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MOOCs: Disrupting the University or Business as Usual?

by Simon Cooper

The creation of MOOCs (massive open online courses) has captured the imagination of higher education commentators around the globe. These online courses, initially coming out of elite institutions such as Stanford and MIT, have attracted large numbers of students and their ‘success’[1] has led to private companies such as Coursera and Udacity offering courses online. While online courses and open education have been around for several decades, the rise of MOOCs signals for many a fundamental shift in higher education. The New York Times declared 2012 ‘the year of the MOOC’[2] and MOOCs have dominated recent discussion around the future of the university. Many academics and media pundits claimed that MOOCs would lead to a radical disruption of the university sector, ending the current model of higher education within a decade or two. In Australia the consulting firm Ernst and Young released a report claiming universities would not survive the next ten or fifteen years unless they radically changed their mode of operation — one of the key drivers of this somewhat apocalyptic scenario was the rise of the MOOC.[3] A more measured discussion, but nevertheless one that came to a similar conclusion, was took place on The Conversation,[4] where academics and other specialists claimed (with a few notable exceptions[5]) that MOOCs were the imminent future of higher education and it was only a matter of time before their impact would be felt. Even a normally cautious expert on higher education, Simon Marginson could not help being infected, declaring that with MOOCs ‘yes this is the game changer’.[6] A similar scenario was being sketched out in the United States. Joseph Aoun declared that with MOOCs we ‘were witnessing the end of higher education as we know it’.[7] Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School professor and author of ‘The Innovative University’, predicted ‘wholesale bankruptcies’ over the next decade among standard universities as a result of MOOCs.[8]

In some ways the explosion of interest in MOOCs and the declaration that they spell the end for traditional education is surprising. The first few years of the twenty-first century saw a whole raft of speculation around the ‘virtual university’. Indeed elite institutions such as Oxford, Yale and Columbia had previously suffered financial losses in attempting to capitalise on the possibilities of virtual education.[9] Moreover it is not as if the technology used in MOOCs represents a radical innovation from previous incarnations; most MOOCs rely on traditional techniques of distance learning in order to reach mass audiences of students. While elements of online education exist within traditional universities — with links to open university courses, or courses offered via distance education — none of this explains the degree of speculation about the disruptive potential of the MOOC. While enrolments are large the outcomes at present remain modest; for the most part the successful completion of a MOOC from an elite university does not lead to a recognised form of accreditation, only a certificate of completion whose value remains vague. As such, one might see the claims for MOOCs as merely another form of digital hype. However, the extent to which so many are willing to claim that MOOCs represent a serious alternative to the traditional university says more about how higher education is now understood than anything about the properties of MOOCs.

In order to examine the significance of open educational platforms such as MOOCs it is necessary to explore the wider culture surrounding universities at present. Why is it that so many academics and education commentators are willing to accept that the current university might so easily be replaced by the set of fairly rudimentary (and pedagogically reductive) technologies that presently constitute MOOCs? To assume that open online educational platforms can (and even should) replace the current university system is to embrace a whole series of assumptions — about education, about knowledge, about the role and function of the university, even about ‘openness’ — assumptions that are at the very least contestable. I want to argue that the interest in and advocacy of MOOCs, can only be the result of an impoverished conception of the university. To advocate the MOOC as a viable mode of university education is ultimately to subscribe to a model of the university that closes off, rather than opens up, the critical and cultural roles that the university has at its best enabled. Rather than enabling a ‘disruption’ of the university as its advocates claim, MOOCs extend processes that are already taking place — recasting the value of knowledge almost entirely in market terms. To reach this conclusion, however, MOOCs need to be considered in more detail.

The term MOOC was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander for an open online course at the Canadian University of Manitoba. The course, as suggested by its title, ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’, was experimental and interested in the potential of collaborative knowledge. The course was informed by the teaching of Ivan Illich who argued that education ‘should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them’.[10] An emphasis on collaboration was paramount: teachers and students were engaged in a shared project with unpredictable outcomes.[11]This early form of MOOC was guided by a set of quasi-utopian principles based around unfettered openness and discovery, and bears only a passing resemblance to the MOOCs that now occupy the media’s attention. Global interest in MOOCs took off in 2011 when Stanford University offered a course on Artificial Intelligence online and enrolments grew to 160,000. Sebastian Thrun, one of the academics involved,went on to found Udacity, a company that currently offers MOOCs to other universities. With Udacity, Coursera and EdX are the largest companies that offer MOOCs. All three have recently formed agreements with universities in the United States and elsewhere to supply some of their courses.

The development of MOOCs is parallelled by other commercial initiatives that detach university teaching from the institution. For instance, a company called Straighterline now offers ‘Professor Direct’ where university teachers set their own prices for individual courses, deciding their value according to content, the time they are willing to spend teaching, consulting and marking.[12] The latter represents the most radical attempt to divorce teaching from any larger context, making it purely a contractual transaction between teacher and student. Indeed some of Straighterline’s marketing ploys represent crude attempts to capitalise on academic popularity; the company’s website brazenly enquires ‘Are you a rockstar professor? Apply now!’

The contemporary MOOC provides lecture material broken up into a series of short-duration videos. A course might also contain mini-quizzes or multiple choice questions. Assessment takes place via automated tests, or via peer assessment, where students mark each other’s work and occasionally provide comments. Students who complete a MOOC receive a ‘certificate of completion’ and it is unknown the extent to which these will become a form of academic value in their own right. Whether a completed MOOC from Stanford will become equivalent to or have more value that an accredited course from elsewhere is unknown, but there is speculation that a whole new sector of the academic market will open up to provide forms of accreditation and placement for students who have completed MOOCs.[13] Such disaggregation of tasks — teaching, marking, accreditation — opens the way up for the further marketisation and privatisation of university teaching, where institutional governance over a whole range of activities may become reduced to that of branding and accreditation — everything else can be outsourced — where the institution itself carries a very different meaning.

The twenty-first century seems almost defined by a celebration, if not outright fetishisation, of ‘openness’ in virtually all areas — politics, geography, culture and information — and it is unsurprising that MOOCs would be similarly celebrated as forcing open previously circumscribed educational structures and institutions. The OECD[14] has endorsed the principle of open educational resources (OER) and many other groups, such as OpenCourseWare, Wikimedia Foundation, Project Gutenberg and Creative Commons, have digitised materials for the free use of individuals and groups across the globe. The commonly held principle is that digitised knowledge provides ‘individuals who might never otherwise have  … [an] opportunity to experience post-secondary learning a free and open chance to participate’.[15] Many regard MOOCs as extending such a principle to the extent that they provide low or no-cost alternatives to the current model of university education. According to Carson and Schmidt, ‘we are approaching a tipping point where education and educators can use technology to reach almost every person on the planet inexpensively’.[16] Beyond the actual proximity (or even possibility) of this ‘tipping point’ lies the need to ask what modes of knowledge and forms of education can function in such a context. This utopian vision of free knowledge for all is often predicated upon specific kinds of knowledge. In fact, like many modes of openness in digital culture, MOOCs are able to extend processes of commodification and exploitation in novel ways by ‘liberalising’ the flow of content, that is, detaching it from the forms and structures that created it in the first place.

According to one perspective that understands education exclusively as a market, MOOCs will disrupt older forms of education by opening up university to a global field of education hungry consumers. Writing in The Atlantic Laura McKenna offers the crudest version of this position:

Offer high-quality products at a low price, consumers tend to notice. When Target offers clothes from couture designers like Missoni and Rodarte, the stock disappears within a few hours. The same goes for higher ed: Huge numbers of people are also flocking toward bargain basement Ivy League classes.[17]

The idea that education is a product that can now be offered cheaply (and no doubt with a similar level of exploitation of its producers) is one that lies behind most celebrations of MOOCs. Expensive labour costs (teaching, marking and so forth) can be reduced through new technology. As McKenna observes, ‘using new technology and crowd sourcing innovations, both programs hope to bypass the problem of needing human beings to moderate discussions and grade assignments’.[18] That advances in education can be premised upon the notion that ‘human beings’ are a ‘problem’ ought to make us pause before celebrating the MOOC. Yet MOOCs’ success (based on sheer numbers) lies precisely in the extent to which they can remove the human element from both teaching and learning.

Clearly MOOCs threaten to alter the way education is ‘delivered’ by outsourcing and virtualising teaching. But what is less remarked upon is that the discourse surrounding MOOCs also presumes a certain kind of student. The claims that MOOCs are a solution to a perceived problem in education discursively construct the student in particular ways. Because MOOCs offer a technologised form of education, where mini-lectures and quizzes replace longer lectures and reflective assessment, they are seen to match the needs of the contemporary student — the so-called ‘digital native’.[19] This has led to commentators from outside education to pay special attention to MOOCs. For Thomas Friedman MOOCs offer a perfect fit for the student consumer in the knowledge economy:

Welcome to the college education revolution. Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary … the need to provide low-cost, quality higher education is more acute than ever. At the same time, in a knowledge economy, getting a higher-education degree is more vital than ever. And thanks to the spread of high-speed wireless technology, high-speed Internet, smartphones, Facebook, the cloud and tablet computers, the world has gone from connected to hyperconnected in just seven years. Finally, a generation that has grown up on these technologies is increasingly comfortable learning and interacting with professors through online platforms.

Friedman’s notion that education needs to reflect the needs of a new technologically savvy generation of student consumers is increasingly shared by university mangers. For example, Deakin University Vice Chancellor Jane Den Hollander says, ‘students expect a learning experience that is user-friendly, self-service and available 24 hours, similar to that offered by services such as banking and shopping’. Monash University Vice Chancellor Ed Byrne claims that a:

young adult living today in the era of the internet who has never known anything else, has a mindset and a set of expectations that radically differ [from previous generations] … [and that] it could be argued that the need for relentless memorisation of large bodies of text and other information has already passed, given that the whole content of a massive university library can be carried in one’s pocket.[20]

Such comments represent a new kind of construction of the student as a consumer of education — someone who recognises the value of education but is equally likely to give it a transient value as something accessible but external to the self. Demanding education be delivered via the same technological channels that govern other aspects of their life, this student is constructed, according to Ronald Barnett, as an ‘acting’ rather than a ‘cognitive’ being. Knowledge is externalised and manipulated rather than incorporated into a sense of identity or harnessed towards social and cultural interpretation. Following Jean-Francois Lyotard, Barnett calls this the ‘performative student’:

This student is replete with ‘transferable skills’, contemplates with equanimity the prospect of multiple careers in the lifespan, is entrepreneurial and has an eye to the main chance, and possesses a breezy self-confidence in facing the unpredictability that characterises contemporary life.[21]

The construction of this new student as knowledge handler, where flexible skills are more important than internalised learning, reflects a different attitude to knowledge in general.[22] The proliferation of information via technological databases and networks has ushered in a cultural shift in how knowledge is understood. The ‘opening’ up of knowledge has made knowledge more available and a sense that knowledge is important drives the utopian sensibility of MOOC proponents. But with this openness comes a reduction in the modalities of knowledge. ‘Mode 2 knowledge’ — context-driven, instrumental and aimed at specific targets rather than encompassing broad modes of inquiry — is privileged. The community of scholars is replaced by a radically autonomous sphere where the self-directed individual is left to engage with the world’s repositories of knowledge in the absence of structured relations to them. Rather than contributing towards the reproduction of a culture, universities are increasingly seen as standing in the way of access to knowledge, reframed by commentators in a negative role as gatekeeping elites, holding onto the resources of knowledge that the rest of the world demands.

Such borderline contempt for the traditional university is evident in the trope of ‘disruption’ that governs much of the discussion around MOOCs. The basic assumption is that universities are somehow faulty and need to be radically reconstituted. One of the most noted proponents of this view is internet theorist Clay Shirky. Shirky sees universities as semi-moribund institutions, much like the traditional music industry, and regards MOOCs as a means of disruption, in the same way that file-sharing programs like Napster forced the music industry into abandoning their business model based on a monopoly of cultural products. For Shirky ‘Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (MOOC) and our Napster is Udacity, the education start-up’.[23] It is not just hard-core digital advocates who adopt this view. Simon Marginson writes in a similar vein, claiming MOOCs will ‘be as disruptive to conventional delivery in higher education as the internet has been for book publishers, newspapers, and the retail giants’.[24]

Such views assume that many universities are simply mediocre providers of intellectual material, whose existence has been up until now legitimised by being the only source of available knowledge and that the digitisation of information renders these institutions obsolete. Daniel Everett critically sums up this view in the following terms: ‘the post-Internet idea that all knowledge should be cheap and quick fuels the explosion of interest in MOOCs and the view of education as the transmission of skill sets’.[25] Along such lines Shirky writes:

Every college provides access to a huge collection of potential readings, and to a tiny collection of potential lectures. We ask students to read the best works we can find … but we only ask them to listen to the best lecture a local employee can produce that morning … and the only thing that kept this system [traditional university teaching] from seeming strange was that we’ve never had a good way of publishing lectures.[26]

Most enthusiasts for MOOCs ignore the exploitative relationship underpinning this new paradigm of openness — the cheap provision of intellectual content. Companies such as Coursera and Udacity may currently provide their content for free but they have been established with large amounts of venture capital with the aim of turning a profit.[27] Whether this comes though charging a small fee, generating an audience for advertising (along the lines of Google or Facebook) or providing data for employers, remains to be seen. The fusion of new media with the resources of the university, however, raises questions about the exploitative relations behind the rhetoric of openness. University knowledge is a collective and collaborative enterprise — knowledge has been developed over time by individuals without aiming at profit. What are the implications in allowing companies to use digital platforms to profit from content developed by others for free? Theorists like Tiziana Terranova have traced how producers of content are exploited in the digital economy. Their ‘free labour’,[28] often the product of curiosity, passion and creativity (and particular social relations) is reconfigured in value by the software platforms that disseminate it as cheap content — making money from harnessing new media audiences instead. The designers of information platforms — Facebook, iTunes, Google and the like — make enormous profits under the guise of openness as audiences get access to cheap content. The creators of the actual content are those ‘disrupted’ in the new relationship. In academia we have already seen the enormous profits made by large publishing companies from academic research that is given over to them for free.[29] Should we allow a similar situation to emerge for teaching? As Jason Zevin observes:

people at Coursera … are not doing anything so mundane as actually developing courses and teaching students. They are building the distribution software and growing the market. These are Coursera’s values, not the content, which is viewed as a renewable and cheap resource, and certainly not the production of new knowledge, or the preservation of academic freedom.[30]

Advocates of digital openness often refer to the success of Wikipedia as a model for open collaboration outside of the strictures of traditional institutions. Yet while Wikipedia has been a success, its legitimacy as a source of information lies in citing credible sources — academic research, newspaper reports and the like — sources that necessarily operate within more traditional closed environments. If a few MOOCs come to replace large numbers of universities, as many writers speculate, what will happen to the kinds of environments that underpin the more open ones? Can we anchor the value of knowledge and teaching in the brand recognition of a few elite institutions?

The notion that open educational platforms can overcome the limitations of the current university model requires the reduction of the university to content provider, ignoring the complex relationship that governs teaching and the other culturally formative roles of the university. Moreover, in advocating technological ‘disruption’ there is no sense of how the university has in the last few decades already been massively ‘disrupted’ by the reframing of knowledge and its institutions within a neoliberal framework. Indeed this rather larger form of disruption has created many of the problems that many erroneously believe MOOCs will solve. Why erroneously? It is time to take a closer look at MOOCS to see what they can and cannot do.

Simon Marginson describes MOOCS as ‘free, dirt cheap to run, rigorous in standard and brings you the world’s experts’.[31] To what extent is this actually so? As we have seen the original form of the MOOC was radical in orientation. The early MOOCs were open in structure and were premised upon the autonomy of the learner to set their own direction. Created as an alternative to traditional education and based around anarchic principles of collective creation, these MOOCs were, as Bonnie Stewart notes ‘about harnessing the capacity of participatory to connect people and ideas. They’ve been built around lateral distributive structures, encouraging blog posts and extensive peer-to-per discussion formats … they’ve given learners not just access to information but to networks’.[32] The current MOOCs now the subject of media speculation bear little resemblance to these experimental and anarchic platforms. Indeed despite all the claims for the ‘cutting-edge’ nature of MOOCs, they rely on narrow and traditional forms of pedagogy. The MOOCs created by Coursera, Udacity and the like generally consist of a series of recorded lectures, broken up into chunks for ready consumption. Ironically this is the kind of one-way approach — knowledge as a transmission of information — that digital advocates normally scorn. It is the very model of mass media and audiences that digital media is supposed to disrupt. As Tony Bates observes in relation to Coursera:

the teaching methods used by most of the Coursera courses so far are based on a very old and outdated behaviourist pedagogy, relying primarily on information transmission, computer marked assignments and peer assessment. Behaviourist pedagogy has its value, especially where there are right and wrong answers, facts or procedures that must be learned, or students lack higher level cognitive processing skills. In other words it works reasonably well for certain levels of training. But it is extremely difficult if not impossible to teach higher order skills of critical thinking, creative thinking, and original thinking using behaviourist pedagogy, the very skills that are needed in a knowledge-based society.[33]

Compounding these pedagogical limitations is the narrow scope for interaction between teacher and student. Despite the fact that MOOCs attract enrolments due to the ‘star’ power of their teachers, there is almost no possibility of interaction with individual lecturers in classes that have tens of thousands of participants. Similar problems of scale affect the kinds of assessment available. Most MOOCs have assessment in the form of automated quizzes or tests — where assessment is designed to measure algorithmic rather than conceptual understanding. Where there have been attempts to go beyond automated tests,this has usually been via ‘peer assessment’, where other students grade and sometimes comment on each other’s work. But such peer review is hardly a model of expert scrutiny, and many participants have had mixed experiences, to say the least, when having their work assessed by unknown students from a variety of cultures, contexts and with different language skills.[34]

While MOOCs have gained attention due to their huge enrolments, they also have massive attrition and failure rates. John Gill writes in Times Higher Education that only a fraction of students complete any given Coursera course, and dropout rates of 90 per cent or even higher in other MOOCs are common.[35] There has been a defence — of sorts — of such high levels of attrition. Anant Agrawal, head of the MIT edX initiative, commented that while the rate of attrition was high, ‘if you look at the number in absolute terms, it’s as many students as might take the course in 40 years at MIT’.[36] This defence of MOOCs on the basis of crude ‘survival’ numbers may be technically correct but it overlooks a crucial dimension in the role of education. University education is not only about the ability to absorb information, but it is also to produce citizens who are able to participate in a liberalised public sphere. MOOCs preclude this possibility because of the scale of their operation. The result is a dichotomy of atomisation and freedom; student consumers are free to choose what to enrol in and access is cheap but this comes at a cost — the individual is denied participation in any substantial learning or cultural community. In his critique of MOOCs Robert Nelson remarks on the utter lack of any duty of care to students in the MOOC context: no one is responsible for when they drop out or fail, no support structures are in place. In this alienating environment, Nelson notes, ‘the MOOC is the degree zero of the pastoral tradition’.[37]

A consequence of this lack of pastoral care is the high level of cheating and plagiarism found in MOOCs. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2012 large numbers of complaints from students in MOOCs that others were cheating; with one professor pleading with the 39,000 students in his MOOC course to stop using illegitimate methods such a plagiarism. Novel methods of cheating have been recorded, the perverse consequence of free enrolment. Some students enrol in the same course repeatedly (or use multiple names) and take the same test over and over — improving on their answers until they achieve a near perfect score.[38] As a response to this Coursera has announced it will turn to biometric tracking methods — recording individual typing patterns and using webcams — to crack down on cheating. There is a high level of scepticism as to whether these methods will work;[39] at any rate the supplanting of pastoral care with high-tech surveillance scarcely seems progressive.

There is also some evidence that suggests that the majority those who do complete a MOOC have taken a similar course before. InsideHigherEd reports in relation to one popular Udacity course that ‘perhaps the most interesting piece of data is that 80 percent of respondents said they had taken a “comparable” course at a traditional university prior to working their way through Circuits & Electronics’.[40] Data released from MOOC providers such as Coursera and Udacity also reveal that the students who do complete courses are generally older and have more educational experience than the average undergraduate.[41] While one ought not extrapolate from a limited data set to pronounce on MOOCs as a whole, the evidence at the very least undercuts the utopian image of the underprivileged student simply logging on to a MOOC and transcending their economic and cultural circumstances.

Moreover the connection between star universities and teaching quality ought not to be taken for granted. The massive growth of students enrolled in MOOCs is undoubtedly due to their ‘attachment’ to elite ivy league institutions in the United States — Stanford and MIT — and the defection of star academics to private companies that maintain ties with their old institution. It is the university as ‘brand’ that attracts such massive numbers, yet there is nothing to suggest a connection between elite universities and the quality of educational experience. It might well be the opposite since most of the ‘elite’ universities gained their reputation through research and not teaching, and certainly not teaching online. Indeed there has been little discussion of quality in the overall celebration of MOOCs. If a traditional course had a dropout rate of 90 per cent and was marked by such levels of cheating, it would be under severe pressure by government bodies that oversee educational standards. It seems, however, that the brand power of the elite university has allowed it to escape this routine level of scrutiny. As Dominique Boullier remarks in relation to MOOCs, ‘did you hear of any quality assessment for a specific course? No the fact of being offered by the big ones is enough to suspend all critical capacity’.[42] Boullier claims that MOOCs form part of a ‘massive war in education’, and that the harnessing of university brand power for a global student market merely extends a process that has been going on since the 1990s when universities began to reposition themselves in a global context.

As MOOCs attempt to capture new segments of the global student market, there is a need to go beyond regarding this as simply another benefit of globalisation — the extension of education to subjects who have never had such chances before. Daphne Koller (co-founder of Coursera) has suggested that, ‘maybe the next Albert Einstein or the next Steve Jobs is living somewhere in a remote village in Africa. And if we could offer that person an education, they would be able to come up with the next big idea and make the world a better place for all of us’.[43] But behind this rhetoric of opportunity lie new forms of appropriation. Kris Olds notes that the ‘territorial dimensions’ of MOOCs have hitherto lacked scrutiny and that a closer examination reveals subtle mechanisms of power at work.[44] The ability of MOOCs to collapse spatial boundaries has been lauded, but little has been said about the impact this might have on local or national cultures. Generally the student audience for MOOCs is reduced to a single homogeneous global entity — marked by an identical desire for education and the improvement of life chances — hiding the degree to which MOOCs may operate as a form of cultural imperialism. One needs to question the extent to which a single course developed in the United States can apply to other places and cultures. Because they must cater to students in the tens of thousands, there is little flexibility in the content of MOOCs.

What might be the implications of such universalising discourses? In 2009, at the UNESCO World Conference in Higher Education, the president of the University of South Africa described the open education movement as a form of intellectual neo-colonialism.[45] Current MOOCs represent an even blunter form of universalising ‘knowledge transfer’. This issue extends beyond the lack of cultural specificity of content to educational institutions themselves. Those who laud the disruptive capacity of MOOCs and predict the downfall of the traditional university, while at the same time celebrating the imminent spread of digitised learning across the globe neglect to consider the impact such a process might have on non-Western local educational institutions and the cultures. On this point Boullier notes the possible effect of this ‘predator behaviour against the skills of countries from the South’ and asks:

since the quality is associated with the big education brands and becomes available online, how can local teachers still obtain some recognition for their work? How does this process help them to improve their own skills and more importantly to create the right balance between the core part of knowledge and the one which requires contextualization, which means, diversity and proximity?[46]

Rather than simply herald new opportunities across the globe, MOOCs contain the potential to hollow out the cultures that foster education within specific regions.

Once we pierce the rhetoric behind many celebratory accounts of MOOCs it is possible to see the more problematic aspects: an increase in the notion of learning as consumption; deskilling and proletarianisation of academic labour; homogenisation and standardisation of knowledge as a reified global product; the break-up of higher education into discreet services; and the undermining of the university as a social and cultural institution. Yet these processes are hardly endemic only to MOOCs. It is important to recognise that MOOCs are not a disruption of the university but rather an extension of what is already taking place. This can only explain why MOOCs — with their obvious pedagogical limitations, with their high dropout and cheating rates — could provoke such widespread interest. In this sense MOOCs make visible the current trends in education.

Let us briefly examine the wider context in which MOOCs operate. The massive changes in higher education in the last few decades are too comprehensive to be dealt with in great detail here but a few features can be quickly identified.[47] The most obvious is the massive expansion of the university sector into a mass higher education system. From the Dawkins reforms in Australia to the creation of new universities in the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States, the number of students and institutions has dramatically increased. The growth of the tertiary sector has generated funding issues, with governments unwilling or unable to fund the whole of the expanded sector. This has resulted in a change in the identity of universities, which are now run as businesses as much as public institutions, partly to close this gap in funding, but more generally as a result of a change in institutional identity. The shift towards education as a mass system came with an imperative that universities were a key driver in the knowledge economy. This harnessing of the university to the knowledge economy has both reflected and driven the commodification of knowledge.

The increasing dominance of knowledge as a commodity (as opposed to other modalities of knowledge — critique, interpretation, identity creation, citizenship, wisdom and so forth) has played out across a number of domains. The student consumer was created, and with the introduction of fees or loan systems came a culture shift in its own right. As G. L. Williams remarks, ‘students have been metamorphosed from apprentices into customers and their teachers from master craftsmen to merchants’.[48] University education as vocational training became an increasingly more central way of understanding education, with a consequent decline in less ‘market-friendly’ subjects. With the student consumer came the expectation that education would prove demonstrably efficient and useful. The rise of a whole host of audit schemes and regulations designed to guarantee quality ensued — as did a corresponding standardisation of teaching methods. Unorthodox or radical content or pedagogical methods were marginalised. The rise of digital technologies served this idea of the student consumer — able to access material anywhere, anytime — more than it enabled improvements in education as a whole. The notable degree of cheating in MOOCs — a more visible offshoot of the elevated levels of cheating in higher education generally — is symptomatic of this larger context of instrumental learning where, as Martha Nussbaum notes, there has been a ‘baleful shift in pedagogy: away from teaching that seeks to promote questioning and individual responsibility toward force-feeding for good exam results’.[49] In such an environment, cheating loses its ethically prohibitive force and becomes merely another version of ‘efficiency’.

The commodification of knowledge has meant that the market for students has extended across the globe and new measures for marketing institutions have arisen as a result. Apart from the obvious marketing and PR methods used, the rise of global university rankings — simultaneously regarded as misleading[50] yet vital in establishing an institutions reputation-as-global brand — became a key feature of university culture from the mid-2000s onwards. As Jon Nixon observes, ‘prestige itself has become a marketable commodity’.[51] The desire to rise in the global rankings has led to institutions adopting measures to increase status — shedding ‘inefficient’ staff and courses, poaching ‘star’ researchers and so on.[52] A more competitive framework for universities unfolded beside the older collegial frame, increasingly supplanting it. Indeed the shackling of universities to criteria based in market principles has led to the commodification of university research, either through the direct harnessing of knowledge as a commodity via intellectual property, the gathering up of university labour into competitive frameworks derived from the business sector, or the ranking of scholars against each other in terms of productivity, output and so on. This has had a number of consequences, not the least being the prioritisation of research over teaching. Effectively, a two-tier system has been created, where the activities of teaching is devalued — outsourced, casualised and virtualised — in order for more time for research. This shift predates MOOCs, but makes their arrival and legitimation possible.

These larger shifts in how we understand knowledge within a more instrumental framework, aided by specific changes in the governance of higher education, have created a context in which the idea of the university as public institution and the activity of learning itself have been radically altered. The dominance of instrumental forms of knowledge, the atrophy of the role of the university as a publically orientated institution, the devaluation of teaching and the fusion of university branding with research capacity has created a space in which a further stage in the commercialisation of higher education can now develop: the disaggregation and packaging of various activities of the traditional university — teaching, accreditation, assessment — made available to private operators. The commercialisation and privatisation of universities is now more overt, with calls for a radical shake-up of the system, a call that predates the arrival of MOOCs but also complements it. In Australia, the Ernst and Young report, University of the Future, predicted a future of fierce competition between universities and a world ‘where Google would be the number one competitor’[53] with universities within a decade. The report argues that universities have to become ‘lean and mean’, operate like businesses and work closely with industry. Significantly, the report argues that universities need to abandon ‘broad-based’ institutional models and target small and specific student markets. This view of a future replete with technological competitors, privatisation and the fragmentation of higher education has been met with some criticisms over the ambit of its claims, but the general response has been mute acceptance. The Australian Group of Eight elite universities remains committed to deregulation of the education system.[54] In line with the Ernst and Young report, it is actively lobbying for a more liberalised and market-amenable university sector. In the United Kingdom, a more extreme scenario is set to emerge, with speculation that private equity firms could be allowed to buy a stake in universities, providing institutions with working capital in return for using its degree-awarding powers overseas.[55] The firm buying a stake would see the degree-awarding powers as an intellectual property right marketed through online platforms. Developments like these indicate an environment where the university is set to become more privatised, commercialised and fragmented. This is the environment in which MOOCs appear, and they cannot be understood outside of it.

A critical engagement with MOOCs is possible across a number of levels. There are substantial problems with MOOCs at the most basic level of functionality — pedagogical limitations, attrition rates, cheating — and so on. In their current form these problems are likely to persist despite attempts to mitigate them through biometric solutions. One can also note the appropriation of MOOCs from their radical origins to one where private companies have simply harnessed traditional learning models to the information technologies to create new markets. Beyond this, the implication of MOOCs as a form of power — as an intellectual technology that standardises knowledge across the globe — can be registered. The negative impact MOOCs might have on non-Western contexts, eroding local institutions and contexts, applies also to the contemporary Western university, and one can point out the hidden exploitative relationship that underpins the model of virtualised academic labour and the implications of a massive attrition of university academics if the MOOC model were to become widespread.

A more sustained critique of MOOCs, however, requires challenging the assumptions that increasingly govern the higher education system as a whole. The consequences of harnessing the sector for the purposes of the knowledge economy have undermined the core functions of the university: the split between teaching and research has led to a devaluation of teaching and a largely commodified research sector geared towards the needs of private industry. Only in this environment could MOOCs be taken seriously as an alternative to the university. The notion that a course delivered at a distance to tens of thousands of students could somehow equate to a genuine education, or that the university is so easily replaceable by digital technologies, can only take place where the activities and values inherent in the idea of the university have already become degraded. That MOOCs entrench a two-tiered system — cheap virtual training for the masses, elite face-to-face education for the wealthy minority — has escaped the notice of many commentators who believe that the principle of ‘openness’ will somehow override all other forms of inequality. That the rhetoric behind MOOCs is a late offshoot of more naive celebrations of globalisation is hardly coincidental. Indeed the slogan of the Occupy movement — ‘We are the 99 per cent’, a response to the inequalities of the globalisation — could equally apply to MOOCs and the way a mass/elite division will certainly be enacted.

Reclaiming the university involves challenging the very conditions that gave rise to its expansion and influence in the last few decades — notably the centrality of the university as driver of the knowledge economy. The possibility that MOOCs might replace much of the tertiary sector indicates the extent to which the university as a broad-based educational and cultural institution has been undermined by the very process that promised to make it ‘relevant’. That the university is on the verge of being destroyed by the fusion of knowledge with the market hardly makes it unique; indeed a defence of the idea of the university ought to extend to how social and cultural life more generally is threatened by forms of informational capitalism. Instead of driving these forms (and wholly making itself over in the process) the university once again needs to stand apart and assert its role as a source of critique and cultural interpretation — in education, research and a broader publically orientated role. A first step would be to recognise how MOOCs are not disrupting the university but merely confirming how far it has drifted from this crucial role.






[1] For most analysts, success in measured almost exclusively by the number of enrolments.

[2] L. Pappano, ‘The Year of the MOOC’, New York Times, 2 November 2012.

[3] Ernst & Young University of the Future: A Thousand Year Old Industry on the Cusp of Profound Change, <>, accessed 12 January 2013.

[4] See <>.

[5] R. Nelson, ‘MOOCs and Exercise Bikes: More in Common than You’d Think’, The Conversation, 9 October 2012, <>, accessed 12 November 2012.

[6] S. Marginson, ‘Online Open Education: Yes this is the Game Changer’, The Conversation, 16 August 2012, <>, accessed 12 November 2012.

[7] J. Aoun, ‘A Shakeup of Higher Education’, Boston Globe, 17 November 2012.

[8] Christenson is quoted in ‘Free Education: Learning New Lessons’, The Economist, 22 December 2012, <>, accessed 12 January 2013.

[9] See T. Walsh, Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2011.

[10] I. Ilich, Deschooling Society, London, Marion Boyers, 1971.

[11] A. McAuley, B. Stewart, G. Siemans and D. Cormier, The MOOC Model for Digital Practice, <>, accessed 11 January 2013.

[12] <>.

[13] Marginson, ‘Online Open education’. Note that some universities are cautiously allowing credit to be given for some MOOCs, charging a small fee for doing so.

[14] Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources, Paris, OECD Publishing,  2007, doi:10.1787/9789264032125-en, accessed 10 November 2012

[15] D. Wiley, D., & C. Green, ‘Why openness in education?’, in D. Oblinger (ed.), Game changers: Education and information technologies (available as e-book) Educause, p. 84, 2012

[16] S. Carson and J. Schmidt, ‘The Massive Open Online Professor’, <>, accessed 9 December 2012.

[17] L. McKenna, ‘The Big Idea that Can Revolutionize Higher Education: “MOOC”’, The Atlantic, 5 November 2012, <>, accessed 1 January 2012.

[18] McKenna ‘The Big Idea that Can Revolutionize Higher Education: “MOOC”’.

[19]M. Prensky, ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’, On the Horizon, vol.  9, no. 5, 2001, pp. 1–6.

[20] J. Den Hollander, quoted in J. Mather, ‘Deakin Full Steam Ahead to the Cloud’, Australian Financial Review, 2 July 2012. E. Byrne, ‘Sink or Swim: Imperatives for Australian Universities in the Next Decade’, <>, accessed 9 November 2012.


[21] R. Barnett, ‘Knowing and Becoming in the Higher Education Curriculum’, Studies in Higher Education, vol. 34, no. 4, 2009, p. 430.

[22] For a comprehensive treatment of the changing conditions of knowledge, see P. James and D. McQueen-Thompson, ‘Abstracting Knowledge Formation: A Report on Academia and Publishing’, in S. Cooper, G. Sharp and J. Hinkson (eds), Scholars and Entrepreneurs: The Universities in Crisis, Melbourne, Arena Publications, 2002, pp. 183–206.

[23] C. Shirky, ‘Napster, Udacity, and the Academy’, <>, accessed 12 January 2013.

[24] Marginson, ‘Online Open Education’.

[25] D. Everett, ‘The Demise of The Scholar’, <>, accessed 12 January 2013.

[26] Shirky, ‘Napster, Udacity, and the Academy’.

[27] For instance, see D. Gage, ‘NEA, Kleiner Tackle Online Education With $16M for Coursera’, <> accessed 12 January 2013.

[28] T. Terranova, ‘Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy’, Social Text 63, vol 18, no. 2, 2000, pp. 33–57.

[29] See James and McQueen-Thompson, ‘Abstracting Knowledge Formation’.

[30] J. Zevin, MOOCs as capital-biased technological change’, 17 December 2012, <>, accessed 11 January 2013.

[31] Marginson, ‘Online Open Education’.

[32] B. Stewart, ‘The Problem with EdX’, InsideHigherEd, 2 May 2012, <>, accessed 7 December 2012. While these more open and anarchic platforms represent a purer form of the MOOC, it should be clear that I am not advocating that universities ought to be ‘disrupted’ by a wholesale adoption of these more radical MOOCs.

[33] T. Bates, ‘What’s Right and What’s Wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs’, Online Learning and Distance Education Resources, 5/08/12, <>, accessed 12 January 2013.

[34] For instance, see A. Watters, ‘The Problems with Peer Grading in Coursera’, InsideHigherEd, 17 August 2012, <>, accessed 12 December 2012.

[35] J. Gill Leader: Enter the disruptive dragon, 6December 2012. See also S. Vaidhyanathan, ‘What’s the Matter with MOOCs’, Chronicle of Higher Education, <>, 6 July 2012.

[36] Agrawal is quoted in V. Tilak, ‘Harvard, MIT Venture Aims to Fill India’s Education Gap’, The Wall Street Journal, 16/09/12, <>, accessed 9 November 2012.

[37] Nelson, ‘MOOCs and Exercise Bikes’,

[38] M. Guzdial, ‘Are MOOC Students Cheating or Mastering the Material?, “Gödel’s Lost Letter and P=NP”’, Computing Education Blog, <>, accessed 19 November 2012.

[39] B. Arnold, ‘Coursera to Fight Online Cheating — But Do Biometrics even Work?’, The Conversation, 13 January 2012, <>, accessed 13 January 2013.

[40] S. Kolowich, ‘The MOOC Survivors’, InsideHigherEd, <>, accessed 12 January 2013.

[41] Kolowich, ‘The MOOC Survivors’.

[42] D. Boullier, ‘The MOOCs Fad and Bubble Please Tell Us Another Story!’, InsideHigherEd, 18 December 2012, <>, accessed 12 January 2013.

[43] D. Koller on Online Learning (Ted Talks), <>, accessed 12 January 2013.

[44] K. Olds, ‘On the Territorial Dimensions of MOOCS’, InsideHigherEd, 3 December 2012, <>, accessed 9 December 2012.

[45] J.S. Daniel and S. Uvalić-Trumbić, ‘Fostering Governmental Support for Open Educational Resources Internationally’, Second Regional Policy Forum, Africa, 2012 <>, accessed 12 January 2013.

[46] Boullier, ‘The MOOCs Fad and Bubble Please Tell Us Another Story!’

[47] For a comprehensive examination of the changes to universities, see Cooper, Sharp and Hinkson (eds) Scholars and Entrepreneurs: The Universities in Crisis, Melbourne, Arena Publications, 2002.

[48] G.L. Williams ‘The Marketization of Higher Education: Reforms and Potentials in Higher Education Finance’, in D. Dill and B. Sporn (eds), Emerging Patterns of Social Demand and University Reform: Through a Glass Darkly, Oxford, New York and Tokyo, Pergamon, for the International Association of Universities Press, 1995, p. 177.

[49] M. Nussbaum, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2010, p. 135.

[50] R. Bowden, ‘Fantasy Higher Education, University and College League Tables’, Quality in Higher Education, vol. 6, no. 1, 2000, pp. 41–60.

[51] J. Nixon, ‘Universities and the Common Good’, in R. Barnett (ed.), The Future University: Ideas and possibilities. Lomdon, Routledge, 2012, p. 143.

[52] See, for instance, E. Gibney, ‘Reach for the Stars’, Times Higher Education, 1 November 2012, for a discussion of the poaching of academics in order to boost prestige, <>, accessed 11 January 2013.

[53] Ernst and Young, University of the Future: A Thousand Year Old Industry on the Cusp of Profound Change, <>, accessed 12 January 2013.

[54] M. Gallagher, ‘Plot Loss in Australian Higher Education Policy’, Conference on Institutional Performance in Higher Education, 16 May 2012, <>, accessed 12 January 2012.

[55] J. Morgan, ‘Universities Could be in Private Hands “in Six Months”’, Times Higher Education, 13 October 2012, <>, accessed 12 January 2012.

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