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?