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