Stephen Downes webinar on Digital Research Methodologies Redux (May 2014) raises some interesting questions about the relationship between research and design in the age of digital, social media based affordances, and the idea that (as Heike Brand, one of the webinar participants summed it up), "research = a language to understand (read) the world and its complexity".

Stephen Downes talks of MOOCs as examples of design-led research, which takes the idea of Footprints a few steps further (albeit he doesn't refer to them directly) - Footprints are, perhaps, best seen as probes (see below), or palettes - , i.e. not as a methodology, or, even worse, as a theory.

Here is a 'reading' of his presentation ...

He says that for MOOCs (and other emergent events) we need to turn our traditional research-led design paradigm on its head, move away from our expert mindset to a participatory mindset, and think of design as a process of creation, engagement and discovery, from which theory might emerge, from interactions between all the participants, whom he regards as co-creators rather than users.

MOOCs as Probes
This raises the very interesting idea that to design a MOOCs - a cMOOCs at least - is to design / create / try out a 'probe'. And 'probes' are part of the language of emergence and complex adaptive events. Probes require a design-for-emergence, co-creator, participatory mindset, in which to design an event means to define it by negative constraints(i.e. what will not happen), rather than to define it by the traditional, positively defined, prescriptive 'learning outcomes' that pervade current forms of education.

Probes are experimental tools / ideas / interactive affordances, uncertain, tentative interventions, that are inserted-and-let-loose within an complex adaptive space/event.

In traditional (adult) educational workshop terms, this is just 'activity design' - for activity-based learning. But MOOCs as probes are, subtly but importantly, far more than that. A cMOOC goes much further, and although it creates an event space (defined by negative constraints), it also deliberately encourages people to create / rehash / repurpose new 'activities' and new spaces/networks, using, exploiting and pushing the boundaries of new affordances of existing social media and digital interactive tools and networks.

In other words, a MOOC - or any emergent learning event - invites participants, in a way, to undermine itself: to create new spaces and activities for which no constraints have (by definition) yet been defined, as they have just been created. These are spaces which (by definition in large, multi-platform, multi-language events) are encouraged to develop beyond the view, the comprehension, the knowledge and the possible assessment of the creator / convenor / designer. Probes, and open source software probes in particular, are 'handed over' to the participants, not only to use and create new affordances, but to be reversioned as new tools, new probes, which can be handed over, and over, iteratively, in a continuous process of creative / transgressive discovery.

This is more than playing with ideas, concepts, or even multimedia texts. It is creating new interactive possibilities, which potentially adapt and transform the social ecology - by creating and adding what Suzan Blackmore calls new 'temes' - a risky business (see the recent report on research that has added two letters to the DNA mix in some micro-organisms, increasing the genetic alphabet from four letters to six - sounds crazy, bordering on irresponsible to me, but there it is).

Facebook, for example, could be seen as social software, as opposed to Twitter, which has morphed, as a probe, into a 'family' of quite different temes.