MOOCs – the Public/Private Partnership of Higher Education

Ed tech author Audrey Watters wrote one heck of a MOOC synopsis for the movement’s 2012 history and future.  The look back at 2012 hits a lot of the points this blog has attempted (in more words and with less skill), so it was the look forward that piqued me the most:

But as we see some of the unbundling start to occur, it feels as though there is a re-bundling of sorts. That is because, as Foucault would tell you, it is not simply a matter of “revolutionizing” the university and dismantling its “monopoly” on knowledge transfer and credentialing and then BOOM educational access and liberty and justice for all. Power is far more complex than that. As we unbundle assessment from the university, for example, it gets re-bundled with Pearson. As we unbundle the content from the campus classroom, it gets re-bundled with textbook publishers. With MOOCs, power might shift to the learner; it’s just as likely that power shifts to the venture capitalists.

This is a really important consideration, and I am going to take a few steps back in order to go forward.

I visited Washington D.C. last March as part of my doctoral studies; I was charged with meeting lawmakers, lobbyists, professionals and anyone with their hands in the sausage factory of public policy.  I took a good number of meetings with congressional aides (both for congresspeople as well as committee aides), governmental department directors, and various advocates for causes falling under technology and/or education.  At the end of the week, when my doctoral cohort met together to debrief our week, we were asked to summarize our trip in three words.  Some of my cadre chose words of power, others of idealism, others cynical.  I was pragmatic:

Public-private partnership.

Everywhere I went, people were advocating opportunities for commerce and enterprise to assist government function.  Party preference did not matter so much on this narrative — the most firebrand conservatives and the most Birkenstock liberals agreed that the likelihood of getting something done in Washington D.C. would be increased tenfold if you could merge a non-government entity (or even a quasi-government entity) with some aspect of the government.  No one wanted to get too much into why PPP was the buzz of the town — I speculated the deficit, a generational warming to free enterprise, and even the impact of the Tea Party on the political landscape — but no one bit.  Public private partnerships weren’t a good thing or a bad thing, they were the thing.

I realized later that trying to pinpoint the reason for public-private partnerships taking a key part in the American political narrative was a naive presumption.  Public-private partnerships were not an idea that could be abstracted from policy, nor could one abstract the reason for their popularity.  Things happen for a great multitude of reasons, some having more weight than others, and our society is shaped through economic, political, religious, cultural, aesthetic, scientific and popular codes of the time…and those substructures are shaped by one another.  For a researcher interested in public-private partnerships, one cannot just say “They are what they are.”  Rather, one must look at the influences that shaped this point in history, what this point is, and analyzing existing data of similar virtue to see what this point means for the future.

To call a MOOC a public-private partnership is, at its root, incongruent (#oped12).  The big names in the MOOCsphere (Udacity, Harvard, Stanford, MIT) are private institutions…bringing venture capital and non-profit grants into the mix is an investment, not PPP.  But education is a tenant of society…to pull from Sociology 101, it is as much a part of the superstructure as it is a part of the substructure.  Education is accepted as a public good in our society, to the point that Education is one of 15 federal departments under the President.  There are public universities affiliated with MOOCs, and private universities are not bereft of government funding.  Education is a part of our society and our culture, and when forces of non-profit meet with forces of for-profit, we have a public-private partnership.

Now, what this means is the key…it’s what Watters alludes to, and what has .edu on its ear.  Much of the MOOC hype and hysteria discusses the democratization of education, how education can be pulled from the arms of the institution and freed for the masses.  But wasn’t that what the Internet did?  What makes a MOOC different is the pretense of institution, the structure of course, and the promise of accreditation.  And there is the pesky question of what the private arm gains out of the partnership…we know the public good is determined to push the noble pursuit of education for the masses, the democratization of higher education.  That could be the end-game of the private side, but in the past it hasn’t been, so it’s tough to assume it will be today.

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