XEducation – the Real Disruption isn’t Online Courses, it’s their Business Model

Laclau once said something along the lines of “relative stability is just sedimented power relations.”

I repeat that to myself whenever I see the word “disruption” in print these days.

We humans get used to the power relations we know. Things get stuck in a particular order, and that order – no matter how disordered or unequal or problematic – tends to come to seem normal, natural…especially to those for whom it is working.

Then something happens – a revolution, a new technology, an individual refusing to sit at the back of a bus – and the sediment shifts.

xMOOCs = Disruption?
Over the past year or so, the refrain of disruption in higher ed seems to have grown to a clamour. We hear it from the media, from administration, from faculty, from students. The power relations – from all perspectives - appear to be shifting. But how they’ll settle out sometimes seems like anybody’s guess.

Enter MOOCs. Massive Open Online Courses, especially the big ones run by elite institutions, who’ve thrown open the doors to just about ever 101 course ever offered. The world has become an enormous free-for-all carnival of learning, with the bonus of serious academic brand-names thrown in. Well, kinda. That’s how the disruption narrative paints it, at least.

Since the time the xMOOCs – MITx, EdX, Coursera, Udacity and the like – first began to pop up in the winter of 2012, they’ve been treated in the media and the ensuing cultural narratives as both proof and manifestation of disruption, the word made flesh.

xMOOCs = Consolidation of Power Relations
But if you look at the power relations the xMOOCs actually bring into being, they look less like a tsunami of change than sedimentation doing its best conservation act.

George and Dave and I are exploring some of the tensions shaping higher ed right now in a book for Johns Hopkins University Press. We’re examining these possible futures through the lens of what MOOCs - all MOOCs, along the spectrum from more connectivist and participatory offerings all the way to EdX and Udacity’s partnership with Pearson – make possible. It’ll be called XEducation. This blog is the thinking-out-loud that will inform and shape the direction the book takes.

But what is ”XEducation”? That question, for me, is at the centre of all the writing to come.

XEducation = the logic driving the xMOOC model
I think of the term XEducation as a way of beginning to frame the various and emerging models of MOOC in terms of their power relations, their pedagogies and principles, and the kinds of structures and futures they suggest.

XEducation is higher ed as business model.

The more I think about the xMOOCs in terms of power relations, the more I note that they preserve and consolidate those of traditional academia. They take the sedimented prestige and name-brands of elite institutions and open up new markets for them, even while undermining many of the structures that those institutions have operated on for generations. The xMOOCs convert the capital carried by academic reputation into new value, at a new scale, in new forms.

XEducation brings courses to the world. But it also brings the world under the brand of the institutions and corporations running those courses. If you are on the Board of Governors of one of these elite institutions, your interests are protected. If you are not, you may find the situation looks more complex.

Disruption = a Business Model Concept for Industry
The notion of disruption with which our press are so enamoured grew from Christensen’s idea of “disruptive technology,” or an innovation which creates a new market or value network. Christensen later re-framed his idea as one of “disruptive innovation,” acknowledging that it isn’t technologies themselves but the practices around them – and specifically their business models – that determine the survival or obsolescence of industries.

So the media are correct – the xMOOCs are disruption, in the literal sense. They’re an innovative business model attempting to create a new market or value from within the sedimented power relations of higher education. They emphasize scale and efficiency: that’s what they’re FOR.

Now, higher ed is most definitely an industry. And it is an industry long-based on monopoly and control over the capacity to sanction and credential knowledge; an industry based in a culture of scarcity. Replicability and remixability and all the other affordances of the digital age have always posed a threat to its stability and sedimentation.

Higher Ed = Not Only an Industry
But higher ed is not only an industry, in the sense that its cultural role and identity is not encapsulated by – or even entirely aligned with – concepts of scale and efficiency alone.  Higher ed is a messy, flawed, and contested field in which we’ve invested rites of passage, cultural concepts of knowledge and learning, and the discourses and credentials of a whole host of disciplines and credentials, not just business.

We could, conceivably, at a global societal level, decouple all those other things from the industry, and let it sail along on scale and efficiency alone. But then, eventually, the Internet will still have to happen to it.

The xMOOCs may look like higher ed adopting the Internet. But they’re discrete, pre-sanctioned, linear delivery methods for knowledge. They roll back 30+ years of pedagogical best practices, and revert to the “sage on the stage” method of mass transmission. They assume what needs to be known is known. They don’t even begin to address the emergent domain of knowledge or all the cultural shifts occurring as hierarchy is challenged by heterarchy.  xMOOCs are higher ed circling the wagons of its own sedimented power relations, against the challenges of participatory pedagogies and the logic of the Internet.

The Internet Hasn’t Happened to XEducation, Yet
In terms of the future of higher ed, then, this XEd thrust can’t be the final word. Whether from within the industry of higher ed or no, our cultural concepts of learning and knowledge are going to need to begin to grapple with the complexities wrought by a medium that turns the logic of print on its head. Which is where extra-institutional learning efforts like the connectivist MOOCs and #ds106 begin to figure into the story of what higher ed will become, structurally and culturally.

And their capacity for disruption is likely to make new business models of familiar power relations look tame. That’s the conversation we’re working towards, here.

What do you think? Are the xMOOCs the Old School in new media clothing? And where are we headed?


10 thoughts on “XEducation – the Real Disruption isn’t Online Courses, it’s their Business Model

  1. Really interesting post …. When I first came across the xMOOCs as they emerged, I was intrigued. But, on closer examination, I think your are absolutely correct. It does feel like the established big players “circling the wagons”.

    It’s notable that there is a reluctance to give significant and equivalent academic credit and recognition to learners adopting the open access route to learning via these MOOCs in line with their more traditional offering.

    Until there is parity of esteem and recognition regardless of the route taken, the high profile educational “brands” will never move beyond the circle of wagons they’ve constructed and potentially may lose out once learners realise this.

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  10. So glad you went from “industry” to “not only an industry” as the cultural, epistemological and ontological dimensions are equally valid and bring entirely different sets of lenses through which to explore the notions of university (or higher ed) and MOOCs. I would like to see those lenses and their implications explicated, perhaps as embodied in the different instances of MOOCs.

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