Know your product: Is the MOOC the messiah or just a very naughty boy?

Where’s the professor?
We need him now!
Gonna tell you ’bout them
Yeah we take it all the way ’round the world
(The Saints – Know your product)

I have been bemused at the on-going howling and whooping about the seismic shifts cutting swathes through Higher Education.  It seems to me that there are two discrete things happening here; the desire to see change happen, led by people with the passion, enthusiasm and money and the equal desire to find quick fixes from the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Change is a complex beast at the best of times, I think simply because there is rarely change that is universally embraced nor equally applied or applicable.  Even in 2008 when Barack Obama won office in the US, the result was one of the polarised oppositions in the history of global politics, defending their turf with ever increasing fervour and even more outlandish claims.  MOOCs and all their multiple variations are one such seismic ‘shift’.  Even this week a consortium of UK universities got together and announced to the world that MOOCs represent a ‘Napster moment’ for Higher Education;

UK universities to launch free degree-style online courses

and

UK universities are wary of getting on board the mooc train

But what do MOOCs actually represent in this fractured, and some would argue broken university environment still reeling from increased fees, the changing skills requirements of employers in a high unemployment world and shrinking global boundaries between systems and institutions? It would easy to argue that they are the messiah, bringing with them a new era in open learning, connectivity and smashing the cobwebbed ivory towers of the academic establishment.  It would be equally easy to label them a fad, like the yo-yo or the billion hit success of Gangnam style (wop, wop, wop, gangnam style!).  And it would be a cop-out to say that their impact lies somewhere in the middle.


(Two Gangnam style parodies – One from Stanford University and the other from York university)

For what it’s worth, I think MOOCs represent just another apparent quick fix to the bleedingly obvious problems most universities are facing.  Rapid expansions, bigger is better and an increasing dependence on less academic staff doing more with much less have all taken their toll on the most basic business and educational practices required to be a functional organisation. Academic stress is at its highest levels in recent memory and has engendered a long-hours culture and significant issues with depression and mental illness (http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=6344).  In the view of both our political class and the tabloid press, universities are always in deficit, never meeting the requirements of any our constituents, requiring constant funding cuts and increased competition to drag us from our 18th century ivory towers. And then there is the MOOC.  Trendy, fashionable, supported and promoted by the top universities that are often spared the harshest of the impacts described above (at least publicly).  Why wouldn’t every university, private college and ma and pa show want in?  It must be as easy as pie to do a MOOC? Go on, do one now, I dare you!

 

But like most quick fixes, I argue that the MOOC idea is fundamentally flawed and risks futher de-stabilising already unstable institutions.  And to make my case I am going to make three (highly opinionated) arguments;

1. MOOCs are not a Napster moment

Napster was a platform to share music illegally.  It represented a kick in the arse by users who were tired of paying £15 for a CD that they already owned on vinyl, or being unable to find music by a band that a record company kept in the faults or refused to sign.  It was a rebellion; a punk act if you will (granted one that made Sean Fanning a rich man and have the distinct honour of portrayed by Justin Timberlake in a movie).  MOOCs are not led or run by the users.  They are not subverting the norm, just re-packaging it.  A more accurate analogy might be the move from vinyl to CD. And from that we had the highest record profits in history and then the greatest crash in revenues as users took control and democratised music, both in the production and distribution of it.

MOOCs are run by the establishment.  The user is simply grist for the mill; numbers to be held up as demonstrative of the great success of MOOCs in changing education forever.  The groundswell of user-led change stopped when MOOCs went commercial and the words ‘monetize’ and ‘consumers’ became part of the debate.  MOOCs are not Patti Smith or Siouxsie Sioux , they are Avril Lavigne.  They may look punk, dangerous and scary to your parents, but underneath they are still the mainstream masquerading as a rebel.

 2. The numbers game

I alluded to this in the first point.  Coursera has had nearly 2 million students enrol from over 196 countries.  Huge numbers! Game-changing numbers!! Participation in droves!!!  Their completion rate – between 7 and 8%.  Is it too blunt a point to say that if MOOC providers actually cared about learners then that kind of attrition should be horrifying to them?  Instead we hear all the right PR arguments about the reasons why people got involved, the desire to experiment and dip a toe in the water, and they are right, fair point.  Why shouldn’t HE encourage experimentation and engagement?  Of course it should.  And it used to do far more of it with continuing education programmes, community education and taster courses.  And almost exclusively they have been shut down, commercialised or sold-on, much to the detriment of an educated society.  So why are we talking in that language again? Do universities believe that we made a mistake by closing down our systems, fire-walling everything we did and making the whole thing user pays?  Without going all Mulder on you, I want to believe.  I really do.  But the Scully in me continues to have those nagging doubts about the altruistic intentions of MOOCs.

 3. What is this change thing anyway?

Good old Stephen Stills (I don’t say that often!).  When in Buffalo Springfield he sung this little couplet;

‘There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear’. 

What kind of change do MOOCs represent anyway? Are MOOCs the same old, same old; a very web 1.0 way of didactic instructionism and academic-centred content?  Alternately, the pragmatic solution to assessment within some MOOCs (at least on the surface) privileges the role of the peer and the community.  There is a building discourse around the superficiality of change seeded by or in response to technology in Higher Education. One where the institutional position is to keep the entire house the way it was, but to simply change the colours of the wall.  Whether this is through a lack of skill or mismatch between the understanding of the academy and the needs and skills of the learner, there is evidence that many e-learning projects have simply become lecture 2.0 or tutorial 2.0, without appropriate thought to changing the pedagogy (Blin & Munro 2008). A discussion forum where the lecturer simply poses a question and asks the learners to ‘discuss’ does not ground the interactions either vertically or horizontally (between learners, other learners and academics). Using YouTube instead of a VHS recording, allowing the VLE to act as a file repository or a way of replicating the classroom virtually ignores the obvious benefits that technology can bring to enhance pedagogy. Are MOOCs caught in this ‘deckchairs on the Titanic’ mentality?  Are they driven by a new pedagogy, wedded to the demands and behaviours of a new learner cohort?  Are they seeking to make new knowledge in emerging disciplines?  Are they really learning 2.0 or just another attempt to re-package what we have already with a few bonus tracks and a novelty toy?  Or are they McDonalds Happy Meal of Higher Education, the same burger, fries and Coke that we have been served up consistently and efficiently for decades, just with a different plastic toy and a newer, funkier box?

 

You might think, at the end of the day and this close to Christmas that perhaps all of this seems a little Grinch-like.  I argue that in most cases, for any real innovation to have significant and lasting impact, there needs to be a simplicity, a functionality and sometimes simply a sheer audacity to do what it says on the box, unafraid of the consequences.  The simplicity of making education more widely accessible is audacious in this time of austerity.  But what is missing for me is the reason why it needs to be done, aside from the ‘because we could do it’ solipsism.  Are learners demanding it?  By sheer numbers, yes they are.  Is a MOOC delivering what they want? Is it meeting their expectations? By the same sheer numbers, apparently not.

 

‘I’m just sitting in my chair when a voice comes on the air
Says “Why don’t you try it? You’ll feel alright!”
“It’s a great new brand of smokes
“Cool your head and clears your throat
“Keeps you young and so in touch.”

Said advertising, you’re lying
You’re never gonna give me what I want
I said smooth talking, brain washing
You’re never gonna get me what I need

(The Saints – Know your Product)


Thanks to all you who have read and commented on this blog in 2012.  I have been humbled by your interest and your engagement.  I will be back in 2013 with more thoughts and ideas, more music and perhaps even a mix-tape or two.  But in the meantime, if you are for something to keep you entertained over the holidays, check out my Australian music podcast called ‘Wide Open Road’ right here

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