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.
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.