MOOCs undermine the public higher education sector

“Nothing about our current Industrial Age education system, with its silo'd knowledge and emphasis on professionalism, is designed for adaptation to rapid change, interactive thinking, iterative process, or collaborative methodologies, all informed by deeply humanistic and social attention to such major issues as intellectual property, security, privacy, freedom, and even the definition of the ‘self’. Everyday life and everyday work brings most of us into constant contact with these issues. And education? Hardly at all.”

This is our current and sorry state of education according to Cathy N Davidson, professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University. She makes these assertions in an article intended to calm the storm swirling around MOOCs – massive open online courses – and the threat they pose to universities.

I've been following the MOOC hype and the most provocative information is coming from individuals and corporations invested in disruptive innovation. In education, the term describes technology that's shifting boundaries around various disciplines and epistemologies, creating new organising principles and shaking up the traditional academy as we know it.

Supporters like Davidson claim that MOOCs will redefine education and challenge long-held ideas about learning. The sage-on-the-stage will be replaced by the guide-on-the-side; professors at elite universities will be superstars in the system while the rest of us will become handmaidens of an academic process no longer conducted in real classrooms.

According to Robert Meister, president of the council of the University of California Faculty Associations, the promise of mass higher education is still in its too-good-to-be-true phase, a phase where flamboyant reports about its potential are appearing in the media in waves of reportage too insistent to ignore.

Much of it comprises advertorials written by Pearson executives or angry oedipals like Dean Florez, the former California state senator who is, with the blessing of venture capitalists there, intent on expediting legislation requiring universities like the University of California and the University of Southern California to grant credits for MOOCs administered by for-profits like Coursera.

It's curious, but the co-founders of Coursera – Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng – make lofty claims: they say they want to make higher education more accessible and fight income inequality in the process.

However, their flirtation with venture capitalism has blossomed into a full-blown affair and it's unlikely their ambitions will come to fruition. Planned or not, they are in bed with people who have very different goals, and making social change is not one of them.

Investors in Coursera will eventually demand a return and that means Koller and Ng will have to start charging for courses. To do that, they will have to offer clients something of value beyond a learning experience. That will come in the form of real or equivalent degrees.


So for now their courses are free, but the information they are collecting, via their user base, is what they are getting in exchange and is vital to their vision. As Meister explains, Coursera's business plan is similar to LinkedIn's.

It will amass a database of information – aggregated through the ‘free’ use of their service – which they will then rent back to users. For example, while joining LinkedIn is free and so is conducting a search, users now have to pay to see who has searched for them or pay for ‘in-mails’ to contact individuals outside their network.

It took a few years for the founders of LinkedIn to gather this data, but being patient paid off. They are now profiting from a large database of information that was given to them freely.

With Coursera, one strand of information that can be rented back to users comes in the form of pseudo-transcripts situated in an analytic landscape.

That landscape, comprising grids of grades of all students in institutions, in, let's say, southern California, can tell a potential employer that Student A has accomplished a level of achievement equal to a bachelor degree at three different universities in that region. The difference, of course, is that Student A hasn't actually gone to those universities.

However, given the legislation now being put forward, she may be able to demand accreditation from one or more of them based on Coursera's flimsy testing criteria and claims of equivalence.

So while Student A may not have a degree, she can claim to have a Coursera ‘bachelor level’ equivalent, which makes her more marketable: companies can hire a knowledgeable individual like her without having to pay her as much as a real graduate.

The result is that the degree system, of necessity based on scarcity, will be undermined; the private system will run parallel to the public one and will distribute other easily gained (or easily falsified) equivalencies.

If you have a flood of cheaper workers on the market who use Coursera's standards to claim degree-level proficiencies, how can genuine graduates compete?

A parallel system

This is the world Coursera and its clones are proposing, which means they will not be eradicating income inequality. Far from it: their parallel system will drive down the value of degrees and in the process exacerbate this inequality in a very efficient way.

California's capitulation to this privatisation will also have long-term consequences for public institutions; the profit made by companies like Coursera will go to shareholders and not back into a public system that desperately needs it.

However, the cost of maintaining the public system, which provides the framework for the private one, will continue to be supported by taxpayers.

While Meister is concerned by the corporate drive behind MOOCs, academics like Cathy Davidson are less so. Her comments at the beginning of this article are typical of MOOC supporters and reflect a belief that current forms of higher education are ineffective.

Davidson believes these forms fail at “interactive thinking, iterative processes” and “collaborative methodologies”, assertions many college instructors and professors, particularly those in the arts and humanities, can rightly take issue with: in my 23 years of teaching, I've used methodologies reflecting these skills and strategies and incorporated content at the same time.

Colleagues of mine are doing the same and our framework of competency-based learning is how I know. A few years ago many governments, including mine, demanded that teachers in the arts and humanities chart, describe and rationalise what students need to bring to courses and the outcomes they can hope to achieve.

This came about as a response to the perceived impracticality of the subjects we teach, and I'm glad to say that many superb thinkers met the challenge and gave government bodies, both in Canada and the US, what they wanted: what we teach and how we teach it has been detailed exhaustively and it turns out we artsy types are very creative when it comes to our jobs.

That Davidson has overlooked this body of work, which in its latest incarnation is considerable, makes me wonder just how much research she's actually done. It's a frustrating oversight that's hard to credit.

More importantly, however, Davidson and others like her are playing into the hands of corporate types who really appreciate divisive critiques like hers, a fact that should surprise no one.

Fighting over the role of technology in our work keeps us academics busy and prevents us from seeing the real problem: the erosion of our rights and roles in higher education.

* Irene Ogrizek teaches English literature at Dawson College in Montreal.