If Joseph Campbell made a MOOC #change11

I’ve written previously about MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) design and how it shouldn’t follow the traditional academic structure, not given the potential for a more chaotic, connectivist, or rhizomatic learning style.

However, we can’t let our shoots and tubers grow wild forever. Spring is only one-quarter of the year.

Let’s keep the chaos, sure, but we can’t ignore form. Look at the world around us. Order arose from chaos, and certainly back into chaos it will go.

I think Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey is a better template for course design. It still allows us to get lost, to struggle, to stumble in the darkness, but, we can still test our progress against a very real and powerful psychological superstructure.

Narratives like Star Wars, Avatar, The Matrix, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings (all written with Campbell’s Monomyth in mind) have been so successful in our culture because they resonate with our eternal struggle for personal meaning and transformation, ideals emphasized too little in education.

In my Beams and Struts article “The Singularity is Near-Sighted: Joseph Campbell’s Vision for the Internet Age,” I argue that we’re getting lost in the stream of tweets, blog posts, and status updates. We’re too interested in making data-based connections at the expense of meaningful connections. We’re making a mess without making anything stick. We’re also clamoring as a nation to get back on track, and we know the status quo won’t do.

If education is all about growth, about becoming more critical, creative, flexible, and expansive thinkers, there’s hardly a better model than Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. You forge your own path, make your own map, and look for guidance from the wisest and most helpful people you can find, all in pursuit of personal transformation and with the assumption that once you find it, you’ll come back home and make things right in your village.

It doesn’t need to be implemented directly in the design of a MOOC. Any traveler can approach the course this way, regardless of its design. Some courses punish this kind of personal questing, especially traditional models that have strict expectations reflecting only the instructor’s pedagogy or some abstract set of university objectives.

This isn’t really how things work. We make our meaning, forge our own connections, and get out what we put in.


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  1. Hi Andrew, I am very curious about this psychological superstructure. Do you mean this superstructure are the narratives you mention, the hero adventures?
    regards Jaap

    • Andrew Neuendorf

       /  December 13, 2011

      Yes, I don’t necessarily mean they exist as apriori truths, although they might. In the context of a course, the narrative must answer questions like, “What will we do in this course? What is the point of this course? What can I expect to gain when it’s over? Will it be hard? Etc” So that, when designing a course, Joseph Campbell might be a good model to use. His ideas have had quite a bit of success in Hollywood, for instance. There is an appeal to the basic story of a lone person leaving home, entering a strange new world, finding helpers and foes, facing fears and defeating a central enemy, and then returning home with something useful to share. This is an over-simplification, but I think it describes most courses pretty accurately. If students can see a course as a journey of self-discovery, where they’re going to be asked to challenge themselves and reach new heights (instead of just swallow and regurgitate information) there might be a certain appeal to this narrative.


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