18 January 2013

MOOCs, arguments at cross purposes

This post is about two articles that may serve as examplars of two kinds of arguments that have often been advanced with respect to MOOCs. They are about the question of whether society at large should reject or embrace MOOCs as a form of online learning.  

The first article I scooped on my networked learning - learning networks Scoop.it site the other day. It is written by Jennifer Cost and her colleagues, who are all involved in teaching at community colleges in California. If I may quote from the Scoop.it comment I made on this article: "An eloquent but ruthless account of why community colleges (in the US) should shun MOOCs". The authors very much feel that MOOCs do a disservice to society, and that we therefore should not get involved in them, indeed, should ban them before the corporate world has created a situation from which we cannot go back anymore (if we still can, that is, cf this scooped article). 

The other article, a blog really, is a reaction by Mark Smithers to the article by Jennifer cs. It is called MOOC FUD, and describes the paper by Jennifer cs as an attempt to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt (after a tactic Microsoft was famously accused of using against its competitors). Mark is not impressed by their arguments and describes the article as follows: "In what can only be described as a rant, six community colleges members have taken to Inside Higher Education to produce a self serving article that bemoans the implications of the use of educational technology and, in particular, the rise of the MOOC."

I believe that at the heart of the disagreement between both parties lies a clash of philosophies, between conceiving of education as our chosen instrument to enculturate new generations and seeing it as a way to make money. Quite obviously Mark sits on the 'make money' side of the fence, as is evidenced by such terminology as delivery model, product, marketplace, consumer. This is precisely the kind of terminology Jennifer Cost cs. deride. For them, education is not a market, students are not customers, and education is not a product. Who is right?

I am afraid we're not going to be able to say so by analysing these two articles (nor any others, for that matter). The people behind them talk at cross purposes, they provide a very good example of what Thomas Kuhn called incommensurability, when he discussed clashes between scientific theories and introduced his notion of a paradigm shift. Such a shift occurs when contexts of discourse employ radically different terminologies, so different that there is no point for their proponents to attempt to talk productively to each other anymore. You either adopt the one paradigm or the other, and work with it, ignoring the alternative and its proponents.

On this account, Mark and Jennifer will never be able to conduct a productive argument. And perhaps they do not want to either. Jennifer cs' language is indeed inflammatory, hardly sensible as an attempt to convince your opponents. But Mark's accusation that Jennifer cs' arguments serve the ultimate purpose of making sure they  do not loose their job, are subject to that same criticism. 

Why am I making such a fuzz about this? I do because I feel we - that is, those concerned with education - do need to avoid arguing at cross purposes. I believe we can so by explicitly discussing underlying philosophies. Discussing whether MOOCs are pedagogically innovative, whether they represent a form of cultural imperialism, or whether they really save money is important but only secondary to the answering the question of how we as a civil society want to build and run our educational institutions. Mark Smithers avoids that question by adopting the talk of the business world, seemingly not realising that his discourse already makes assumptions about how we want to run our educational systems, as a business, that is. In my previous blog post, I tried to question the wisdom of such a stance, using Michael Sandel's insights as a starting point. Jennifer cs seem to want to discuss this issue, but already have made up their minds: "The debate here is not really one about technology and higher education ... No, what this MOOC debate is about is whether we blithely open the door to the gutting of what is most precious about what we [as professors] do." 

So I believe we need to tackle the issue of whether we should want MOOCs or not, by addressing the issue of whether we are ok with monetising education. There is one caveat, though. We may not get to the stage of having that discussion anymore. It is very difficult arguing with opponents who have deep pockets, such as the venture capitalists supporting the MOOC start-ups and the slew of companies that can't wait to join the fray. Pearson's Matthew Poyiadgi may serve as an apt example of how the latter kind of firms are trying to exert influence:
"I accept that tier-one universities such as Harvard or Cambridge will always have demand for places due to the prestige associated with studying there. But a student in Europe or Asia will refuse to pay large sums of money to sit in a mediocre lecture in their own country when they can learn online from world class tutors and be associated with a leading university."

If this isn't spreading FUD I don't know what is.