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Speculative Diction

Following the herd, or joining the merry MOOCscapades of higher-ed bloggers


For those who follow the higher education news, the week of July 16th to 22nd will stand out as one in which the term “MOOC” (Massive Open Online Courses, for the uninitiated) hit a high point as the “higher-ed buzzword of the year”. Unwitting readers have been swept up by a tidal wave of MOOC rhetoric, finding themselves clobbered with dubious metaphors of uncontrollable, inevitable force; they have seen the rhetorical dial turned up to 11, moving beyond the level of “game-changer” and “disruption” and into the realm of the “revolutionary” and even the seismological.

One of the reasons I haven’t written about online education and the storm of MOOC commentary is that so many others have already provided excellent critical analyses, including Bonnie Stewart (who’s written multiple MOOC posts and who helpfully coined the term “MOOCopalypse”), Lee Skallerup Bessette, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and Johann Neem. Thus my own modest contribution is more of a compendium of themes and articles for your reference, along with a few of my own small, nebulous cogitations on all this hubbub. Because of my lack of experience with MOOCs, I’ve been focused mostly on what is being said about them–and in what context–rather than whether I think it’s credible (though you may notice a hint of skepticism).

There are a number of discursive themes at work in the commentary about online postsecondary education (PSE) and, most recently, about MOOCs in particular, and the first and most obvious would be the strong thread of technological determinism, often in the form of rhapsodic talk about online education (for example that provided by Bill Gates and friends on a regular basis).

One of the main riffs in this old song is the prediction of immanentdisruption, accompanied by the assertion that universities “must” change or they will be left in the dust; Harvard’s Clayton M. Christensen is one of the central figures in this disruptive innovation movement. Of course, technological utopianism is nothing new–and historical context should be one means of grounding our understanding of these latest trends. For example, the significance of the Internet is often couched in a comparison to the printing press from the 15th century–but this is a flawed comparison if we consider the origins of the Internet, its political economy, and the nature of its infrastructure.

Technological disruption and change are given more urgency when we see various economic arguments invoked, including (especially) the creation of coveted economies of scale for educational institutions that are also grappling with the rising costs of competing in a higher-ed market. At a time when government support for higher education is generally stagnant or insufficient to cover increasing enrolments, students and families are also feeling the pressure of increased costs in PSE as tuition balloons, debt levels rise, and post-graduation jobs remain elusive. It’s in this context that we find entrepreneur Peter Thiel–who has two degrees from Stanford–telling entrepreneurial youngsters that they’re better off dropping out and getting an education on their own (and going so far as to put his money where his mouth is).

“Disruption” is portrayed as a means of breaking up the monopoly of the university (through technology). Over 60 years ago, Canadian scholar Harold Innis wrote about monopolies of knowledge and the roles of new (communication) technologies in “disrupting” them. This analysis hasn’t been mentioned in a single article I’ve read about universities and new technology, and yet Innis’s points seem more vital today than many of the hackneyed arguments we’ve seen recently. The university’s core position in a knowledge monopoly still based on print technology is being destabilized from multiple sides over a long period; we can see this not only with online education but also with the “open access” debate around academic publishing, the latter being a core generator of transferable prestige and influence.

Another key part of the radical overhaul (or destruction) of the university is to be the literal displacement of education, not only or even solely for accessibility but also for purposes of convenience and commodification. Since the close relationship between privilege and physicalplace must be “disrupted”, the sense of the Internet as both a bridge across spaces and a space unto itself is an unspoken assumption in these arguments. The desire to “free” the university from its constraints in place and time is also a desire to duplicate the process that has happened with information, and the “information/knowledge” conflation seems to run parallel to the “content delivery/education” one. Johann Neem links the assumedly dis-placing nature of online education to an individualist fallacy that is being reinscribed in much of the rhetoric about MOOCs, even as the initial idea from which the “MOOC” term sprang was a connectivist one.

The conflation of information and knowledge is reflected in the metaphor of “delivery” appears frequently in articles about online education, for example when Jeb Bush and Jim Hunt argue that “how [universities] deliver quality education to the millions of students who depend on them will determine whether our country will continue to be a global economic leader”. Education, unlike a piece of furniture or the daily mail, cannot be “delivered” in this sense. Yet we hear this language on a daily basis in the higher education news.

It seems to me that an implicit form of standardization would be another outcome of the information/knowledge conflation. In an ironic merger of meritocratic ideals from both market-based and academic logics, we now see the argument that just a few–or rather “the best”–professors might be able to produce “content” that could be consumed by ever-larger online audiences for free. But in what way would this change the current dynamic in the higher ed landscape, wherein the prestige of certain types of institutions already dominate? These universities are now seeking to build on and expand their “brands” through online education initiatives, furthering their already substantial reach with technological tools. At the root of any acceptance of this strategy is an assumption that the current elite universities (and professors) are elite because they are simply the most excellent–not because of global historical, political-economic contexts that may have enabled them to be so.

If “knowledge” can be delivered with efficiency by technology and a few superstar professors, then it’s also rational to obviate the existence of most faculty through showing that learning can occur without their help–or at least to demonstrate that their presence is optional and to minimize/standardize their role through out sourcing of teaching (which could be seen as a logical extension of the current fragmentation of academic work). The argument here is that universities’ productivity hasn’t increased because of the burden of cost presented by these superfluous faculty, with their inconvenient demand for professional salaries and full-time, long-term employment.

Clearly a central theme in the most extreme commentary about online education is the apparent failure of the university itself, soon to be made final through the triumph of technological “openness” over the “closed”, elite academic world (although ironically quite a bit of the hype is now being generated by the above-mentioned elite universities). Indeed the goal is not just to change or “disrupt” higher education but to find the ammunition to shoot it to death. Universities, one could extrapolate, are useless for preparing students for the “real world”, and what they do provide comes at too high a price. In response to our turbulent times, the university is usually seen to be changing too slowly, or not at all. The example of lecture format is often used as an example of this lack of “innovation”, even though oft-cited video lectures are simply a recorded form of the same methods. Online education (often narrowly conceived) has to be shown to be better, more effective, more flexible.

So what does this fantasy tell us about the view of (university) education bandied about in the press and in public discussion?

The logic that is being used to justify the development and adoption of online education is part of the context of neoliberal politics and policy. Signs of this context include the emphasis on cost reduction; demands for efficiency and productivity including more “flexibility” from workers (faculty) and better “delivery” of the educational goods; the eager expectation of unlimited markets in educational products and services; and the commodification of knowledge. The strong emphasis on economic concerns shows that as usual, the grammar of inevitable change is being mobilized for particular purposes; as Bonnie Stewart points out, “We need to begin talking about the interests that determine the specific shape of particular MOOCs as they emerge” rather than assuming that the concept is neutral and means the same thing to everyone.

Why does all this matter? While it may seem like a lot of bluster, the potential effect on governance (probably more as catalyst than cause) is already evident. We have real-life examples of the push for a narrow vision of competitive change, including of course the much-cited case of the University of Virginia in the U.S. The disruption discourse has drifted northward to Canada where it is starting to be invoked not only in media coverage but also in the production of real policy goals and visions for change to Canada’s PSE systems.

We can, in fact I think we must, resist this rhetoric and its conveniently simplified overtures. As Cathy Davidson argues, it’s possible to be “infuriated by the erosion of the taxpayer support for higher education, its commercialization, and the profiteering, and still embrace the most inventive aspects of the most creative and humanitarian MOOCs”. Clearly in the context I’ve described, there are reasons why the MOOC idea is catching fire. We need to make sure we–and our policy-makers and politicians–keep those reasons in mind when assessing the potential effects of decisions about education and technology.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Mike / August 1, 2012 at 08:36

    Excellent piece, Melonie. I think your focus on the political economy of MOOCs is astute, and as this is my first encounter with this topic, and I found it strange that there doesn’t appear to be a strong pedagogical line of arguments here.

    Time and time again we’ve seen attempts to create economies of scale in PSE simply dilute quality of education or the experience, so remaining sceptical seems prudent. Going back a millennium+, universities have mostly been conservative institutions that built on the association of students and teachers. This historical relationship is its foundation, not knowledge itself, so I laugh when I read things like the assertion that “universities ‘must’ change or they will be left in the dust.”

    If anything, recent history has hinted that survival may mean providing value by going back to a university’s pedagogical roots, and concentrating on the intimate (if occasionally mediated) relationship between professor and student.

  2. Herbert Pimlott / August 1, 2012 at 21:19

    This is an excellent column which is both a useful introduction (with links) and identifies aspects of the ‘push’ behind the ‘MOOC’ move (or campaign?). It is also timely particularly given the Ontario government’s headlong rush (or ‘push’ – or is it being ‘pushed’ and by whom?) into ‘reforming’ universities.

    What neither senior administrators nor provincial or federal government ministers appear to grasp is that faculty are not “knowledge transmitters” but, in conjunction with (or without) students, “knowledge producers”, which as Ian Angus (2009) argues, is a key factor in distinguishing university from college teaching.

    I would also add that, as a communications scholar, one is always aware that each new wave of communications or information technology did not remove or erase earlier media forms or even their uses; indeed, sometimes they even enhanced older forms of media through encouraging specialized or other uses.

    Unfortunately, most (perhaps, all?) of those interested in pushing ‘MOOC’ and related neoliberal policies are not really interested in whether this will enhance learning, but whether it will remove faculty input and collegial governance in the university as part of the further corporatization of the university.

    Technology is not the same as teaching: students are not some kind of ‘tabula rasa’ into which faculty ‘inject’ ‘knowledge’ or ‘information’; nor is it an answer to student ‘disengagement’; nor are professors responsible for the lack of jobs provided by the private sectors. The pundits write columns that evoke stereotypes that are closer to the 1930s or 1940s (if they were even true then?!), or reflect their own experience of a university decades earlier, while ignoring the substantial changes that have taken place in any university (in the English-speaking countries at least) since the late 1980s.

    Perhaps, when focusing on economic issues, policy makers and pundits might actually focus on how the economy works rather than relying on caricatures and stereotypes as fodder for their policies and columns.

    But, of course, the one thing missing from your column is a list of those individuals, think tanks, financiers, politicians and CEOs behind the latest campaign to ‘reform’ the university and what is in it for them.

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