So I just finished a brief radio appearance (CBC) on the subject of Massive Open, Online Courses (MOOCs). The main guest was George Siemens who, with Stephen Downes, helped pioneer these courses in Canada. Even though all of the press coverage has gone to the competing Stanford edu-preneurs behind Coursera and Udacity, Siemens and Downes have done much of the most important work, theoretical and practical, distinguishing between good and bad MOOC’s.
At the heart of the work of Siemens and Downes is connectedness. Both have written importantly about the social character of learning, the way that actual learning means entering a community of persons asking tough questions, with a shared passion, etc. Relatedly, both insist that knowledge is not “a thing to be acquired,” but an activity. As any working researcher knows, academic, professional, medical, industrial, and pharmaceutical knowledge doesn’t stand still–it moves with the community of researchers, with vortices of conflict, ebb tides, and occasional tsunamis of unreason.
Good MOOC’s, in their view, foreground and sustain the social dimension of learning and active practices, i.e., knowledge production rather than knowledge consumption. To a limited extent, certain experiments in MOOC’s that foreground social media participation over “content mastery” realize some of the ideals of Siemen and Downes.
So what’s the rub? Well, the good intentions and featured best practices of Siemens and Downes exist in political and institutional realities. If institutions really wanted to sustain participatory learning, they would already be doing so, for instance, by reducing lectures and high-stakes testing, investing in teaching-intensive faculty and the like. Instead, driven less by cost concerns than a desire to standardize and control both faculty and curriculum, administrations rely more than ever on lectures and tests.
It’s hard to imagine that an education vendor, particularly one driven by profit, will do more than use Siemens’s and Downes’s excellent, sincere efforts as a tissue-paper justification for passing off cheap “social media opportunities” as a substitute for sustained interaction with working professional academics. Like their bricks-and-mortar counterparts, not to mention the community colleges and distance vendors they’re competing with, the heart of Coursera will be in lectures and tests.
Insofar as accumulation is the goal (either in the form of profit or endowment): bad MOOC’s will use all the worst aspects of contemporary “teaching” (lectures, tests, and a division of labor), just on a larger scale that includes less oversight, globalization, and aggressively tiered quality differentiation of subordinated tasks such as tutoring, discussion leadership, and grading.
This will be driven by the business model of operations like Coursera, which unlike its competitors doesn’t generate proprietary content. Its sole contribution is to drive consumers into its partners’ courses in exchange for 85 to 90 percent of the revenue. (Universities, which have been scorched repeatedly in trying to develop for-profit online course content, find it easy to sign up with Coursera because they aren’t putting up any cash.)
However the venture capitalists who have poured at least $20-million into the 20-person Coursera storefront must be impatient for these revenue streams to get settled. So far they’re considering the following:
a) Charging for certification and testing. The learning might be free–because one virtue of massiveness for capital accumulation is the contribution of many learners to others’ learning. But if you want to be tested for “content mastery” (and not incidentally buy the cultural capital of the elite brand) you have to pay. This revenue stream clearly presses toward the automated lecture/testing/machine-scoring model, with as much crowdsourcing of free peer teaching assistance as the students are willing to donate.
b) Vending of tutorial services, translations, facilitation of small-group discussion and peer learning, etc. This revenue stream turns Coursera into a labor contractor, substituting its labor for the university’s army of graduate students, full-time staff, and certain full-time instructors in certain fields, as well as undergraduate tutors. Coursera would cheaply source the labor from impoverished populations globally, but lose the crucial advantage of graduate students’ and faculty’s self-discounted wage, i.e., teaching for love.
c) Direct tuition for courses or clusters of courses in relation to certification, standard distance-ed practice, just with the new midscale Coursera brand. This may be the ultimate future of Coursera, as a midscale brand to compete with the downscale operations currently making a fortune out of distance ed.
All of the cultural-capital conversations surrounding Coursera’s launch-year associations with prestige brands will eventually run into the realities than any luxury brand run into: exclusivity depends on exclusion. When you massify the Best Western franchise, you have to create tiers such as Best Western Plus and then Best Western Premier to keep your markets straight.
Harvard and MIT, for instance are trying to have their brand cake and dilute it too by branding their Edx courses as the product of “Harvardx” and “MITx.”
d) Miscellaneous revenue sources, like advertising and employment-service revenue from job seekers and potential employers. Probably more revenue in the latter than the former.