Could ‘gonzo pedagogy’ finally unlock online learning for everyone?

13th July 2018 at 00:00
With questions being raised about how effective Moocs are at widening access, welcome to the kooky world of Coocs. Sarah Simons investigates the community-based approach that’s empowering anyone to be a learner – or a teacher ➧

For some adult learners, traditional college courses come with a range of barriers. Massive open online courses (Moocs) have been seen as one way to engage these learners. But some believe they do not deliver on the promise of widening access to education.

Peter Shukie has been interested in the Mooc concept since its inception, but found that, although Moocs could offer wider access than many traditional college courses, participants were still marginalised.

Shukie, an education studies lecturer in the University Centre at Blackburn College, says: “Despite this idea of the Mooc being [about connections], it turned into something like an elite university where only a few people were allowed to speak with any weight, and everyone else was just noise.”

Having previously worked as an adult literacy educator in communities, workplaces and colleges, Shukie found that learners often had great expertise in their field and excellent literacy skills, but lacked the formal literacy qualifications required.

“I’m not dismissing the value of getting people who needed to learn maths and English for the first time to level 1 and 2,” he explains, “but there were loads of people who had those skills in abundance.”

However, they faced barriers to gaining those qualifications in a traditional, classroom-based way. In addition to the stigma attached to adult literacy and numeracy education more generally, there was the practical barrier of finding time to attend their course alongside working. Technology, Shukie felt, provided an opportunity for people to engage with the courses on their own terms.

‘No longer a deficit model’

Based on his disappointment with Moocs, Shukie decided to create an alternative: community open online courses (Coocs). These were to also become the subject of his recently completed PhD from Lancaster University.

“The idea was to create this space where maths and English were no longer seen as a deficit model,” he says. “Where people could bring in their existing experience, and didn’t have to do courses where they were pushed through the 80 per cent they already knew but couldn’t get to the 20 per cent they needed to know.”

Whereas the Moocs model is designed to allow participants to receive information, Shukie was keen to discover what would happen if participants created their own courses. “What I wanted to do with Coocs was to go back to the principles I had as a literacy tutor and ask, ‘What if you created a place that wasn’t dominated by institutions?’ In Coocs, everybody can teach, everybody can learn. The minute you register on Coocs, you can be a student and join someone else’s course, but you have the right immediately to create your own courses, too.”

There are currently dozens of Coocs available online (see, on topics ranging from education to sport. Courses on offer include special educational needs resources for teachers, a parents’ guide to literacy skills for key stage 2 and learning anarchy through practice.

The approach of enabling anyone to become a teacher does not affect quality, Shukie stresses: “If you work in an institution where someone’s drafted into teach something they’ve never taught before because of costs, they have absolutely no desire to teach it. With Coocs, people are at the point where they want to create something. Absolutely that can be an alternate view. I call it a gonzo pedagogy. With gonzo pedagogy, you write yourself into the story of the curriculum. It’s not something that exists as a pure clean truth, there are multiple perspectives and no single idea.”

Sir Alan Tuckett, a professor of education at the University of Wolverhampton and adult learning pioneer, agrees that informal community learning “gives people a chance to put their toe in the water”. “Formal learning to gain qualifications is only part of the story,” he says. “There are non-formal courses and community-based activities – people learn informally through all sorts of experiences in the world. The state only seems interested in the formal, and increasingly it’s been the Treasury whose perspectives on short-term value for money have driven things.”

While creating spaces for informal learning is clearly beneficial, could this undermine the campaign for more government funding for adult education?

Shukie is clear that this is not the case: “An institutional model that is built on fees, eligibility [and] right to access based on multiple criteria is not inclusive, by definition. It is essential to create cultures of learning in spaces that institutions can’t or won’t touch. That can only help foster a desire to learn, raising awareness of what we might be excluded from.”

Although the development of Coocs was the focus of Shukie’s research, the driving force was the concept of institution-free access to learning and teaching – the idea that anybody can teach everywhere.

“I’d like Coocs to be a catalyst that asks ‘What do we mean when we talk about teaching and learning? What do we mean when we talk about knowledge?’” Shukie says. “I want it to be part of that bigger discussion that challenges simple concepts of authority and the idea that the institution is always right.”

Education technology expert Bob Harrison says that Coocs are “a great idea” and one that should be supported. However, he says that the challenges with projects like this arise when they are scaled up. “I am afraid when you get to scale, there are some compromises that you might have to make, and they could be linked to things like investment, infrastructure or even a brand name.”

Susan Easton, head of digital skills and learning at the Learning and Work Institute, says that the idea of a learning space with no assessment, fees, attendance logs, monitoring or deadlines is “not a new one and is still largely experimental”. She adds: “However, in the age of large scale online learning which is driven by institutions or commercial considerations, Coocs could offer an alternative vision for the future of learning in the digital age.”

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands, and she is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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