I’ve been reading Clay Shirky’s latest essay. He takes the usual Clay Shirky line: technological change, in the transformatory shape of the internet, is evidently about to profoundly disrupt a large sector, and the current incumbents are not going to be able to do much about it. But the good news is that more people are going to get more of what they want than before, and for a lot less money. He’s ridden this line over the last ten years, with classic essays like “Help, the price of information has fallen and it can’t get up” which analyse – usually presciently – the disruption that’s happening to industries like music, books, newspapers, TV, video, film.

In this latest essay, the industry facing change that is almost literally inconceivable to the incumbents is higher education, and the current shape of change is the MOOC. His prognosis?

“We’re probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did.”

He’s a better essayist than me, so really, in all honesty you’d be better stopping now and reading his writing instead.

Android invasion

Assuming you’re still with me … this crystallised for me a point I don’t think I’d properly grasped about MOOCs before.

The worse is better idea applies. We know xMOOCs (I’m using the xMOOC/cMOOC distinction here) are pedagogically dodgy compared to good education. But we knew MP3s were acoustically dodgy compared to full CDs. But they were easier to get hold of, and that made all the difference. Furthermore, as Clay Shirky points out, the real comparator is not the very best higher education currently available, but the median-quality higher education available. It’s starker than that at the margin, where the comparator is the lowest-quality higher education available. And again as he points out, the educational experience here is open, with lots of people looking, and those things tend to get better over time. Much better.

Assuming MOOCs do dramatically change higher education, is that a good or a bad thing? Well, mostly it’ll be a thing. But if they do result in dramatic change, it’ll be because most of the learners see that they can get what they want for less money, or more of what they want for the same money. That adds up to more people getting more – and, yes, better – education.

That’s exactly why I’m in HE doing the job I’m doing.

There’s a longstanding concern with access to education and learning as one of the cornerstones of making society better.

The great 19th century social reformers set up physical libraries and workers’ education cooperatives to give access to learning to a whole social class who were previously denied it.

The 1960s saw the birth of ‘The University of the Air’ – now better known as The Open University, and the many open and distance learning universities that followed. It also saw the expansion of conventional higher education. All good stuff.

The web, Wikipedia, open educational resources, and now MOOCs have taken this a step further and faster. Yes, online education is not new (I’ve been involved in it since at least 1996). Yes, there are “better” examples of learning online (I like to think that some of the projects I’m involved with now would count). But the scale of the number of learners in xMOOCs is new, and different.

The practical barriers within learning itself are now, for the most part, in the developed world, gone.

You can learn a subject, right the way up from a simple overview to near the very edge of research, without having to ask anyone’s permission. Nobody’s going to stop you because you have the wrong accent, wrong skin colour, come from the wrong place, don’t fit their gender expectations, or are the wrong social class, or believe the wrong things.

That’s a huge and important change.

It’s not the end of the story, of course. Those of us who want as much education to as many as will benefit from it have a long way to go yet.

Those parts of the higher education system that are essentially positional goods are unlikely to be seriously disrupted by this change. (I think they have some serious questions about their continued social licence to practice, though, which are not going away.)

And just because an option is theoretically there doesn’t mean people will know it’s there, or be able to take it up. Anyone who’s ever done user testing will have painful experiences of this point at a micro scale. (“Over there! On the left! The button you’re looking for is right there!”) More importantly, someone who is so entirely consumed by their terrible job, or their overwhelming caring responsibilities, or by their abusive home situation, or their poor health, or their disabilities – are not going to be able to spend eight hours a day studying at the very highest level. Opening the doors doesn’t mean everyone can come in without help.

But it does, at least, mean that those who can make it to the door don’t have it shut in their face.

MOOCs are a Good Thing.

This work by Doug Clow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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Author: dougclow

Experienced project leader, data scientist, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in the education field and beyond.

6 thoughts on “MOOCs, OER and Wikipedia FOR GREAT JUSTICE”

  1. I think Shirkey is addressing an interesting question, but it’s not the important question for ‘the future of HE’.

    “You can learn a subject, right the way up from a simple overview to near the very edge of research, without having to ask anyone’s permission. Nobody’s going to stop you because you have the wrong accent, wrong skin colour, come from the wrong place, don’t fit their gender expectations, or are the wrong social class, or believe the wrong things.”

    Actually you’ve been able to do most of this for many decades. There used to be things called public libraries. Academic knowledge used until recently to be codified in print. There were good books to learn from, and bad ones, but if you lived near a tolerably good public library, and in developed countries most people did, you could learn pretty advanced stuff without ever going near an HE institution. Also it used to be the case that most towns and cities of any size in developed countries had other institutions that supported this kind of self- initiated learning – things that ranged through literary and philosophical societies (like the excellent one in Newcastle that I frequented in my youth) and worker’s educational association branches.

    “That’s a huge and important change.”

    It’s a non-trivial change, yes, but the threat to disrupt HE is at best indirect – and that’s because universities are not and arguably have not for at least a century been principally in the business of facilitating learning, because there are pretty good other ways to learn. That’s what we academics /think/ we are there for, but we’re wrong. The crucial difference from learning at a university and learning in a public library is that at the university you get a degree. That is, if you study there you get a certificate to tell other people what you learned. You don’t get that at the library. It’s not the learning that gets you job interviews, it’s the certification, and it’s the fact that certification is linked to you in a (more or less) auditable way, because the university stopped you from getting someone else to do your exams. If you learned the stuff in a public library (or, more recently, by poking about the Web), you might (or might not) be able to /do/ the job just as well as the person with the degree, but you’re far less likely to /get/ the job in the first place, so that’s the main way the university adds value for the learner. It might also happen to faciliate the learning well, or it might not, but if it doesn’t persuade employers and other third parties that its certification is valid, if will stop existing. Currently MOOCs aren’t there in that respect – it might not be long till they are, but there are a /lot/ of barriers still in place to that.

    Another aspect of (some) HE institutions that MOOCs can’t yet do, and possibly never will, is the labelling of people. I did my first degree in a university that’s in some league tables the top one in the UK. The barriers to entry were pretty high. The teaching had its moments but was patchy. I graduated 40 years ago. But people /still/, rather ludicrously, sometimes treat me to a certain extent as if I’m a special person because I went there, and this seems largely to be /because/ it is and was hard to get in, and therefore I must have been good in some ill-defined sense, relative to my peers, all those years ago when I got in. Well, maybe I was, but that was more than 40 years ago – but some people /still/ act as if that makes me somehow superior now. At best that’s pretty embarrassing, but it points to a role of the HE institution you went to in allowing lazy recruiters or thinkers to sort people into the sheep and the goats.

    If there isn’t discrimination and labelling – if people can’t be sorted in this lazy way, but only in terms of what they studied and actually learned (without simple certification listing what that is) – then we’re back to the situation where the employers and the recruiters have to collect the data on the candidates themselves, and they haven’t got the time or resource to do that, so some other kind of institution will have to arise to do it for them, if universities aren’t doing it any more. This key role of universities in selling privilege (albeit to those who were also prepared to work for it too) is not going to be easily disrupted by MOOCs, in my view. The OU has always sold privilege too, despite all the mouthings about openness, because we don’t teach, and in particular don’t assess, in a sufficiently open manner to avoid it. So (some) employers like our graduates, not because of what they know and can do, but because they have survived jumping through hoops in terms of our restrictions on what students must do when (/why/ do we have cut-off dates for assignments and time limits on study?), and so the employer thinks (usually correctly) that our graduates must have particular skills in terms of self-organisation to ahve coped with all that. I think that this perception of organisational skills is not a designed-in feature of OU study, it’s a consequence of resource restrictions, but the point is that MOOCs might or might not share it, and on the whole I think they mostly will not.

    I hope MOOCs do indeed disrupt HE, but I fear they may not, because they are aiming to educate, and education in that sense is close to being a side issue in universities as institutions. But there will be a loss if that happens – I mean, apart from the loss of jobs for people like me (and I’m all right jack, because I’m retiring before too long). A side effect of the horribly inefficient teaching and learning that’s been the feature of most universities is that there is spare cash around to pay for research (that’s not directly funded) and for some of the activities that are lumped under the heading of scholarship. Some of that stuff is valuable in national terms. If it isn’t paid for by students buying some combination of privilege and learning, it won’t happen – at least, not in the UK, where governments don’t want to make people pay for this sort of thing out of taxation, not under that heading at any rate. (They/we have got away with it when the cost was disguised as teaching overhead, paid for from some combination of state grant and student fees for teaching, but if the teaching and learning mostly moves to MOOCs, we can’t pull that stunt any more).

    Enough of a rant…


    1. Thanks for that, Kevin – all very interesting, thoughtful stuff.

      I entirely agree that the privilege/discrimination/labelling function of HE is unlikely to be the first site of disruption from MOOCs. (I also agree that if there is significant disruption, the existing substantial subsidy of research by what are ostensibly teaching funds is going to become very unsustainable.)

      I do think there is an important change that does pose at least a potential challenge to universities – though not, at least at first, the ‘elite’ ones that, if they’re ‘selling’ anything at all, are selling what economists would call a positional good.

      You are of course quite right that there have been public libraries for centuries. There have also been self-study texts. But it’s hard for a would-be autodidact: you don’t know what you don’t know, and plotting a course (!) of learning through a library is challenging. Not least because you don’t get the guidance from an acculturated expert as to what the ‘important’ things are, at least in terms that are widely understood in society.

      There have been freely-available online educational resources for a little (!) less time, but they are much, much quicker to access than conventional resources. I was struck by this the other day when I tried to pick up a new skill by visiting a physical library to look at books. I’d forgotten just how much time you waste having to physically locate and browse a particular resource to find out if it’s relevant, and how rubbish search is on a fixed corpus like a library catalogue, compared to the likes of Google and Bing. I also note that it was entirely possible to pass music around to your friends using tape – digital only made things faster and easier, but that made a big difference.

      OER may be faster to access and circulate than physical libraries, but the evidence suggests they are not very widely used outside conventional university settings.

      Part of what MOOCs offer is the structuring of a set of learning resources in to a package that has acceptability in an expert community. If I want to learn artificial intelligence, I don’t have to hunt around finding out what topics I should learn and in what order and how – I can just sign up for the MOOC and trust that they’ll have done that thinking for me.

      Another thing they (or at least most of them) offer is the timetabling. I would guess (but don’t yet have the data to prove) that MOOCs with a timetable see a much greater completion rate over any time period than MOOCs that are entirely self-paced. Yes, imposing an external deadline has no logical connection to the individual experience of learning, but humans are frail and weak and procrastinate, and there’s plenty of research to show that most people do much better on a task if given a series of external deadlines than if left to their own devices.

      The learning community organisations you mention – literary and philosophical societies, workers’ education organisations, etc – often offered this (some still do – U3A is very active). But it’s quicker and easier to find and take up the digital versions, and the long-tail effect lets you sign up to structuring, pacing and a peer group in much more specialised areas than a physical group ever could.

      At the moment MOOCs don’t offer accreditation, but they don’t need to at the margin. A job candidate who puts a MOOC on their CV is going to look more attractive than one without.

      Sure, a super-motivated high-achieving auto-didact doesn’t need a MOOC: they could’ve gone to the library, and now to OER. But for anyone somewhere short of that, MOOCs are a faster, easier and surer way.

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