Give #MOOCs a Chance: a reply to Aaron Bady


adaptation of “You keep using that word” meme from “The Princess Bride”. from Aaron Bady.

this is a response posted to “The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform” by Aaron Bady in The New Inquiry, May 15.

MOOC” means Massive Open Online Course, as in the courses now being offered by Udacity, Coursera, and EdX in partnership with universities.


You have good observations and critique, and there’s certainly room for suspicion around MOOCs, but I think this article succumbs to a somewhat paranoiac cultural-studies frame.

Yes, there’s hype around MOOCs, people championing them for some questionable reasons, and incomplete referencing of the history of online pedagogy. But there are also real issues and opportunities driving the phenomenon, not merely deluded or cynical hype, and you tend to caricature MOOCs as rather more fixed and well-defined than I believe them to be.

In your presentation, the current mainstream system of in-classroom teaching is self-evidently the “real” and better educational experience, and MOOCs are an unproven threat.

I’d say that the current system has pervasive problems of cost, access, equality, and outcomes, and we’re in a moment of new possibilities opening up to address some of those problems: not only the MOOC form, but more flexible accreditation, perhaps not controlled by the incumbent higher-ed sector; new learning approaches and technologies.

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What if Twitter were designed to put users in charge?

(followup to my last post: “Escaping from freedom: the problem of designing for user agency“).

I. Introduction

Twitter is generally presented as a “stream” media model — you dip in and see some sampling of messages from accounts you follow. However, what if you wanted to use it more deliberately, e.g. scanning and analyzing all messages, analyzing the volume and quality of each of your follows’ output, or reading tweets sorted or filtered any way you wanted? What if you want the wide radar and engagement, but more control over the noise?

I believe that technically this *is* possible: and it would be an extremely useful way to combine Twitter’s strengths with the type of user control associated with more “expert” tools like Google Reader, Feedly, or SocialBro. Existing 3rd-party Twitter clients such as TweetDeck had some of these aspects, but the future of most such tools is generally in doubt as Twitter’s prod-dev and API policies evolve.

However, we need to keep building our own tools, or as McLuhan said, they will build us. Today an increasing need is for tools/practices to manage our attention and information, or as Howard Rheingold’s aptly put it, “intelligence dashboards, news radars, and information filters.”

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Escaping from freedom: the problem of designing for user agency

Fromm, "Escape from Freedom," 1941

Fromm, “Escape from Freedom,” 1941. on the appeal of totalitarianism.

The Guardian had an excellent story recently, “Conscious computing: how to take control of your life online” by Oliver Burkeman. It focuses on movements, tools, and practices that seek to counteract the deliberately distracting tendency of most current Internet media and services.

The problem is aptly described by Nir Eyal, a Silicon Valley internet entrepreneur who cites the “behavior design” models of Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg as inspiration:

Let’s admit it, we in the consumer web industry are in the manipulation business. We build products meant to persuade people to do what we want them to do. We call these people “users” and even if we don’t say it aloud, we secretly wish every one of them would become fiendishly addicted.

Eyal advocates a version of this approach for product development, which he calls the “Hooked” method, which is also the title of his forthcoming book.

I think of this situation as part of a more general pattern: the perennial tension in the information environment between user agency and producer agency. User agency is when the user has control over the environment/media: for example, time- and device-shifting of content, peer-to-peer media, blogging, open-source tools, remix culture, net neutrality, and general-purpose computing devices. Producer agency, on the other hand, is exemplified by broadcasting, bundling of information goods (e.g. cable TV), click-wrap licensing, DRM, etc.

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‘Crossing the chasm’ with science social media

Crossing-the-ChasmThe journal PLOS Biology published a paper “An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists” by Holly M. Bik and Miriam C. Goldstein, on April 23. It has quickly become one of their most popular papers, with almost 25,000 views just over a week later.

In my comment submitted on the paper, which is copied in full below, I suggest this guide is oriented to the practices of current “early adopters” of these media, whereas we might anticipate that an increasing majority of future adopters:

  1. will be more casual / lower-engagement,
  2. may be intermediaries serving scientists, e.g. publishers, rather than scientists engaging directly; and
  3. may tend to engage social media networks via activities/signals embedded in their own tools, e.g. journal platforms, rather than on the social media networks directly.

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