A few weeks ago I was contacted by the managing editor at The EvoLLLution. He asked me to write two pieces for a special publication on the Internet and adult education. This article, an attempt to make sense of MOOCs, was originally posted to their site and crossposted with permission.
MOOCs are everywhere. They swarm and darken the sun. Those involved with education speak of them in tones hushed by dread (if they work for traditional institutions) or delight (if they wish to disrupt them). To hear them, talk, you would think MOOCs a surge rising up the seawall of some college citadel which it threatens to engulf and overwhelm.
But this dark vision of Massive Open Online Courses is a night terror, and, like all dreams, it follows the fantasy by eliding the facts. So let’s get specific. What, if anything, is new and different about MOOCs? What are their promises and perils for adult education?
Much of the buzz about MOOCs celebrates their Massive and Online aspects. But online courses, available at massive scale, aren’t anything new. The University of Phoenix enrolls over 400,000 students – more than the entire Big Ten – primarily through its online program. In fact, to the extent that “adult” education has come to mean something distinct from a “traditional” education, it usually refers to massive, online enrollment due primarily to the life constraints of the people who need it.
But what of the first “O” in MOOC? Isn’t one of the defining differences between, say, edX and University of Phoenix the fact that the first is open and the latter propriety? Well, it depends on what your definition of the word “open” is. As InsideHigherEd recently reported, all of the major MOOCs currently have restrictive terms of service compared to other “open” educational resources such as Wikipedia. Ian Bogost calls this “openwashing”: the practice of invoking a totemic word imbued with strong juju to appease apparently angry Internet gods.
For that matter, it’s not completely clear what the “C” – for “Course” – means in MOOCs. Are we talking about simply watching educational videos and reading papers? If so, then you can get just as good material for just as free in lots of places online (or, for that matter, at your public library). Perhaps they might design something more “interactive” to engage students? That might genuinely be a significant step forward, provided it can overcome the 97% attrition rate some early Udacity attempts have seen. But engaging interactivity remains a potential, not necessary or realized, condition.
The primary problem with the idea of Massive Open Online Courses, then, is that they aren’t meaningfully more “massive”, “open”, “online”, or “courses” than any of the other available adult education options.
So why all the hype over MOOCs? As Bogost has described: MOOCs are marketing. More specifically, starting or joining a MOOC consortium signals that a college “gets it”, “it” being an unarticulated but profoundly felt sense that the Internet will “disrupt” education. At the same time, the MOOC movement differentiates itself from operations like University of Phoenix primarily by its association with prestigious institutions like Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and UVA. In other words: fancy colleges join MOOCs because they are important; they are important because fancy colleges join them; they join them because they are important…and so on, and so forth, ascending from idea to reality via the bizarre bootstrap characteristic of self-fulfilling startups.
MOOCs are a hustle. But, with a few notable exceptions, they are a mostly harmless hustle. In fact, they might even be a good hustle, because they’re muscling in on the turf of one the worst hustles of all: the for-profit colleges which presently provide the bulk of adult education.
MOOCs may market themselves with some false pretenses, but for-profit colleges are scams all the way down. This language may seem strong but I believe that it is accurate. Sure, some people really do get decent educations through them, but, then again, some people really do get rich on Ponzi schemes. For-profit colleges enroll 12% of the nation’s students but produce 50% of its defaults while taking 75% of their money in the form of federal dollars. In 2010, 57% of students in for-profit schools dropped out while the CEO of one leading for-profit chain made $40 million. Meanwhile, the dysfunctional online curriculums are often no better than the worst of MOOCs, wrapping dull videos and readings in duller discussion forums.
Maybe MOOCs can’t compete with a interactive, interpersonal education offered by a quality brick-and-mortar institution. But they also don’t need to. They can, and should, compete with the existing online education alternatives available to adults. Because, especially for this market, the most significant word in MOOCs isn’t “massive”, “open”, “online”, or “course.” In fact, the most significant word isn’t even contained in the name.
That word is “free.” MOOCs can provide the liberty to learn as adults so often must. Without relocating. Without reorienting. Without unpaid, unpayable debt. If MOOCs can simply educate adults for zero cost as well as the expensive for-profit colleges upon which people presently rely, then their admittedly imperfect enterprise will still do real good in the world by chasing real evil from it.