My colleague Mark Guzdial argues that MOOCs are a fundamental misperception of how learning works. In the post, Mark argues that MOOCs misconstrue educational practice, mistaking lectures and rote-exercises for the central activities of classes in higher education.
Reading Mark’s post I found myself reflecting on a seemingly unrelated article I read yesterday, Peer-to-Peer Hucksterism: An Open Letter to Tim Wu.
This second article is Tom Slee’s response to Tim Wu’s opinion piece about regulation and services like Airbnb and Uber. If you haven’t been following that story, there’s been something of a crackdown on those two “startup darlings” because they’re steering around regulatory practices for transportation and lodging services. Slee calls Wu on supporting these practices in the name of “progress” or “community,” when in fact regulation exists for a reason, that these companies are acting irresponsibly or criminally in ignoring them, and that they are doing so wantonly in the pursuit of personal wealth while only pretending to care about the public interest in order to develop that financial value. Thus what we really find in such services is “hucksterism masquerading as progress,” according to Slee.
The lesson here is not just about those two companies, but even broader: that most tech companies use the rhetoric of inclusiveness, openness, progress, etc. to hide their actual aim, which is simple financial speculation pursued for the potentially immense gain of the very few at the cost of the many.
Returning to Mark’s comments on MOOCs: isn’t it time to admit that MOOC providers don’t primarily care about “how learning works?” Rather, they are interested in motivating the idea of corporatized, maximally efficient course-like activities as expanded access to education as a cover for their real aim, which is just financial speculation—the same kind of hucksterism Slee identifies in startups like Airbnb. The fact that two of the major players in MOOCville are private, VC-funded silicon valley companies co-founded by Stanford professors who’ve quit their university jobs should offer plain and obvious evidence of what’s really going on. Or, as I was recently quoted an article about MOOCs in Times Higher Education, “The purpose of a for-profit that is venture-backed in Silicon Valley is to grow as quickly as possible and to exit providing a considerable financial benefit for its investors—and that goal may not be compatible with education.”
Thus, the really traumatic lesson to me is that all of the rational arguments by Mark and others about the educational downsides of MOOCs really don’t matter, because MOOC providers don’t actually care about education anyway. They’re merely using education as a cover story, as the latest “industry ripe for disruption.” Just as Google hasn’t necessarily provided a better version of journalism but simply a more centralized, leveraged, and privately beneficial one, so Coursera won’t necessarily do so for education either. In fact, success for MOOCs doesn’t require better education. All it requires is fungibility.