How do you mooc a project?

`Technology’, pace the scuttering gobsheens of hipsterismo eroico, snug and smug in their rolled-up jeans and heavy-rimmed spectacles, is not the collective noun for the latest beeping, whistling gewgaw from some fruit-monikered design house. It is all of the objects that let us be human. Rejecting technology means eating worms and in-season plants dug from the ground with your bare hands, your naked hairy body kept warm only by a layer of filth. R. R. Wilson famously said of Fermilab that it had “nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.” Technology does not make our society worth defending; it makes our society.

Engineering is a social activity, and in universities, students learn how to all just get along by designing things in groups. Any real product will be the result of large numbers of people working together. In relatively small groups, students design, and build, racing cars, flying bicycles, and pedalled submarines, as well as things that a journalist might put into a `technology’ column.

The engineering process in each of these activities requires the ability to break a problem down into elements small enough to be dealt with by one person, and to see the system as a whole to make sure that those elements fit together into a single product which does what it should, in a technical, social and cultural context. Each element is subject to its own standards, in that it must meet the test of reality, which is why engineers learn science; it is also subject to human standards, of function and interoperability, and of aesthetics and acceptability. The resulting product must function correctly for its intended users, and fit into an existing system: there is no good reason for making cars which will not accept a standard fuel pump nozzle, any more than a competent engineer specifies 6.3mm bolts.

Whatever The Matrix might have taught us, we live in a material world, and sooner or later it all comes down to things. The UK government is apparently about to bring the thing-printer into secondary schools, and design, build, and test into primaries. Rapid prototyping (`3D printing’) is the latest in a line of manufacturing technologies, all of which an engineer needs to know something about. Without this encounter with material reality, and especially with failure, material and moral, engineers know precious little of any use.

Any university engineering department has a workshop where students learn how to make things from matter, so that they appreciate the nature of reality. Likewise, they work in groups to learn how to communicate requirements and solutions, orally, verbally, and graphically. Part of the process of learning engineering is mastering the process of clearly specifying a requirement, communicating it so that somebody else can work on it, assessing the resulting solution, and deciding on which compromises will be made to allow this solution to fit in with the rest. This process continues when a graduate moves into industry and meets people who have no degree, but have learned through experience how reality works, purging their narcissism on the way.

The mooc, by its nature, is an invitation to narcissism. There is no collective experience of design, construction, test, or communication, because there is no contact with reality. There is only the screened talk, and the multiple choice test, and a fair chance that the exam has been marked by other students as mis-informed as yourself. The socialization process of designing a complex device, apart from developing `transferable skills’, is also a process of learning how to contribute to a team effort, and of learning what strengths you have in a group.

Atomized, individualized `learning’ seems a strange way to develop these traits.


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