Cannibals?

Right, so I’m not really the sort who scripts what I say.  Yes, if I know I am going to be asked to speak or do an interview I do think about the issues I’d like to mention and I do a rough mental pre-organization; but then when the time comes I just talk.  Nobody, myself included, is really sure of what I will say.  I like to tell myself that this keeps things fresh and spontaneous feeling rather than over-rehearsed.  I also tell myself that if I had more time I would prepare more, I’m just too busy for that.  The truth is, it’s become a habit, and one that seems to work more often than not, with me only occasionally saying something I regret.  So I just trust it and go.

That was my mindset when I sat down to tape the “trailer” for my Coursera Introductory Psychology course.  I was to press record and talk for about 2 minutes or less, letting prospective students know why this course was going to be great.  So I pressed the button and started talking.  I made the point that for many centuries our minds had been hungry for information about chemistry, biology, geography and physics, using the scientific method to separate the good ideas that seem true from those that, while still good, seem not to predict data.  And yet it was only just over a 100 years ago that the mind turned its ravenous appetite on itself … and that’s when we became cognitive cannibals … minds that feed on minds!

When I replayed it that bit definitely caught my ear.  To me it sounded appropriately provocative, an implied analogy that concisely encapsulated the scientific study of psychology.   I had my Project Manager for the course listen to it, and she liked it too.  So we went live with it … and that’s when something else happened.

I had included my twitter feed on the Coursera page (@stevejoordens) and people who were tweeting me were using #CognitiveCannibals … they were embracing it as a description of who they now were … minds about to feed on minds!  This immediately reminded me of a similar incident.  A few months prior while being interviewed on The Agenda (a show on TVO featuring the rediculously smart Steve Paikin) he asked exactly how large my UTSC Introductory Psychology class was … I replied 19o0 students … he looked aghast at such a large number but I countered by saying “Ah, but it is a warm 1900!”.  From that point on, THAT class became “The Warm 1900” … we referred to each other that way, as co-members of the Warm 1900, and you know, it felt warmer!

One of the major potential issues in any large classes is developing a so-called community of learners, and in seeing the embrace of the name “Cognitive Cannibals” I was seeing one very simple factor related to community playing out … communities need unique names to rally around.  I should have known this well from Sherief’s clever research on prejudice (i.e., The Eagles vs. The Rattlers), but I think sometimes we “educational psychologists” can overthink things.  Every town becomes a town when it adopts a name … suddenly all those individuals in the town have a common link … one degree of separation as it were.  In both case above, the classes ceased to be another instance of an Introduction to Psychology class … they became a very specific class, a very specific community of learners; the Warm 1900 followed by the Cognitive Cannibals!  So much more human that “the students of Introductory Psychology”.

OK, so I ran with this a little.  I asked if someone might create a flag.  There are now about 5 contenders, but one of these caused minor concern.  It had a Jolly Roger inspiration, featuring a skull with it’s top off and it’s brain exposed … below the skull was a crossed knife and fork.  Brilliant!   OK, it was really more of a patch that a flag but I loved it, and still do.

But here is the interesting counterpoint to all this.  By attaching my terminology to the Jolly Roger schema a slightly more sinister vibe was created.  Someone raised the point that, generally speaking, humans frown on murder and on cannibalism, and the term Cannibal kind of implies both of these things.  Did we really want to refer to ourselves as Cannibals?  This is part of teaching to 30,000 people.  Of course I did not intend to – in any way – condone murder or the eating of human flesh by other humans (or even the eating of human flesh by animals … or humans eating animal flesh even, but that’s another story!)  I meant minds consuming information about minds, hence the use of the critical word “Cognitive”.  Every analogy is only so good, and often one can often look at it in a different light and see something darker.  I understand this dark side, and yet I love the community of learners vibe I see with every tweet containing #CognitiveCannibals.  What’s a MOOCster to do?

I thought about this for a while … would I come to regret not only saying the term “Cognitive Cannibal” but then turning it into a team jersey?  Will me Dean or Provost look at me one day and say “You called your class Cannibals?  And asked them to make a flag?  And produce an Anthem (right, I forgot to mention the anthem)?  And you did this with some amount of glee?”  Should I retreat and try to come up with something safer … less provocative?  Ultimately it seemed to me that the Cannibal was already out of the barn so to speak … many more people were embracing it than we upset and it is fun when not taken too seriously.  So I came up with a different idea … I could just write a blog post explaining my original intentions, why I think this actually makes for a better learning experience, and leave it there.  Now I want to get those flag/badges made into stickers that we somehow get to all the MOOCsters!  Heck, I may need another tattoo!  Ha!

Stepping into the land of MOOC

A while ago I began hearing about this new world of education called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  One professor teaching tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of students online, at no cost, with the apparent goal of opening up high quality education to all who might enjoy and benefit from it.  Being one who already appreciated the philosophy of information sharing, as embodied in technologies like Wikipedia, this sounded really fantastic.  Moreover, I must openly admit, that being the sort of professor who truly enjoys teaching large classes, this really felt like something I wanted to try.  Can one effectively teach so many students?  What is the experience like?  What does one learn about teaching in this sort of extreme context?

Of course I then heard some of the concerns.  Clearly there is more to this than the free open sharing of education.  Someone hopes to make some money off of this somehow.  Too many investors are pouring too much money into MOOCs, and the platforms used to host them, to deny that this phenomenon will only be sustained if there is some sort of business model (or models) that reward those involved.  What are those models?  Will those models result in dramatic changes in the public education system?  If so, will those changes have a negative impact, or could the appearance of MOOCs actually provide a long needed impetus for change in the University and College system?

In the context of all this I was asked to submit a proposal to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to mount an Introductory Psychology MOOC on the Coursera platform.  Being one who has extreme difficulty saying no to any new opportunity I couldn’t resist.  I submitted a proposal and with great administrative support I won it (thanks Laurie and crew!), and as I type today we are four days into the eight week course.  Four fascinating days filled mostly with really great vibes.

Given this is such a new world for me I decided I’d write a digital equivalent of a travel log.  Actually I meant to begin it about a week ago, as I was anticipating the MOOC.  However, one thing I learned is that it takes a lot of time and thought to get a MOOC ready to go … there was no time last week for blogging!  But now things to be a little more under control, so this entry stands as my introduction.  Yes my feet are already planted firmly on MOOC land, I have arrived, and the students – about 30,000 of the 58,000 registered – have arrived, and I am sincerely amazed at how comfortable I feel, despite the fact that this place is full of Cannibals!  Ah, but that’s for the next chapter.

So my goals in this blog are to recount this particular journey while also highlighting some of my views on MOOCs and public education reform along the way.  I have invited my #CognitiveCannibals (those would be my students) to follow and comment on the blog, so don’t be surprised if they chime in along the way … I hope all of you feel free sharing your perspectives and ideas as we go.  OK, next step, giving a brief overview of Week 1 …