, if only we could marry technology to sound pedagogical principles in developing the curriculum of the future rather than using its immense power to simplify teaching.

Jason Tham is a graduate student at St. Cloud State University and web coordinator at Writing Commons, a free, open educational resource for writers and teachers. He is big into MOOCs, critical literacy, digital and visual rhetoric, and online social networks.


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