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.


  1. Peter, your argument in the second last paragraph is in my opinion not against MOOC, but against the system where there already was no equal opportunity because of the high costs of high-quality institutions (at least in the US). In the pre-MOOC era there was no alternative at all. MOOCs offer some alternative, whatever objections there can be made againts it.

  2. Thanks Robert, yes, you're right, the argument has implications that transcend MOOCs and apply to any educational system that is dictated by market forces. However, in MOOCs this comes to the fore in an unprecedented way, since they (or at least the ones I focus on here) depend on venture capital for their funding. edX is a different case, funded by Harvard itself, with the aim of experimenting and finding out how this type of educational settings works (see my blog on this in October). Those MOOCs face other issues, mainly that I am at a loss to see how this could be seen as an innovation of education; or, put differently, it seems that these kinds of MOOCs miss out on the long development path that particularly open universities have travelled (Tony Bates has written about this), but that is of course an entirely different argument to make.

  3. The thing is, since then MOOCs face a good possibility of success to sustainability as well. http://www.elearners.com/online-education-resources/online-learning/moocs-under-the-microscope/

  4. Thanks for your comment Anne. The thing is, there is a huge difference between facts and norms. It is precisely the fact that venture capital sponsored MOOCs are on the rise and thus might end publicly funded (higher) education that worries me. It worries me because, as I try to argue in my blog, education should remain a responsibility of society as a whole and not be made subservient to the aim of making money for its investors. And this is a moral or normative point of view. So, MOOCs might become sustainable as a matter of fact, but that doesn't mean we should rest content with it.


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