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On June 14-15, 2013, the LA Review of Books hosted a two-part roundtable on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS). Participants included me, Cathy N. Davidson, Al Filreis, and Ray Schroeder. Below is my contribution to part one, which included initial statements by each of the participa. Part two will include responses to these statements. Please visit the LARB website to read all four pieces and to participate in the discussion.

MOOCs are often discussed as an educational technology, as a new way of teaching. This is true to some extent, even if these courses look far less “disruptive” when understood in relation to the long tradition of online and distance learning. Will Oremus has offered a convincing (and deflationary) account of MOOCs’ potential as course material, suggesting that they are best understood as a replacement for traditional textbooks.

Even if MOOCs do sometimes function as courses (or as textbooks), a minority of their effects arises from their status as educational experiences. Other, less obvious aspects of MOOCs exert far more influence on contemporary life. Here are some different but important ways of understanding what MOOCs are and what they do.

MOOCs are a type of marketing. They allow academic institutions to signal that they are with-it and progressive, in tune with the contemporary technological climate. They make an institution’s administration appear to be doing novel work on “the future of higher education,” and they offer professors an opportunity to reach a large number of students who might also spread their ideas, buy their books, or otherwise publicize their professional practice. Less cynically, MOOCs can help deliver a taste of on-campus offerings to future students, parents, or the general public—although this latter function is hardly novel; for example, iTunes U has distributed free lectures for years.

MOOCs are a financial policy for higher education. They exemplify what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism”: policy guilefully initiated in the wake of upheaval. The need to teach more students with fewer resources is a complex situation. It’s partly caused by hubris, especially the blind search for higher institutional status through research programs, and it’s exacerbated by the tax base crises of the ongoing and seemingly permanent Great Recession. MOOCs offer the next logical step in this process of “cost containment.” But those who would call current funding models “unviable” and offer MOOCs as a convenient alternative fail to admit that the very need for an alternative presumes that we want to abandon public education in favor of a corporate-owned infrastructure in the first place.

MOOCs are an academic labor policy. As a consequence of the financial policy just described, MOOCs are amplifying the precarity long experienced by adjuncts and graduate student assistants, and helping to extend that precarity to the professoriate. MOOCs encourage an ad-hoc “freelancing” work regime among tenured faculty, many of whom will find the financial incentives for MOOC creation and deployment difficult to resist. This is particularly true of public institution faculty who have gone years without raises. Many institutions offer tens of thousands of dollars of direct compensation for MOOC development and teaching. And, in some cases, MOOCs offer direct access to student tuition and direct competition among faculty for those new resources, extending the “entrepreneurial” institutional politics of professional schools (and corporate life more generally) to all disciplines.

MOOCs are speculative financial instruments. The purpose of an educational institution is to educate, but the purpose of a startup is to convert itself into a financial instrument. The two major MOOC providers, Udacity and Coursera, are venture capital-funded startups, and therefore they are beholden to high leverage, rapid growth with an interest in a fast flip to a larger technology company or the financial market. The concepts of “disruption” and “innovation,” so commonly applied to MOOCs, come from the world of business. As for EdX, the MOOC consortium started by Harvard and MIT, it’s a non-profit operating under the logic of speculation rather than as a public service. If anything, it will help the for-profits succeed even more by evangelizing their vision as compatible with elite non-profit educational ideals.

MOOCs are an expression of Silicon Valley values. Today’s business practices privilege the accrual of value in the hands of a small number of network operators. Anything unable to be maximally leveraged isn’t worth doing. MOOCs subscribe to leverage as a primary value proposition (“massiveness”), implicitly rejecting the premise that some things benefit from “inefficiency.” MOOCs also evangelize the Silicon Valley ideology of technological salvation that Evgeny Morozov has called “solutionism” and David Golumbia has called “computationalism.” Specifically MOOC researchers-turned-entrepreneurs Daphne Koller and Sebastian Thrun assume that AI techniques can “solve” the problems of education through computational automation.

MOOCs are a kind of entertainment media. We are living in an age of para-educationalism: TED Talks, “big idea” books, and the professional lecture circuit have reconfigured the place of ideas (of a certain kind) in the media mainstream. Flattery, attention, the appeal of celebrity, the aspiration to become a member of a certain community, and other triumphs of personality have become the currency of thinking, even as anti-intellectualism remains ascendant. MOOCs buttress this situation, one in which the professor is meant to become an entertainer more than an educator or a researcher. The fact that MOOC proponents have even toyed with the idea of hiring actors to present video lectures only underscores the degree to which MOOCs aspire to reinvent education as entertainment.

published June 14, 2013