Cargo Cults

Giraffe Witch Doctor

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. I think that’s probably true of many things and not just limited to technology – that many things that others do look like magic from the outside. And if this is so, then there’s a lot of important lessons to be learnt by those of us who are interested on how folk learn, and how we teach. Here’s a couple that spring to mind.

First, if all we do is look at an end product without having an awareness of the underlying process, it’s easy to assume that others are creative geniuses who can effortlessly manipulate images, write poetry, compose songs, draw wonderful pictures … and so on. But, of course, as Edison probably didn’t say, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration – there’s a lot of hard work going on in the background that is invisible if all you see is the end product and not the processes of creation. Of course, some people are more talented than others, and sometimes what we are doing is so engaging that it doesn’t feel like hard work, but as they say where I grew up – you don’t get owt for nowt –  you have to put in time and effort to get results.  This ought to be obvious – but often it gets forgotten. And this is unfortunate, because if you think others do things easily that you find hard, the temptation might be to give up without trying – and there’s obvious implications for formal learning from this. One that particularly annoys me is the folk who assert that they are bad at maths, when really they are just not willing to try. Of course mathematical ability like musical ability, takes practice.

Second, if you just look at the outputs of a particular model of learning without understanding its underlying principles, there’s a risk that if you try to copy it you’ll get it badly wrong – and one way of explaining why this happens is to suggest that it’s happening because you are practicing ‘cargo cult science’, and mimicking the wrong parts of the process. In particular, if you don’t understand that any good model of learning in underpinned by sound pedagogical principles (whether those designing the model are aware of these or not), then you will probably not know which parts of the design should be copied and why, and you risk copying ritualistic behaviour and missing the features intrinsic to authentic learning. Let me try to explain what I mean.

Cargo cult science‘ is a perjorative term used by Richard Feynman in 1974 in order to describe an approach to education which, I think, is as common now as it was when Feynman first described it:

I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you’ll see the reading scores keep going down–or hardly going up–in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There’s a witch doctor remedy that doesn’t work. [This is an] example of what I would like to call cargo cult science.

So, what is cargo cult science and why is it so problematic? Well, a ‘cargo cult’ happens when one culture observes the practices of a more technologically advanced culture, wants to get hold of those technologies, and so mimics those practices in the belief that this is how they can also get these ‘magical’ technologies. For example, during WW2 the Allies set up temporary bases on Pacific islands. Islanders observed what they perceived to be ritualistic behaviours, such as marching around with rifles, and concluded that the soldiers were practicing religious rituals which summoned up western goods (cargo). After the Allies left, the islanders tried practicing the military behaviour they’d seen in the belief that by performing what they believed to be religious rituals, the western cargo would appear. Of course, it didn’t.

Let’s consider a recent example of this. In 2008, Stephen Downes and George Siemens developed a course that was opened out beyond the 25 campus based students – the original MOOC. MOOCs like this, with an emphasis on connections and interactions, are often called cMOOCS.

In 2011, two Stanford educators, Peter Norvig and Sebastien Thrun, developed an online course and offered it out for free enrolment. Other courses followed. These xMOOCs, as they were labelled, superficially resembled the earlier cMOOCs, but I suggest that they are, in fact, an example of cargo cult science. Despite Thrun’s audacious claim that xMOOCs were going to change HE forever, and that in 50 years there might only be 10 institutions in the world delivering HE, xMOOCs are turning out not to be the force for change that some thought.

So why might this be? Well, this post is already too long, and I want to post it before 2017 ends, so I’ll just quickly sketch my argument. I’d suggest that in trying to emulate the original MOOCs, the educators did not pay attention to the underlying principles of connectivism and connected learning, and so the rich, authentic learning experiences that happen in cMOOCs such as CLMooc, and connected practices such as DS106, are not carried over to the xMOOCs.

Now, don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing inherently wrong with institutions and companies offering free courses to anybody who wants to sign up for them (although actually there might be concerns, and I’ll return to this in a future post), but the only thing that the earlier cMOOCs share with the later xMOOCs is the name.

xMOOCs focus on delivering content – typically by giving learners videos to watch. But this style of delivery is not well suited to any of our best theories of learning because it treats learners as consumers. If, when you focus on the earlier MOOCs and see how you can mimic them, you look at how learning can be delivered to a massive audience for free, then using pre-recorded videos and online quizzes is an answer. But this cargo cult version of a MOOC is a pale shadow of the original.

I think that HE can learn a lot from cMOOCs, but massification and the delivery of online learning for next to no cost are not lessons that are worth learning.

Giraffe Witch Doctor” flickr photo by CrazyUncleJoe  shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

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5 Responses to Cargo Cults

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    I’d been thinking about Cargo Cult behavior recently but hadn’t made the connection to MOOCs. I’m glad your post led me to read all of Feynman’s address too. It should be required reading for other literacies. Crossing disciplines, scientific integrity is, quite simply, intellectual integrity.

    The context of my own Cargo Cult thoughts was about expecting ritual and repetition to recreate the effect of past events (in this case activist ones) without repeating the effort.

    Not a field of dreams but Freud’s magical wishful thinking…

    • NomadWarMachine says:

      The Feynman is really good, isn’t it? I’d never read the whole thing before today. I’ve also been reflecting on how hard activism is, and how easy it looks.

  2. I look forward to you saying more on Cargo Cults and how you think xMOOCs do harm. It amazed me how readily universities bought into the xMOOC phenomenon revealing how little senior managers understand about learning. And how prepared they are to risk the teaching excellence reputation of their universities by promoting such instructional learning environments to showcase their universities. It’s not black and white (or c and x) of course. I’d be interested to know what you think about Future Learn for example.
    It’s more than reputation though. Personally I think xMOOCs have put back the way many academics and students think about learning and teaching.

  3. cpjobling says:

    Is it worth mentioning that the xMOOC folks think they invented the MOOC? The term xMOOC, I believe is a post-facto name that was devised by researchers into the MOOC movement to distinguish these second generation courses from the original connected MOOCs. In any case, I’m sure xMOOC is not a term that is actually used, or recognised, by the promoters of the Coursera, Udacity, EdX and FutureLearn MOOC platforms.

    • NomadWarMachine says:

      Yes, I think that’s definitely worth mentioning. I think it was Stephen Downes who came up with the terms x and c MOOC. Futurelearn call theirs social MOOCs, don’t they? I used to go to their partner meetings, but I switched roles at work.

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