Rooster Cogburn and the Educational Frontier

“I do not entertain hypotheticals. The world itself is vexing enough.”–Col Stonehill, from True Grit

5324372705_9b8f2270c9_nMy uncle loves Rooster Cogburn. That is to say, he loves the idea of Rooster Cogburn. My uncle is a wily old man–a retired sheriff, and he has lived a life just as rough as Cogburn. My uncle has been shot, stabbed, ran over, beat up, and suffered several heart attacks. He smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish.

Despite his many vices, I am quite fond of my uncle. He taught me a lot when I was younger. My uncle is a man of action and not one held to pretention. His word is his bond, and he is rather truthful. I’m relating this story to you because, like Cogburn, my uncle has rode through life hard and without reservation.

Vexation seems to be the treaty of thought, with MOOCs but a blip in a long line of conceptions. Those who know me know that my attitude toward MOOCs has always been suspicious and critical. I find them vexing because many of the intellectual underpinnings of MOOCs are nothing more than a rehashing of antiquated 20th century modernist thinking. Or, perhaps, it is like putting lipstick on a hog. Sure: The hog will leave kisses on your collar, but he will probably still smell of swill and mud.

What’s always fascinated me about the character of Rooster Cogburn–and subsequently  my uncle–is that practical action is always his first thought. Roaming through life with critical eye and sturdy hand, Cogburn is one more concerned with experience than “education.” For him, the world–in all it’s massivity–is his course, and it is open and linked to that specific exploration of the American West culture.

So, it is with this on my mind that I ponder exactly what a MOOC is within higher education. I make no qualms with saying that higher education in the United States is flawed or even broken. It is limping along, like a hobbled and abused dog no longer in his master’s favor. It’s pathetic and disheartening, yet, if we wish, we have the power to affect change. While I do not believe MOOCs equal change, I suppose they do at least spread informal learning to a few more people. If anything, the obsession with MOOCs has led many to wake from their proverbial slumber and realize that MOOCs may not be the way for higher education.

2492032651_cf8866374c_mBut, maybe, MOOCs are the bridge to the frontier, to the place where education is wild and untamed, to the place where educational marauders ride and marshals try to keep order, and, finally, to a place where we can build the vision of education that we always wanted. That bridge isn’t perfect. As a matter of fact, it’s rickety, old, missing nails, chipped, and wouldn’t hold up to much weight, but that’s okay; it only needs to get us across the river and into the new educational frontier–to something better.

Much like Cogburn riding into the frontier, we must cross the bridge and
recognize its limitations. The rush toward MOOCmania is damaging, especially with business interests deciding to tell educators what is and isn’t education. It seems like the only place we can truly change a system that oppresses is to leave it behind, to venture across the MOOC bridge into the frontier, where we are equally likely to fail as succeed. The institutions that hold us, contain us, and prop us up like scarecrows often are not helpful in theorizing the future and practicing in the present.

This rather lengthy thought experiment leads me to think of a future of exploration, where teachers are roaming nomads and leading sherpas. No top, no bottom. There is just the process. No more binaries, no more this way or that way, and no more students intellectually abused by their instructors. In the trajectory of history, ours must be a place of constant vigil, a place of constant safety to which learners return to challenge ideas in a space of constructive criticism and encouragement.

Even though Cogburn wasn’t always positive, he was always a realist with an idealist’s soul. That’s what we need to be. So, while I find many discussions of MOOCs irritating and lacking, I understand their appeal. I understand the main 81103845_bb9b414525_mpedagogies and concepts that undergird them. However, I also understand that they are imperfect, they are more containers for information than knowledge discovery engines, and they are not the future: They are just a way for us to get to the future, to enter that frontier and ride into the sunset.

We need more Rooster Cogburns in education. We need them because they tell us what we don’t want to hear, and we need them because they are honest in a world in desperate need of honesty. The question, then, becomes not how will MOOCs change the world, but, rather, how will MOOCs (and other online learning ventures) help us reach the point where we can build the learning spaces of our dreams–whatever they may be.


Images courtesy of Flickr users Jim_V, NIOSH, and Clinton Steeds, respectively // Creative Commons and Public Domain licensed

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