An interesting take on MOOCs

Blogger and academic Bonnie Stewart (a University of Prince Edward Island Ph.D. student) has a fascinating take on MOOCs (massive open online courses), and online education more generally. Here’s a taste:

MOOCs started, in a sense, as a recognition that the credentialing equation was hollow. The early MOOCs were actually extra-institutional: they aimed to enable learning outside the system, focusing on generating and networking knowledge. They were learning for learning’s sake.

But credentialing is where the money lies. The mainstream thrust to position MOOCs as a disruptive replacement for conventional academia allows market forces to capitalize on the old mythology of institutionalized education and its ties to social mobility.

* * * *

We need to understand this when we talk about MOOCs. MOOCs may be touted as a revolution in education, but they actually organize learning opportunities. The fact that they’re elbowing in on the ceremonial business of credentialing and therefore taking on both roles of a conventional education institution does not mean they can or will serve the societal function of educational institutions. Educational institutions have writing centres and Student Unions and myriad supports focused around helping students gain achieve the kinds of learning that count as currency and opportunity. Institutions explicitly serve the citizenry, not the market.

MOOCs offer organized, affordable learning opportunities at a mass scale, and that has a great deal of value. But MOOCs are not a system. They are not education for the masses.

It’s good stuff — read the whole thing.

In a related vein, I stumbled into the University of Venus (a project of which Stewart is apparently a part) over at Inside Higher Ed this morning as I was looking for things to post on — though I take it that it’s not just an Inside Higher Ed project. The writing is generally good, and the points are interesting. I’d urge y’all to give it a look.


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    “Institutions explicitly serve the citizenry, not the market.”

    Institutions SAY they serve the citizenry, not the market. How much they actually do is an empirical question.

    Never-never, never, never–take at face value any statement of the form, “I’m doing this for your own good.”

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Roger – that is the precise sentence that jumped out at me. He’s naïve if he actually thinks this is true.

      An institution’s stated mission and its actual mission may be diametrically opposed.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Yeah, that’s a hard sentence to parse. It’s really ambiguous. The way she switches from “educational institution” to “institution” makes me wonder if she’s not making a very different point — but it could just be carelessness. (These things happen with blog posts.)

      I think what she’s trying to say is that the intrusion of market-orientation, spearheaded by the breezy efficiency of MOOCs, is not the same as an educational institution’s explicit mission.

      That’s not to say that educational institutions have not changed their tune, or that there are implicit and de facto missions in addition to their explicit mission.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        You’re too earnest, Michael. The stated missions of education institutions have always been one part useful, two parts bullshit.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Also, “market orientations” have always (ALWAYS) played a part – a significant part – in choices both students and institutions made.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            Explicit doesn’t mean “true” or “genuine”. It just means “openly stated”.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            So, he said sarcastically, Stewart wouldn’t worry about “market orientation” if a MOOC said explicitly, “we serve the citizenry, not the market”?

            As every law student hears early on, “The law is concerned with substance, not form.”

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    Also, many of the add-on services an institution “provides” (at a cost to the student and/or tax payer) can be easily obtained via internet or social media. Writing centers and student unions? Really? That’s the best he’s got?

    • Mark Roulo says:

      It turns out that the most important “add on service” for a successful university is something that folks in polite society don’t like to discuss.


      If you google for “Academic Ranking of World Universities 2013” you’ll find a site that list the top colleges/universities based on academics. Over half of the top 30 have something in common: A division-1 football program (granted, the Ivy League schools are in the lower bracket of D1, but still …).


      When MOOCs have D-1 football programs, I’ll take them seriously as sources of academic learning. Until then …

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Great point, Mark. Stating the obvious, sports programs for the non-athletic are like tribe activities and do bring together students, facility and alum far more than any student union, but I wonder if, considering raising costs and the state of our economy, people will continue to place a premium on them. At some point attendance at a school with D-1 programs as a badge of tribe may lose some of it’s cache.

  3. I must disagree with this statement: “Whether people complete their MOOCs or not, Coursera credentials will not bring back institutionalized, protected careers for the educated.”

    When was this time of “institutionalized, protected careers for the educated”? Is this romantic historical revisionism at work? Because the supply of college graduates has tripled in the last fifty years. It’s still not very high, at about 30%, but there are three times as many college graduates as there were in 1960.

    (Note in the report from the Cleveland Fed, men with high school or less participate in the work force at higher rates than college educated women. While college-educated workers earn more, I wonder how that equation looks once you account for 1) tuition (including all payments of student debt), 2) work time lost to education, and 3) the trade-offs in benefits. )

    I will bet that the 10% most academically-oriented students, from those families willing to invest in education, will do just as well today as their grandparents did. In other words, if you were to sit down to compare apples to apples, the premium for a college degree for the top 10% still exists.

    Credentials are only worthy if the person doing the hiring believes they reflect ability. If experience shows MOOC credentials aren’t worth much, MOOC credentials won’t be worth much. The existence of this website: makes me believe MOOCs will not replace real education.

    All the people pushing the MOOCs might have been the sort of students who would do well without person-to-person contact. They’re probably all very ethical people who would never cheat on anything. That’s the exception, not the rule.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Well, there is this:

      “Employers receptive to hiring IT job candidates with MOOC educations”

      “Tyler Kresch isn’t turning to graduate school to help him change his job from tech sales to running a startup; instead he’s taking massive open online courses (MOOCs) to learn the IT skills necessary for that career move.”

      “For IT professionals looking to advance their careers or people who want to make a career change to tech, taking a MOOC in a technical topic can help, according to employers. The caveat: People need projects that show hiring managers how they’ve used the tech skills they learned online.

      ”We’re not theorists here. We’re actually buildings things,” said Chad Morris, product lead at Mandrill, the transactional email service from MailChimp. “We’re really looking at what it is you’ve actually done.”

    • Since it’s possible to cheat at a brick-and-mortar school, i.e. “real” education, and it’s possible to act to suppress cheating it shouldn’t be that big a trick suppress cheating on MOOCs.

      One obvious way would be to separate the education function from the certification function. If you want to learn the material then you take the class. If you want to prove you understand the material you take the proctored certification test and pay the cost of administering the test. The testing outfit is strongly motivated to ensure cheating doesn’t take place since cheating dilutes the credibility of the certification which is their bread and butter.

      In fact, the dramatic cost advantage of MOOCs ensures that even brick-and-mortar schools will evolve in their direction.

      • Not if only 10% complete the course.

        Now, it may be valuable to expose the small numbers of students who finish a course of study. One might ask whether all college graduates produced college-level work.

        A proctored exam adds cost. As a best case, the exam site should have no affiliation with the online provider. However, there are courses of study which award grades on the basis of work completed during the course of the semester. Reducing all education to computer-graded tests would represent a dramatic decrease in quality.