FemTechNet: Massive online collaborative courses

There’s been a lot of attention paid lately to the massively online courses famously taught by Stanford. The model is generally center out, allowing people all over the world to access what is considered leading edge teaching from “centers” of research.  A recent online artificial intelligence course taught by Google AI researcher Peter Norvig attracted 150,000 students from around the world to listen to lectures, work on problem sets, and get familiar with Stanford’s flavor of artificial intelligence pedagogy. The New York Times even published an op-ed from Stanford professor Daphne Koller promising “technology as a passport to personalized education.”

Advocates of these models don’t acknowledge (or maybe even recognize) how the kind of knowledge and skill relevant in particular cultural situations vary. For example, I’ve met engineers in India who often complain that becoming a world class researcher requires working on problems set by agendas centered in the United States where their work might generate more useful and innovative results working from their own contexts. What would computer programming look like, for example, if computers didn’t rely on constant power or environmentally costly batteries to power and store a constant state? Why should supporting rural village innovation be an “India” business problem while the problems of corporations are “global” management knowledge? It’s not like rural people only live in India. Gender studies has dealt with this as well, grappling with how theories of gender developed around American or European experiences do not account for the experiences  of people embedded in very different kinds of institutions, social relations, and discourses. It isn’t surprising that it is Computer Science, a highly formalized discipline most immediately contextualized in mass-produced computing machinery, that is the most immediate proponent of the massive online learning model.

Connecting learners across the globe has the potential to de-universalize pedagogies in ways that the Stanford efforts have not explored. FemTechNet, a project spearheaded by Anne Balsamo (New School of Public Engagement) and Alex Juhasz (Pitzer College), is trying to develop a different kind of massive online learning experience, drawing strength and knowledge from the reach of the student population rather than simply disseminating out.

FemTechNet is going to run a course with 15 nodes, or instructor-led classrooms, in many continents, dialoguing on feminist approaches to science and technology. Rather than teaching from center out, the idea is to create a transnational networked classroom where students and instructors in very different locations can speak about and analyze themes together, learning from one another. The project is also developing an open-submission archive of short videos that can be used for educational purposes.

The network of people involved in this project are working to build alternative archives, infrastructures, and social practices to experiment with the possibilities of a less “colonial” education. I use “colonial” here because “democratic,” what I first wrote, seemed to specify too much about the multiple, temporarily aligned political ideals of people involved in the project. I simply wish to note how the project seeks to decentralize learning and make lateral learning possible. Often, “global” projects (e.g. development, humanitarianism) end up ordered as EuroAmerica-based professionals with passports and salaries that will move them around while they depend on the work of “locals” in places like Africa or South Asia who can’t get the visa or job to leave the country to actually get the work done. (This is Peter Redfield’s point. (2012)) When EuroAmericans call what they do global while those else where have “local” problems, that is a pretty colonial knowledge structure. FemTechNet is trying to build the infrastructures and establish the practices that can sustain an alternative.

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