MOOCs — Massive open online courses — are the latest Next Big Thing in education. Technology has made it cheap to reproduce and transmit information. The hope is that it can spread education far and wide.
The discussion of MOOCs reminds me of other technology discussions. Back in the early days of Web commercialisation, there was a lot of jostling and experimentation to try to figure out how to use the Web and make money from it. Some models boomed, some failed, and some limped. MOOCs look like the same sort of process — trying to figure out how to make a profitable mass education business model.
They also remind me of MP3. The analogue proponents say that compressed digital music doesn’t provide the quality that vinyl can. Listening to poor-quality songs from my smartphone, I know they are right. But then, I can’t carry around 1,568 songs on vinyl in my pocket. The criticism that MOOCs are providing poorer quality education — which is likely to be accurate — ignores that there are other considerations. Some people in some situations are willing to trade quality for convenience.
The criticisms of MOOCs seem to revolve around their commercial focus, which is just the latest fight over commercialisation of universities. This Lawyers Guns and Money post on US and UK universities discusses MOOCs as part of a larger discussion of
the commercialisation of academia and the erosion of academic freedom [which] are tightly interwoven.
In particular, critics are concerned about profiteering by the course providers and the rise of superprofessors — seeing MOOCs as ways to stroke the egos of people who are already successful while creating profits only for the companies involved.
These courses are revealing an important split in the role of universities — the production of new knowledge, which is expensive and time-consuming, and the dissemination of knowledge, which needn’t be. And that suggests the possibility of greater division of labour, which has historically made things less expensive and more available. These changes don’t tend to be (are never?) unequivocally good (or Pareto improving). This was Rousseau’s critique, as it was Marcuse’s, but people continue to buy the newer, cheaper stuff.
I am in the middle of some lecturing. I have two sections of about 250-300 students each. I pace about at the front of the lecture halls — purpose-built to have that many students — and talk them through basic statistics. I get the occasional comment or chuckle as feedback, but I’m not interacting with the students in any meaningful way. I could be performing in front of 300 or 3,000. They could be watching me in person or on-line.
These large lecture halls show that universities already recognise the efficiencies to be had in transmitting information. Universities are already mass-producing education, and students’ experiences are already inferior to mine of 25 years ago. MOOCs are not just a new technology that breaks with the past; they are also a continuation of it.