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The past couple of years has been a bit of a roller-coaster in the world of online learning, MOOCs, student tuition fees, elitism, disruption, etc, etc. Not sure what this particular trend might called; perhaps neo-Gatesian TEDism. But whatever the label that best captures the hype, amidst the terrabytes of news coverage and conference keynotes, it is reassuring to see that for at least some of the early evangelists there’s a dawning realization that perhaps, after all, those folk who have been involved in education, who have been developing, refining and delivering distance learning, those who have been working with students from a wide variety of backgrounds face-to-face in the classroom and those who have actually improved the outcomes for generations of learners, might have something of value to say after all. The answers, it seems, might not be found simply from a computer science class project or statistical analyses of mouse clicks.

But more eloquent and informed commentators than I have told the tale, so there’s no need for me perhaps to dwell on this week’s transformation of Udacity, from a leading ‘disruptor’ that was going to wipe out traditional universities and provide free education to the poor of the entire planet, into just another corporate training company, offering bespoke online, video materials and withdrawing (or at least downplaying) its previous claims of educating those in need, those who have had no previous exposure to higher education.

Whilst this story was unfolding, I was having one of my regular chats with a colleague who is just embarking on the long path towards a PhD; bouncing ideas around, talking about ‘open’ and its metamorphosis to something which is becoming devoid of meaning, or at least of meaning different things to different people. For some, in the commercial MOOC field, it just means sneaking a peak at some content online for a fixed time and with no rights to use it for any other purpose. Yet for others, for a longer time, it has had far more positive, and indeed in some cases even a more radical connotation: of opening up systems and institutions to all, of freeing information and knowledge from the constraints of copyright-padlocks, rental fees and regimented, policed curricula.

In a sense though, a parallel question often occurs to me and that’s about the extent to which the world of education is full of separate, disconnected communities. Becher & Trowler spoke of ‘academic tribes and territories’ in the context of institutions and disciplines. More positively, others have foregrounded values of collegiality and trans-disciplinarity. The Wenger-ites have enthused about ‘communities of practice’ and common purpose. But in the reality of the academic milieu we are still disconnected from one another; still in our groups, and perhaps, often, decreasingly aware that we’re only speaking to those of like mind. The ‘filter bubble’ of our professional networks, our conferences and our twitter followers or facebook friends (and God help those poor souls that rely on linked-in or Google+ communities) is highly effective at screening, detaching and encircling. When we expound our views on twitter and its ilk, or broadcast our reflections through WordPress, there’s a danger in thinking that we’re both heard and tapping into the zeitgeist.

Look at political movements. In my own case, my timelines are full of positive messages about the advantages of Scottish independence, for example. Activists, enthusiasts, passionate creative artists, all speaking with commitment and belief. You’d be forgiven then for thinking that there’s an overwhelming majority in favour of the proposition. Almost everyone you can think of in cultural circles is advocating ‘Yes’ in the referendum. And yet, the opinion polls paint a far murkier picture. Without access to mainstream media, without channels for engaging with the wider population and the multiplicity of other networks that most people use in their day-to-day lives to shape their views, the family, work colleagues, etc, then the message is unheard. We have already achieved independence in the virtual world, whilst the real world stubbornly trundles on with its fears, its misinformation and prejudices.

So the online dimension, then, gives a false consciousness, paints a distorted picture. But perhaps the perspective to take is that it can be a means of support and encouragement for those of like mind as they engage individually with others in their day to day lives. That by sharing ideas and strategies, stories and resources, we can develop the individual resilience and motivation to engage far more richly, far more deeply with all those with whom we work and live. That we need to avoid thinking that this is all, that there’s a shared consensus and use the technologies and the connections instead to empower and enable (not to encircle and enfeeble).

Later this week, I should be speaking at a seminar on online learning held by trade unionists in the education sector. Anxieties and concerns about management and political intent when it comes to online tools in education will no doubt be prominent. The extent to which the MOOC syndrome was lapped up (reminiscent of the previous, first wave of online learning way back in the early 2000s) is a salutary warning. But the best response mightn’t be to reject or to oppose new blended and open approaches to learning. It might be, rather, to seize the agenda, using the tools to build solidarity, to develop professional confidence, to empower the teacher and enable the learner in a new hybrid pedagogy that makes more public the debates about education and social justice and opens up to scrutiny the assertions of those that argue for standardized, “stack ‘em high”, cheap education for the masses whilst keeping a cosy little corner for their children to get the ‘full student experience’ in cloistered halls and fireside chats with tutors.

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