Confronting MOOCs – Reflections on hyperbole and elitism

A recent paper I produced for my graduate course on Comparative Education last fall focused on higher education systems in India and the United States, specifically centered around the rise of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). I have been following this trend for most of 2013 which was why I chose to write about it, but looking back I do feel like I lauded much praise on the hyperbole-laden, media-driven blitz of a “revolutionary moment” in higher education history. An excerpt from my paper:

“In many ways, MOOCs represent an existential threat to those in traditional, location-based academic institutions; the very nature of MOOCs dismantle the agreed-upon roles and responsibilities of  teachers, students, classrooms,  and learning outcomes. “

In retrospect, the above statement is a bit overblown, as most MOOCs still rely heavily on the teacher-to-student “banking” model pedagogy. But the crux of my argument was around the democratization aspect of what a MOOC fundamentally can represent – an epistemological shift in how people learn:

“Consumption and production of knowledge has shifted from the hands of the elite few to the outstretched arms of the masses.”

Where I could (and should have) focused my paper, had it not been a comparative study, would have been around the value of higher education. The below explains the questions I raised, which were not fully explored nor answered during my research:

The bulk of the research and data on MOOCs in the United States (which is growing on a daily basis) is problem-posing, inasmuch that the perceived value of online education is still highly contested and lacks clear goals or consensus from those involved in its production. While The New York Times proclaimed this year “The Year of the MOOC”, epistemological concerns abound. One journalist from the Washington Post writes, “Are [MOOCs] undercutting a time-tested financial model that relies on students willing to pay a high price for a degree from a prestigious institution? Or are they accelerating the onset of a democratized, globalized version of higher education?” (Anderson, 2012).  The media tend to skew the argument by focusing on the “democratization” of higher education – or, put bluntly, the Achilles’ heel of the elite institutions, who offer the same courses but at a much higher price tag.  Another author puts it more simply: “MOOCs have become a flashpoint for discussion of higher education because they represent an easily graspable, almost parodic version of what was previously invisible: elite university education.” (Byerly, 2012) The jury is still out on what the real, true value of MOOCs is in the United States. It’s clear the partnerships formed between MOOCs and American higher education institutions represent a shared vision of dispensing and distributing knowledge en masse, but for what purpose and with what goals?

These concerns are still valid. I fear that most of the media discourse is fixed plainly on the business model of higher education, (using human capital theory as its foundation) rather than a more precise, epistemological confrontation of elitism in education. With politicians and the media stumping around the issue of jobs and a weak economy, when it comes to the the higher education “crisis”, it seems natural that they avoid the deeper issues, since that won’t necessarily lead to an increase in pageviews, ratings, or voter constituencies. Does this conversation only happen within the confines of academe and those that write about the academe? What about the students’ points of view? They also seem largely absent.

I am going to withhold future commentary on the MOOC mess. In the meantime, some further reading on the topic that I found useful, that attempts a more holistic viewpoint, is below:

Making the Most of MOOCs (Inside Higher Ed)
To MOOC or Not To MOOC (Chronicle)
A MOOC Article a Day: Three Themes to Watch

Response to The Cost of College in the New Yorker Magazine

An old post meant for May, but posted in December, in response to Nick Lemann’s New Yorker article on the cost of college :

It’s common knowledge these days that student loan debt has soared past credit card debt in the United States, and Romney and Obama have drawn their lines in the sand about the cost of college and each man’s plan to fix it. The problem is that Mr Lemann’s argument –  government should continue to “pump” money into the system to “spread opportunity more widely”, a “small price to pay” for long term gains in society – implies that the system will figure itself out as if it has two eyes and a head. Those running elite institutions (like the ones Mr Obama and Romney attended) will continue to function as elite, with endowments and governmental grants that have protected nonprofit schools from faltering along with their moneyed, status-driven alumni and celebrity rankings. But he mentions that “the system is built to take in just about all high school graduates” , which is a false assumption. Harvard and all want-to-be Harvards vie for top spots in the national rankings which are geared towards exclusivity and unattainable statuses. State colleges are no better- the CSU system has failed to accommodate its rise in yearly applications and has cut funding so much that it will deny more students than ever. And what about all the high school graduates who are well beyond college years who seek an education? There’s community college, which is also plagued by capacity problems. Any hard look at the current system will reveal that it is not focused educating the masses, but rather those with deep pockets, or in recent years, international students with even deeper pockets. Democracy in education is not a dream for the incumbent institutions, indeed, but rather a nightmare.

Alternative Education and Cal State: Student Tug-of-War

Admittedly, I am not too well-versed in my own state’s higher education policy nor its issues, but the recent news about Cal State’s “beta” test to roll out online education as an alternative to the swollen, funding-deficient bellies of its current classrooms piqued my interest. Given that Cal State is the largest university system in the US, it behooves me to see what all the fuss is about.

According to the news, Cal Sate is exploring an online version of itself, called Cal State Online, which allows students to enroll in existing and to-be-created online courses that will eventually serve over 250,000 students in the coming decades.

Some faculty – especially unionized ones – are up in arms about the platform, predicting it will “harm” its current bricks-and-mortar institutions and the students they serve, by undercutting funding and undermining its traditional teaching methods. Not surprised, faculty! But how about the harm imposed on all the students you don’t serve, whom can ultimately benefit from having a college education when they otherwise would have nothing?

The nutshell here is that Cal State is having a capacity problem, and the online learning solution could fix that problem – and educate hundreds of thousands of students that would otherwise be nonconsumers – yet, the underlying issue is the perceivable, widening gap between the “haves and the have-nots” in academe. Rich? Go to your campus! Poor? Go to your computer!

And what about the transfer students? Over 1/3 of all students enrolled in higher education institutions have transferred (and many from a four to a two-year institution, counterintuitive to what most would assume) The majority of students are transferring due to economic reasons, so an online school would be a great way to get them on track with a standardized curriculum. Preparing them for the change while ensuring quality programs is what Cal State seems to have in mind – they’re not outsourcing the content to for-profits or other providers, which could be problematic – so let’s say for today’s match, I’m for Team Cal State Online.