Last week, the Council of University of California Faculty Associations (CUCFA) president Robert Meister sent an open letter entitled “Can Venture Capital Deliver on the Promise of the Public University?” to MOOC provider Coursera’s CEO, Daphne Koller. The CUCFA has published the letter, which is sly, scathing, and deeply entertaining whether no matter where you locate your opinions on the topic of MOOCs.

There’s much to say about Meister’s letter, and I may say more in time. For now, I just wanted to pick out one small element of it. The conceit of the letter is Meister’s backhanded invitation to teach a Coursera course called “The Implications of Coursera’s For-Profit Business Model for Global Public Education” (read the letter for the upshot of that gag). But in a postscript at the end, Meister writes:

PS: Would you be willing to co-teach this course with me? I’m sure that together we could reach a very large audience indeed.

I’m sure Meister meant this as the snide invitation to a calamity that it reads like, but it made me think about something only tangentially related: given that platforms like Coursera and Udacity are owned and operated as closed, managed systems, how long until we begin to see Apple App Store-style rejections of proposed courses?

After all, it strikes me that Coursera would be very unlikely to allow Meister to teach “The Implications of Coursera’s For-Profit Business Model,” even though the class as outlined is completely viable. And if you consider the fact that it is not at all difficult to imagine that course being taught at UC Santa Cruz (where Meister teaches), the notion becomes less a notion and more an eventuality.

At this point, all of Coursera’s courses are carefully curated from sources known to be trustworthy and “on board.” But over time, that will become impractical. If private organizations like Coursera and Udacity (and even public/private counterparts like EdX) succeed in achieving their stated mission, if they establish a platform that can reach a large audience with the new kind of “course” that a MOOC represents, then there’s good reason to think that those organizations will tightly limit the properties of the courses they allow to reach that audience—including its subject matter and the types of faculty who would teach them.

Is it hard to imagine a Coursera version of Apple’s now-infamous App Store restrictions that seem to limit the speech considered “valid” in app form? Here’s what it might look like:

We view MOOCs different than books or traditional courses, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a business practice or industry, write a book. If you want to describe sex or capitalism, write an article or an op-ed, or pursue a research grant. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content on Coursera.

Of course, many citizens already think “ideology” runs amok on college campuses; they would probably celebrate such a “control” mechanism for courses, in which only the immediate preferences of the most conservative, market-supported activities are granted validity. But if you reflect on the way corporate walled gardens are affecting the distribution of cultural forms more generally, the creation of these hypothetical but incredibly likely walled kindergartens (if you’ll forgive me the pun) should weigh heavily on your brain.

published May 14, 2013