The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform

A shortened version of this paper was given at UC Irvine last week, with the great Tressie McMillan Cottom talking about MOOCs and for-profit education. You can see video of both of us and the respondents here. Much thanks to Catherine Liu, Michael Meranze, and Peter Krapp for organizing and participating.

The MOOC phenomenon has happened very quickly, to put it mildly. Last November, the New York Times declared 2012 to be “the Year of the MOOC,” and while it feels (at least to me) like we’ve been talking about MOOCs for years now, the speed by which the MOOC has become the future of higher education is worth thinking carefully about, both because it’s an important way to frame what is happening, and because that speed warps the narrative we are able to tell about what is happening. Coursera, Udacity, and edX are all less than a year old, and while the first two—which are silicon valley startups out of Stanford, essentially—have already enrolled millions of students, the non-profit consortium edX has grown just as prodigiously. Beginning as a partnership between Harvard and MIT, it now includes a dozen different universities, and that number will surely grow.

The MOOC phenomenon is also a shift in discourse, a shift that’s happened so quickly and so recently, that it fills up our mental rear-view mirror. When the word “MOOC” was first coined in 2008, by a set of Canadian academics who needed a term to describe the experiment in pedogogy they were putting together, the word itself was a niche term that most people in higher education would not hear about, or need to. In the last year, it’s gone from a rather singular experiment in connectivist and distributed learning to a behemoth force that we are told and retold is reshaping the face of higher education. And whether MOOCs are disrupting education through innovation—as Clay Christensen’s model of disruptive innovation in business would have it—or simply representing the disruption of education as it is embedded in the market, the phenomenon under discussion has changed quite dramatically as it has mgrated from Canada to Silicon Valley.

This is why it’s interesting to note that Inside Higher Education’s new booklet of essays, “The MOOC moment,” introduces its subject by writing that:

“The acronym MOOC (for massive open online course) first appeared in Inside Higher Ed in December 2011, in reference to a course offered by a Stanford University professor. These days, the acronym is omnipresent and – to many – needs no definition.”

I would say, in response, that this apparent lack of a need for a definition is exactly why we need to slow things down and figure out what the heck we’re talking about. For one thing, when we start the story in 2011, we forget about the 2008 MOOCs, and if the MOOCs are the future and the future is now, then it tends to have little to do with what was happening at the University of Manitoba in 2008, or why.

The MOOC that debuted in IHE in December 2011 was Sebastian Thrun’s “Artificial Intelligence” MOOC, a course that was offered at Stanford but opened up to anyone with a broadband. The way this story is usually told is that his incredible success—160,000 students, from 190 countries—encouraged Thrun to leave Stanford to try the new mode of pedagogy that he had stumbled upon. He had seen a TED talk given by Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, and when he decided to give it a whirl and it was a huge success, the rest is history. In January, 2012, he would found the startup Udacity.

However, another way to tell the story would be that Thrun was a Google executive—who was already well known for his work on Google’s driverless car project—and that he had already resigned his tenure at Stanford in April 2011, before he even offered that Artifical Intelligence class. Ending his affiliation with Stanford could be described as completing his transition to Silicon Valley proper. In fact, despite IHE’s singular “a Stanford University professor,” Thrun co-taught the famous course with Google’s Director of Research, Peter Norvig.

It’s important to tell the story this way, too, because the first story makes us imagine a groundswell of market forces and unmet need, a world of students begging to be taught by a Stanford professor and Google, and the technological marvels that suddenly make it possible. But it’s not education that’s driving this shifting conversation; as the MOOC became something very different in migrating to Silicon Valley, it’s in stories told by the New York Times, the WSJ, and TIME magazine that the MOOC comes to seem like an immanent revolution, whose pace is set by necessity and inevitability.

For example. When the president of UVA was abruptly fired last June, it would be an exaggeration to say that a David Brooks column and a few articles in the WSJ were the cause of it, but it would not be that much of an exaggeration. As we can now roughly reconstruct—from emails which were FOIA-ed by the UVa student paper—UVa’s rector and vice rector essentially engineered Teresa Sullivan’s resignation because they decided she was moving too slowly on online education. And what you get from reading these emails is an overwhelming sense of speed, which they are repeating, verbatim, from the articles they are emailing and forwarding to each other. The rector emailed a WSJ column “Higher Education's Online Revolution” with the subject line "good piece in WSJ today -- why we can't afford to wait," for example, an article she had gotten from a major donor, who suggested that it was "a signal that the on-line learning world has now reached the top of the line universities and they need to have strategies or will be left behind." She immediately replied: "Your timing is impeccable -- the BOV is squarely focused on UVa's developing such a strategy and keenly aware of the rapidly accelerating pace of change." At a meeting of UVa deans and vice presidents, UVa’s rector said:

"The board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation…We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change. The world is simply moving too fast."

Where does such a person get this kind of conviction? You find the best examples of this kind of rhetoric in the New York Times; a few months ago, for example, Thomas Friedman argued that the “MOOCs revolution…is here and is real” and remarked on “how much today’s traditional university has in common with General Motors of the 1960s, just before Toyota used a technology breakthrough to come from nowhere and topple G.M.” This kind of comparison has become a common sense. MOOCs are a “campus tsunami,” to use columnist David Brook’s term, one that we all need to pay attention to, before it’s too late.

Where this urgency comes from, however, might be less important than what it does to our sense of temporality, how experience and talk about the way we we are, right now, in “the MOOC moment.” In the MOOC moment, it seems to me, it’s already too late, always already too late. The world not only will change, but it has changed. In this sense, it’s isn’t simply that “MOOCs are the future,” or online education is changing how we teach,” in the present tense. Those kinds of platitudes are chokingly omnipresent, but the interesting thing is the fact that the future is already now, that it has already changed how we teach. If you don’t get on the MOOC bandwagon, yesterday, you’ll have already been left behind. The world has already changed. To stop and question that fact is to be already belated, behind the times.

The first thing I want to do, then, is slow us down a bit, and go through the last year with a bit more care than we’re usually able to do, to do a “close reading” of the year of the MOOC, as it were. Not only because I have the time, but because, to be blunt, MOOC’s only make sense if you don’t think about it too much, if you’re in too much of a hurry to go deeply into the subject.

I mean that in two different ways. On the one hand, I would put it to you that the logic of the MOOC is a function of shallow thinking, of arguments that go no deeper than a David Brooks or Thomas Friedman column. But they also valorize and reward that level of depth, even make it compulsory. MOOC’s are literally built to cater to the attention span of a distracted and multi-tasking teenager, who pays attention in cycles of 10-15 minutes. This is not a shot at teenagers, however, but an observation about what the form anticipates (and therefore rewards and reproduces) as a normal teenager’s attention span. In place of the 50 minute lectures that are the norm at my university, for example, MOOCs will break a unit of pedagogy down into youtube-length clips that can be more easily digested, whenever and wherever. Much longer than that, and it falls apart; the TED talk is essentially the gold standard. But I want to suggest that the argument in favor of MOOC’s can’t handle all that much complexity either; it makes sense at the speed of a TED talk, or the length a NY Times column, but starts to come apart very quickly if you go any deeper or longer than that.

I’m evoking two kinds of time here. On the one hand, there is the belated temporality where we’re already always behind the times, which is necessary to make the MOOC seem like the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy it has become: if Harvard, Stanford, and MIT are making MOOCs, then anyone who doesn’t jump on board the bandwagon will be left behind. We don’t have to understand why it’s happening, where it’s going, or where it came from; the fact that it’s happening there is all the reason we need. Framed by this temporality, the MOOC becomes a kind of fetish object: because we treat its existence as self-evident fact—or to the extent that we treat its existence as a kind of self-evident fact—its objective reality obscures the contingencies of its production and the ideological formations that make it seem to exist. Why are Harvard, Stanford, and MIT making MOOCs? It doesn’t matter. Only the fact that they are making them is important.

This is a logic that particularly appeals to universities like the University of Virginia, University of Texas, or the University of California, by the way; schools that aren’t in the Ivy league, but who see themselves at the forefront of higher education. But it’s also an argument that only works at the depth (or non-depth) of a David Brooks column, maybe a 6 minute reading time, because its claims only work if you don’t interrogate their foundational premises too much.

For example. On May 3rd of last year, David Brooks began his column “The Campus Tsunami” this way:

“Online education is not new. The University of Phoenix started its online degree program in 1989. Four million college students took at least one online class during the fall of 2007. But, over the past few months, something has changed. The elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet. Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures.”

This is a sophisticated piece of discourse, in its way. By acknowledging that “online education is not new,” Brooks is working to distinguish the thing that is not new (online education) from the form of online education that is new, the MOOC. To re-brand online education—which has generally had a well-deserved bad reputation—he has to conjure forth this distinction, creating space between the old kind of online education (the University of Phoenix) and the new kind, which, because it is new, can shed that baggage. He therefore opens by acknowledging online education’s lack of novelty so he can then re-situate our perspective in a different place, just ahead of the cutting edge: if the University of Phoenix’s online program is decades old—and therefore not cutting edge—the kind of online education that he’s interested in discussing, which is different than the University of Phoenix, IS cutting edge. And the difference is a shift from the bottom to the top, from low prestige to high prestige: “over the past few months, something has changed…The elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet.”

What he’s not saying, of course—what he’s working very hard to un-say—is that Harvard is actually struggling to get where the University of Phoenix already was in 1989. You have to read him against the grain to draw that out, but it’s there: he’s essentially observing the way that Harvard is emulating the University of Phoenix. But, of course, that can’t be, can it? After all, by definition, Harvard, Stanford, MIT are cutting-edge, while the University of Phoenix—a for-profit, low prestige university that markets to non-traditional students and employs a no-name teaching staff—well, they can’t be the cutting edge, by definition.

These definitional “facts” allow Brooks to finesse a truly jaw-dropping rhetorical move: though he began with the statement that “online education is not new,” he manages, in only four sentences, to write the words: “Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments.”

How does he get from “online education is not new” (old hat, established, conventional) to the line “Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments”? How does online education go from something older than most of our students to a temporality where it’s just on the cusp of being developed, where in very recent memory, it was pure speculative futurity, where it’s the future we hurtling backwards into?

The key to this piece of rhetorical alchemy is that you can’t over-think it, in the way I just have. Brooks is taking something that lacks prestige and cultural capital—a mode of education that is not valuable, only expensive, not innovative or exciting—and placing the name “Harvard” around it makes it into something that suddenly is both valuable and worthwhile, as a function of Harvard’s symbolic role in American higher education, to define the new cutting edge. And when he writes “Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures,” he means that because these schools are envisioning it—because attached to that brand—online education is now the future we must emulate and pursue. Because it’s at Harvard, it’s “now” instead of being where the University of Phoenix already was the year the Berlin Wall fell, before our students were born.



If I have one overarching takeaway point in this talk, it’s this: there’s almost nothing new about the kind of online education that the word MOOC now describes. It’s been given a great deal of hype and publicity, but that aura of “innovation” poorly describes a technology—or set of technological practices, to be more precise—that is not that distinct from the longer story of online education, and which is designed to reinforce and re-establish the status quo, to make tenable a structure that is falling apart.

If you read the people that were creating MOOCs in 2008, by contrast—as I’ve been doing—you’ll actually see a lot of thinking that’s kind of out there, as far as how we conceptualize what education is for, and what it does. But the innovations in pedagogy that produced the first MOOC in 2008, at the University of Manitoba, had to be forgotten and erased from the historical timeline if the MOOCs that we’re talking about were to become the standard bearer for “cutting edge.” When Inside Higher Education writes about the MOOC moment, after all, that moment has to begin not in 2008, but in December 2011, and in Silicon Valley where and when the hype machine really gets into gear.

Things are moving so fast because if we stopped to think about what we are doing, we’d notice that MOOCs are both not the same thing as normal education, and are being positioned to replace “normal” education. But the pro-MOOC argument is always that it’s cheaper and almost never that it’s better; the most utopian MOOC-boosters will rarely claim that MOOCs are of equivalent educational value, and the most they’ll say is that someday it might be. This point is crucial to unpacking the hype: columnists, politicians, university administrators, educational entrepreneurs, and professors who are hoping to make their name by riding out this wave, they can all talk in such glowing terms about the onrushing future of higher education only because that future hasn’t actually happened yet: it’s still speculative in the sense that we’re all speculating about what it will look like. This means that the MOOC can be all things to all people because it is, literally, a speculation about what it might someday become.

To put my cards on the table, the 2012 MOOC seems to me like a speculative bubble, a product which is being pumped up and overvalued by pro-business legislators, overzealous administrators, and by a lot of hot air in the media. But like all speculative bubbles—especially the ones that originate in Silicon Valley—it will eventually burst; the only question is what things will look like when it does. But if 2012 has been “the year of the MOOC” because it’s been the year of MOOC-hype, 2013 is already something different; so far, a great deal of the MOOC news has been the backlash against it.

Last week, for example, the philosophy department at San Jose State University wrote an open letter to Thomas Friedman’s good friend Michael Sandel, informing him why they were refusing to use his MOOC, a survey course on Justice given at Harvard, and offered through edX. I can’t say it half as well as they did, so I’m going to quote this open letter:

“Anant Agarwal, edX President, has described the standard professor as basically just "pontificating" and "spouting content," a description he used ten times in a recent press conference here at SJSU. Of course, since philosophy has traditionally been taught using the Socratic method, we are largely in agreement as to the inadequacy of lecture alone. But, after all the rhetoric questioning the effectiveness of the antiquated method of lecturing and note taking, it is telling to discover that the core of edX's JusticeX is a series of videotaped lectures that include excerpts of Harvard students making comments and taking notes. In spite of our admiration for your ability to lecture in such an engaging way to such a large audience, we believe that having a scholar teach and engage with his or her own students is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her students."

Let me just underscore this point: in order to create the illusion of engagement, Sandel’s MOOC contains footage of Harvard students asking questions, which their Harvard professor answers. But as the open letter from SJSU pointed out,

“what kind of message are we sending our students if we tell them that they should best learn what justice is by listening to the reflections of the largely white student population from a privileged institution like Harvard? Our very diverse students gain far more when their own experience is central to the course and when they are learning from our own very diverse faculty, who bring their varied perspectives to the content of courses that bear on social justice…should one-size-fits-all vendor-designed blended courses become the norm, we fear that two classes of universities will be created: one, well- funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant. Public universities will no longer provide the same quality of education and will not remain on par with well-funded private ones. Teaching justice through an educational model that is spearheading the creation of two social classes in academia thus amounts to a cruel joke.”

San Jose State is the ground zero for the MOOC tsunami, in several senses. It’s literally located in Silicon Valley, but it’s also part of the Cal State system, the largest university system in the country, with almost half a million students. Along with the partnership with edX, SJSU also has a partnership with Udacity to offer slightly lower cost online courses to its own students—and also to local high school and community college students—and they say they hope to eventually replace 20% of the curriculum with online courses from universities like Harvard and MIT. They explicitly hope to do so in a way which can serve as a model for the rest of the Cal State system to follow.

SJSU’s president, by the way, might be the most market-minded university administrator I’ve ever come across, and his contempt for his own university faculty is astonishing; when he was asked about the quality of SJSU’s online courses, for example, he just quipped that “It could not be worse than what we do face to face.” He says that kind of thing regularly enough that it’s not a fluke. It’s one thing when you have the President of edX or Thomas Friedman condemning professors as boring pontificators spouting content, but when the calls are coming from inside the building, you have a real problem.

Another tidbit: his Cal State profile page describes “his more than 30 years of experience in the service of higher education and industry,” which is a conflation you rarely here put quite so bluntly. Such a conflation does, however, make a lot of sense in Silicon Valley, where the educational-industrial complex is the foundation on which the valley rests, where it’s pretty normal for a Stanford professor to also be an executive at Google, and for a university president to see his duty as split between working for education and working for industry. But things get weird if that model starts to be the basis from which to transform a public system of higher education. Which is what’s now happening.



Let me turn now to talk about what should be the elephant in the room, Senate Bill 520. This is a bill, which, if it passes, will require all three sectors of California’s public university system to accept MOOCs from a certain approved list as course credit. The details are yet to be determined, and it seems most likely that the final bill will be something different than what was originally introduced. But the assumptions and ambitions of SB520 are a useful way to frame what direction the MOOC tsunami is taking: the capture of public education.

For the 20 Million Minds foundation, one of the drivers behind the bill, SB520 is all about options, opportunity, and choice for students. The bill’s sponsor, Senate Pro-Tem President Darrell Steinberg, cites the very real problems of access to over-enrolled courses—and the fact that students are failing to graduate on time, because they cannot get required courses for their majors—and uses this as a rhetorical wedge to argue that MOOCs should actually be acceptable as replacements for normal college classes. As he put it:

“We want to be the first state in the nation to make this promise: No college student in California will be denied the right to move through their education because they couldn’t get a seat in the course they needed.”

But the irony of his formulation is that even he admits that instead of solving a problem which has a very simple definition—which is basically reducible to a number, the fact that there are more students than there are chairs and classrooms—they are simply redefining the problem, imagining into existence a chairless classroom. The problem is real: years of consistent budget cuts have left the public universities without the money to buy “chairs” (and everything that represents), so public universities have shifted the financial burden onto the backs of individual students, whose tuition now pays much more of the cost. Since educating fewer students would therefore cost money, in effect—and it would also cost money to fully staff the necessary courses—there is no solution to the problem that does not require spending more money on chairs, classrooms, and teachers to teach them. MOOCs enter the picture, then, as a kind of fantasy solution to this unsolvable problem: instead of addressing the problem by either admitting fewer students or adding more courses, we will define the problem differently: chairless classrooms! Everyone is happy.

In this case, the cliche that California is where everything happens first has some truth to it: if SB520 passes, it will define the shape of things to come, not only by creating a model for other states to follow, but by creating a kind of market value for MOOCs that didn’t exist before, and which wouldn’t exist otherwise. By making certain selected MOOC’s convertible into course credit—at CCC’s, CSU’s, and the UC system—the California legislature will quite literally create value where it didn’t exist before, by making MOOCs a thing that are worth paying for. This shift is important. But mandating that a MOOC is the same thing as college—that it can be literally credited as a college class—not only changes what a MOOC is, it changes what college is.

After all, if a MOOC is simply a free educational resource that you can find on the web—which is what MOOCs presently are—then there’s nothing to object to in them, and everything to like. Such a MOOC is an almost wholly good addition to the universe: other than opportunity costs and the costs of a computer—which are not nothing, but they are also not that much—it’s simply a free and useful thing, available to those that want it. But the moment that such a use value becomes legible as a market value, when it becomes something that can be exchanged for the kinds of course credits that students pay very high tuition for, MOOCs become a radically different beast, with a radically different kind of economic value. It’ll be much easier to charge for them, on the one hand, and almost unthinkable that associated costs won’t rise, as they did with the once free California public universities (especially since Udacity and Coursera are literally for-profit enterprises). And on the other hand, they will radically devalue the resource that they can now be used to replace: if you can replace “chairs” (by which I mean, the brick and mortar campus) with a chair-less university—if those things are literally exchangeable—then the market value of “chairs” goes down, at the same time as its actual costs stay the same. If we can’t fully staff our classrooms now, how will we staff them in the future, when they have to compete with free?

To put it slightly differently, pumping up the value of MOOCs in this way—declaring, by legislative fiat, that MOOCs are now convertible with “real courses”—actually does have an important cost. If the platonic ideal of the classroom experience is the gold standard, then declaring that a bunch of other unrelated metals are also gold will lower its value, especially if those metals are freely available, in infinite supplies. Why would someone pay a teacher to give one-on-one attention to students when those students could get the same formal credential from an online course? You can point out that there is an actual and effective difference between a student to professor of 17 to 1 (in the gold standard class) and a ratio of 10,000 to 1, where a student will effectively never have a personalized interaction with the professor. But once market equivalency has entered the equation, once the market recognizes an equivalence between a MOOC and an in-person class, pointing out the difference that is experienced by the student will be trumped by the equivalence of market logic, which will dictate paying the cheaper of the two. An in-person education will become a unnecessary luxury: like gold itself, it will no longer be the “gold standard,” the basis of educational value, but rather, simply, an ornamental marker of elite status.

To Darrel Steinberg, MOOCs can seem like a win-win solution to an otherwise intractable fiscal crisis. Students who are locked out of over-enrolled required courses can complete their degrees by taking those classes with an online provider, possibly even at a lower cost and at no extra cost to the state. Meanwhile, allowing Silicon Valley start-ups like Coursera and Udacity to offer courses that will transfer into the California State and University of California systems will give those companies a legitimacy in the education marketplace that they have never had before. When you see that Sebastian Thrun is one of the people who helped write the bill, and when Darrell Steinberg held his press conference announcing the bill on “Google Hangout” a lot of things become clearer.

If this bill passes, the winners will be Silicon Valley along with the austerity hawks in the California legislature: while the former will have privileged access to the largest student market in the state, the latter will be relieved of the burden of having to educate the state’s young people. And the losers will be teachers and students.



MOOC boosters live in the future; actually-existing MOOCs are a far cry from what their champions promise they will someday become, which allows us to gloss over any troubling trends in their present day iteration. After all, MOOC boosters like to brag about the thousands of students—even hundreds of thousands—who sign on to learn from super-professors like Harvard University’s Michael Sandel or Sebastian Thrun. But completion rates for these courses consistently hover in the mid single-digits. A Software Engineering MOOC taught by UC Berkeley professor David Patterson in May 2012, for example, may have enrolled over 50,000 students, but less than 4,000 actually completed the course, and this is typical. What’s more, as Patterson himself was quick to observe, his MOOC was a “cheating-rich environment”; it is safe to assume that the number of students who actually completed the course is somewhat lower than even the 7% that received a completion certificate.

This doesn’t mean that MOOCs are without value, of course; just because most of Patterson’s students didn’t complete his course doesn’t mean they didn’t benefit from taking it, and it seems reasonable to assume that many online learners are not interested in completion certificates. Patterson observed, for example, that many of his students already had degrees, and that some were instructors themselves; for learners wishing to brush up skills or keep abreast of new pedagogy, a MOOC might be just the thing. In applied fields like software engineering, where the ability to code is a valuable enough skill that course credit becomes almost irrelevant—and where the material lends itself naturally to online instruction—the free availability of high-quality course materials is an almost pure social good.

It does, however, demonstrate what the technology is not good at: accreditation and mass education. It rewards self-directed learners who have the resources and privilege to allow them to pursue learning for its own sake. But if you want it to function as a gate-keeping mechanism, which is one of the things that universities do, it’s not very good at that; a MOOC is almost designed to make cheating even easier that ever before. And if you want to use it to make educational resources available to underserved and underprivileged communities—which has been the historical mission of public education—MOOCs are also a really poor way to do that. Historically, public systems like California’s provided high quality education to citizens of the state who could not have gotten the equivalent anywhere else. MOOCs promise to see to it that what the public universities are able to provide is not, in every sense, the equivalent of what rich people’s kids get.

The irony is that when the term was first coined in 2008, this was all quite well understood; the MOOC came into existence as something that, by its very nature, could never be used to replace a normal college class. The point of it was that it was something fundamentally different than a college class.

Dave Cormier originally suggested the name for an experiment in open courseware that George Siemens and Stephen Downes were putting together at the University of Manitoba, a class of 25 students that was opened up to over 1,500 online participants; for them, this MOOC was part of a long-running engagement with connectivist principles of education, the idea that we learn best when we learn collaboratively, in networks, because the process of learning is less about acquiring new knowledge—the commodified “content” that a Udacity or edX MOOC tries to reify and market—and much more about building the social and neural connections that will allow knowledge to circulate, be used, evolve, and to grow. A class that’s animated by a contractual agreement, which spells out the costs, requirements, and credential that are to be acquired is one thing, and it may even be a good thing; but the goal of these original MOOCs was to foster an educational process that was something totally different: it would be as exploratory and creative as its participants chose to make it, it was about building a sense of community investment in a particular project, a fundamentally socially-driven enterprise, and its outcomes were to be fluid and open-ended. I would argue that getting a “Grade” for such a thing—or charging money for it—would be to fundamentally change what it is.

I could go on; for those of us who first heard of MOOCs in 2012, reading a document like “The MOOC Model for Digital Practice” from 2010, is a strange experience; the things they said about MOOCs in 2010 are hard to square with what people have been saying about them since “the MOOC moment” happened, and it went mainstream.

The MOOC of 2012 looks very different, starting with the central narrative of “disruption” and “un-bundling”: instead of building social information networks, the neoliberal MOOC is driven by a desire to liberate and empower the individual, breaking apart actually-existing academic communities and refocusing on the individual’s acquisition of knowledge. The MOOC being praised by utopian technologists in the New York Times might be the diametric opposite of what Siemens, Downes, and Cormier said they were trying to create, in this sense, even though it deploys some of the same idealistic rhetoric. Rather than transferring course content from expert to student, the original MOOCs stemmed from a connectivist desire to decentralize and de-institutionalize education, creating fundamentally open and open-ended networks of circulation and collaboration. But the MOOCs which are being developed by Silicon Valley startups Udacity and Coursera, as well as by non-profit initiatives like edX, aim to do exactly the same thing that traditional courses have done—transfer course content from expert to student—only to do so massively more cheaply and on a much larger scale.

This is why, instead of de-institutionalizing education or making learning less hierarchical, we see some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world treating the MOOC as a lifeline in troubled economic waters, leveraging the figure of the “super-professor” to maintain their position of excellence atop the educational field, and even to create new hierarchical arrangements between universities. These MOOCs are just a new way of maintaining the status quo, of re-institutionalizing higher education in an era of budget cuts, sky-rocketing tuition, and unemployed college graduates burdened by student debt. If the MOOC began in the classroom as an experimental pedagogy, it has swiftly morphed into a process driven from the top down, imposed on faculty by university administrators, or even imposed on administrators by university boards of trustees and regents. From within academia, the MOOC phenomenon is all about dollars and cents, about doing more of the same with less funding. And while MOOC-boosters like to deride the “sage on the stage” model of education-delivery—as if crowded lecture halls are literally the only kind of classroom there is—most of the actually-existing MOOCs being marketed are not much more than a massive and online version of that very same “sage on a stage” model. And what could be more hierarchical than a high prestige university like Harvard lecturing to a less prestigious institution like SJSU?



I’ve titled my talk “The End of Reform” because I had to call it something; I couldn’t just say that the MOOCification of Higher Education is a Terrible No Good Very Bad Thing, although I think you have a sense of what I think about it.

But I mean two things by that title. On the one hand, MOOCs are more like an end of something than a beginning. Instead of a transition between old and new, they represent the end of a process of constant change that has defined Higher Education for as long as it has existed. At the micro level, MOOCs are cheap because you record them once and then reuse them. They don’t grow and evolve, and they don’t require the hiring of academic faculty, whose intellectual lives keep intellectual inquiry moving forward. This is what makes them cheap, but it's also what will make them solidify hierarchy by placing a pantheon of academic superstars at the center of pedagogical practice, reifying knowledge into a commodity which, because it has value, cannot be allowed to change. If academic life is anything, it’s a devotion to endless process: the scientific method tells you how to take the next step, not where to stop. MOOCs are structurally devoted to pinning knowledge down like a butterfly, putting it on file, putting a price on it, and floating it on the market.

It also represents the end of reform at the macro level. The University of California, for example, is a profoundly recent creation; it was basically a two campus university until the 1950’s; today there are eleven campuses; online education dates back to the 80’s, well, this university dates back to the 60’s. Same is true with CSU’s and CCC’s; between 1957 and 1965, California established eight new CSUs—out of an eventual twenty-four—while more than half its present complement of 112 community colleges was built in the period between 1957 and 1978. California’s public university system is, in many ways, the biggest and best expression of a moment in time when futurity was incredibly important and possible; it represented a massive investment of public funds in the state’s collective future. The 1960 Donahoe Act, better known as the Master Plan for Higher Education, was a complex piece of legislation, but at its heart, quite simple, a blanket commitment from the state to educate all the California students who wanted an education. And as society grew, the university was to grow with it, adapting to changing needs by staying in a permanent state of reformulation.

Even though Darrel Steinberg’s SB520 begins by citing the Master Plan, his legislation represents a refusal of futurity: because the future is now, there is nothing to plan for; the only reality is the economic reality that a funding shortfall must be dealt with. And instead of solving this problem, he seeks to institutionalize it, render it permanent. We solve the problem of frustrating ambitions by foreswearing ambition, refusing to have desires that can be frustrated.