From ‘iConsumers’ to ‘weLearners’: Negotiating Online Communities

weLearners: The 60+ courses and programs that are engaged in face-to-face activities around the MOOC. (Click for interactive view.)

weLearners: The 60+ courses and programs that are engaged in face-to-face activities around the MOOC. (Click for interactive view.)

In one of the videos this week for the MOOC History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education, there is a discussion of the iPod experiment, where, in 2003, students at Duke received free iPods and were challenged to use them in innovative ways for educational purposes. The video introduces the idea of how the “i” in “iPod” is a reference to the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am.”

With this in mind, I began to think how this “i” ties the users of the product and other iProducts to a personal identification with consumerist culture, making them into iConsumers. On the other hand, the #FutureEd movement promotes the use of digital technologies for the democratization of knowledge and the formation of collaborative communities of learners, which I would like to call “weLearners.” It is my hope that the many conversations starting in the MOOC will move us from being iConsumers to weLearners.

These conversations are taking place in the MOOC, outside it on social-media websites, and, of course, in face-to-face settings. The conversations reveal that trying to form and establish intersecting communities of learners presents many challenges.

One example of such a conversation is an engaging thread on the course forums, titled “Don’t understand why MOOCs are considered elite.” In this thread, participants from around the world discuss what makes something “elite.” Some participants used the opportunity to highlight the digital divide. They discuss how censorship and a lack of resources due to socioeconomic class limit regular access to the Internet. They highlight the fact that only a third of the world has regular Internet access. They also shared an important article from Al Jazeera describing how U.S. sanctions have forced Coursera to block access to countries such as Iran, Cuba, and Sudan.

People are finding innovative ways to go around these types of blocks, and Coursera is working to negotiate with the government to reopen access. Yet this problem is a reminder that seeking to put higher education in step with the current digital age presents real pressing problems such as interference from corporate and governmental interests, real material limits to access, and concerns over privacy in an ever-expanding network of surveillance.

Thus, how is it possible to shift the paradigm from consumerism to learning, and to build active communities of learners when so many people are excluded from the conversation? What’s more, a plurality of voices and opinions is coming from those who must negotiate this future together. There isn’t only one type of “we” in the weLearners, but a variety of competing and collaborating groups. There is a danger that the MOOC, being hosted in the United States by U.S.-based institutions, might impose one particular form of “we” above others.

One step toward answering some of these questions is the opening up of the course constitution so that it can be written and edited by all course participants on a wiki, and then later annotated on Rap Genius, a text-annotation site.

The idea of a course constitution, open for all learners to create and contest, is an opportunity to shape the future of higher education through debate, discussion, and negotiation. Yet it is important to note that these websites run on proprietary software, and the next step should be to pass it on to free and open-source software. These are just some options for fostering a weLearner attitude toward digital media.

One of the guiding principles of the course is the aspiration to “learn the future together” instead of through a top-down, teacher-based model of education. To begin to achieve this aspiration, online and offline communities have to be wise to the challenges, obstacles, and impediments to new ways of learning. Yet, perhaps together, these various weLearners can introduce change. It starts with fighting the iConsumer model and working toward alternatives.

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