In his keynote at the recent Educase conference, Internet zealot Clay Shirky made the case that MOOCs are not provocative because they are massive, but because they are open—except they are not really that open.
So, I’m no big fan of Shirky’s fanatical obsession with Internet openness, but he’s right in this case. Still, it’s worth pointing out that there’s nothing particularly unique about MOOCs in their facility to be open or not to be open. Writing articles and books and publishing lectures online (on a website or on iTunes U or whatever)—these are practices no less able to be “open” or not to be compared to MOOCs or to anything else.
Generally speaking, it’s important to remember that “openness” is less often a virtue or even an activity than it is a declaration, a rhetorical framing, a kind of branding. It’s often used to make something appear open that isn’t (part of Shirky’s point), or to associate a product or domain with the spirit of openness. In this case, most things called “open” really aren’t, just as most things called “green” really aren’t. Some of us have been calling this openwashing”. Contemporary technology culture loves the idea of being “open” so much, it spreads the rhetorical ideal in place of the reality through the “opener than thou” logic of shame.
Incidentally, if we take openness to its logical extreme, you get two possible outcomes:
- Social welfare. This shouldn’t be a dirty word, it just means that things like education are public goods that should be funded and supported by governments and made available to everyone. That is absolutely NOT what is happening with MOOCs. MOOCs are private and corporate. Yes, even edX.
- Marketing. Calling something open is just a way of producing attention that can be converted back into financial instruments elsewhere. Writers of Shirky’s profile are experts in this domain—write articles and books in order to produce the opportunity for lucrative speaking gigs. Likewise, MOOCs produce attention that can be turned back into…well, nobody really knows yet.