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To MOOC or Not to MOOC

MOOCs have become a media obsession. Why?

In part because they are the continuation of a story that has been around since at least the 1990s and the first days of magazines like Wired and Fast Company. At that time, information technology was depicted as part of a revolution: Marxist rhetoric had been appropriated by capitalism. Information technology would change everything through a peculiar mix of a corporate charge and evangelism, expanded profit opportunities and enlightenment.

I’d like to think that since then we’ve learned something. Information technology changes some things, for sure. But it doesn’t change everything.

After all, universities have produced a substantial body of research that argues that information technology is not an epochal economy-changing technology. Universities have also carried out a great deal of research that examines in detail what information technology changes and what it doesn’t, informed by minute ethnographic studies. Again, universities have produced a large body of research on how users are configured so that they suit the technology. And, of course, universities have produced a large body of research that actually led to the invention of the gadgets and codes and data that now populate the world. I could go on.

These sources must induce at least some suspicion about the wider claims concerning MOOCs, or massive open online courses. But little of this skepticism seems to have gotten through to the media front line. So, just recently, Thomas Friedman declares a “revolution” in The New York Times. And Gillian Tett predicts “dramatic disruption” in The Financial Times.

Why this obsession with MOOCs? First, because the MOOC model appeals to economic elites, like those who attended the overcrowded session on the future of online education at Davos this year. They are attracted to a sense of general beneficence with opportunities for profit in an economic environment where pretty well everyone is chasing limited opportunities for high returns. It is based on the idea that higher education is the next sector in line for the high-volume, low-margin information-technology treatment after finance, retail, and the media.

Second, because it taps into a vein of middle-class anger over tuition costs. No one can easily deny that higher education has become markedly more expensive for many of the constituency who expect to benefit most. There is a degree of resentment, and many middle-class parents see MOOCs, however they understand them, as a part of a push to flatten their costs for higher education.

Third, because in a time of austerity, nations are searching for ways of reducing higher-education spending, and MOOCs can look like a silver bullet, making it all so much easier to cut and still feel good about it.

Fourth, because all that said, as higher-education systems continue to grow in scale, it makes sense to look at ways of teaching more people more efficiently, and MOOCs may well be a part of the answer.

Whatever the motivation, the most appropriate advice might be to calm down. As so much academic research on generations of information technology has shown, MOOCs will change some things and not others. Bricks and mortar are not going to disappear, but information technology will continue to advance into the practice of higher education. My own university, Warwick, has just joined the FutureLearn MOOC. We are not doing it because we think that otherwise the university will go the way of all flesh. We are not doing it because we are in a panic about the competition. We are not doing it because we think that bucketloads of money are there to be made. We are doing it because we think MOOCs can become another generally benign way that universities can extend their influence and general visibility while realizing some of the benefits of university education for those who might not otherwise receive it.

What is forgotten in all the hubbub is that the financial models of most elite universities nowadays are not based primarily on educating undergraduates. Undergraduate education is undoubtedly central to what a university is, but it is generally a low-margin activity, when it isn’t being explicitly subsidized by endowments and other sources of income, and often makes up a relatively modest proportion of turnover compared with postgraduate education, research, and other sources of income. I suspect that the real issue for the future of most elite universities will be postgraduate education, which MOOCs  have less purchase on. Indeed, in the face of MOOCs and other similar developments, I suspect that the reaction of most elite universities will be to think even more carefully about any expansion of their online or offline undergraduate education.

Meanwhile,  nonelite universities will be caught up in a more general industrialization of higher education. In a previous blog, I called this “Big Ed,” and MOOCs will be one relatively small part.

And there is a historical irony about all this, too. Perhaps elite universities will end up going back to the future. Until recently, at elite English universities like Oxford and Cambridge, lectures were always optional. They were often thought to be incidental to an education based around the tutorial and self-directed reading. Examinations were based on students’ ability to read, and tutors would often say, “If you can read, there is no need to go to lectures.” Perhaps some universities will end up recreating this model but with a mixture of forms of learning, including a scattering of MOOC courses.

[Creative Commons Wikimedia graphic by JhonathanZamarchi]

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