MOOCs and Digital Diploma Mills: Forgetting Our History

When David Noble first published his groundbreaking critique of online education in 1998, Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education, I thought to myself “he couldn’t be more wrong.” As it turns out he might not have been wrong – maybe Noble was simply so miraculously prescient that I couldn’t see what he saw. Fifteen – count them, fifteen – years later, Digital Diploma Mills reads as if it were researched and written about the current phenomenon called “MOOCs.” Entire paragraphs from the essay can be read unaltered and applied precisely to the state of things today:

What is driving this headlong rush to implement new technology with so little regard for deliberation of the pedagogical and economic costs and at the risk of student and faculty alienation and opposition? A short answer might be the fear of getting left behind, the incessant pressures of “progress”. But there is more to it. For the universities are not simply undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education. For here as elsewhere technology is but a vehicle and a disarming disguise.

. . .

The foremost promoters of this transformation are rather the vendors of the network hardware, software, and “content”… who view education as a market for their wares, a market estimated by the Lehman Brothers investment firm potentially to be worth several hundred billion dollars. “Investment opportunity in the education industry has never been better,” one of their reports proclaimed, indicating that this will be “the focus industry” for lucrative investment in the future, replacing the health care industry… It is important to emphasize that, for all the democratic rhetoric about extending educational access to those unable to get to the campus, the campus remains the real market for these products.

. . .

The third major promoters of this transformation are the university administrators, who see it as a way of giving their institutions a fashionably forward–looking image. More importantly, they view computer–based instruction as a means of reducing their direct labor and plant maintenance costs — fewer teachers and classrooms — while at the same time undermining the autonomy and independence of faculty. At the same time, they are hoping to get a piece of the commercial action for their institutions or themselves, as vendors in their own right of software and content.

. . .

Most important, once the faculty converts its courses to courseware, their services are in the long run no longer required. They become redundant, and when they leave, their work remains behind. In Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel Player Piano the ace machinist Rudy Hertz is flattered by the automation engineers who tell him his genius will be immortalized. They buy him a beer. They capture his skills on tape. Then they fire him. Today faculty are falling for the same tired line, that their brilliance will be broadcast online to millions. Perhaps, but without their further participation. Some skeptical faculty insist that what they do cannot possibly be automated, and they are right. But it will be automated anyway, whatever the loss in educational quality. Because education, again, is not what all this is about; it’s about making money.

If MOOCs (or xMOOCs more precisely, for those of you who know the inside baseball) do not represent “the automation of higher education,” what does? And even today we read again about universities rushing to become “one of the elite” schools offering MOOCs in partnership with Coursera or edX, and the pathways to diplomas these organizations are working hard to create.

The whole xMOOC phenomenon reads like the history of the Internet played backwards (or the history of the Reformation read backwards, if you prefer). Remember when the internet was largely a walled garden to the average user of AOL, Prodigy, or Compuserve? Remember how hard those companies resisted letting their users loose into the big wide world of the internet on their own? Remember their justifications and reasons why? Remember how amazing it was when people finally made their way onto the open internet?

Now play that record backwards, as the first generation of MOOCs (cMOOCs) – that allowed anyone from anywhere to participate however they liked in experiences built from openly licensed course materials – gives way to a new generation of walled gardens that call themselves “open” but require registration, use copyrighted materials, and take investment capital. They even prohibit students from using their services in the most useful ways: “You may not take any Online Course offered by Coursera or use any Statement of Accomplishment as part of any tuition-based or for-credit certification or program for any college, university, or other academic institution without the express written permission from Coursera” (Coursera Terms of Use). David Noble saw something like this coming. I’m not sure he was wrong.

But he doesn’t have to be right, either. Since the very beginning, open education has been about enabling and empowering. Including empowering faculty – not replacing them. Free and legal access for faculty, their students, and everyone around the world to high quality educational materials that can be legally adapted and customized specifically for your particular circumstances, and then shared broadly, openly, and freely. Ultimate flexibility. Zero cost. Increased dependance on faculty as curators, customizers, and contextualizers – real people who have relationships with students and understand what they need. Unlocking the potential of faculty and unlocking access for students. Allowing for any and all uses of educational materials a learner sees as valuable. That’s the vision of open education the wider world apparently has not yet seen. Unfortunately, much of the world seems to have seen the more limited xMOOC vision and accepted it as the state of the art regarding what is possible.

There was a positive sign from one of the xMOOCs today – edX announced its first MOOC to release its content under a Creative Commons license today. If this were to become a trend, and xMOOCs were to rejoin the open education movement, David Noble would have come frighteningly close – but would still be wrong.

Where do you think things are going? Better yet, what are you doing to influence where they will end up?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://twitter.com/arthurjosephson Arthur Josephson

    Great find on David Noble’s piece, thanks for bringing it into the current discussion. Do you think it is possible that positive outcomes can emerge when individuals players are pursuing their self-interest? It seems plausible that access for millions of people to an ever increasing library of courses could result from a market of new and established higher ed players vying for success. Or do you think this is a bit simplistic?
    I’ve talked to a few VCs around Harvard and most are pretty wary that there will be any “first-mover” advantage here. It may be that the players rushing in (as you accurately depict) are paying the R&D costs that later entrants will successfully leverage.
    Great news about the edX CC licensing, I hadn’t heard. Hope there’s more of it. Thanks again for the piece!

  • Yannick Warnier

    I love post-analysis like this one (comparing new things to visions of great people of the past). Thanks for taking the time to write this down.

    This whole problem is one of the reasons why free (as in freedom) platforms for education are so important. They remove the first lock-in: having to sell the soul of your course in order to make it available to all, which defeits the purpose of trying to push teaching forward and makes your initially well-meaning course become a virally close. The difference between Coursera (with the license terms you mention) and open systems (like Moodle, Chamilo, Sakai, …) is that they focus on the freedom, not the free-cost-but-jailed-content aspect. These aspects are so often overlooked and one’s soul “sold” for a cheaper, faster solution, it’s really up to the great people of our time to keep watch over these.

    You still depend on infrastructure, though, but on this side hosting providers generally give you the freedom you need.

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  • http://twitter.com/ggatin Glen Gatin

    Watching a live stream of a Google Hangout on Air with George Siemans and Stephen Downes who have traveled the continent to speak in Philadelphia about MOOCs. (WT?) Siemans made the observation that the current crop of xMOOCs are a 15 year regresssion. Agree.

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  • http://www.downes.ca Stephen Downes

    Noble’s error is the same today as it was in 1998: seeing commercialism in all online learning, instead of online learning as it is being used by commercial learning. Yes, there are ‘digital diploma mills’, just as there were in 1998, and yes, online learning is overhyped by those who oppose, and would like to do away with, the public education system. But that was also true in 1998. Online learning remains the last best hope to *prevent* the Noble scenario, but arguments such as his led (and still leads) a complacent professoriate to pretend it’s just a commercial fad and will go away.

  • http://colecamplese.com/ Cole Camplese

    We are experimenting, just like we did in 1998 with our World Campus. We’ve been deliberate in our decision making and in our approach. Are MOOCs the the thing that will destroy or save education? Nope, just a mile marker on a round the world journey. I’ve not yet written my own thoughts — thoughts that started swirling well before my administration came to me and said, “why aren’t we doing this stuff?” That is an odd question coming from the most conservative parts of a very conservative institution. I’ve seen more pedagogical focus and press for design innovation in our jump to Coursera than I have in the last dozen years of our traditional online courses. It has energized our most interesting faculty and it has brought new purpose to our learning design community. I’m not going to argue the merits of high quality online education and I am certainly not disappointed in seeing someone pressing higher education to rethink the cost of participating, but I will say I am excited. I am excited to be part of something that could lead to some positive change … and I did choose to use the word “could” there. The energy our designers and faculty are putting into this will change what we do. Just because it isn’t purely open today, doesn’t mean that it won’t move more of us in that direction.

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  • Robert McGuire

    I think where things are going is at least partially determined by another factor in the equation that seems to get left out in most analyses of this emerging market — the students themselves. It’s amazing how confident people can be about the validity of “the whole MOOC phenomenon” without ever having taken one. The students I encounter in them at present obviously aren’t in it for diplomas, and the atmosphere is a lot less mill-like than the traditional college classes I encounter. MOOCs may end up watering down the value of a college education and all the other horrible things people suspicious of them are warning us about. But until those critics stop sniffing at the “media hype” and account for the seemingly very genuine enthusiasm of a very large and growing student body, it’s hard to take those warning seriously.

  • http://www.sintjago.com Alfonso Sintjago

    David Noble quotes help to point out how some of these companies may end up focusing more on revenue and end up being a diservice to students and instructors. However, I hope that he continues to the wrong in the long run. OER have been around for a lot longer than MOOCs but xMOOCs have gained greater popularity in a shorter amount of time. It will be good to see how the typology of MOOCs and the variations between them continues to increasing and diversify over time, so that there are many xMOOCs with open not just free elements. As a foreigner, I first saw OCW and then MOOCs as a way to reach the masses that otherwise may not have accessed high quality educational materials, in this way access does matter. In terms of sustainability and finding a way to both maintain quality while lowering costs it seems important to try multiple models. Overall if there was an option between no having xMOOCs or having xMOOCs, I still rather have them even if they are only free and not open. Hopefully, however, examples of open xMOOCS like the edX one you mention continue to created.

  • http://www.sintjago.com Alfonso Sintjago

    David Noble quotes help to point out how some of these companies may end up focusing more on revenue and end up being a diservice to students and instructors. However, I hope that he continues to the wrong in the long run. OER have been around for a lot longer than MOOCs but xMOOCs have gained greater popularity in a shorter amount of time. It will be good to see how the typology of MOOCs and the variations between them continues to increasing and diversify over time, so that there are many xMOOCs with open not just free elements. As a foreigner, I first saw OCW and then MOOCs as a way to reach the masses that otherwise may not have accessed high quality educational materials, in this way access does matter. In terms of sustainability and finding a way to both maintain quality while lowering costs it seems important to try multiple models. Overall if there was an option between no having xMOOCs or having xMOOCs, I still rather have them even if they are only free and not open. Hopefully, however, examples of open xMOOCS like the edX one you mention continue to created.