Is the Neoliberal Criticism of MOOC a Fair One?

At his blog, George Siemens looks at MOOC criticism, specifically a growing movement to label the MOOC as a neoliberal initiative, neoliberal standing for…well, standing against the MOOC rather than standing for something.  And that’s a lot of the problem with the neoliberal argument…it uses the term to cast against something rather than to be for something, and a definition needs to be more than a roster of things the term is not.  Much like in Blackadder III, Baldrick’s definition of Dog as “not a cat” was not sufficient for Samuel Johnson…and neoliberal is not sufficient as a criticism of MOOCs if its use is so expansive and general that it swallows any meaning the term might have.  That said, the original use of neoliberal, the scholarly research behind neoliberalism and the specific critique it makes on the sociopolitical direction of higher education is worth noting, and should not be thrown out just because a good number of people misuse the term.

Here is my response to the blog and the numerous comments (btw, this blog is always a prime example of social commentary working).  I plan to flesh it out soon.

I agree and disagree on your neoliberalism take. The term gets thrown around as a pejorative, a catch-all for any intrusion on a hallowed structure, the intellectual equivalent of “They took our jobs!” But that doesn’t mean the term lacks meaning — just like what you did with CCK08 and connectivism gets lost when Periodical of the Week runs a MOOC piece that fails to note any history in distance education, neoliberalism is an economic and social theory of governance with a somewhat substantial research base (I suggest Henry Giroux and Gert Biesta to start). There is a sizable fit between neoliberalism and the recent MOOC movement…but I think MOOC critics went running for terms and evidence in lieu of pitchforks and torches, and tried on this term without really understanding its nuance. Ironic that the same happened when techies needed to label the massive course cartridges stamped with high-powered institutions.

That said, as long as the term is used so generally and incorrectly, it doesn’t provide the meaning as a criticism of existing policy and procedure. And there is an argument to be made about how MOOCs fit into the sociohistorical argument…a place EdTech seems to often ignore when researching its wares. Government subsidy of education has decreased, and costs have risen. An institution once dedicated to community and environment with roots in public good for a millennium is highly looked at as a private good now, eroded by (among other things) 30+ years of policy initiatives. Today society judges the quality of education extensively on a rubric of individual competencies. Faculty share blame in seeing the institution end up at this space, but they are just one player in a very tangled web that played out in primary education years ago (continuing to) and for the first time is really rooted in higher ed. Public sentiment today is that, with a lack of private competition, education ended up bloated and en largesse…and the MOOC can fit that argument as a hybrid public/private competition model. I don’t think it’s coincidence that, as MOOCs take the education narrative by storm, the US Congress cannot (for the first time in ages) keep student loan interest rates down.

I see MOOCs as the first shot across the bow in the higher education/privatization of public services fight. And to that end, I look at the critical argument not as one of neoliberalism, but instead Deluze’s Societies of Control. It meets the argument of the loss of public good in a private sphere, but adds a spice of criticism of the lifelong learning/knowledge economy argument that has been a big part of distance education’s scholarship for the past decade but has gone unchecked to criticism.

2 thoughts on “Is the Neoliberal Criticism of MOOC a Fair One?

  1. Pingback: Is the Neoliberal Criticism of MOOC a Fair One?...

  2. Pingback: One Interesting Thing About MOOCs Among the List of 8 | All MOOCs, All The Time

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