MOOC Hype & Hesitance – Excerpts from MOOC Research

Note: I will use this space over the next month to share excerpts from my dissertation The Evolution & Impact of the Massive Open Online Course. The research was a Delphi study bringing together 20 MOOC experts to discuss the MOOC in educational, political, and sociocultural terms (slides from the oral presentation can be seen here). Upon library clearance, the entire document will be available through a Creative Commons license. The following is from Chapter 1, the argument for significance. This excerpt looks at the hype-based MOOC arguments seen in news media, as well as criticisms on the MOOC and its hype.

Much [MOOC] fervor comes from the promise of MOOCs as seen from their developers and the mass media. For these individuals and their adherents, MOOCs hold the potential to transform education (Brooks, 2012; Friedman, 2012; Thrun, 2011).  Viewed as disruptive technology, a technology that provides an established service to an emerging community of users and in doing so revolutionizes the existing community of users (Bowers & Christensen, 1995), MOOCs can provide elite educational experiences to any citizen of the world with access to an Internet-based computer and a willingness to perform the tasks of the course. These supporters see the MOOC as a global agent for the democratization of education, the opportunity to allow students of all races, ages and backgrounds to take classes from the best professors on Earth (Friedman, 2013b) at relatively little or no economic cost to the user.  MOOCs can harness the vast array of the provider’s institutional resources to help transition society from an Industrial Age, goods and services economy to a 21st Century, knowledge-based economy.  From this lens, future students will not be encumbered by the mountains of debt currently plaguing college graduates (Parr, 2013), and the MOOC model will allow an ease of lifelong learning, where individuals can enroll in MOOCs as the needs of their careers change (Hill, 2013a).

Those critical of the MOOC movement see the potential for transformation as a net negative.  The start-up organizations currently organizing and hosting a majority of existing MOOCs have raised tens of millions of dollars from venture capital organizations, and these organizations expect a return on their investment (Veletsianos, 2013a). This privatization of higher education perilously mirrors domestic and international primary education privatization initiatives over the past 30 years, initiatives built around the before-mentioned schools are broken rhetoric, yet those initiatives of the past 30 years have produced at best a negligible improvement in student learning (Mehta, 2013).  This line of thinking views the learning potential of the MOOC as secondary to the opportunity it provides private enterprise to create capital in what was heretofore a public service built on government subsidy and non-profit ideals.

Some scholars have dismissed the MOOC as a fad or compared its trajectory to prior online learning ventures that failed (Olds, 2012). While prior attempts to cultivate online learning through world-renowned institutions proved unsuccessful, MOOCs have already changed the future path of higher education, politically and culturally if not pedagogically.  In a website addendum to the 2013 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama’s administration challenged Congress to debate the manner and methodology of higher education accreditation, pushing for a reconstitution in order for government to support ventures such as MOOCs:

The President will call on Congress to consider value, affordability, and student outcomes in making determinations about which colleges and universities receive access to federal student aid, either by incorporating measures of value and affordability into the existing accreditation system; or by establishing a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results (White House, 2013; emphasis added).

This federal proposal has been met by policy proposals in several states, most notably the State of California, to provide monies for the development and implementation of low-cost online courses in remedial subjects (State of California 2013-2014 Budget, 2013), the establishment of transferrable credit for up to 50 MOOC courses (CA Senate Bill 520, 2013), and the creation of a fourth higher education system in the state of California designated entirely to the aggregation of supported examinations and certifications (CA Assembly Bill 1306, 2013). The political movement is not alone in its transformative power; the MOOC is changing cultural attitudes toward the institution of higher education and its purpose, a change that could result in a cultural adoption of the MOOC as a viable alternative to or replacement of higher education (Thrift, 2013; Sandeen, 2013).  According to NYU Professor and New Media researcher Clay Shirky this is not a possible future (Bustillos, 2013) but a present reality:

…Udacity could go away next year and the damage is already done. Because there’s now a group of people willing to tell themselves a story about higher education that doesn’t use the same stockkeeping units as the University of Michigan. And if that becomes a wide general conversation, then we’re in for a period not of reengineering, but of reinvention.

While reinvention discussion focuses on the institution of higher education as a system, societal structures such as higher education have historically been viewed as elements of culture and community (Habermas, 1991), and a focus on the system itself ignores the political, historical and sociocultural repercussions of the system.  Focusing entirely on education as a system that needs fixing stands in stark contrast to the notion that education is a public good designed for the betterment of community as much as the betterment of self, replacing it with an idea that education is an individual gain to be provided and proportioned as so (Labaree, 1997).  Such discussion also assumes that education is in some way broken and needs fixing (Stewart, 2013). From this perspective, the MOOC represents the privatization of higher education and the removal of the institution from the public sphere and potentially the public good (Bady, 2013a).

Non-Web Citations:

AB 1306: Public postsecondary education: New University of California. (2013)
Bowers, J. & Christensen, C. (1995).  Disruptive technologies:  Catching the wave.  Harvard Business Review, 73(1), 43-53.
Habermas, J. (1991).  The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society.  Cambridge:  MIT Press.
Labaree, D. (1997).  Public goods, private goods:  The American struggle over educational goals.  American Educational Research Journal, 34(1), 39-81.
SB-520 Student instruction: California Online Student Access Platform. (2013)


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