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Cathy penned a piece on the competing narratives surrounding MOOCs this week for University World News.  The full text is posted below or can be read on the UWN site here.

The academic conversation on MOOCs is starting to polarise in exactly the talking-past-one-another way that so many complex conversations evolve: with very smart points on either side, but not a lot of recognition that the validity of certain key points on one side does not undermine the validity of certain key points on the other. 

I regret this flattening of online learning into a simple binary of ‘politically and financially motivated greed’ on the one hand and ‘an opportunity to find out more about learning’ on the other. Some of both in different situations can be true.

It’s always hard to be able to hold two complex and even contradictory ideas in one’s mind at once but, well, that’s life. Both can be true. And there is so much to be gained from a sustained conversation on every side and from each side’s learning from the other, without assuming the other side is being naive or callous in its concerns.

Here’s a case in point: although I’ve not done a data count, I would say that, about a year ago, the majority of articles on higher education in the mass media in the US ran the gamut from snide to extremely negative, often spring-boarding off entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s offering cash rewards to students choosing not to go to college.

The rhetoric of so many articles seemed to be “is higher education really worth it?” These articles (I bet there were dozens if not hundreds) were often filled with hard data about the soaring costs of higher education and horrific student debt pitted against anecdotes of unemployment among the college educated.

It was virtually a meme; that if you are fool enough to go to college, you end up deeper in debt and unemployed and therefore college isn’t worth it. The tone in the press emphasised that latter point, demeaning the importance of higher education, laughing slyly at anyone who thinks higher education is a worthy goal. 

Enter MOOCs

Enter massive open online courses: MOOCs. Whatever else one may think about MOOCS, their vast popularity proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that very many people want – really, really want – more not less higher learning.

Has anyone else noticed that the tone of the conversation has now shifted from “is college worth it?” to “how can we make necessary, important, invaluable learning available to the widest number of people for the lowest cost?” I certainly have. 

Those who hate MOOCs and reduce them solely to a device of the neoliberal rich to diminish the role of the tenured professor, should at least be using the vast popularity of online courses to argue the value of a college education. It’s demonstrable. It’s massive.

And those same people who see MOOCs as a way to diminish the role of the tenured professor (from both sides) should also be thinking about who is actually taking MOOCs. 

Often, they are not the same students who sit in the classrooms of tenured professors, themselves a constantly diminishing percentage of all those who teach in higher education – a situation that existed long before MOOCs.

There is no evidence that students are dropping out of brick-and-mortar universities in droves in order to enrol in online courses. On the contrary, the typical online course student is someone who would not otherwise have access to higher education.

The ridiculous (and pernicious) University of Virginia trustees who forced a president to resign because she wasn’t moving fast enough on MOOCs, as if that would drive down the tuition costs for the university’s elite public cadre of students, simply didn’t know the numbers.

There is no evidence MOOCs will do much if anything to change the tuition costs of higher education except for those taking MOOCs. Period.

At the same time that there is a lot of bad economic reasoning by those who think MOOCs can solve the crisis of high tuition costs in higher education, there is equally bad economic thinking by those who blame MOOCs for declining public support for higher education. 

That process began long before MOOCs existed. The University of Michigan, for example, currently receives only 6% of its funding from the state of Michigan – and MOOCs were not in the picture to make that happen. 


Nor are MOOCs the source of the vast economic disparities that beset America’s contemporary higher education (and school) system.

If anything, MOOCs illuminate the terrible economic disparities of higher education (worldwide) by offering a cheap, massive alternative – not to those sitting in the classrooms of tenured professors, but for those who have no opportunity to be in those classes.

MOOCs work, for example, for those seeking to retool their learning to prepare for new professions when their own no longer exists, who are seeking a second career, or who want simply to enjoy the benefits of learning but are not able to participate in actual face-to-face classroom learning.

To have the time and be in a location where you can actually attend college physically is pretty rare in a world of two-career families. And community colleges (where tenured professors are rare indeed) do a great job, but they too require face-to-face engagement and cannot begin to serve all the students who want to take courses.

Sadly, higher education is more and more becoming priced for the global 1%, a trend that began long before MOOCs existed. It is often noted that tuition costs have risen far faster than inflation. True. But they have not risen faster than the kinds of goods and services designed for the global 1%. 

In fact, private university tuition costs (and, increasingly, out-of-state public tuition costs) are quite in line with the escalating costs of such things as elite tax services, financial advisors, hedge fund managers, elective surgery, luxury travel, and luxury goods in general. They are also in line with the costs of private preschool and elite boarding schools. 

Indeed, in many cases MOOCs will not solve the problem of the high cost of tuition fees at face-to-face institutions; but, in the end, they may help more people who have never conceived of attending a ‘real’ college participate in the higher education that, the numbers show, is coveted, prized, valued, sought after.

And thus – for MOOC lovers and MOOCs haters alike – an important rhetorical point we should all be emphasising, in every conversation: in the complex, changing world in which we live, advanced learning is necessary. Not a luxury. It deserves the public support of other necessities. Advanced education is far too important to price out of the market for all but the global 1%.

If the question is, “is higher education worth it?” we know from the massive enrolment in online courses that the answer is a resounding “yes”. It is also significant that world history courses are enrolling as many students as Python’s open source software. People want higher learning.

Whatever else one may think of MOOCs, they are an important game changer in the anti-higher education conversation that raged not so long ago.

* Cathy N Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 10,000+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning and institutional change. She teaches at Duke University, where she co-directs the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge. She is author of The Future of Thinking: Learning institutions for a digital age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and Now You See It: How the brain science of attention will transform the way we live, work, and learn (Viking Press). She is co-principal investigator of the HASTAC-MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. In October 2012, she and David Theo Goldberg were named Educator of the Year by the World Technology Network.

* NOTE: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC. This is an edited version of the article, “If MOOCs are the answer, what is the question?”.

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Cathy N. Davidson

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