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In my opinion

Moving beyond a binary view of MOOCs

Understanding MOOCs as a battle between marketization and traditional higher education blocks us from envisioning other viable futures for higher education.


In the ongoing buzz and backlash around MOOCs (massive open online courses) clogging higher education news these days, the narratives are hardening. Dialogue around change in higher education increasingly centres on the illusion of a simple divide: the business model of disruption vs. the status quo of college, idealized. One side heralds revolution and increased democratic access to education: a glorious future, largely defined in corporate terms. The other side, unswayed by business jargon, defends its historical territory by painting MOOCs as corporate behemoths of privatization and bad online pedagogy.

There’s truth on both sides. But taken up as the two poles of a binary horizon, these narratives stifle vision. They incline us to understand the big picture around MOOCs – and whatever follows MOOCs in the flavor of the month parade – as one of marketization vs. traditional institutional education, full-stop. That binary stands in the way of envisioning viable alternate futures for higher education.

The inheritance of public education

Literary theorist Stanley Fish wrote in 2009 that “higher education, properly understood” was “distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world.” Many of us within academia have been raised and trained within this belief: it is the centerpiece of the idea of public education as a good unto itself. It manifested for more than a generation in what Stanford researchers in the ’70s called “the New Institutionalism” – a world wherein education’s organizational structure was understood to place it firmly “beyond the grip of market forces.”

To those of us who share Dr. Fish’s perspective on academe, the MOOC market hype about revolution and business model disruption can feel a lot like having a proud inheritance hustled out from under us. For-profit MOOCs threaten deprofessionalization and the unbundling of a complex system that goes far beyond mere content delivery. Add to that the end-times tone of inevitability that surrounds MOOC evangelism, and the logical response often appears to be a blanket defense of everything MOOCs are not.

Enter the networks

But, when we talk about the future of higher ed in terms of marketization vs. the status quo, we are responding to a reductionist game with reductionism of our own. Markets and metrics are not the only forces driving change in the academy.

Yes, tuitions and student debt are ever on the rise, while public funding plummets. But the traditional role of the university is shifting as well. In an era of Google and Wikipedia, the cultural shift towards knowledge abundance, connection and networked participation creates its own pressures on hierarchical systems of all kinds.

Not all MOOCs are market-driven

Early MOOCs were actually networked (and Canadian!). Begun in 2008 when George Siemens and Stephen Downes opened up their University of Manitoba course to an eventual 2,300 registrants, the first MOOCs were grassroots efforts, focused on building open networks of knowledge and collaboration. Experimental learning experiences rather than business ventures, these versions of MOOCs continue in efforts like the very successful #etmooc – a MOOC on educational technology and media – coordinated by a team of volunteers and led by Alec Couros and MHRD graduate Alison Seaman of the University of Regina this past winter.

A 10-week open, hands-on exploration of both ideas and tools, #etmooc encouraged participants to engage not just with educational technologies but with each others’ reflections and ideas. This community as curriculum model focuses less on content mastery than on the generation of network ties and emergent knowledge. The #etmooc project drew interest from more than 1,900 professionals from various fields and worldwide locales: two months after the course’s end, some participants still gather in reading groups and weekly Twitter discussions. This is higher education as participatory culture.

The defense of the higher education status quo is regularly grounded in the idea that a face-to-face university experience offers personal connection and mentorship and richness that cannot be accessed online. In online experiences focused simply on markets and massiveness, minimizing learner participation, this may be the case. But connection and mentorship are possible in participatory online spaces; so is higher learning as Stanley Fish defined it. The #etmooc is an example of such open, exploratory inquiry; experimental pedagogy giving learners a hands-on opportunity to rethink and reach beyond institutional models of education.

The for-profit MOOC model, on the other hand, is a top-down model that preserves control within the hierarchies of the traditional higher education system, but for the overt benefit of investors. The question for higher education at this juncture, then, shouldn’t be which version of the pre-network status quo we want to keep, but how we adapt and change in ways that honour both the values of traditional public education and new practices and ways of knowing.

Open to the future

Insisting we revert to Stanley Fish’s version of higher education won’t actually preserve it. It won’t resist the corporatization of education. It won’t bring back public funding, nor alter the trajectory towards flexible, open, networked learning opportunities f like those that #etmooc provided for participants. We need new narratives that stretch beyond the binary of privatization vs. the public status quo.

MOOCs are a symptom of change in higher education, not its source. The market forces that have systematically dismantled the institutional model of education as we once knew it didn’t create all MOOCs. And MOOCs will not be where they stop.

So if we are to envision a future for higher education that values more than the bottom line, we need to get beyond the illusion of the simple divide between markets and education as we’ve known it. If we close ourselves off to the possibilities of open, online learning, it’s not marketization we undermine, but our own capacity to experiment with new models for higher education.

Bonnie Stewart is a writer, educator and researcher fascinated by who we are when we’re online. A PhD candidate and lecturer in the University of Prince Edward Island’s faculty of education, Bonnie has spent the past 15 years exploring the intersections of knowledge and technology.

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