The significant contribution of the MOOC to the educational landscape is in adding more diversity. But diversity isn’t everything in ecological terms. One particular species might initially appear to increase diversity, but then proceeds to destroy everything else in its path. For those who fear MOOCs, there is lurking somewhere the thought that the MOOC is like this: that somehow through its sheer ubiquity (despite limited educational success) and commercial hype, the MOOC offering becomes the only offering to the majority, squeezing out alternatives, and leaving exclusive one-to-one education for the privileged few. Some people have decided that MOOCs are weeds!
There are more complex problems when we look at the motivation of those who fear MOOCs and think they should be exterminated. Behind that position lurks a similar unspoken (and sometimes poorly thought-through) vision of how education ought to be. Education ministers are particularly good at this: Michael Gove is a classic case. These people are also people you wouldn’t want "growing" in your garden. What we have there is another kind of weed, but whose ultimate end is the same.
Thinking about MOOCs and WEEDs (I'll capitalise it - there must be a cool acronym somewhere!) is interesting because the only way we can know a weed is by looking at what it does. Battling it becomes the focus of human intervention in the garden because failure to deal with it repeatedly leads to the destruction of everything else. Weeds have destructive tendencies. This metaphor however precedes the innovation of MOOCs. No serious embedded practice of looking at what a MOOC does has been engaged in (yet). So there is no comparable way of determining whether the innovation of the MOOC is dangerous or not. This is often the case with technology, because our society is being transformed at such a rate that there is little chance for finding out what things do at a deep level. Instead, technology appears to be a fault line at which deeper prejudices are revealed. Technology has this in common with religion.
Where is the methodologically stable way of looking at the socio-technical garden, or even thinking about what we want? Do we want degrees just like we used to get from the traditional universities? Do we want new technologies? Do we want democracy and freedom? Do we want economic growth? Do we want innovation? Eternal life? Beauty? Emancipation?
I think the questions of education are best framed in the context of a social ecology. Education gives us strange and often dangerous obsessions: pursuit knowledge, learning, certificates, degrees, publications, growth, innovation, etc. are all signs of the pathologies which can kill competing ideas and destroy the social ecology. Each of them create conflict, difference, misery. But equally, knowledge, learning, degrees and so on form part of the diversity that we are each of us trying to manage.
Each of us knows what it’s like when the social ecology is harmonious. It is the feeling of emancipation, of love and joy when life is ‘right’ – when we are amongst friends, when we are not scared, when we can express ourselves for who we are. Equally each of us knows when the ecology goes wrong: we are oppressed, we are fearful, etc. And each of us also knows that there is a dialectical balance between what might appear bad ecologies and good ecologies. The balance may also be ecological. The controlling force, the drive for freedom and emancipation keeps things on track.
The central issue in the ecology of the online world is its inter-connectedness with the physical world. At the root of this interconnectedness are the artefacts we make (including the computers and the software that they run) and the information which informs the decisions we take. Both artefacts and information appear as constraints on agency: they are the runs and trellises over which we are shaped in our growth. The study of those constraints is the study of the meaningfulness information and artefacts bear for individuals.
There is a possibility of a naturalistic inquiry into meaningfulness, information, decision and artefacts. There is already much literature on sociomateriality, Actor Network Theory, etc. There is emerging good work on the ontology of information. There remain important deficiencies, but there have also been significant advances. The key to understanding social ecology, and in turn the ecology of online education, is a workable ontology of information.
My personal view is that this is really an ontology of absence.