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?