on dis-connection & e-education

Hey presto, finally back online after an exile enforced by having used my quota and everything having slowed down and ground to a halt. Reading all the talk about ‘connectivity’, then being thrown into the land of the disconnected ‘other’ was interesting…. good to have an enforced holiday from moocy distraction (I got a lot of other writing done), but I’m glad to be back online.

During my period of exile at home I was able to dip in a bit from my workplace computer, and had a ‘hangout’ session in team ‘quad 3’…  Laurie couldn’t get on, so it ended up just three of us.. here’s Desi and Elizabeth hanging out in my office…


photo copy
now we know how it works, we’ll do it again after week one – which omg, is this week!

So coming back to look at the mooc, what do I like, and what worries me?




  • Transparent inter-connection with a larger story – I love how this short mooc is embedded within a larger more complex course, so our tribal conversation is being studied as part of the wider phenomenon of eLearning and digital cultures, and we’re welcome to browse the other course if we want to
  • Balanced focus on topics and learning technologies process – I love how the means of experiencing, developing and demonstrating learning here is explicitly part of what we’re here to learn…. because they’re assumed ‘new’ to most participants, the technologies and practices of peer learning and visual artifact construction are paid as much attention to as the science fiction and academic discourse on the themes of digital culture, networked communication, online education and the utopian/dystopian fantasies of human-machine relationships and futures… I like seeing this from a student perspective, because it’s the sort of balance I work to achieve through curriculum design at my institution, so students who are entering authentic academic English for the first time have opportunity to get their heads around what are for them quite new literacy demands
  • The opportunity to observe language and learning process – I love how writing and recording online means that how we engage with and learn from one another in this environment is recorded and reviewable.  Universities often make it hard for students to share what they know about the technologies and genres of the literacy demanded of the learning environments they find themselves in, and I’m always looking for curriculum design ways to get that balance right and to include plenty of examples of how the texts expected are actually constructed and developed.
  • The task to create a visual artifact – I love that for the assessment of our learning, we aren’t asked to (yawn) write an essay or some such… The given task here is really well aligned with the learning objectives, design and topic. I see all too often how woefully that can all get out of kilter in tertiary education, and lead to confusion and predictably poor learning ‘outcomes’ for students, so I appreciate seeing good alignment of a course’s stated learning objectives with the modes of assessment and the teaching practices (which in this case, are distributed to a large extent).
  • The focus on storytelling. I love this. I started making the move from academic writing to academic storytelling a few years ago, and enjoy getting students doing digital storytelling projects, as a way of developing their English language repertoire and proficiency. It’s fun, it’s engaging, and the outcomes are so much better, in terms of learning and confidence, than any other approach I’ve tried. I still show students how to develop the academic writing they have to do in their disciplines, of course, and am thoroughly immersed in traditional practices of logical argumentation, source searching, diverse voice gathering, evidence incorporating, cohesion and coherence developing etc (just compiled a list to prove it), but I don’t engage in ‘generic’ teaching activities whereby some mythical construct of a ‘skill’ is taught apart from an authentic disciplinary or professional context… I think storytelling can be a very engaging and intellectually productive way to develop ‘knowledge and understanding’ of a topic.. and I know from experience how much more rapidly students expand their capacity to make meaning with ‘English’ when their learning challenges are approached in a storytelling rather than ‘rationalist’, positivist manner. .

In my last post I mentioned a paper that another blogger drew my attention to (link Ellsworth 1989, HER 59:3). Ellsworth had reported in the late 80s her shift in thinking and practice “from critical rationalism to the politics of partial narratives”, and it interested me to read a writing teacher’s shift in thinking. She came to realise that ‘liberationist’ goals probably wont’ be achieved by insisting that students only speak in ways that teachers of critical analysis (academic writing and debate) deem rational and appropriate, as they/we preside over student discourse from a position of relative power… and however much we might want to ‘empower’ others, the way to achieve it probably isn’t anarchic free for all speech (given that most of us most of the time have limited capacity to recognize where ‘our’ discourse is coming from and what it might mean to others).

Ellsworth was questioning the assumptions (inherited from educational discourse) that she’d been working with, which though they sounded good, in fact undermined the very goals she was being led to want to achieve… In attempting to help students speak in their voice, be heard and have influence, she was requiring classroom interaction to conform to modes of argumentation and abstraction that prevented most participants from achieving the very goals she thought she’d be helping them achieve (because they deny lived social context and personal political agendas). Ah, the eternal ironies of education!

It was apparently a short sharp dose of genuine diversity in her classroom that shifted her thinking and practice as an educator. We’re not experiencing any radical diversity in this mooc classroom at this point in time (seems like all participants speaking so far are a pretty homogenous tribe, however widely distributed globally), but it shouldn’t be too long ‘til these learning environments do represent great diversity, and not everyone speaking will have similar educational experiences behind them, be fluent in the language of instruction, professionally employed in an area closely related to the topic, and very hip to the ideology and practice of ‘peeragogy’. What then? Well watch this space I guess, but I’m thinking it’ll be interesting to see whether moocs do get used in very empowering ways, by people, who, finding unprecedented ‘access’ to ways of making meaning and knowing, will start connecting on much larger scale, voicing their immediate and real concerns in their social and political contexts in ways that will change the ways things are thought and played out… meanwhile, I don’t suppose we’re being ‘liberated’ from anything but the mild occasional boredom of our day jobs…

Laurie and Desi raised questions in their comments to that previous post that are so worth discussing in our mooc here – about the role of technology in learning, about how different conversations get connected, about the nature of knowing and learning, and the extent to which changing the means of production and distribution of ‘knowledge’ could undo the institutionalized ways by which we’ve come to know and measure and validate all knowledge… I crave engaging and intelligent discussion of what we mean by ‘learning’ and ‘knowing’, and escape from the endless nonsense that gets spoken in so much educational discourse (especially in governance of higher education, where the focus is relentless on really questionable construct of ‘skills’)…

I’m fascinated by the literacy being played out in the networked digital environments we find ourselves in these days… the greater visibility of more of the language we’re using to conduct our daily interactions and professional lives is an ethnographer’s dream, and may lead to much greater general interest in theories of writing, thinking, learning and ‘mind’ and wow maybe even ‘language’… (is there something ‘else’ constituting most communications?)… but at this stage, the state of the discourse in education and computer studies, and flow-on discourse in this mooc, worries me… Some of the concerns I have are:


  • Failure to define key terms – like ‘knowledge’ and ‘learning’. Though I’m new to reading academic literature on computer studies and ‘artificial intelligence’, I’m certainly not new to reading ac lit on ‘learning’ and I’m really sick and tired of all the assumptions and lack of proper argument based on logic and evidence. While better understanding of such words is an objective, rather than a start point, in a course like this, I wonder how many will grab that bull by the horns and really think about it… or whether most will just carry on imagining that we somehow all just know and agree on what these words refer to and how they might be defined.
  • Lack of theory and philosophical debate. Given that teaching and learning are linguistic activities, it seems to me that any exploration of how we learn (or how machines may or may not) that doesn’t seriously consider how language works is going nowhere fast… But most of the discourse I’m reading about learning (in education) or ‘machine learning’ (in computer studies) surprises me for its lack of any reference to linguistic or semiotic theory (and I don’t mean what came out of MIT in the 1950s and 60s!)
  • Fetishization of technology. Of course the question of which technologies we’re using ‘to know’ is fundamental (what we do, who we do it with, and how quickly and flexibly we do it, changes with the different possibilities of different technologies), but when people start imagining disembodied brains and ‘intelligent’ machines ruling the world … oh please! Look, I’m totally amazed and mightily impressed by the work done in developing computer technologies, but I cringe when electrical engineers and computer geeks start fantasizing that they’re doing something other than playing with and refining electronic machines…. when they seem to really believe (and worse, when hoards of followers believe) that they’re saying and doing something ‘deep’ with respect to ‘mind’… lordy, go read some semiotics, deconstruction, functional linguistics, and philosophy of language, and think about it properly…

Well whatever, that’s what jumps out at me this lovely rainy day in Wollongong, as I rejoin the mooc and prepare my head for the launch later today 🙂

I’m looking forward to thinking about questions of representation in this space.. how the mode of performing and demonstrating what’s ‘learned’ (what we want to ‘know’) shapes our conception of what learning and knowing are… (as McLuhan might have said) – and whether we’re seeking to attain and ‘have’ some ‘thing’, or seeking to engage in a somewhat expanded or altered way of doing and being with others (as a systemic-functional linguist might have said).

Right now, as the countdown starts, I’m thinking human life is just a cacophony of past, shared and emerging narratives that we all move in and out of, making  more or less sense of, and participating in, through modes and manners largely prescribed by tradition but also quite malleable once you’re experienced with them and can see past the constraints and the belief that they ‘refer’ to anything beyond the discourse itself… I wonder whether I’ll end up thinking pretty much the same as I begin, or quite differently….. safe travels everyone.


Good night and good luck.


2 comments on “on dis-connection & e-education

  1. Hi, Emily,
    Wow! You covered quite a lot of topics in this blog. Your two key observations, “failure to define key terms” and “lack of theory and philosophical debate” resonate with my reflections on learning and teaching.

    I just completed today reports on student learning objectives for my fall classes (reports that nobody reads and yet they are required for our accreditation). The SLOs are a part of an attempt to quantify learning and design policies based on this process. There is no discussion on why we are using these and on the nature of learning; rather, we are just asked to complete them and receive no feedback on the results. It feels to me that educational policies are decided by statistical models rather than by philosophical debates.

    I love the assigned readings in our class and I am looking forward to our next Google+ hangout to discuss them. I hope that I will be able to keep up with them (they are quite dense!)

  2. Hi Desi ! thanks for your comments. Yes I’m very impressed with the selections of films and readings in the mooc – well considered to provide food for thought in relation to the key themes and questions, and also very enjoyable. I just viewed and read everything at once first, now I’m going back and writing comments in blog posts. It is a slow process, but worthwhile, as the selections and inter-connections are so good.
    Yes the administration and governance of higher ed is deeply depressing I find – bean counters and pseudo theorists everywhere proliferating like flies and making meaningless demands and specious arguments. I know I put too much in a single post there, but believe me, that was a radically edited version of what I wrote in a word doc on my computer! I found myself getting quite heated by some of the more extreme nonsense (in my view) in what I’ve been reading – but it’s all entertaining and good food for thoughts that I’m always happy to continue refining – with the help of good critical readers and conversational partners 🙂

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