Friday, November 29, 2013


At NeoAcademic, Professor Richard Landers  complains that MOOCs exploit students by using them to generate data (something that is standard in 'real courses' but also regulated by informed consent).

I find the word "exploit" in this context offensive. Suppose the MOOC leaders say upfront: "We will be asking you some questions and hope to use the data in our research studying XYZ. We hope you will also learn from these exercises. Mooc participants will also collaborate on creating an online archive of games." And then ask you to check a box before participating in the MOOC. I think this is sufficient informed consent.

The providers are offering something and I see no reason why they can't ask for something. No one (at least for now) has to take any MOOC. The university also offers something, and asks anywhere from $500 to $2500 per CREDIT. Most employers now mandate possession of a college degree even for jobs that do not require the capabilities acquired through college (and which can be gained in other ways). And in the U.S. the total student college debt exceeds $1 TRILLION. If we are looking around for something exploitive, why not start with university education.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

MOOCs and the Manufactured Crisis of Higher Education

Over at Slate, authors Christian and Calvin Exoo argue that MOOCs represent the entry of large, dominant corporations into the Education space. They paint Coursera, edX and Udacity as emerging giants - controlling education as Big Pharma and Big Oil now dominate their industries. 

The big MOOC firms claim to be responding to the problem of restricted access to higher education. But, the authors claim, the U.S. has no such problem - the MOOC firms are 'manufacturing' the problem through their press releases to blind us from reality. A huge percentage of kids, the authors counter, gain access to some form of higher education. The real problem, the authors state, lies in retention: kids drop out because they are unprepared for college and can't afford tuition. The solution they propose is adding lots of remedial services and extra financial aid around the margins for disadvantaged kids. These two steps could get a huge percentage through college. MOOCs provide neither financial aid or remediation, and hence offer nothing for the "real" crisis. 

Leaving beside edX's non-profit status and its decisive move to open source, and Udacity's apparent exit from the education market to concentrate on corporate training - which leaves only Coursera still standing as a large corporate entity in the MOOC education space, this analysis still seems wrong-headed.  

My response is that it is the authors, and not the MOOC firms, who are manufacturing a crisis.

The real crisis is not that too many kids fail to complete college - but rather that too many kids get forced into college because no other pathways to dignified work exist in our society. If we didn't make college a more or less compulsory job qualification - even for jobs that make no use of college related knowledge or skills - we wouldn't need to push these kids through college in the first place. Then they would not need all of these extra-ordinary measures to graduate.

Suppose we do get these kids through college. They will still be facing both a poor and contracting job market - especially for that fragment that needed even more remedial services and extra tuition help. And those kids would also still be burdened with huge debts, which will cripple them financially for life. These are the real crises, and the authors' solutions completely ignore them.

The real challenge is to envision and implement alternative pathways to the workplace. The promise of MOOCs lies in their providing one element in the educational mix aligned with these new pathways. The authors propose to push these kids through a college education. But the kids and their families only seek college education because it has been made into a compulsory qualification. The kids and their families, however, are being sold a bill of goods. There will be no college-level jobs waiting at the end of the compulsory college education. And the kids will end up deep in debt.

The alternative I envision gets these young people more rapidly into workplaces - as apprentices, interns, or small entrepreneurs - and provides the educational backup they need to progress in their work paths without taking on debt. In such arrangements, MOOCs will find one of their most important educational roles

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Peter Sloep says "No". I find his argument unconvincing. 

Sloep argues that third world higher education will shift from their own native universities to MOOC Learning Centers conveying contents from the West, shaped by corporate, rather than individual or public, interests.

There are two problems with his argument. 

First, there is no evidence provided that universities in developing countries are closing down - the key to Sloep's argument. Instead, many international students are supplementing their native educations with MOOCs, while many others are using them for continuing professional education - and some without access to existing agencies of higher education are using them to educate themselves. So the leading premise of Sloep's case seems false.

Second, Sloep ignores the corporate capture of conventional institutions of higher education. There is a huge literature on the topic Sheila Slaughter introduced a couple of decades ago under the rubric "Academic Capitalism". The idea that universities, even state operated universities, are run in the interests of their individual students, the public interest or the interests of the liberal state, has been entirely debunked with data across many countries. Slaughter and her co-workers have shown that on many dimensions of education, and across all classes of participants in universities, corporate interests now dominate and universities as organizations are mimicking corporate behaviors. The Idea that MOOCs represent a shift from the professional and scholar- run agencies to those of corporations serving their own narrow interests is as a result a non-starter.

Besides, new MOOC platforms such as provide all individuals and groups with the technical means to mount any courses they wish. Aggregation sites like open culture  are making MOOCs on all platforms readily accessible globally. No one platform - indeed, no one MOOC format - will dominate.

MOOCs as an institutional innovation are in the earliest stages of their development, and no one can predict how they will play out - there are simply too many causal forces at work. The democratising force of MOOCs is yet unknown. 

But one possibility is the exact reverse of what Sloep predicts - groups of scholars joining to provide a 'counter-education' to the one shaped in corporate interests - that is, an education shaped by communities of scholars and not by universities operating in the academic capitalist mode. The costs of entry will be low, and certifying agencies like ACE will lose all credibility if they discriminate against these MOOCs in favor of the corporate-dominated ones.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Student Recruitment as MOOC Business Model

The University of London has recently declared its MOOC business model a success. Is it really?

The University has offered 4 MOOCs to an unlimited number of students, and attracted 210,000 people from 160 countries. 

Barney Grainger, acadaemic project manager for University of London International Programmes, says: ". . .  we have received, at this point, 45 expressions of interest in our degree courses from students who have taken one of our MOOCs."

He adds: "The fact that there is a conversion from MOOC learning to seeking full degrees would indicate that our outlay on these MOOCs has, in fact, been justified. Our learning journey has commenced, and the MOOC business model can work," Grainger says.

 Let's see: 45 out of 210,000 = .000214, or 2.1 per 10,000. And we are only talking about leads, not conversions. No magazine subscription or mail order catalog campaign would call that rate of response a success.

But what is a success in MOOCville?

Let's first consider the Georgia Tech model, where the all MOOC masters degree program in computer science costs $7,000. 45 actual students (not 'requests for information) would generate $315,000 in revenues. Not much, but the marginal cost of the next student = $0. So much depends on scale-up.

Suppose instead these prospective students enroll in costly F2F on-campus programs with fixed costs already sunk, thus adding little marginal cost per student. According to one source, the average cost of a masters degree ranges from $28K to $38K. Taking the mean, those 45 students would now generate almost $1.5M.

What about the costs?

The cost of funding a dedicated University MOOC production studio has run upwards of $1M. And schools are now hiring MOOC production managers. The new one at Boston University, Romy Ruukel, came direct from edX after a decade at Harvard's Project Zero, so she didn't come cheap.

But some schools have made do with their own personnel and available production equipment valued at less than $2,500.

And then, there are the dedicated course production costs to consider. Talking head MOOCs aren't going to generate many requests for information about degree opportunities. Production values will have to be high - and that is costly.

Whatever the costs, once invested by an institution its MOOC production can be scaled up. A studio and production team that produces 4 MOOCs could produce 40. Universities carefully selecting their 'flagship' programs and adding a lot of sizzle could improve the rate of response. (A successful consulting practice could be built on the mail-order marketing model to assist universities in managing their MOOC-based marketing campaigns).

We will need a lot more information on rates of response and conversions, and total revenue from conversions, before we can assess student recruitment as a MOOC business model. But as the MOOC space expands and competition heats up, such information will probably be very closely held.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Opposition and Social Structure in Moocville

Over at Playable, DSKMAG comments on the oppositions constituting the social structure in MOOCville. Here is the account, lightly paraphrased.  

In the first generation of ed tech, people were represented but could not participate. The structure was built on polar oppositions - expert/audience, teacher/student, etc. But the new media world of web 2.0 challenges these oppositions. All of us can represent ourselves and participate in our own self-representations. We are no longer mere consumers of meanings but also their producers.

We can compare two emerging Internet structures. One is the structure of web celebrities and their audiences, the other is the structure of roughly equal distributed knowers and meaning producers. 

Sir Ken Robinson is a paradigm of the first. He is a media star, and his TED talk is a paradigm of the kind of media object which the rest of us can stand back and marvel at. We participate in his celebrity by absorbing and 'getting' his insights. Compare this with William Shatner or Kurt Sutter who engage with us one-to-one on Twitter. They understand the new power of media, while Robinson understands merely how to use media to grab power for himself. 

By emerging from the crowd, the Robinson types lose contact with web users and fail to pick up on the new cutting edge ideas constantly emerging out there. They come to believe too much in their own social authority, and over-rate their correctness. To put this another way, they come to think that knowledge resides in them, not in the network.

I am reminded here of a wonderful line from Picasso. In his famous interview with Christian Zervos, Picasso said "I never buy a picture from myself". He meant that he wasn't all that impressed with himself and his past processes or objects - rather he was tuned in to the world and the art world, and always moving on to the next thing.

The Ken Robinson's by contrast are perpetually buying pictures from themselves. 

xMOOCs, the article contends, constitute the entire human population as 'audiences' - as 'students' being served up "habituated content" by venture capitalists, Scientists, elite universities, and intellectuals. The students, once habituated to the new commodified knowledge forms, are then to be converted into potential paying customers of the next levels of 'education,' as e.g. students in Georgia Tech's Masters degree program, or the business schools of Temple or the University of Cincinnati. And the students are expected to be grateful - they are getting a 'second chance' - or a 'world class elite university course' as a philanthropic gift

xMOOCs, in short, perpetuate the cultural control of experts - those whose status is most threatened by the open access, distributed knowledge potential of web 2.0 and what I call 'education 2.0.' They convey the message that a 'real educational experience' - even for those liberating themselves from the hegemonic structures of schooling - is one provided by an institution - and ultimately at significant cost to the 'student'. In this model learners and knowers remain 'students' who control neither the processes or outcomes of their own learning. xMOOCs thus reproduce the structure of oppositions - expert/ novice and teacher/student and celebrity/audience - in the Internet culture which might undermine them. 

This is certainly a very probing analysis. I see McLuhan and Ivan Illich hovering in the background here. The xMOOC medium is the message.  And the message is that opportunities for learning are scarce. 

I would wish to soften this analysis somewhat. While we can all agree with Stephen Downes that knowledge is distributed and that networks - not their nodes - are the real sites of learning, and then accept that 'experts' and 'celebrities' cut themselves off from the flow of information and cutting edge insights, knowledge is nonetheless never distributed equally. There are people who have spent years on various topics and who are more discerning than most. While like Sutter or Shatner they can engage one-on-one with some of the ‘low rank’ people they cannot be expected to engage with very many of them, simply because of the limits that come with any form of celebrity (where celebrity by definition means having more people being attentive to you than you can attend to) – even the relative celebrity of the leaders and major participants in the Twitterverse and cMOOCs. 

So there is an overdrawn  ‘opposition’ in this account of oppositions in the MOOC space, the untenable opposition between spaces with oppositions and spaces without them. And far from necessarily re-imposing  the polar oppositions of the past, xMOOCs can be valuable tools for self-directed learning and not merely re-habituation into institutionalized, hierarchical forms of 'education.