For an allegory of quality assurance (“QA”), I’d like to turn to one of the more fantastic episodes in the history of my home of Los Angeles: Howard Hughes failed flying behemoth, the H-4 Hercules (a wooden craft more commonly known as the “Spruce Goose”):

Howard Hughes signed an independent contract with the War Department to produce the aircraft during the Second World War. Although he had originally been partnered with a ship-builder, Howard Kaiser, the two parted ways because of production delays Kaiser’s annoyance at Hughes insistence on “perfection.” Hughes continued to work on the project until well after the war ended.

In 1947, Hughes was called to testify before the Senate War Investigating Committee to justify his use of government funds. During a Senate hearing on August 6 (the first of a series of appearances), Howard Hughes said:

The Hercules was a monumental undertaking. It is the largest aircraft ever built. It is over five stories tall with a wingspan longer than a football field. That’s more than a city block. Now, I put the sweat of my life into this thing. I have my reputation all rolled up in it and I have stated several times that if it’s a failure, I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.

During a break in the Senate hearings, Hughes returned to California to run taxi tests on the H-4. On November 2, the taxi tests began with Hughes at the controls. His crew included Dave Grant as co-pilot, two flight engineers, Don Smith and Joe Petrali, 16 mechanics, and two other flight crew. After picking up speed on the channel facing Cabrillo Beach, the Hercules lifted off, remaining airborne at 70 ft (21 m) off the water and a speed of 135 miles per hour (217 km/h) for around a mile (1.6 km).

Having proven to his detractors that Hughes’ masterpiece was flight-worthy, thus vindicating the use of government funds, the “Spruce Goose” never flew again. Its lifting capacity and ceiling were never tested. A full-time crew of 300 workers, all sworn to secrecy, maintained the aircraft in flying condition in a climate-controlled hangar. The crew was reduced to 50 workers in 1962, and then disbanded after Hughes’ death in 1976.

Howard Hughes flight of the “Spruce Goose” is a fascinating story, when examined from the perspective of performance. In terms of performance theory, the single flying run of the H-4 can be considered a “nonce” act, an event made necessary by its circumstances which, by being enacted, also changes them. To these ends, Hughes’ Hercules’ one flight was necessary in order to prove that the machine could satisfy its purposive duty (flight), in order to substantiate the illocutionary value of the monies applied to it (given by the US government, ostensibly to produce something which could fly); having satisfied this intention, the machine no longer needed to operate, for it had already been proven capable  of doing so. Circumstantially, the demand of Senate War Investigating Committee to qualify the Spruce Goose as a worthy use of funds had the perlocutionary effect shuttering the project and the apparatus. Many historians and commentators have claimed that the plane’s flight was the effect of ground effect (whereby objects experience additional lift and depreciated drag when near and parallel to a larger, flat surface), and it is likely that Hughes though this himself. To ensure that this disinterpellation of the Spruce Goose from the category of flying things could not be questioned, the machine was put into suspended animation. In its climate-controlled chamber, the H-4 remained as it was in that brief instance, aloft: physically arrested at and dutifully maintained in the physical state and institutional gravitas it exhibited in November 1947. With this in mind, one can argue that the flight of the Spruce Goose was a cover for the shame and denial of its stakeholders’ failed investiture: a complete and perfect non-exposure, nothing admitted and nothing denied.

The theorist within me salivates over this episode as a metaphor for the shame of societal expectations. Putting this interest aside for a moment, I would like to indulge the event of the “flight of the Spruce Goose” as a possible doppleganger for the Scrum development process, and the function of QA within it.

Scrum is an iterative software development project management methodology. It focuses on flexible and holistic strategies, where team members work as a unit to reach a common goal. Scrum recognizes that customers change their minds, and that challenges often emerge unplanned; Scrum therefore adopts an approach whereby projects are not sought to be understood, and focuses instead on maximizing team ability to deliver on ever-evolving  requirements. In Scrum, QA is an integral component: working software is the prize outcome; this means that QA must be integrated into the development process from the earliest stages.

Although MITx does not follow Scrum project management strategies explicitly, 4.605x was developed following some of its principles: the team works together to make something that meets faculty expectations in a user friendly manner, and that is our goal first, foremost, and always. Intuitively, we on the course team constantly checked to ensure the quality of our offering by demoing our content with MITx staff and Professor Jarzombek, and gathering thoughts from friends and peers.

Now that our course has reached initial completion, the team is in the process of reaching out to a body of about two dozen pre-selected beta testers. These beta-testers will be granted early access to the course, and after some initial exploration will report back on basic measures of program quality and usability. The purpose of this limited exploration is to ensure that our content is indeed in good working order.  Based on the assumption of the release of one Lecture’s worth of material, the questions we have drafted are as follows:

  1. Are the instructions provided easy to understand? Where did you have trouble accessing content or navigating and why?
  2. Are all of the links in good working order? Are any broken? Which? 3. Is the video clear? Do you have any trouble watching it?
  3. Did the learning sequence have a good flow? Did the organization make sense to you?
  4. Did you review our tutorial material? Was it clear and comprehensive?
  5. Were there too many questions posed?
  6. What other recommendations or suggestions do you have to improve this course?

I bring up the incident of the Spruce Goose and Senate hearings for the reason that this pattern–interrogation and limited exploration of abilities–is shared between that historic series of events and our QA process, especially with its use of beta testers. It is entirely likely that our testers will enter into our system, make it only so far, and then start to encounter errors which start to question the overall integrity of the course and its orientation towards our desired outcome. This I see as an online courseware version of only flying because of the virtues of ground effect: in this situation, it would remain unclear if the course is really ready to launch.

The pressure on us is high, because all of us want our course to be something we can be proud of. It would certainly be a shame were we to have people give the course a test drive, for them to find things barely passable, and then put to the project in cold storage (lest it be deemed a failure).

Considering we already have a community of about 15,000 potential  students, and content release is scheduled to happen automatically, the likelihood of such shelving is slim; however, the cautionary potential of the H-4 remains: we have been wary not to place too high of predetermined expectations upon ourselves, and by integrating this initial (and quite possibly flawed!) launch into our design process, we ensure that failure to launch can be catalyzed as a chance to improve the offering we will eventually release out unto the world.

Indulging my metaphor and allusions, here: 4.605x will fly, when expected to, even if we don’t quite make it off the ground just yet.

— Samuel Ray Jacobson, MITx Fellow

17 USC § 106 and 17 USC § 106A

Copyright Perils and the Worth of Due Diligence

Diagram of Copyright (Erik J. Heels, 2007)

Diagram of Copyright (Erik J. Heels, 2007)

Courseware design is enormously complicated business and, to a pedagogical extent orders of magnitude more intense than in residential education, every aspect of an online course depends upon every other: assessment must be based on content available, available content must be easy to access and accessible to consume, discussion must be directed but open to individuation, et cetera. Like any other aspect of the course “A Global History of Architecture: Part 1,” recorded lecture content needs to be executed to the highest standard of completion so that all other aspects can proceed smoothly. A student cannot start to understand, say, the geometry Hagia Sophia, if they are denied illustrations of it; if they can’t understand the material, they can’t discuss it or be tested on it, and if neither of these things occur, a requisite part of our course remains incomplete and subsequent material building off it will be compromised. To these ends the use of images in xMOOCs deserves serious and thoughtful consideration.

The internet is a vibrant and broad resource for image content, and the unprecedented availability of photographs online today deserves to be integrated into the production of online education software. It is also true that much of the content available online exists under the copyright protection of its owners or original producers, and these rights deserve respect. In the spirit of resolution and forwarding the development of best practices for course development at MIT and elsewhere, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain our methodology for image due diligence at 4.605x, and highlight areas where I think subsequent courses could stand to improve upon what we have done.

Our ability to use many images, for which copyright has been claimed, without compensation, comes from the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. § 107, which states:

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 17 U.S.C. § 106 and 17 U.S.C. § 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:

  • the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • the nature of the copyrighted work;
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Following these guidelines, the use of images in 4.605x can be summarized as follows:

  • The purpose and character of our image use is not for profit, and educational
  • We draw almost exclusively upon objective, fact based photography
  • We only use as many images as are needed to adequately depict what is being discussed, without utilizing substantial portions of individual bodies of work
  • Images are not distributed in their original form or in an easily usable format (they are downsized for video; image files are not distributed), and the nature of their use has been recontextualized such that our use of the image will not impact their potential market value.

Based on these qualifications, our use of copyrighted material in 4.605x can be viewed as falling under the category of “Fair Use,” under U.S. law. In other words: since our use of photography, drawings, diagrams, and architectural documentation in lecture videos for our online course satisfies the four factors for Fair Use outlined by 17 U.S.C. § 106 and 17 U.S.C. § 106A, our use of such imagery without notice or compensation to copyright holders can be assumed to be legally justifiable.*

To substantiate this claim, and to ease dealings with claims against it should they arise, myself and my colleagues at 4.605x have devoted a substantial amount of our time to performing “due diligence” on our image assets. Due diligence is a form of investigation performed certain actions, to ensure that risk undertaken is minimized. In our case, due diligence has been performed so that we are aware of the source and licensing of each image related to our course, and so that we can identify it quickly should a dispute arise.

Here is an abbreviated summary of how our due diligence is performed:

Recall that our course is constructed around recorded lectures. During the lectures recorded, images were projected onto a screen, and changed according to the need of the person lecturing. For this, Professor Jarzombek and invited lecturers Vikram Prakash (U. Washington) and Ana Maria Leon (MIT) developed PPT files. Every image within these files has been researched by the 4.605x team for provenance (its source) and its intellectual property categorization: Open Content (in the public domain, or licensed with a Creative Commons license which allows our use of the image in this context), Faculty Content (for which the copyright is owned or managed by a lecturer for 4.605x), and Fair Use (whereby our use of the image is justified only under 17 U.S.C. § 106 and 17 U.S.C. § 106A).

Each lecture contains approximately 150 images, and information for each will be entered into a database. Sometimes, this can be accomplished with information provided; in 30-50% of cases, images are uploaded to Google Image Search and source-identified from there.

This process takes 3-10 minutes per image; some lectures have taken two days or more to complete research. This amount of time is equal to the sum total of all steps required to take the same lecture from raw recording to edited courseware, including writing HTML overview and instructions, approving video and its transcription, uploading review questions, and creating directed discussion prompts. As you can imagine, it can be frustrating to devote so much time to one aspect  of our development process, when other steps more directly applicable to user experience are achievable in so much less time.

In cases where information cannot be identified by the course team, I have consulted with lecturers–about 2 hours with Ana Maria Leon, and 10-12 with Professor Jarzombek, much of which is spent going through images individually, and waiting  until information can be found. Some images have required extensive  research and utilization of resources, including one which necessitated the mailing of three separate volumes, from other university libraries, to us, so that we could attempt to locate its source. Since Professor Jarzombek and Ana Maria Leon’s time is very limited, and their input to the course so valuable, I regret that so much of our interaction is dedicated to intellectual property tedia.

Intellectual Property Database for 4.605x (screenshot)

Intellectual Property Database for 4.605x (screenshot)

Despite my frustration with this aspect of our process, I think it is the most important and I am proud of the amount of time (about a quarter of the total work-hours) that we have devoted to it.

Art history pedagogy, of which architectural history teaching is often a subset, relies heavily on the use of images: it is generally thought that to learn about art, or buildings, one must see them. Buildings are usually depicted to students with optically projected imagery. Up until recently, images were (re)produced by using film slides. Professors would pride themselves on their slide libraries, and a crucial part of teaching architectural history was first visiting the sites to be discussed, and gathering images for oneself. Now, thanks to the internet, many images that once required travel can be accessed in seconds. Not only are images easier to get, but there are more of them, now, too: In one of our meetings, Professor Jarzombek mentioned that for many of his sites up on until a few years ago it would be difficult to find images online; now for even the most obscure there are often hundreds; more popular sites are depicted in thousands of different images. Putting aside questions of expertise and training what this means is that the effective barrier to entry for teaching global architectural history has been reduced by orders of magnitude: rather than travel, all one needs now is an internet connection.

As an architectural historian of my decidedly pragmatist disciplinary politics, I praise any effort to make architectural history easier to teach and therefore available to more people. At the same time I also keenly aware of the fact that with ease of access comes new concerns about intellectual property. Resources like Google Image Search make it very easy to access content owned by private individuals, which was not intended for distribution such as its use in an MIT architectural history lecture. Case in point: there are more than a few people out there whose summer vacation photos have ended up in an experimental online course from a well-known university, who probably didn’t foresee this eventuality.

The question I have wrangled with most frequently as a member of the 4.605x course team is whether or not our continued use of images for which copyright is claimed and our use may be seen to violate that claim is ethical, and what to do about that.

It first has to be recognized that 4.605x is a derivative product: everything we have done builds off of a course offered at MIT, and therefore involves the adaptation of material which was never originally intended for use in a massive, open, online context. It is also true that because we use recorded videos that were recorded for that class, that images which were appropriate for depiction there but might violate copyright when included our MOOC will find their way into our courseware. Because imagery is such a crucial pedagogical tool–you really need to see the Friday Mosque to understand the form of its crenellations, for example–and because resources do not exist to replace image assets for which copyright might become an issue, the most reasonable approach is to do everything possible to ensure that our course understands its liability. By identifying the source and licensing of all of our images, we ensure that we are utilizing image content in a responsible manner. By utilizing content responsibly, we ensure that should a challenge to our use occur we can respond to it quickly. While ideally our course would only use images without copyright limitations, our due diligence ensures that 4.605x students can take advantage of the pedagogical opportunities made possible by contemporary information technology, without undue limitations.

— Samuel Ray Jacobson, MITx Fellow

Big Data, Paul Robeson Shirtless

Flipped Courses, Analytics, and Derivations Big and Small

Still from The Emperor Jones, dir.  Dudley Murphy (1933).

Still from The Emperor Jones, dir. Dudley Murphy (1933).

There is a possibility that our course is going to be utilized as the foundation for “flipped” instruction, at an MIT-partner institution abroad. Like many universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is helping to develop curricula for an emerging university outside the United States, and it seems that our MITx offering will be adapted as an instructional tool for use in a residential situation. The details about this will emerge in the coming weeks. While our team will likely not be directly involved in facilitating this possible outcome, we do have to take steps to plan for the eventuality.

Open education of the xMOOC variety is complicated by factors such as this. The inherent problem is one of derivation. Not only is our content-driven online course inherently derivative–based, as it is, on Professor Jarzombek’s recorded lectures from Spring 2013–but it is also going to be used to develop derivative content–such as materials to facilitate residential instruction elsewhere. This means that our course team sits in middle of a bundle of pedagogical considerations stemming from translation issues. Our goal, at present and as always, is to make sure not only that as little as possible is lost in translation (holistically-speaking), but to see what we can do to make translation a value added proposition.

This derivation-driven development dynamic is not unique to our course, or even MITx. At our sister organization HarvardX, open-enrollment edX courseware is only only one facet of a series of various, parallel learning initiatives, position both ahead of and proceeding open-enrollment edX course offering.

Here is one example: Last Spring, students in Harvard course Chinese History 185, “Creating ChinaX—Teaching China’s History Online,” studied a condensed version of Professor Peter K Bol’s Societies of the World 12, “China: Traditions and Transformations,” then worked in teams to develop content and structures for this fall’s ChinaX online course offering (read more here).  In this instance, the production of edX content facilitated a pedagogically-motivated learning experience for residential students in a “bricks and mortar” environment. ChinaX will therefore feature derivative content, but the fact of that derivation has been used as a type of learning opportunity.

Here is another exmaple: Currently, a so-called “small, private online course” is being offered to incoming students of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, with the possibility that it be opened up at a later date. Here we see an opportunity of derivation of the second type that 4.605x is facing, where developed courseware is used to leveraged to create additional learning opportunities, for a larger body of stakeholders.

Unfortunately, neither of these precedents fully captures the dynamic now underway here at 4.605x.

I have been tasked with thinking through the opportunities offered in the before-and-after duration of our courseware, and I am working out my thoughts through an allusion to performance.

The Emperor Jones (directed Dudley Murphy, 1933), is a loose adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play about a former Pullman Porter, Brutus Jones, who kills another man, goes to prison, escapes, and exploits the superstitions of the black natives to be come the ruler of a small West Indian island-nation. Much of the movie, adapted by Porgy author written by DuBose Heyward, concentrates on Jones’ back-story, which takes place before the start of the O’Neill’s play.

The actual differences between O’Neill’s play and the plot of the film are only relevant here for three reasons.

First, many consider the film to have been more or less a vehicle for Robeson’s incredible baritone. While this may be true, it also led to an incredible, and Oscar-worthy performance on his part.

Second, there are a number of aspects of the film’s non-canonical components that are dependent upon racism for their narratival effect. The first of these is the film’s opening sequence, which begins with a stereotypical portrayals of an African dance and then fades into a scene of a Baptist church in the American South, where the dancing of the congregation presents an image that argues for a continuity between the “savage” Africans and the ring-shout Baptists. The message of this allusion is heightened by the structure of the film. The climax and highlight of Heyward’s adaptation is a 12 minute spoken monologue, taken directly from O’Neill’s play, in which Jones, hunted by natives in revolt, flees through the jungle and slowly disintegrates psychologically, becoming a shrieking hysteric who runs right into the path of his pursuers. In a classic if complicated instance of secondary signification, the view of African Americans as inherently primitive, sub-humans is naturalized as the message of the Jones’ tragic narrative, which in the original can be interpreted (and I want to emphasize: can be, not should be) as an everyman’s tale of descent into alienation (like so much of O’Neill’s work).

The third reason concerns skin. The play recounts Jones’  story in flashbacks as he makes his way through the forest in an attempt to escape his former subjects, now rebelling against him. Jones, initially dressed as a king, is progressively stripped of clothing over the course of the play, revealing more of his black skin as he degenerates into a state of madness. In Staging Depth: Eugene O’Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse (1995), Joel Pfister explains that this “striptease” was meant to identify O’Neill’s black actors “with a sexuality that white audiences could both fascinate themselves with as an embodiment of their own psychological primitivism, yet at the same time spurn as ‘nothing more than a prancing darky on stage.'” In the film, Jones’ stint on a chain gang (mid-way through the narrative arc), creates the first opportunity to show Robeson shirtless, a form of exposure unusual for 1933 and especially for a black actor, at that time. Here, Murphy’s play with Robeson’s sexual power is codified in his exposed skin, once again naturalizing his behavior within a racist stereotype about black men and sexual prowess.

The adaptation of The Emperor Jones is a study in how derivation offers the opportunity to extend the cope of something both towards pragmatic opportunities (in this case showcasing Robeson’s sublime voice and superb acting talent), and towards the unthinking operation involved in the crass and easy exploration of stereotype as a form of short-circuited meaning production.

Here is my fear: 4.605x is a survey course, composed of relatively autonomous episodes, portrayed in lectures. I can see its content being easily misused, formulating connections that the course itself leaves ambiguous, to the detriment of students.

Having watched the course lectures out of order, a few times, I can say and Professor Jarzomebek’s lectures stand on their own easily. They are comprehensive, and entertaining (which is saying a lot: after seven years of higher education in the field of architecture studies, I’ve become pretty jaded). I can also say that no particular lecture is necessary to satisfy the overall pedagogical ambition of the course: training students in an understanding of history and architecture can be achieved even without a unit on the Minoans and discussion of the impact of the collapse of the Indus River Valley civilization in 1500 BCE, for example. That said, Professor Jarzombek’s course does not lend itself easily to historiogrpahical agendas outside the moral philosophy of the autonomy of practical reason. So while 4.605x courseware can and should be used as a resource for teaching global architectural history–few exist–I would hate to see it used to naturalize secondary aspects as overriding ones. It would be an abuse of this content to create a course centered on ideological critique (cf. Tafuri) or technical determinism (cf. Semper; Banham) for example, or to make an argument that architectural history is characterized by expressions of singularity (Frampton) or signification (Jencks)–all of which are possibilities, should one cherry-pick. Expanding on a personal example: given my background and interests I think that I could make a very interesting course out of Professor Jarzombek’s lectures that focused on gender roles and the evolution of domesticity, production, and aggregate spaces–but I think that to do so would do students a disservice, because the absolute character of 4.605 (covering the whole world, and spanning 5,000 of social history) neutralizes its particular content such that its only agenda is that of conveying material, to foster the intellectual growth of a student audience.

How can this facilitation be expanded to include a body of teachers? I don’t know. What I would like to see is metamorphoses of 4.605x, not derivations, in the same way that the course hopes to have an impact on student thinking about architecture and history, not necessarily shape it.

Members of the Office of Digital Learning are doing a lot with analytics to reconsider courseware can be designed to maximize intended impact. One recent study (here) uses anonymous, aggregated, and chronologically analyzed student click data sets to understand when and how often students utilize certain resources. This research has already had a marked impact on our course, leading to the implementation of four, regular exams rather than a mid-term and final, since research has found that students engage much more with eText when this format is used.

The impact of this leveraging of analytics remains to be seen. What we have done is essentially short-circuit the xBait-and-Bait, by utilizing assumptions generated form elsewhere. Our hope is that this metamorphosis will improve the learning experience; it is just as possible that this implementation will over-emphasize minor aspects of our courseware (such as eText), while naturalizing their assumed importance.

Unlike cinematic adaptation, driven as it is by market forces and a strong culture of genre, authorship, cliche, the dynamic of derivation within which this course team sits involves a high degree of free play. It is my hope that analytics data about, for example, what students click on the most, how this is reflected in assessment outcomes, and how demographic data might be implicated in such outcomes, can be leveraged to continue thinking pragmatically about improved learning outcomes rather than to reinforce assumptions or stereotypes. Put another way, it is my hope that we leverage our gathered data to learn what there is for us to learn, about learning, rather than to attempt to manipulate the structures we have created to conform to (or, worse, create) a lowest common denominator. For example, it would be doing students a disservice to use the data they produce while taking our course to construct an elitist paradigm whereby certain demographic sectors possess an inherent superiority with regards to our material, relative to others. It would be a further disservice for such a paradigm to over-emphasize the adaptation of our courseware by certain institutions and certain people while denying that opportunity to others. It would be incredibly useful to try, as much as possible, to model student learning experiences and to audit that to see where certain aspects of our course structure, content, and distribution can be made to evolve, positively, in either direct future iterations or within adaptations made by others.

To follow through on this last path implies a model of the adaptation of The Emperor Jones, in reverse.

I consider this course to be more or less a vehicle for Professor Jarzombek’s incredible lectures. While this may be true, it will also lead to a commendable democratization of access to world-class architectural history instruction, executed on a scale never before seen.

There are a number of components of this course’s overall structure that are dependent upon a spirit of pluralism for their pedagogical effect. The first of these is the first lecture, which begins with a rational and cautious conveyance of the limited theories and facts known about the first societies. One example of this is Professor Jarzombek’s discussion of ochre, and its use in ancestral worship ritual, which draws a connection between the use of this material in various societies, historically, without naturalizing this phenomenon within ostensibly transhistorical explanations. In a relatively novel historiographical instance, this portrayal of first societies imparts upon them their own type of modernity, whereby cultural practices are represented as a cumulative instance sitting at the end of an ongoing historical unfolding.

With this in mind, 4.605x can be seen as a kind of format for historical pluralism; it recounts the story of architecture and history in various instances as it moves through them, chronologically, in an attempt to foster literacy. Presented in episodes, the history of architecture and society gradually accumulates, its instances receding form their particularity and towards their implication in a continuum. This is the opposite of a striptease, whereby revelation is seductive by virtue of the ignorance it produces: everything one learns reveals the possibility for learning that much more. Placing material of this sort online moves the threshold of revelation back to the level of the course itself, which itself reveals its internal possibilities for additional, self-motivated revelation. Embodying a curiosity that student audiences can both fascinate themselves with as an embodiment of their own potential for knowledge, 4.605x creates for itself a new demographic of architectural historians. Future adaptions, both analytics-driven and for use in external residential education, can create further opportunities for this proliferation. In order for this to happen however the focus needs to be not on broadcasting, but on broadening the access to knowledge the course offers those participating within it to new bodies of students, freely adapted as dictated by pragmatic need.

Something About Critical Theory, Stephen Downes, The Opportunities of the Virtual

More Equal than Others

Lecture de la tragédie de l'orphelin de la Chine de Voltaire dans le salon de madame Geoffrin, Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier (1812).

Lecture de la tragédie de l’orphelin de la Chine de Voltaire dans le salon de madame Geoffrin, Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier (1812).

Since its publication in 1962, the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere has been critiqued for author Jürgen Habermas’s apparent class bias. In the book, Habermas formulates a theory of a discursive space in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest, dependent upon free and unfettered access, within the context of the evolution of the bourgeois constitutional state in Western Europe. He writes,

The public sphere of civil society stood or fell with the principle of universal access. A public sphere from which specific groups would be eo ipso excluded was less than merely incomplete; it was not a public sphere at all.

As many critics have pointed out, entry into this public sphere required  an excellent education and property ownership as preconditions. Since the public sphere Habermas discusses is inherently limited to a particular social stratum, some have gone so far as to claim that the public sphere Habermas describes in fact only existed by dint of its exclusion of particular classes.

The painting I have included depicts a 1755 reading of Voltaire’s play L’Orphelin de la Chine in the Paris home of Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin. Geoffrin (b. 1699, d. 1777), was a so-called “salonnière” a person who frequently hosted gatherings of dignitaries and public figures (“salons”). In her relationship to her salons, Madame Geoffrin represents a contentious space in Enlightenment historiography. Historian of women’s history and European thought Dena Goodman believes the salonnières played a key role in the institution of Enlightenment sociability, and that Madame Geoffrin was at the center of that process (along with a few other women). In Republic of Letters (1995), she writes:

Under the guidance of Marie-Therese Geoffrin, Julie de Lespinasse and Suzanne Necker, Parisian salons became the civil working spaces of the project of Enlightenment.

Goodman uses Geoffrin to argue that salonnières in the eighteenth century represented a re-shaping of an existing form of sociability that would serve the ambitions of the women who ran them. Thus Goodman stated, in her 1989 article, “Enlightenment Salons:”

In using the social gathering and transforming it to meet their own needs, Madame Geoffrin and salonnières like her created a certain kind of social and intellectual space that could be exploited by the expanding group of intellectuals who were beginning to call themselves “philosophers.”

This representation was widely criticized in subsequent literature. In 1996, feminist scholars Janet Burke and Margaret Jacob argue that Goodman, by placing “a handful of selfless salonnières (such as Geoffrin) at the centre of Enlightenment history,” effectively obliterates a wider version of Enlightenment cultural practices, downgrading “all other seemingly enlightened women”  (Burke and Jacob 514-515). Modernist historian Antoine Lilti, in countering many of Goodman’s arguments, disabuses the idea that Madame Geoffrin acted an autonomous participant in the sociability of Enlightenment society; instead he claims that the politeness and gift giving she facilitated would have been unthinkable without the presences of fashionable men of letters. It was these men, which attracted to her salon the finest representatives of the Parisian and European aristocracy, that “permitted her to appear as a protector of talents and an accomplished socialite” (Lilti 423-426). This was published in 2005.

Ironically, the ongoing historiographical debate on gender and Geoffrin’s role in Parisian society precludes the implication of the conversations conducted in Geoffrin’s salon with, respect to enlightenment-era identity politics. To discuss this let’s turn our attention to what is depicted in the painting—a reading of Voltaire’s 1753 play, L’Orphelin de la Chine.

This play, whose thesis was that genius and reason has a natural superiority over brute force and barbarism, was based on a Chinese play from the Yuan era: The Orphan of Zhao (趙氏孤兒 Zhaoshi guer), attributed to the thirteenth-century dramatist Ji Junxiang (紀君祥). In 1731, Jesuit father Joseph Henri Marie de Prémare translated the play, which he titled L’Orphelin de la Maison de Tchao, into French. Voltaire praised the Confucian morality depicted in Prémare’s translation, remarking that it was a “valuable monument of antiquity, and gives us more insight into the manners of China than all the histories which ever were, or ever will be written of that vast empire” (Voltaire); however, the play was still considered problematic by him as it violated the conventions of the unities of time, action, and place. Voltaire, therefore, altered the story to fit his idea of European enlightenment and Chinese civilization. One prominent alteration included the introduction the theme of love (which is absent in the original play), where Genghis Khan has a secret passion for Idamé, the wife of Zamti, but he is rejected by her as she stands firm to the lawful conduct of her nation.

Echoing Gayatri Spivak, I would argue that there are always barriers to entry with respect to participation in the public sphere. Not every person is a full-fledged subject, at every given time. From Hegel to Althusser, it has been common in European thought to believe that subjectivity is always determined from outside. From the perspective of feminist and queer theory, it is typically prejudice that defines, or bolsters, barriers to the pursuit of equal person-hood, especially in the arena of discourse. I would like to reflect on these two intellectual trajectories as we move to consider the implication of the public sphere, and its barriers to entries, with respect to MOOC courseware development.

Many in the arena of internet studies have argued that the World Wide Web is a powerful, flattening force, capable of everything from radically decentralizing economies and reproduction (cf. Friedman, The World is Flat), to revolutionizing technological evolution (cf. Zittrain, The Future of the Internet–and How to Stop It), to transcending traditional boundaries of place and culture. Stephen Downes believes that the internet is capable of functioning as a global public sphere, where people from around the world can talk to each other without regard to their social position, and that MOOCs are a fundamental vehicle for achieving this openness. As Downes stated in his EdgeX2012 presentation (discussed in our last post),

Online, the Prime Minister of a country can have a conversation with people from all over the place; offline, that’s a lot more difficult, because the Prime Minister’s always surrounded by advisors, and then media, and then other media, and then a crowd of people, and that prevents the Prime Minister from talking to people directly. It is this directness, this immediacy of communication, that you can do online that allows a MOOC to be open, that is one of its defining features. The MOOC is structured as a network. And again, this is the sort of thing you can’t really do offline. But online – I see people laughing at the diagram, that’s a creative representation of a MOOC, by one of our students in a MOOC – and the idea here of a MOOC is that it’s not one central entity that everybody goes to, it’s not like a school or a classroom or a book where everybody would go to this one thing. It’s distributed. There’s a bit here, there’s a bit here, there’s a bit here, there’s a bit here – there’s my website, there’s George’s website, there’s Dave’s website, there’s Rita’s website, there’s Helene’s website, there’s Nancy White’s website, Grainne’s website even (it was only created recently), and it’s the website of this student, this student, this student, it’s the website of a person in Spain, a person in Brazil, a person in India, a person in Canada, the United States, wherever.

Despite this flattening aspect, like all public spheres (and here I use the term loosely), MOOCs are characterized by barriers to access. The most important one here is that of regular sustained access to an internet connection. Downes makes a note of this in his presentation:

Anybody can enter a MOOC. Well, OK, I have to be a bit careful here: anybody with a computer and an internet connection, or access to one, can enter a MOOC. These are types of online learning. I’m going to emphasize this a little bit later as well, but what we built is a type of online learning. And it requires a certain infrastructure.

As with Voltaire and his side-lining of Confucian values, and the histiorgrpahical questionableness of Madame Geoffrin as an interlocutor in her salons, the non-possession of prerequisites for participation (an internet connection, for Downes) preemptively dis-interpolates a person from participation in the MOOC public sphere. In fact, Downes is almost uncanny in his echoing Voltaire in the transformation of potential inequity is into a question of taste; in this vein he continues the selection above…

It takes advantage of that infrastructure to do things that we could not formerly do without the infrastructure. You might say, and you’d be very reasonable in saying, well what if you don’t have that infrastructure? Well then probably you’re not going to want to do a MOOC, because it’s going to be a lot more difficult.

When one considers that this factor of taste, as idealized, might be motivated by other contingencies, in reality–especially, wealth–the narrative offered by Downes echoes that seen elsewhere. Consider Craig Watkins and Juliet Schor’s recent report on connected learning, which argues that new educational approaches risk becoming an opportunity to reinforce already existing priveledges of class and status. So they write,

The trend for privileged young people and parents to mine the learning opportunities of networked and digital media is one more indicator of how differential supports in out-of-school learning can broaden the gap between those who have educational advantages and those who do not. When the public educational system lacks a proactive and well-resourced agenda for enriched and interest-driven learning, young people dependent on public institutions for learning are doubly disadvantaged.

My historiographical training encourages me to see this problematic as one with a long history. The problem of MOOCs and access is analogous to the historical problem of the public sphere inherent limitations. With that in mind I can draw upon my critical reserves in seeking a more constructive framework for engaging with the problem at hand.

Habermas’s critical theory is characteristic of a variant of criticism known as ideology criticism, which views ideology as socially necessary. In this mindset, it is thought that ideology can fulfill social functions by making what is a social and man-made institution appear to fixed, such that it serves a narrow class, while appearing to serve the needs of everyone. According to Habermas, the public sphere is of crucial importance because it is both an idea and an ideology; it is a place where people participate as equals in pursuit of truth and good, but remains a Utopian vision. To these ends, while public spheres (or their analogues) can serve legitimating political and cultural functions, covering societal prejudice and inequality with a bad faith gloss of equanimity, they can nonetheless still be leveraged as means for identifying social and institutional conditions that foster autonomy.

Downes’s public sphere of the MOOC as infrastructure, while not really free and available to all, nonetheless serves as a means of resistance to an established social order (the example of this being the ability to talk to a Prime Minister directly, rather than going through layers of bureaucracy and media). In this sense, the MOOC can function as a means towards truly democratic operations, capable of withstanding the corrosive effects of prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and elitism.

As we discussed in our last post, 4.605x carries with it certain undemocratic tendencies because of its nature as a survey course. Nonetheless, taking cues from Downes we can give a picture of an xMOOC that is much less bleak and pessimistic than his derision towards content-based MOOC development would suggest.

It is rationality that is both the cause of our somewhat undemocratic pedagogy in 4.605x, as well as the way towards its possible undoing. Professor Jarzombek’s course holds up the ideal of free, rational association between historical episodes. Paraphrasing his abstract (now available on, Jarzombek’s lectures give students grounding for understanding a range of buildings and contexts. Analyzing particular architectural transformations, arising from various specific cultural situations, his lectures answer questions like

  • How did the introduction of iron in the ninth century BCE impact regional politics and the development of architecture?
  • How did new religious formations, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, produce new architectural understandings?
  • What were the architectural consequences of the changing political landscape in northern Italy in the 14th century?
  • How did rock-cut architecture move across space and time from West Asia to India to Africa?


  • How did the emergence of corn impact the rise of religious and temple construction in Mexico?

These questions are easily answerable, and their answers coordinate a very particular viewpoint towards architecture and its role within historical unfolding. The third question, for example, can be answered in part by saying that the emergence of the town square in Siena, and the singular Mangia tower, there, signals the emergence of a civil society in early modern Italy. The city created common areas for its citizens to congregate, free from fear of attack, and this is related to the disappearance of prolific, defensive  towers in residential compounds, and their replacement with a single tower in the town square. For a comparison of the later and earlier town-scape conditions, review the photos below.

View of downtown Piazza del Campo (Campo Square), which backyard in Mangia Tower (Torre del Mangia) and Santa Maria Church

View of downtown Piazza del Campo (Campo Square), which backyard in Mangia Tower (Torre del Mangia) and Santa Maria Church

Reconstruction of Bologna in the early middle ages about 12th century.

Reconstruction of Bologna in the early middle ages about 12th century.

The narrative Jarzombek offers configures a certain historical methodology, whereby architectural developments are seen as causally related to a wide variety of cultural factors. There are other metanarratives that one might fit this incident in Italian history in to; examples range from foregrounding of moral concerns (Rusklin) or technological innovations (Banham), to rebuking architecture’s connection to sociopolitical factors entirely (Eisenman). Here,  a student is not given an opportunity to choose, or even explore, such counterpoints. However, in offering an admittedly singular and sanctioned narrative among a broad variety of 24 related, but autonomous incidents (see the sample lecture topics shared in the bullet points above), students are enabled, if not forced, to use their own reasoning to create a comprehensive understanding of global architectural history. Jarzombek says little about how students should relate the various topics addressed in his individual lectures, as a whole. This method differs from that of many others because, despite operating on a inherent notion of propriety and sanctioned knowledge, Jarzombek’s epistemic values nourish and encourage an individualized engagement with architectural history, and therefore history, writ large. The practical aim is to equip students with case studies that will enable them to resist integration into the fateful homogenizing metanarratives of other architectural surveys.

It is with this encouragement in mind that we, as a course team, are doing very little to direct additional conversation within the bounds of our course. Like most surveys, fostering a connection between related material is foregrounded at the expense of individualized exploration. There is a lot of material to connect–and while I would not go to so far as to say it is easy for students to connect material wrongly, I will say that it is very easy to get lost when trying to reconcile 5,000 years of human history, for the first time. Because of our interest in shepherding students as efficiently as possible though a very broad range of material, we have opted to encourage comprehension over exploration. That said, our course community offers an unprecedented opportunity for students to connect with each other, and this won’t be discouraged. Indeed, we see the open-posting capability written into the edX discussion forum as a wonderful tool for students to get to know each other as they get to know the material–and to experience whatever benefit this may offer. To this end, rather than try to facilitate an equitable and open conversation therein, we are now devising policies such that the discussion can remain free without impinging upon comprehension of the class’s radically inclusive historiographical methodology. Those policies, informed by previous edX courses, include:

  • Be polite. We have learners from all around the world and with different backgrounds. Something that is easy for you may be challenging for someone else. Let’s build an encouraging community.
  • Upvote good posts. This applies to questions and answers. Click on the green plus button so that good posts can be found more easily.
  • Search before asking. The forum can become hard to use if there are too many threads, and good discussions happen when people participate in the same thread. Before asking a question, use the search feature by clicking on the magnifying glass on the left-hand side.
  • Notify staff. If you want to have a staff member look at your post, please write [Staff] at the start of your title.
  • Be specific. Choose a descriptive title, and provide as much information as possible: Which part of what problem or video do you want to discuss? Why do you not understand the question? What have you tried doing?
  • Write clearly. We know that English is a second language for many of you but correct grammar will help others to respond. Avoid ALL CAPS, abbrv of wrds (abbreviating words), and excessive punctuation!!!!
  • Use discussion while working through the material. On many pages in the learning sequences and homework, there is a link at the bottom that says “Show Discussion”. Clicking on this link will show all discussion on the forum associated with this particular learning material.

By limiting our regulation of class discussion to these very simple rules, we hope that we can avoid a situation whereby the inherent inequities posed by the MOOC format, and this course, are limited. By not seeking to direct student engagement with the open discussion forum, while also trying to maintain a sense civility and legibility, we hope that our course community will develop itself into a vibrant forum of equal interlocutors. Thus, despite the centralizing epistemological tendencies of the survey format, a democratic community can be fostered.

Psycho, Stephen Downes

Psychotic Content Override: MOOCs, McGuffins, and the xBait-and-Bait

Still from Psycho, dir. Alfred Hitchcock (1960)

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in Psycho, dir. Alfred Hitchcock (1960)

Psychosis is a loss of contact with reality that usually includes false beliefs about what is taking place or who one is (delusions). Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller Psycho is an excellent depiction of psychosis on multiple levels. The anti-hero of the narrative, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), is famously diagnosed with multiple personality disorder at the film’s conclusion. As we learn, sometime before the film’s start he killed his mother and her lover, and now suffers from split personality disorder, sometimes believing himself to be her. It is possible that Marion’s suggestion, during her and Norman’s dinner together, that Norman’s mother be institutionalized, which causes him to murder her, dressed as his mother, while Marion is showering in a room at his hotel. In his mind, her suggestion can be equated with the suggestion that he be institutionalized.

The depiction of Marion’s murder incites a certain psychosis in the film’s viewer, as they watch the narrative of Psycho unfold. During the “shower scene,” Psycho‘s audience is led to believe that the Norman’s mother might have killed Marion, since that is what they saw; they don’t know this is impossible, because they don’t know that she is dead. This misbelief is reinforced by the subsequent sequence, which depicts Marion’s body being discovered by Norman, as if he had not killed her only moments earlier. The audience in this moment has lost contact with the diagetic reality of the film, led by false beliefs about what is taking place within the storyline and which characters are in fact being depicted onscreen at which time.

In Psycho, such aspects of induced audience psychosis extend to the construction of the plot itself. The film’s plot is initiated with a series of scenes during which Marion steals $40,000 and then skips town. Watching Marion guiltily pack her suitcase and flee, drive out of town, get questioned by a highway patrolman, then purchase a new car at a used car dealership she passes, the audience is led to believe that it is Marion’s theft which is driving the plot of the movie. This theft however becomes almost completely irrelevant once Marion gets murdered. Up until her murder the audience is in a certain sense psychotic since what they are led to believe is unfolding before them–the development of key plot elements–is not really what is taking place.

What one is kept from perceiving, as Psycho’s first few scenes unfold, is that that Marion’s theft is nothing more than a bait-and-switch. It is the theft which brings Marion, and the audience, to the Bates Motel, so that she can be murdered, and a series of very suspenseful and gruesome scenes can be portrayed. This narrative technique of bait-and-switch is known in film theory as a “MacGuffin.” Hitchcock himself popularized the term, which he defined in a 1939 lecture as ” the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story.” Interviewed in 1966 by François Truffaut , Alfred Hitchcock illustrated the term  with this story:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?”, and the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin”. The first one asks “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well”, the other man says, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands”. The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands”, and the other one answers, “Well, then that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see, a MacGuffin is nothing at all.

(With this in mind, one is led to wonder if Hitchcock intends the lengthy scene of Marion packing–with its focus on her suitcase–and the extension of the trope of escape into the Bates Motel–whose name rhymes with “bait”–as a subtle, composite allusion his use of the MacGuffin)

The term MacGuffin also a history in the discourse of MOOC development. Stephen Downs, an instructor for the first Connectivism Massive open online course (MOOC) in 2008, has used the term MacGuffin many times (and as recently as July 9) to make the argument that content is an inherently secondary component of MOOC development. As Downs wrote on his blog,, 7/9/13…

I have often said that content in learning functions as a McGuffin (or MacGuffin – you can spell it both ways) – you need it to drive the plot forward, but it can be almost anything.

Downes uses the term McGuffin to reinforce his belief about the centrality of social network formation, autonomy, and human interaction, to the success of MOOCs in facilitating online learning. Ideally, according to Downes, a MOOC is a sort of bait-and switch. For example: in 2008, Downes and George Siemens facilitated a course called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge,” that was presented to 25 tuition-paying students in Extended Education at the University of Manitoba in addition to 2,300 other students from the general public. All course content was available through RSS feeds, and learners could participate with their choice of tools: threaded discussions in Moodle, blog posts, Second Life, and synchronous online meetings. In this MOOC, the idea of content–centered the epistemology that  knowledge is distributed across a network of connections–was nothing more than an excuse to facilitate a network of connections organized around that content, through which students would learn more about education and the internet. That this should be somewhat tautological only reinforced the course’s bait-and-switch design: the network produced helped to facilitate learning about the content of the course because, by producing the network, students were learning-by-doing. Like the MacGuffin of Marion’s theft, idea of “content” with regards to “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” is only a necessary mechanism intended to initiate a related, subsequent occurrence.

Like Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, Downes’ identification of the term McGuffin is predicated on a the perceived existence of a psychological complex whereby someone else has come to ascribe undue and supreme importance with a minor aspect of something witnessed in the process of becoming (for Hitchcock, story-line; for Downes, online courseware). To this end, Downes’ identifies the existence of the MOOC McGuffin of content as predicated on a certain psychosis, whereby a MOOC-maker believes they are developing a traditional, content-driven course, with the only difference being it is now offered in an online format known as “MOOC.” According to Downes, bad faith  has negative consequences for learning outcomes. As Downes stated in his EDGEX2012 presentation,

[T]o the extent that a MOOC focuses on content, like a traditional course, it begins to fail. A MOOC should focus on the connections, not the content…when the structure of the course comes to be about this central concept or content, then the actual intent of the MOOC to distribute and democratize learning has been subverted.

To differentiate between the MOOCs which emphasize connections and those suffering from psychotic content override, Downes has identified two categories. Those that emphasize the connectivist philosophy Downes has categorized as”cMOOCs;” those that resemble more traditional courses, such as those offered by Coursera and edX, fall under the category”xMOOC.”

4.605x, as you might imagine, is an xMOOC. It is content driven. This at least in part because we are operating on a given, inherited platform–edX–which is optimized towards large scale, semi-interactive access to videos, readings, and problem sets. In addition to this material, the edX platform features a discussion forum component.

As an integral part of a team creating an xMOOC, I would like to reflect for a moment Stephen Downes criticism of content driven course development as a subversion of the democratization and decentralization of learning. Discussion forms an integral part of the 4.605x course package. The primary purpose of discussion in this course is to engage students in a meaningful manner to focus and reinforce key topics and ideas from Mark Jarzombek’s recorded lecture material  A secondary purpose of discussion is to address technical questions about either course material or the online courseware environment. These primary and secondary purposes are addressed through two distinct types of discussion, discursive and troubleshooting, outlined below.

Discursive discussions are issued on a rolling basis, with lecture material. Sometime soon, our team will be responsible for viewing recorded lectures, and producing one, 75-150 word discussion prompt. This prompt will be issued in a “discussion” component, filed in a sub-unit, within each lecture, placed after the lecture material. The prompt will address the topic of respective lectures, through one of the following frameworks:

1)    Asking students for further reflection or critique of a particular aspect of a particular building or topic discussed

2)    Encouraging students to relate a particular item to a contemporary event or analog.

3)    Soliciting personal experiences related to an item discussed in the lecture, or a particular theme.

These prompts will be released with each lecture, weekly. They will also be available within an aggregate discussion interface, where students will be free to post additional topics as they see fit.

Troubleshooting discussion will be initiated by students, and will be created by them to address questions they have about using the edX site and its associated materials. Specific questions about course content will be addressed here as well. Teaching Assistants will be responsible for addressing these questions on a regular basis. Student questions will be issued in the Discussion tab, under the topic “Troubleshooting.”

Now, Mr. Downes would be right to point out that that these uses of discussion emphasize Professor Jarzombek’s epistemological authority, to the effect of treating our courseware as a vehicle for sanctioned facts and narratives. Student input is essentially limited to questions about the format, with any other responses ignored (for now). Then again, to try and counter this aspect of 4.605x, as given currently, would mean to act in bad faith against the course’ content–even as one was trying to be faithful to a MOOC’s powerful capacity to facilitate novel, global connectivity in the interest of autonomous learning experience, of the cMOOC variety.

Survey courses, of which this is one, aggregate massive amounts of content into a singular, canonical format. Consider the first sentences of our course abstract, available on

How do we understand architecture? One way of answering this question is by looking through the lens of history. This course will examine architecture through time, beginning with First Societies and extending to the 15th century. Though the course is chronological, it is not intended as a linear narrative, but rather aims to provide a more global view, by focusing on different architectural “moments.” The lectures will give students the appropriate grounding for understanding a range of buildings and contexts.

Appropriate and grounding are not terms which, when used in the context of pedagogy, could possibly lend themselves to the sort of McGuffin maneuver Downes idealizes. Survey courses are about a network of content, which is predetermined, and oftentimes not even by the person teaching the course. Survey courses rarely encourage students to create their own unique learning paths, and this is because they are generally instruments meant to discipline a students’ future learning, around a given corpus of sanctioned material. That said, given the specifically anti-hegemonic nature of Jarzombek’s architectural history–whose only consistent meta-narrative is that of “history” itself, as a concept–I am incredibly optimistic about this course’s ability to enable new connections to the field of architectural history, conceived in the broadest possible form. Indeed, I think that the global nature of the content we are now developing will help an unprecedentedly wide and diverse audience to relate to what has traditionally been an elite and Eurocentric topic. It is in this sense that our content is helping to decentralize, even if it is somewhat ambivalent about its missed opportunity to democratize.

In a challenge to Downes’ paradigm that “the content is the McGuffin,” I would like to propose that like cMOOCs, xMOOCs of the sort our team is now working on are also predicated on a type of baiting operation, but one which follows a layered feedback-loop rather than initiating a single, teleological process of connective learning. Rather than “bait-and-switch,” 4.605x is a “bait-and-bait.”

MITx, which hosts a few different course teams, like the one we are all a part of for 4.605x, also collaborates with the Teaching and Learning Lab and the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology to coordinate research on the use and effectiveness of emerging digital technologies.  Through the open sharing of data generated by MITx projects, the team helps to stimulate research that will make the next generation of learning technologies even more innovative and effective.

It is departing from this collaboration that I would argue that the bait-and-bait paradigm under which we at 4.605x are operating functions, as follows: courseware, guided by professors, developed at MITx on edX software, and hosted by edX,  is essentially bait for enrolled students to facilitate analytics whereby demographic and aggregated click data (where did students click? how often? at what times? etc.) can be examined; thereafter, this research is applied to improve edX programs and to develop best practices for the production of courseware. In exchange for participating in this process, students receive access to world-class educational content which, we assume, they learn something from; the analytics help MITx and edX to, themselves, learn more about how the students are engaging with the material and platform provided, in the interest of improving upon that student learning experience. edX, which distributes many xMOOC offerings, can leverage their constantly-improving, high-quality software to encourage new partner institutions to produce and utilize xMOOCs on the edX platform–which feeds the production of more data, and more improvements, and therefore more partner institutions. It is the prospect of distribution, generally, which encourages instructors to facilitate the creation of xMOOC content, in collaboration with MITx. This desire might stem from institutional pressures, individual ego, or a sincere desire to teach as many students as possible–but for our purposes it is only important that there is some drive to long term benefit (or avoidance of negative outcomes), centered the prospect of knowledge distribution, which is fueling instructor participation in xMOOC production.

I have illustrated this relation of feedback loops in the diagram below. As you can see, MITx, edX, students, and instructors all participate in an nested, tautological circuits of knowledge production and distribution–although they engage with those circuits from different vantage points. In sum: content is bait for analytics, which feeds the production of better courseware; the prospect of improved courseware is the bait for the uploading and offering of content; the prospect of distribution is what feeds the production of content. Everything is a MacGuffin for a McGuffin, in one way or another.

bait-and-bait diagram

bait-and-bait diagram

In this sense we, at MIT, are all like Marion Crane at the wheel: determined to head somewhere, but knowing that the fact that we are driving is less important than the opportunities offered by that fact, and what might develop, as a result. Should one only focus on any one particular territory within the bait-and-bait–on the instructor’s, for example–they might be misled into thinking that the xMOOC fails to take into consideration some of its potentials (optimized learning), while over-emphasizing others (content). From this vantage point it might look like we might suffer from the monolithic content override Downes warns against. This is short-sighted. 4.605x is inherently a network–but one with many different, autonomous layers. To the extent that a we might choose to focus on this network, as the driving force behind our courseware, like a cMOOC, we would lose sight of the pedagogical ambition of our course, which is to instill a certain historical methodology to as broad an audience as possible. While it decentralizes the distribution of that particular content, the goal in distributing that content is admittedly a little undemocratic. It’s a compromise; I’m OK with that.

–Samuel Ray Jacobson, MITx fellow
Allusions to New Wave Cinema, Minor and Necessary Aggrevations, The Opportunities of the Virtual

All is Well: On Alienation and Education

Still from Tout va bien, dir. Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin (1972)

Still from Tout va bien, dir. Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin (1972)

Tout va bien, the 1972 film directed by Jean-Luc Goddard and Lean-Pierre Gorin, centers on a strike at a sausage factory, witnessed by an American reporter (Suzanne/Jane Fonda) and her French film director husband (Jaques/Yves Montand). In the film, performers employ the Brechtian technique of estrangement, looking at and speaking directly to the audience. Observing themselves as observed, and actively leveraging the inherent voyeurism of their audience as a key element of the film’s narrative, the actors of Tout va bien alienate the viewer from passive acceptance of their cinematic entertainment; instead, the viewer is forced into a frame of mind that recognizes the artifice of diagetic self-containment. This effect of making the familiar strange draws the attention of the audience away from the artificially constructed world the film depicts and towards the political content it portrays: outlining the logic of class struggle in France after 1968 and the moral vacuity of capitalism. To these ends, the factory set consists of a cross-sectioned building, which allows the camera to dolly back and froth between rooms. Travelling through walls and, during one particularly memorable long take, actually panning-out to portray several spaces simultaneously, the factory set breaks the forth wall in the literal sense while interpolating the audience within the disintegration of civil society performed before them. This particular aspect of the film is important because, an a purely technical level, Tout Va Bien is instructive for its utilization of the artifice of the medium of cinema as a vehicle for ideological signification. The camera is no transparent eye, and the viewing of cinema is an inherently political act inasmuch as it is contingent on cultural and economic conditions; here, with great eloquence, these facts expose themselves.

I am brought to meditate on this method now because of the intense utilization of recorded content in 4.605x. Based on a residential course offered at MIT this last spring, the bulk of our courseware either is or refers directly to recorded lectures, divided into ten-minute segments, and interwoven with spliced-in presentation content. These videos both provide and highlight the privilege of access to MIT’s world-class course offerings. On the one hand, we are making available, for free, a simulacrum of an experience that up until this moment was only available to those with the means and permission to attend MIT classes. On the other hand, we recognize that the product we are developing is not, and cannot be, a substitute for residential education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Those who enroll in 4.605x will receive no official credit for the course and, since MIT retains copyright to the material in this online offering, they are also not free to engage with the material of the course outside the edX online environment, as they see fit. Moreover, unlike students in the residential course, 4.605x students will not be able to interact with the professor, or participate in such collaborative activities as recitation sessions or office hours. The format of our videos, divided into segments and displayed sequentially, serves to reinforce this alienation of the online student from the educational institution they have ostensibly been provided some access to. Insofar as these limitations will exist, however, there are also opportunities provided by the MOOC format that are not available to residential students. These include the possibility to watch lectures episodically and at one’s own pace, and the ability to pause, rewind, and revisit portions of the recorded discussion for purposes of comprehension or review. All of this is merely to say that material constraints of video in our MOOC have a marked pedagogical and political impact on the experience of the online course.

4.605x Unit 1.6 (draft), 6/27/2013

4.605x Unit 1.6 (draft), 6/27/2013

There is value to our massive open online course offering beyond entertainment, and the reinforcement of an institutional brand. With this in mind, I am brought to wonder how the imposition of discontinuity on the lectures we distribute, and the alienation of that content from its residential form, can be leveraged as a value added proposition for our future students. In our courseware, we have employed multiple-choice assessment material as a means of focusing the viewing experience and increasing student learning comprehension. Leveraging the inherent distraction caused by the mutlifacted nature of the interface, questions displayed beneath videos highlight the fractured, virtual nature of our videorecordings while also reinforcing salient points in a manner not possible in a traditional course environment. This effect of making the digital apparent as draws the focus of the MOOC away from its simulacral character and towards its medium condition as digital content. Thus, the necessary fracturing of the lectures portrayed, and the freedom of movement between them afforded by our interface, are brought to bare as pedagogical instruments rather than contributing to a loss-in-translation. It is a small gesture of  course, but we consider this nod towards the estrangement of the virtual, as a pedagogical opportunity, as the first of many steps in shaping a future for online courseware that is politically equitable and executed with the best interest of its students in mind.

Despite its virtual nature, online education is an inherently political medium inasmuch as it involves the interaction of people with regards to privileges of access and knowledge.  It is our hope that our offering remains a disruptive force for the perpetuation of knowledge at an unprecedented, global scale. Careful attention to format, and the particular opportunities of our medium, is one method for ensuring that is so.

–Samuel Ray Jacobson, MITx Fellow

In May 2008, Brooklyn-based indie rock band Vampire Weekend released the single, “Oxford Comma.” The song, famously, begins with the line “Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma?” The implication of this line is that the grammatical debate about the inclusion or suppression of the serial comma is one of many effete concerns that are more a matter of pretension that reasonable concern, of a level of everyday importance tantamount to meeting the Dalai Lama (extraordinary, but not necessary), or getting to know one’s butler (necessary only if you have a butler).  The only reason to bring it up is to impress. As much as I like Vampire Weekend, I have to admit that they might have gotten this one wrong. I think everyone should climb the Dharamsala if given the opportunity, and as a feminist I have to say that generally speaking I find Li’l Jon’s bass-heavy titles to be more misogynistic than truthful. Also, and very suddenly, I have been made to “give a fuck about an oxford comma.”

With a team of administrators, programmers, video editors, and students, I am developing a Massive, Open, Online Course or, “MOOC.” To be offered on the edX platform this fall, 4.605x, “A Global History of Architecture: Part 1” will be the first MOOC offering on the subject of architectural history. Material for the course is adapted from MIT Professor Mark Jarzombek’s spring 2013 lecture course, “Introduction to the History and Theory of Architecture.” Based current enrollment, it is estimated that 4.605x will attract 100,000 students from around the world. The size and diversity of this projected student body presents a number of concerns to the team developing the edX offering. These concerns range from the pedagogical-how do we represent the course content in a way that is accessible and user friendly for a global audience, without compromising content or experience-? to the mundane-in this sentence, do we want to use the oxford comma or not?

The oxford comma can have a marked effect on syntactical connotation and word meaning. One of the more humorous examples is the oft-repeated The Times TV listing:

By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

As the magazine Mental Floss pointed out  earlier this year, this ridiculous passage  supports the use of the Oxford comma, “because it keeps Mandela from being a dildo collector.” (They go on no note: “However, even the Oxford comma can’t keep him from being an 800-year-old demigod. There’s only so much a comma can do.”)

Here on the 4.605x course team, our challenges are not so perilous but do present, in the order of magnitude of that preceding absurdity, proleptic  anxieties. To the extent that one should take care not to associate the former President of South Africa with assembled sexual instruments, one does not want to engender the complaints of 100,000 strangers.

In the syllabus for our massive, open, online course, our course requirements have been outlined as follows:

Watch all lectures, complete all lecture review questions, and complete the mid-term exam and final exams.

It would also be grammatically correct to have listed these requirements as…

Watch all lectures, complete all lecture review questions and complete the mid-term exam and final exams.

…and this is how we had written the sentence, originally.

Now, it could be said that any reasonable person would read these sentences as both saying that in this course, you have to watch lectures and answer questions after them, regularly; also, there is a final exam and mid-term that you’ll have to do. It is also entirely possible to read the sentences differently, with the first meaning what I just wrote and the second seeming to imply that after watching lectures–perhaps iteratively, perhaps in a marathon–there is a sequence of assessments that includes review questions, a mid-term exam, and a final exam; perhaps this sequence happens weekly, or after each lecture; perhaps one will be forced to complete the same mid-term and final exam after watching every lecture. With 100,000 students reading the syllabus, there is no way of knowing how it will be interpreted. I will not be monitoring the course after it goes live, in September, but I certainly don’t want to burden whoever might be with the remote possibility of demands for clarification, statsitcally amplified by 100,000 opportunities for misreading. Additionally, I do not want to burden a student, for whom English is not their first language, with any possible confusion about how this course offering is structured. Not including the oxford comma in our description of course requirements takes for granted the meaning of the terms “mid-term” and “final” to mean comprehensive exams taken seven weeks and at the conclusion of a semester-long course, and this is unfair. English is our language of instruction, and there isn’t anything I can do about that (as I am only fluent in English myself), but that doesn’t mean we should penalize our students for being unfamiliar with American academic lexicon.

I never would have thought that I would “give a fuck about an oxford comma,” but now I have to. It is these and other surprises that we hope this blog will share to you. We at MIT’s Office of Digital Learning are at the frontier of open online course development, which presents many exiting challenges, which have been written elsewhere. What the 4.605x course team wants to communicate, with this blog, is the quotidian realities of constructing an online learning environment. Perhaps you will find it interesting, perhaps you will find it useful. It is our hope that this blog imparts to you experiences that you can apply in your own work in the exciting world of online education. We will write regularly as this course develops, a process which concludes in late August.

–Samuel Ray Jacobson, MITx Fellow