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. 

3 January 2013

MOOCs, what about them? Some moral considerations

In my previous blog post I discussed the question of whether we should approve of MOOCs from a normative point of view. Do MOOCs contribute in any way to an educational system which is better from a normative point of view? I argued that I had a hard time to believe they would, the reason being that they are run by private companies, funded by venture capital who are in it for the money. So MOOCs will not see it as their task also to educate people to be 'good' citizens (in addition to providing a service for which there is a market), nor will they be interested in the ideal of widening access to higher education (inclusion), they may at best as a by-product of providing the service they do. Since then, Markus Deimann (@mdeimann) alerted me to the work of Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, who recently published a book called What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. (Sandel will also run his course Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? as a MOOC, starting this spring.) The message of the book I find quite appealing, it applies exactly to what I was trying to say in my recent blog post. If reading a whole book is a bit much, in 1998 Sandel gave two lectures under the same name, which capture the essence of the theses he went on further to develop in the book. In the remainder of this post, I will briefly discuss Sandel's theses and then apply them to the MOOC case. Although the outcome is similar to what I already wrote, with Sandel's help the argument is much better articulated and therefore better justified.

The essence of what Michael Sandel claims is that there is a moral limit to what money can buy, to what we should put a monetary value on; that is, that there is a limit to commoditisation (of books), privatisation (of prisons or armies) and commercialisation (of universities) (examples are his). Two different arguments may be given to back this claim, he says, although they are not always differentiated (as indeed I failed to do). The first argument is the argument from coercion or from fairness. It holds that offering money for a service or good is not always morally defensible as people may simple not be in a position to refuse the offer. So the ideal of freedom of choice is violated. If you need money desperately, then you cannot afford to refuse money offered for, say, carrying someone else's child as a surrogate mother. Your position coerces you into accepting the offer and it is the unfair distribution of wealth that is ultimately to blame. This argument is not a principled argument, Sandel argues, as according to it, in an equitable world in which everybody can afford to choose freely, it would be ok to create a market for surrogate mothers.

However, and this is the second argument, many would feel that acting as a surrogate mother is never morally defensible. It is simply wrong and the equitability or inequitability of the world is an irrelevant consideration. This is what Sandel calls the argument from corruption. It holds that there are particular things we should refrain from doing as they are morally objectionable. Such arguments are difficult to make as they refer to specific moral ideals (unlike the argument from coercion, which refers to the general ideal of freedom of choice). Each instance of such an argument needs to be argued for afresh. So, surrogate motherhood is objectionable because it is morally objectionable, it is wrong to adopt such practices as a society. Such arguments are difficult because their justification has to steer clear of two objections. Claiming that surrogate motherhood is wrong, prompts the question of why this is so. One answer would be because it is 'unnatural' to give up your own child, but such essentialist arguments are wrought with problems. The answer could also be that it is wrong because we all think it is (conventionalism). The problem with this argument is that it builds on majority opinions. These are difficult issues, that have to do with the question of how moral claims can be justified at all. For my purposes it suffices to say that it is ok to claim to something is morally objectionable in its own right, without further argument.

My first objection to MOOCs is that it does not serve inclusion, indeed it promotes cultural imperialism. This argument can easily be construed as an argument from coercion. Developing countries lack the financial and human resources to develop an educational system of high quality, so when confronted with MOOCs they cannot afford the luxury of refusing them. For, say, an AI course this may be not so bad. After all, it may help to build local capacity that is conversant with the latest ideas in AI. But for, say, a humanities course this would amount to cultural imperialism as with the course value systems or governance models are surreptitiously imported. A blog post by Dheerah Sanghi, scooped and commented upon by me earlier this year, provides as good example of this kind of coercion. The morally right thing to do would be to help developing countries to develop the courses they need, through unselfish financial support or by helping them to acquire the needed human resources. If, with this kind of help, people in developing countries would still decide to subscribe to a specific MOOC or would decide to use Open Educational Resources (OERs) created in the developed world, this would be ok, according to this argument from coercion. After all, no coercion is involved. There also seems to be no more fundamental reason, one that invokes the argument from corruption, to object against such a practice.

The argument from corruption is relevant though in a different way. It questions the introduction of MOOCs in higher education at all. It holds that Sebastian Thrun's view of providing higher education for the masses via MOOCs, leaving higher education for the happy few to some ten remaining high-quality institutions, is wrong on moral grounds. As a moral principle, everybody should be allowed to develop his or her talents to the maximum extent possible. This is part of the Enlightenment ideal to create a just society, in which there is a place for everybody. From this ideal it follows that everybody should have equal opportunities to develop themselves. Creating a two-tiered system with MOOCs for the masses and proper universities for those who can afford it, does not sit well with such an ideal.  Admittedly, MOOCs need not jeopardize the ideal of equal opportunities, they could simply be one of the tools universities wield to provide higher education. However, MOOC ambitions don't stop there, as talks about MOOCs as a means to save the US higher education system attest to. Then cherished Enlightenment ideals are under threat. Seen that way, MOOCs should be classified as morally corrupting.

The take-home message is simple. Although higher education is expensive and apparently becoming ever more expensive, making it subject to the laws of markets is no solution, morally speaking.

Note added on January 16, 2013 Graham Attwell of Pontydygy Bridge to Learning wote a blogpost that underscores my argument. It involves vocational education and not MOOCs, but it is about privatisation. Graham discusses the case of vocational education in the UK, in which Pearson has played a larger part. Not anymore, though. To quote Graham:
Apprenticeship training in the UK was largely privatised with Pearson prepared to pay a big premium for what it saw as easy profits based on government funding. And when that funding didn’t raise the same profits that they had dreamed of they just pulled out. No wonder there have been so many complaints at the quality of apprenticeship training in the UK.