After all the excitement about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) we are now beginning unsurprisingly to see the backlash. Those who live in the more elitist shining ivory towers of higher education are realising that they don’t like these things and it was interesting to see the Khan Academy given something of a put down, along with the flipped classroom in the Times Educational Supplement last week. There is also plenty of covert political support for cynicism from a government in the UK which is focused on back to basics and an establishment which espouses what might be called a classical education. Both view most technologies in education as a diversion.
The central argument about the MOOCs is that they don’t deliver but the people who put this argument forward do not have a clear idea of what they are supposed to be delivering anyway. Of course, they are neither alternatives to nor the equivalence of research based university learning but they might be something else quite interesting. So what are people afraid of?
At a basic level, elements in higher education worry about the crowd sourcing of knowledge and information. Universities have always been the repositories of knowledge and have, at the same time explicitly controlled access to it. If you think that is unfair, think about how the numbers of law and medicine degrees have been controlled for generations in order to restrict entry to the professions. It is something that higher education does as second nature. Think about the way universities limit free access to their research findings (in other words to things which expand the sum total of human knowledge), brutally top slice their collaborations and are mean in giving anyone else credits however duff their own courses are.
They also worry about changed notions of learning where the boundaries between learning and other activities, including leisure, are slowly being eroded. Universities still hold on to lectures despite the research which shows that most of the audience, if they have all arrived, are multitasking or deliberately tasking themselves elsewhere. The reason why the lecturers persist instead of flipping the learning, publishing materials online, and developing activity based sessions is because the lecture structure has a symbolic purpose to represent the dissemination of expert knowledge and that is where the status of a higher educator is often located.
The other thing that higher ed. is gradually losing touch with is the assessment process. If you have a highly disciplined model of learning, in the Foucault sense, you clearly have to possess the threat of the assessment and the inclusion or exclusion that that supplies. So, while there is lots of evidence in schools that peer assessment helps children to learn, we don’t see it happening much in higher education.
So, all in all, higher education has a lot to worry about in developing MOOCs and, as interested parties, we have to make sure that they don’t set them up in order to marginalise them. If universities start to act as the proprietors of these courses and begin to claim the right to own and run them, we will start to see the reinforcement of that old disciplinary power which says that the guru and the lecture room is best.
I’m not saying that that is happening at the moment. I think there are some fantastic democratic initiatives around in the widest sense but it is important to be aware that the critics are waiting ready to, firstly, expect too much from MOOCs and then, secondly, to discredit them on the basis of their own false premises. After all, that is pretty much what they do in most of their dealings with knowledge!