MOOC Manifest Destiny

So. This morning, Inside Higher Ed announced that Coursera has contracted with Antioch University to license MOOC courses for credit, as part of Antioch’s bachelor’s degree programs.

This is, as Steve Kolowich pointed out in the article, a step towards lowering the cost of a degree for students.

It is also, he noted, “a first step for Coursera and its partners toward developing a revenue stream from licensing its courses.”

It’s revenue time in MOOCland. It’s where we start to see how some of the “disruption or bust” rhetoric that’s seized higher ed since last spring plays out in reality.

This is the part I’ve been waiting to watch since EdX was announced last May. Will xMOOCs diversify the ways we approach higher ed? Or are they a Trojan horse by which the most elite institutions corner a market share on neoliberal revenue models?

MOOCS – The Manifest Destiny Model
Both can end up being true, I suppose, if Coursera and Antioch’s announcement sets the tone for things to come.

This revenue model relies, at its core, on embracing the MOOC as an inevitable juggernaut: about finding salvation for parts of higher ed, at least, in a grand new narrative that promises lower cost to students AND a for-profit model.

The MOOC as Manifest Destiny: a story for our times. Or higher ed as envisioned by venture capitalists.

Education is About Money, Yes
My problem, to be frank, isn’t with the venture capitalists. Nor with the fact that they  approach higher ed as a business: I’ve worked in universities for fifteen years now. I see higher ed as a network of practices and systems developed in an era of population growth and public investment in education.

As the latter two have declined, the former become brittle and vulnerable. Operating as a business is a part of the reality of academia in a post-public-purse era.

Education is Not Only About Money
But it isn’t the only reality. Nor is it the narrative that brought most of the people currently engaged or enrolled in higher ed – and I mean ‘enrolled’ in the broad network sense: as students, yes, but also staff, admin, faculty of various stripes and levels of job security, and the many of us with feet in multiple categories – into the field.

For the vast numbers of us engaged in higher ed as part of the old social contract of upward mobility and means to a better life, this brave new world may have even less promise than the status quo.

Manifest Destiny = A Mythology of Power
In times of change, we humans tell ourselves stories. When we feel powerless and uncertain, we are particularly vulnerable to grand stories, ones that make us feel as if history is on our side. That where the MOOC as Manifest Destiny comes in.

It appeals to the interests of the venture capitalists, the libertarians, and the media, if all for slightly different reasons. It also appears to appeal to the interests of undergrads. And it may, certainly in the short term and if a credential is their primary goal.

But it does not speak to the interests and investments of time and learning made by the motley collection of people who have bought into higher ed as more than simply a business. And it does not speak to the interests of the broader cultural story of education.

The stories we tell ourselves matter.

In rolling ahead based on a logic that focuses on profit in the guise of cost-savings to current students, we’re making education a story that rests ultimately on money.

And we’re doing so based on some very misleading math.

Where the Money Comes From: A Word Problem
The only part of math I was ever good at was word problems: I cannot for the life of me remember which direction a formula operates in. But if Michael is on a train speeding towards Mary at 80km per hour, I am a Past Master of sorting out when they both hit Las Vegas.

And while as a story it may be compelling, it’s as math that the MOOC as Manifest Destiny narrative begins to look specious.

Antioch students pay less money for their undergraduate degrees thanks to Antioch licensing courses through Coursera. Coursera makes money from the deal. Happy stories, both of them.

But where does the money come from?

Less money does not magically convert into more money unless somewhere along the line, some part of the equation has been cut.

In the Coursera-Antioch partnership model it’s localized course delivery. Which has increasingly devolved to sessionals and adjuncts, anyhow. Easy to cut. After all, sessionals do not tend to have the same reputation – whether deserved or no – as tenured scholars in the classroom, and certainly don’t have the same levels of institutional status and privilege behind them.

They’re what gets dropped from the equation of MOOCs as Manifest Destiny. Masses of scholars and teachers with already-fragile employment, most of whom have invested years   and significant amounts of money in their own education.

Those very sessional and adjunct positions have traditionally been the entry-level positions IN the academy. Recently, they’ve become a bit of an extended holding tank for people aspiring to those positions.

That holding tank embodies the flaws of the current system – or systems, plural, because higher ed is not a monolith. But that loose collection of unwieldy networks that we call academia has been, for centuries, a very real field of work for millions of people.

The math of cheaper education for profit only works out if you actually gut the entire system by which professors learn to be professors.

Higher Ed BY Venture Capital, FOR Venture Capital
Doing so also guts the narrative of higher ed as more than simply business, by stripping away the possibility of education being an end in itself, and a system that eventually absorbs and employs its brightest.

It’s not that I object to Coursera making money, or to Antioch saving their students money. But carried to their logical conclusions, the narratives around those two particular occurrences begin to sound like higher ed by venture capitalists, and only for venture capitalists.

They’re not my idea of a destiny for education.

What about you? Do we have cultural stories that still carry enough power to engage and enrol people in other narratives about what education – even MOOC education – is for?

8 thoughts on “MOOC Manifest Destiny

  1. “Less money does not magically convert into more money unless somewhere along the line, some part of the equation has been cut.”

    “The math of cheaper education for profit only works out if you actually gut the entire system by which professors learn to be professors.”

    - Might there be a parallel line of thought with Antioch/Coursera relationship that by increasing volume (more students), you actually get ‘more money’ and thus grow your business through efficiency and scale? Not to oversimplify, but there are other factors which influence the equation besides cutting/removing valued expenditure.

    Of course ‘cutting’ is sometimes the easiest and most recognizable path…for some.

    • Thx fo the comment, Lance…agreed that through efficiency and particularly scale there are ways to ‘grow’ higher ed here and increase profits. I’m assuming that’s the goal. It may be an important path to go down.

      But it’s a goal based in an entirely different vision of the system, and it is not a goal that will grow higher ed as a profession. It’s a “titans of industry” model…and while I think there’s value in having some titans of industry teach concepts from industry, the discussion of the venture capital version of MOOC as Future tends to leave out a great many things higher ed as is actually *does*, even where it does them badly. And those are things – particularly in terms of the creation and training of a profession – whose implications need to be on the table. So unpacking the implications of the xMOOCs and the interests driving them seems to me to necessitate looking at what they destabilize or don’t include: which in this case is a huge swath of workers who already tend to have fragile employment under the existing model. And who *may* be retrainable but whose existence holds up a great many cultural narratives about education and scholarly practices that we then need to put on the table too.

      I’m a big proponent of MOOCs, especially cMOOC incarnations and other means of connecting people to address some of the challenges of contemporary higher ed. I’m even a fan of what some of the xMOOCs can do in terms of expanding educational opportunities. But in terms of driving logics, I’m wary.

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    • Perhaps your experience of university press book contracts is vastly different from mine, Stephen, but publication – especially academic publication with a contract split between three people – is something only a fool would do for the money. There’s no advance. If I were doing this for money, I’d write a few articles for Salon or the CBC and probably take home more.

      I’m not sure it’s *really* me you’re arguing with here, but since it’s my post, I’ll take it at face value. For the purposes of having a civil conversation, no, I don’t think systemic education decisions or directions should be solely driven by financial, bottom line, or venture capital concerns.

      But if you’re suggesting that the logical conclusion of that position is that no one within higher ed should do anything that makes them money, then you fail to understand a) the post, which suggests we preserve some of the traditional ways people DO make money in higher ed, and b) how higher ed operates. It’s a cultural field in which people make livings. One of the ways they do this is by building reputations. And one of the ways to do that, traditionally, is by writing books.

      I’m happy to be asked to write a book. I’m a doctoral student without a secure foot in either old school or new school higher ed. I contribute to my mortgage when I teach and when I write. I nonetheless do both for free, quite regularly. I also do both for pay. Signing a book contract with a traditional press does not violate any moral commitment I’ve made, nor my moral right to critique the redirection of higher ed towards a logic of pure profit. It makes me complicit in a system, yes, absolutely. But the old system. Which you yourself as an employee of the publicly-funded National Research Council are also deeply tied to.

      You have an ideological commitment to working open on the web, yes, and you’ve given thousands of hours and great leadership to that. But not everyone who otherwise may share your investment in MOOCs and learning may have a) that prior absolute commitment or b) the privilege of a (hopefully, and i mean that sincerely given the Monday NRC announcement, which bites) secure job that negates the need to build a career by, say, writing books.

      We all work in education, Stephen. We all buy groceries. But if people need to live on a mountain in hair shirts and eat grass in order to participate in shaping this conversation about the future of ed, it’ll be a small conversation and venture capital will hand us our asses and our walking papers at the end.

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  5. When I saw Manifest Destiny in the title, I clicked. But on reading, I didn’t see a link to what I was expecting. I was expecting some critical connection to the original idea of Manifest Destiny, and so a connection to ideas or concerns about (massive) open education being a form of neo colonialism or cultural imperialism. But the connection was more abstract than that. Enough for me not to recognise one if there was one.

    Some of the reasons-as-background for your book are linked to Manifest Destiny though. To address a part of that cultural imperialism – that feeling we get when someone with more cultural capital (personality cult), takes a concept that you have significant shares in, and writes you out of it. It is interesting to note how sensitive we are when others do it to us, but how seemingly unaware – or even convinced otherwise, when we do it to others.

    I think it’s great you’re all writing the book. I don’t care if it’s open or not. I’ll probably buy a copy if I’m satisfied with the library copy. I care more that the history is detailed and accurate, but not being open suggests to me a manifest destiny ofa different kind. Maybe the JOLT issue will provide you with some source material. Maybe this blog will address risks of group-think. Good luck with it though, I look forward to using it to address the Wikipedia entries.

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