This has been an interesting year in the MOOC discussion realm, with everything from MOOC 4.0 to arguments about who controls the conversation about MOOC research. But a strain that has always seemed to existed in the discussion about MOOCs is the idea of making MOOCs more like a traditional college educational experiences. A recent entry into this stream by the title of “Why is the University Still Here?” caught my eye, and want to address some of the issues that are brought up in this article.

First of all is the idea that “those who wanted to be educated had the means to do so” because of libraries and expensive video lectures. I’m not sure there is much social research that would support that claim, since many people don’t have access to libraries, and even if they do, they run into a complex organizational system that becomes a barrier to entry. If people who wanted education could get it, we are all barking up the wrong tree to improve access in the first place. Why change anything if the people that wanted it can already get it?

Second is the idea that “education is simply not as native an activity for many adults today.” Those that research the blurred line between pedagogy, andragogy, and heutagogy would disagree. People are always learning in many informal and formal ways and always have been – maybe its just that the mainstream of education is finally catching up with this idea. At their most basic levels, the original MOOCs and connectivism tap into the idea that most adults are native to learning and are doing it all the time – its just the formal constructs of behaviorism and constructivism don’t seem to tap into this native learning (for many, many reasons that really have nothing to do with the constructs themselves but the ways many use them).

These two problems lead into the third and biggest issue I have with what the article identifies as the big problems with MOOCs: loss of primacy and motivation.

“Primacy is making education the primary activity of a student’s day, or perhaps more specifically, the primary thought activity of the day…. Primacy is deeply connected to motivation, since it makes learning the default rather than a conscious decision that we make throughout the day…. When we attend a physical university, we automatically give primacy to education…. There is also financial primacy that comes from paying large tuition bills…. New forms of online education like MOOCs lost both forms of primacy at once. By making them free, students had few incentives to not quit any time the course materials got boring or difficult. Without a physical presence, there weren’t the social peer effects of friends encouraging us to attend our classes on time, or shaming us about our poor performance.”

I’d love to know where these peers are that encourage and shame us to do better. I had professors that do that – but peers? They were usually skipping classes and study sessions with me :)

Basically, this is saying that traditional education works because educators have the big sticks of grades, passing, and keeping our money to force us to do good in classes, so our instructional designs are working because we can threaten learners with bad stuff if they don’t do what we tell them to when they get bored. And – bonus! – they will peer pressure each other to submit to this threat by putting them together in a campus.

To me, one of the greatest things we can learn from MOOCs is “what does it mean when we lose primacy and the threat of grades and failure?” What does your teaching or design look like when you can’t rely on bad things happening if learners don’t comply? How do you design for that?

But let’s look more at the ideas of primacy through the lens of how adults now natively learn.  The idea of primacy is a construct that came about through decades of modernist and then postmodernist thought that leads many people to think in black and white either/ors. Depending on who you listen to, postemodernism stopped being the dominant social paradigm sometime between 1975 and 2000, replaced by the idea of metamodernism. For those not familiar with metamodernism, the “meta” is not the same as we see in “meta-tag” or “meta-study”, but related to Plato’s “metaxy” (a swinging back and forth). It is the idea that our society no longer chooses either modernism or postmodernism, but combines both of them – often at the same time. Paradox and juxtaposition are one of the ten basic principles of metamodernism. Cultural theorists Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen describe metamodernism as

a continuous oscillation, a constant repositioning between positions and mindsets that are evocative of the modern and of the postmodern but are ultimately suggestive of another sensibility that is neither of them: one that negotiates between a yearning for universal truths on the one hand and an (a)political relativism on the other, between hope and doubt, sincerity and irony, knowingness and naivety, construction and deconstruction.

Many see this as the dominant mindset of our current society, whether we recognize it or not.

What does this mean for education? People no longer have a primacy in their life. Or, more accurately – they have several all at once. Education, jobs, family, hobbies, etc no longer compete for primacy, they all have primacy at the same time. Education is both native and non-native, because people are often learning formally and informally at the same time. People can want education and still not have access to it. Paradoxes are real and embraced.

(I can hear all of the pragmatists out there shouting “no duh!)

edugeek-journal-avatarWith the rise of the non-traditional student on physical campuses, this is also the case for traditional courses. This is the new educational world that we are designing for online and face-to-face. This is the future of quality university experiences. This is how humans are, how we have been for centuries really. We are finally getting to throw off the shackles of either/or black or white thinking (or maybe more accurately, more of us can join those who have been doing so for centuries). This is what MOOCs can teach us (and what they are actually doing a great job of teaching us). Instead of looking for how to re-create traditional education’s accomplishments online, we need to learn to embrace the paradoxes and juxtapositions that have always existed in successful education. This is the challenge for metamodernist instructional design: not instructivism or connectivism, but both. Not content or social interaction, but both (as #rhizo15 has put it: content is people!). Not andragogy or pedagogy, but heutagogy (which combines both informal and formal learning). We should embrace the paradox and reject the thinking that you have to choose between two options that actually both work.

(image credit: James Kunley, obtained from

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

One thought on “Metamodernist Instructional Design and the False Goal of Primacy in MOOCs

  1. So maybe the emphasis wherever learning is happening should be to figure out when to move from one to the other or the several others, Maybe our jobs as learner is to know when and how to codeswitch. Whitehead wrote about this in his book, The Aims of Education. He called them ‘romance’ and ‘precision’. We move back and forth between these stages and primacy fades in and out at the same time. Really worth a read if you haven’t yet.

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