MOOCs as a Liberatory Project

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Ellsworth’s article “Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy.” This paper is about Ellsworth’s experiences teaching a course called “Media and Anti-Racist Pedagogies” in 1988 at UW-Madison. Ellsworth says, about the role of dialogue in critical education, “Through dialogue, a classroom can be made into a public sphere, a locus of citizenship in which ‘students and teachers can engage with the process of deliberation and discussion aimed at advancing the public welfare in accordance with fundamental moral judgments and principles…Dialogue is offered as a pedagogical strategy for constructing these learning conditions, and consists of ground rules for classroom interactions using language.'” (Ellsworth, 1989, p. 314) The rules she cites include equal opportunity to speak, tolerance of ideas, and logical critical inquiry, which leads to a a goal of unification within diversity. But given the power dynamics of our society, our classrooms, and the multiplicity of perspectives, the dialogue described is, for Ellsworth both unattainable and undesirable. As Ellsworth says, “I expected that we would be able to ensure all members a safe place to speak, equal opportunity to speak, and equal power in influencing decisionmaking…It was only at the end of the semester that I and the students recognized that had had given this myth the power to divert our attention and classroom practices away from what we needed to be doing. Acting as if our classroom were a safe space in which democratic dialogue was possible and happening did not make it so” (Ellsworth, 1989, p. 315).

Ellsworth found that the class was not, in fact, providing a safe-enough space for students to truly dialogue. She cites reasons like fear of exposure and vulnerability and memories of old experiences — without naming it, she cites the presence of shame in the classroom (one of my research interests). But Ellsworth nails the problem/solution as going beyond shame. No individual student, no affinity group, and no course has a complete “narrative of its oppressions,” so the entire educational project is unknowable. In Ellsworth’s case, her class could not know if a particilar anti-racist action would undercut other groups, or even their own group. The enterprise of liberation is complex, chaotic, and unknowable, and we must “build a kind of social and educational interdependency that recognizes differences as ‘different strenglths’ and as ‘forces for change.'” (Ellsworth, 1989, p. 319)

What kind of educational practices are possible when we confront the true unknowability and incompleteness of our pedagogies, when even as we come together we lack the knowledge necessary to answer basic questions of survival and justice? As Ellsworth asks, “What kind of educational project could redefine ‘knowing’ so that it no longer describes the activities of those in power ‘who started to speak, to speak alone and for everyone else, on behalf of everyone else.'” (Ellsworth, 1989, p. 321) To me, a question then becomes can a constructivist MOOC, moocified course, or personal learning network do exactly what Ellsworth is calling us to do? How can we be sure that these projects will really bring out the new voices instead of just brining us the voices that have already spoken?

Ellsworth describes the process in her class: “Our classroom was the site of dispersed, shifting, and contradictory contexts of knowing that coalesced differently in different moments of student/professor speech, action, and emotion. This situation meant that individuals and affinity groups constantly had to change strategies and priorities of resistance against oppressive ways of knowing and being known.” Our educational mechanisms need to allow us to move fluidly between sameness and difference, in a way that “cannot be predicted, prescribed, or understood beforehand by any theoretical framework or methodological practice…[A] practice grounded in the unknowable is profoundly contextual (historical) and interdependent (social).” (Ellsworth, 1989, p. 322)

Connected Learning

Indeed, a connectivist MOOC or similar structure may be uniquely poised to answer Ellsworth’s call. A foundational analogy is that of Rhizomatic learning, and the power of networks in creating knowledge. As Dave Cormier says in a post on rhizomatic education, “If a given bit of information is recognized as useful to the community or proves itself able to do something, it can be counted as knowledge. The community, then, has the power to create knowledge within a given context and leave that knowledge as a new node connected to the rest of the network. Indeed, the members themselves will connect the node to the larger network. Most people are members of several communities—acting as core members in some, carrying more weight and engaging more extensively in the discussion, while offering more casual contributions in others, reaping knowledge from more involved members.”So we have the freedom and flexibility to grapple with the unknowable, and to move flexibly around sameness and difference.

But what happens when networks do not provide spaces that are safe enough to bring out all voices, and when the “unity” of the network comes at the cost of erasing the voice of individuals and groups. On the one hand, the internet and social sharing provide a wonderful equalizer that allows us to connect on what certainly appears to be an equal playing field. But there are no equal playing fields, and in living in a fantasy world of equality of access and power, do we do ourselves a disservice? Is it the community that is able to create knowledge, or is it the thought-leaders in the community? The social networks on which MOOCs and personal learning networks are based obey a clear power law, which means that in fact a few voices dominate the conversation. How can we ensure that connected learning is a liberationist exercise and doesn’t self-organize us all into exactly the same power structures we had before with regard to education?

Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? Working through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297.

6 thoughts on “MOOCs as a Liberatory Project

  1. Sandy Brown Jensen says:

    I appreciate the democratic drive that has led you to this intelligent set of wonders. I have become a little less idealistic in my slowly golden-ing years. It is good to encourage “new voices,” but not at the price of silencing your own. Those voices need also to learn to speak up for themselves. And make your classroom as safe as you can, then let shamed or seemingly repressed voices find their own way to that social edge between risk and safety. You/I/we just aren’t 100% responsible for everyone inside our tent walls. Be wise; be compassionate; and let people find their own paths…

  2. epurser says:

    Hi Angela, really enjoying browsing your blog, and this post’s ruminating on the potential of connectivist moocs and PLNs to, as Ellsworth suggests, “create an educational project in which ‘knowing’ doesn’t just describe the speech acts of those in power” is an interesting one I’m considering too, in my about-to-launch-first-flight-to-the-mooc – if I find my journey through that educational project redefines ‘knowing’, I’ll come back and let you know 🙂

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