Why MOOCs Will Not Save Universities

Many universities slowly implode nowadays without even knowing it. Going ahead in denial with a lethal combination of old models and practices, decrepit ideas, illusory solutions and their self-confirming coteries, many universities are still playing around a stubborn refusal to change. This is based on the ingrained belief that higher education can go ahead as it was in the last decades and some institutions of great tradition are suffocated by internal political games and insidious forms of nepotism. Unfortunately the context is all changed and there is no doubt that higher education is under unprecedented pressure these days. The increasing gap between expectations and reality of is reflected here by the level interest gained by opinions or initiatives against the idea of University. This is interesting to note especially when they differ from the common primitive instrumentalism and aggressive anti-intellectualism promoted by conservatives around the world. Some get a lot of attention questioning the value of any university as this is just a terrible investment. Others launch interesting initiatives such as the UnCollege Movement while some eccentric billionaires get their headlines in international media by paying students to drop out university studies and do something more “productive”, such as opening a new business. The already old discussion about the “higher education bubble” is placing academic endeavors in the same register with the speculative boom that was leading to the current global financial crisis.

Costs for higher education rise with unprecedented pace and public education spending in most Western countries is ‘falling fastest since 1950s‘. In fact, anti-intellectualism and global economic crisis created an environment where public investment in higher education is largely perceived as an irresponsible and wasteful luxury, some adding here the potential of higher education to ruin personal budgets, lives or societies. Times Higher Education recently published – available here – an excellent article on the tremendous impact of anti-intellectualism on the academic life and The Chronicle of Higher Education – article available here – is also exploring the dream world with opinions and no experts or intellectuals. Neoliberals around the world compete in the same time to produce the most shocking public attacks on universities, as this perplexing example offered by one of the candidates for the office of President of the United States.

This growing trend of opposing demands and intense disregard for scholarship itself is profoundly undermining the role and place of Academia in the contemporary public life. Funding cuts, new expectations from students, employers and society and the fundamental shift produced by new technologies turn by force the entire system towards a radical change in the role, structure and function of universities. While academics have their own major responsibility for this state of facts – or seek an escape route when they are sacked as inconvenient voices of dissent – many universities ignoring the importance and responsibilities of academic freedom and active involvement in society will just implode waiting to be saved by MOOCs or by the next silver bullet. Most universities will be forced to accept their new marginal existence and change their role and function within the scene. Just a few will stay near to what we understand now by a University.

A wrong model and a monopoly falling apart

We can see that beyond ridiculous accusations higher education is scrutinized today for a shocking lack of academic rigor, resistance to change and resistance on the part of academics to view research as a complex exercise that have to involve and engage students and the outside world. This may be more important than is currently accepted and is adding to a depressing lack of imagination in thinking about new alternative models for the future of universities in 21st century. The pressure for an illusory efficiency based on a model of economic Darwinism promoted by evangelists of the utopian promises of market fundamentalism eroded to the extreme the pillars of University. Within University walls we have too often an epic display of denial and self-preservation of various groups and elites self-absorbed on the old game of mutual confirmation and their resistance to fundamentally change what worked well enough for the last decades.

Recent studies (such as this in UK) reveal that academics and academic-related staff are the most stressed workers. Increased workloads and a quantitative understanding of “delivering courses” efficiently and producing research by number of publications rather than quality and relevance for community, industry or society is turning the process into a factory-like institution where academics feel more like that worker depicted by Chaplin at the conveyor-belt in “Modern Times”. If we take the example of Australian higher education we can see that the government expenditure on universities as a share of GDP fell between 1995 to 2004 by 4 per cent while student numbers increased by 45 per cent. Add to this the often mentioned problem of increasing casualisation and it becomes clear that the significant rise in the staff-student ratio and structure of academic staff impact on the quality of teaching, academic rigor and student engagement and learning.

Financial rationales and profit efficiency

Simplistic and profoundly destructive staff policies ignoring the fact that academics are the most important capital any university can have and the weirdly damaging and unsustainable global trend of casualization in universities create an incoherent reality. The general call for a socially engaged university is naive when the uncertainty for disposable staff and fear is promoted along with conformity and convenient mediocrity, inhibiting creativity and individual development and expression of staff and students. There is no surprise to read that an academic can say this today: “we just click our heels and carry out management orders. The threats of forced redundancies are part of a pattern of saving money by getting rid of permanent academic staff and casualising the rest. Morale is rock bottom“.

Universities aim today to act as successful corporations and get only a strange and unsustainable hybrid: they are not as flexible as successful corporations, keep the administrative ‘bloat’ and bureaucratic Kafkaesque maze, accept old hierarchies and established groups while using a primitive managerial mindset unadapted for their specific field with a unique and shocking contempt for own human resources. Risk-taking by students and academics in challenging ideas, practices and current approaches is most often perceived as a foolish career-end and the surge of disenchantment for what education at this level used to stand for is globally widespread. This is not a discussion about the private sector involvement in education, but the ideological and economic model used to organize nowadays universities. It may be too late to have now a discussion about a managerial model for institutions of learning and production of knowledge that is similar in essence with that used to run an industrial farm.

The irony is that many business leaders do not share this view of an instrumental role of education and understand that the goal to design education for the modern workforce is much wider and complex than the simple engine producing “work-ready graduates” in factory-like arrangements. Charles Kolb, president of the nonpartisan, business-led United States Committee on Economic Development, notes: “In addition to the obvious labor-force needs, having more Americans with higher levels of post-secondary achievement is vital to our civic health. The heart of a vibrant democracy is educated, engaged citizens who are able to make choices for themselves, their families, their communities, and their country. In this respect, the success of American post-secondary education is critical to the success of American democracy

The overused argument of change based on a parallel of higher education evolution with the Internet revolution on printed press and music industry is here well placed. Not that higher education can be so simplified to be understood as similar with music or printed media industry – which is another reflex to understand complex realities through the only lens of the industrial models – but is valid in indicating that present models and policies will soon be changed forever.

Outsourcing academic life

The most surprising development of the last decade is an obvious push of Academic life outside our universities. Universities refuse to even have a serious look at their own culture of orthodoxies and compliance, cultivated fear and “efficiency” that is weaving a reality where the idea of a critique is withered by the specter of casualisation and critical thinking remains a dusted slogan on some old walls. This is why the public life is influenced by forums outside universities, such as TED or Aspen Ideas Festival, Big Ideas and its Australian version or the interesting but less known Festival of Dangerous Ideas – if we review fast some of the most influential and well known forums and idea-generators. These forums of ideas and debate have no equivalent initiative organized by an academic institution in the last decade. This used to be an integral part of any university mission, but the culture of debate, inquiry, exploration and public conversation crumbled under the pressure of efficiency. Universities are not capable nor even interested to have something similar and most academic conferences are now paper-presentation-marathons with little if any discussion about what goes today as serious research. Moreover, any visitor of a modern university may be surprised to see that academics cannot be seen in universities today reading a book: some are just a product of the new reality and see no use in reading an entire book, but many understand that this will label you as a slacking, relaxed and inefficient member of the factory. Academic exercise, discussions and thinking itself were pushed out of our corporate-inspired structures that provide educational services in higher education.

Universities lost in this shift what was in reality the most valuable and efficient part of their existence: knowledge authority, status and influence in intellectual debates and public life. It is too easy to blame only outsiders for this evolution and many academics are responsible for this. The “bean-counting culture” was overtaking academic life years ago and soon we will see effects and implications of this model.

The promise of MOOCs

Traditional institutions see now how for-profit universities aggressively target students that used to be the captive audience of public universities by offering them various deals to get degrees with an ease that was not possible until now. This ease is also opening an important discussion on the sustainability of this questionable model. In the same time, various entrepreneurs and corporations launch into costly and well advertised enterprises to provide cheap online higher education courses and degrees. It is obvious that policy-makers and managers in the “industry of higher education” know that the added pressure and their questionable models are not sustainable. The reaction of many public universities and systems of higher education is to turn to a for-profit model, but this cannot work for a long time and there are signs that the pressure will increase. The problem is that very few have any idea where to go from here, what new model can be applied to survive in the current context. With little imagination and paying the price for stifling imagination and creativity within their walls, universities found an experimental approach labeled as MOOC – massive open online courses – as the possible salvation.

With “The Fear of Missing Out” syndrome, universities run with an unclear vision and rationale to join this trend, just because “We can’t fall behind. We can’t be left out” and with the hope that this is the new ‘gold rush’ in higher education. It is amazing to see how little attention is paid in the general noise to some implications of this move. The first detail is that MOOCs are not that new. Apple’s iTunes U is one very popular platform for a variety of free online materials and courses since 2007 and universities and high schools from all over the world use it.

We are sharing the belief that this can be an excellent solution for some courses and some institutions. However, this experimental approach is not a panacea and should be adopted with great care as an educational solution. Saying that all “massive open online courses” are good is just absurd as it is to think that a university can solve the variety of financial, academic and cultural problems just by launching MOOCs.

The naive belief that any university offering a MOOC will automatically gain a vast audience will be soon dispelled. If we look at Facebook as an example of “free” online platform we can see that there are thousands of other versions, but none of them reach Facebook’s number of users. In fact, some online platform live a short life and die unknown. The second expectation – that a percentage of the vast audience of MOOCs will run to pay for other courses in the same university – will offer a grim surprise to many policy makers and managers around the world.

To understand these expectations is important to clarify what we see often as a source of confusion: “Open” – found in the first “O” in “MOOC” is taken as synonymous with “free” and this is the source of a potentially dangerous error of judgment. Open means more that anyone can access it, it is open to all. However, here we see a perfect fit for the old saying ‘if you don’t buy a product online, then you are the product. The associated costs for the time and work spent to create the online course, to administer and distribute it, reveal a significant cost for the “free” course. Here everything is monetized in various forms and corporations presented as humanitarian endeavors will soon discuss their substantial revenues from ‘open courses’. If we are using again the Facebook example we can see that it took ten months to achieve the number of users earned by Coursera in only seven months. Both Coursera and Facebook are open and both provide “free” services online: Facebook has no a capitalized value of US$41 billion. Coursera may reach in 5 years a double value in cash.

Without a clear plan to convert MOOCs into a sustainable model and a fast conversion of unclear expectations to strategic actions aligned by a coherent vision this solution may be the bullet hitting the heart of many universities. A recent Moody’s Report already says that MOOC’s could hurt smaller universities. The ingrained belief that universities can go ahead with minor adjustments and no modern university can disappear is debunked by reality: a recent analysis is exploring The Slow Death of California Higher education. The lesson here is that universities can die and higher education in entire regions and countries may live the experience of a slow death. The other important lesson is that – as University of California proves these days – online education is not a silver bullet (an interesting article in this story can be found here)

Looking at other important implications we need to take note of some very good arguments about uniformization and cultural imperialism promoted by MOOCs, such is the recent article published by Chronicle of Higher Education, MOOC’s and the McDonaldization of Global Higher Education:

But, let’s be clear what this means: thousands of students across the world taking the same course, with the same content, from the same instructor. And that is the problem. MOOC’s are now at the forefront of the McDonaldization of higher education.

In an era when higher education is making significant advances in becoming global and helping to build educational capacity within developing nations, MOOC’s play the center against the periphery. They strengthen the ivory towers by enabling a few elite institutions to broadcast their star courses to the masses from the comfort of their protected perches

A compelling analysis published (available here) by Inside Higher Education provides an important glimpse into some major implications of MOOCs as a model for higher education:

If the partnership with Coursera works out well, we may soon become dependent on their good will. We may, in other words, need to take very seriously their thoughts about the kinds of courses we should teach and make available online. At Virginia, and at all the schools that begin teaching online, the distribution companies may come to have a consequential say in the way that professors teach and students learn.

What influence will the corporations have? What will they want? The immediate answer isn’t hard to come by. They will want to increase financial returns as much as possible. They will want to make as much money as they can without breaking the law.

And to do so, they will begin demanding the sort of courses that will sell best, not only in America but around the world. What sort of courses will these be? I think that they will be the most standardized, solid, predictable and sound courses that the university can produce.

Faculty members will have to submit their syllabuses in advance. They will have to cover precisely the ground that they say they will: there will be no swerving from the original plan. Digressions and jokes will be at a minimum, assuming that they are allowed at all […] courses will also have to be radically inoffensive. They will have to be palatable to as many people across the world as possible so as to increase market possibilities to the maximum point. The course designers will have to think about whether they are offending the sensibilities of, say, Chinese students and also of the Chinese government when they put a political science course up for sale.

During ‘gold rush’ many adventurers lost their lives while others had the same fate that may be soon shared by some universities looking at MOOCs as a silver bullet: they were left broke with fool’s gold in their hands.

The Next Divide

Higher Education is a great investment and OECD produced already a great number of excellent studies with data in support of this statement, such as this here. The question is not if this is a good investment but if higher education in its current forms is relevant and sustainable on a long-term. The future can bring major divides and many universities with no vision and strategy for the future may be already lost for the new competition.

Moreover, the great online shift is leaving behind the model of a University where experts that are teaching classes organize access to universal knowledge. Knowledge will be even more easily available for students and few remaining dynamic universities will focus on research and advancement of knowledge. These will actively seek to create alliances and networks of collaboration for research and production of knowledge rather than teaching and mass production. This will be a platform for dialogue and innovation, in socially and regionally engaged and globally embedded forms of collaboration and generation of knowledge. Most institutions of higher education will follow their current course and accept the mission to offer professional certificates in a new form of vocational higher education, competing with professional organizations that will give bespoke intense courses for present and future employees.

The current focus on MOOCs has nothing to do with the future of higher education: the shift already happened before this current fascination with a new tool. The future cannot be changed by a tool, but by a new vision.

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19 comments
  1. Excellent article regarding MOOCs.
    I has the deepest analysis I have ever seen. Everybody should read it.
    Syndrom of ” the fear of missing ouıt ”
    Sad and ashamed . Are universities this much unthoughfull. ?

  2. Shelley Gunther said:

    wow this is so true I wholeheartedly agree

  3. A great article.

    The issues in higher education as I see them are that

    (1) Traditional education provides short term, superficial, initial understanding
    (2) Critical must know information must be learned, transferred and applied, deeply, over time to impact performance improvement
    (3) One to many teaching needs to be replaced with instructor facilitated, truly personalized learning, transfer and application (reinforced, all over time, in a blended learning environment)
    (4) Professors are subject matter experts, not long term deep learning experts
    (5) The focus is institution/Professor centric, not student centric as it needs to be
    (6) Students are unable to get jobs (no direct transferable skills) after graduating from college

    MOOCS, especially one to many MOOCS that are ancillary and tangental to the direct educational process are a bandaid, we must do something solution.

    The real solution is a revolution/paradigm change, incorporating research proven learning methodologies into a learner centric, blended learning environment, facilitated by an instructor, supplemented by truly personalized leaning technology, using classroom content that has real world application.

    • Thanks Tom for your insightful comment. Sharing your view on the need of a new paradigm I think that online will make soon lectures obsolete and those surviving universities will focus on research, knowledge creation and development, on globally connected and dynamic partnerships with industry and communities, universities and research groups. Now we live an interesting time in higher education – not a good time, but interesting.

    • Dear Tom :
      Please reread your last paragraph.
      If we have money sure it is the best. But nobody has that money .

        • That is what I say. We must use technology for more efficient education and learning.
          But teachers talk about human touch, eye contact, mothering students etc in order to prove that teachers are indispensible . We do not need teachers but we need facilitators, learning guides, learning experts who are modified in positive sense teachers .

  4. Ali R of Melbourne said:

    Just how is our current university system addressing the fast paced changes in technology that will impact on every single graduate? How do todays pedagogies enable students to be effective employees in 20 years time? Has a university degree become just an “entree to an interview”? I am perplexed as to where it is all heading, and like many other University staff around the globe, aghast at the severe lack of modern business skills our university has as a business in its own right. We seem in business despite ourselves!
    @ TomMcDonald – well said, particularly point 5 :)

    • Today the paper called a degree is a document for employers to hire.
      But tomorrow we, employers, may not require a degree to hire people but do our own exams .
      Then what the universities will do. Their first duty, research .

  5. Patrick Goff said:

    I live in a “becoming student-centric” medical education program and I find it appalling. We have dumped the idea of content expertise, along with any concept of the path or history of developing an idea.
    We “collaborate” on presentations by fighting for minutes of time with the students while developing new ways to use their time out of class. Thus the PowerPoint with 100 slides to be reviewed later. Naturally the students have complained (as they should) and the corporate response is to limit all testing to only what is covered and videotaped during the time in class. Further, based on internet research, it was decided that outside reading would be limited to 18 pages per week – combined for all classes in that week! Any debated test question must have a timestamp or slide that clearly defines the correct answer… As the writer suggests, all presentations must be submitted in locked form weeks before the presentation and if new material comes up it should not be presented, or at least labeled as “not on the test.” Students view these digressions as taking away from the real points on the test. New ideas are trivialized and seen as distraction from the goal of graduating.
    The most recent experiment is based on the concept that our newest graduates have the most recent knowledge in the field so therefore they should be the ones driving any changes. It should be noted that they are by far the cheapest people to fill the seats, they are the class members who were not hired in the medical corporate world, and they are temporary employees waiting to get their real job. Oh, and they have virtually no training in teaching. I understand that they have newer sets of data acquisition skills based on the internet, but how does that data translate in knowledge and wisdom?
    I must plead for a balance between learner-centric and teacher-centric processes. Having teachers act as assembly line workers does not model critical thinking. Sometimes you just need a teacher.

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