The End of History and The Last MOOCs

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Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1997 “The End of History and The Last Man”, a book that became soon extremely popular and so influential that some say that international policies were shaped at that time by the strange vision promoted by the author. Fukuyama is a former official of the US State Department’s policy planning staff and his ideas were at that time widely adopted as facts and vision of a certain future. In very few words, the theory advanced by the book is that all nations are or aim to become capitalist democracies. Therefore, history “has ended” as ideological conflicts are things of the past. One vision prevailed – that of neoliberal capitalism and democracy – and institutional revolution reached an end. As economic and ideological major issues have been settled in one final perfect vision of neoliberal capitalism, the future is just peace, trade and consumption within universally accepted principles of democracy and free trade. The vision adopted in late 90’s in most centers of power proved soon to be just a superficial utopia. It became clear that taking this as a vision for the future was a colossal mistake. The history offered a painful succesion of unpredictable events, various conflicts caused by ideological differences, new crises and a rise to power of countries openly against democratic ideals (yes, China is here one notable example). The End of History and The Last Man is not only one of the most influential books of a decade, but stays as a source of some of the most reckless ideas that made the democratic world more vulnerable to crises and attacks. However, universities seems oblivious that this has happened just few years ago and fail to lern an important lesson.

The current discourse and most visible debates in education currently take the same dangerous path of shallow analysis, tendentiousness, twist of facts to fit an agenda and stay relaxed with the suppression of alternative perspectives. Higher education proudly promotes nowadays that the end of its history was reached and MOOCs – as “revolutionary change” – finally came to solve the problems of Academia, leaving behind the ivory tower.

This narrative states that students across the world will have (online) equal access to higher education, university administrators have a way to secure continuous growth, profits and expansion, while profits, peace and harmony became the only foreseeable future of new online universities. Oblivious to the complexity of current problems facing higher education and youth, these voices focus on the single problem seen on their horizon: some brick-and-mortar universities still fail to understand that this is the only path to survival. We hear that their hesitation to fully adopt MOOCs and for-profit solutions ineluctably lead to a future of suffering and painful dissolution.

In “An Avalanche is Coming. Higher education and the revolution ahead” – a widely publicized new report with a title in line with the already old “tsunami of change”, “disruptive innovation” etc. – the authors announce that even elite universities could struggle to survive if they don’t adopt a for-profit model and MOOCs. The little detail that this analysis is provided by Pearson, one of the biggest corporations in education with a set of investments and interests that stand against an objective analysis is vastly ignored. Facts seems to matter only if they serve a well funded and professionally promoted agenda.

Groupthink

Vested interest are not the only explanation for this phenomenon characterized by a focus on (not even new) technological solutions and utter disregard of pedagogical, cultural and even economic issues at the core of higher education. Facts such as that typically less than 10% of students in these courses “graduate”, that even in non-marked courses with no credits plagiarism is widespread and quality assurance is a worrying and recurrent issue escapes in the avalanche of these biased reports. It is clear that this is not the place to repeat the long list of concerns and issues related to MOOCs as analysed in the recent book “What Undermines Higher Education”. However, there are some additional concerns to this online solution that seems to be at the heart of a tunnel vision on education.

In 1972 the sociologist William H. Whyte coined the term “groupthink” to describe how a group converge to normatively “correct” ideas and interpretations while becoming impervious to alternative perspectives and criticism. Symptoms of groupthink were presented in 1972 by Irving L. Janis in the influential “Victims of Groupthink”. They are important to keep in perspective when we find ubiquitously that the current debate in higher education is reduced to MOOCs.

We find often that the “group” within and around Academia seems mesmerized by the new hype and insists to remain unaware of important challenges facing our students and unchartered implications of MOOCs, a solution used since 2008 (!) by Dave Cormier, Manager of Web Communication and Innovations at the Canadian University of Prince Edward Island, also the author of this term.

Summarizing, the inventory of groupthink symptoms includes “discounting warnings that might challenge assumptions”, “unquestioned belief in group’s morality”, “shutting down of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus”, “illusion of unanimity” or “mindguards – self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting opinions”. Many organizations became extremely vulnerable to ‘groupthink’ as internal mechanisms of freedom of thinking, dialogue and critique for progress and sustainable evolution were sacrificed for immediate profits. A top-down management style – with a limited focus on profitability justifying the ruthless approach to work-relations and employment – came with this corrosive and ultimately fatal effect.

Too often “mindguards” are lecturing now about the use of MOOCs even if it stays clear that they have no expertise in massive open online courses, use of learning management systems and online solutions for learning. The “group” insists to ignore the obvious consequences of following the advice of dilettantes in shaping the future of their institutions.

Even if we assume that most MOOCs will step beyond the reality of a simple reading list, some video /audio files and a vast discussion forum (hoping that we agree that this cannot be considered higher education), the question remains if the place of MOOCs on the agenda of most institutions of higher education coincides with the real agenda of our students. After decades of “student-centered” approaches we see that the voice of students is the least important factor in the current conversation.

There is no sign of alarm when it is widely accepted that a corporation with a revenue of over £5 billion in 2012 is telling universities that “the next 50 years could see a golden age for higher education, but only if all the players in the system, from students to governments, seize the initiative and act ambitiously”. Of course, “ambitiously” is translated in a convenient agenda for the company listed on the London and New York Stock Exchange, including MOOCs (with no clarification of solutions for their pedagogical challenges), “niches or market segments” that universities “want to serve”.

The context of the “golden age”

Universities are at the center of our economic, cultural and social life. Determined by the economy, political decisions and cultural preferences, their performance impacts directly on the future of the social fabric, culture and economies. This interdependence is important to be grasped when we talk about the present and future of higher education. Their importance explains why we have to look at the promise of a possible “golden age” with great care. 

Young people – those between 15 and 24 years old, who are the key group for higher education – felt the most the effects of the economic downturn through the GFC. Currently, the situation is truly dramatic. In Ireland, Greece, Italy, UK or Spain staggering numbers of young people stay unemployed or join the increasingly massive group of NEETs (youth not in employment, education or training). Societe Generale is warning in a recent note that:

“Economic crisis in developed countries have reinforced unemployment, especially with the youth… With lower population support, large upheavals could threaten government stability. Social unrest is also looming in many emerging markets, where income inequality has increased or remained high since the 1980s”.

It also notes that this should be a source of concern around the world and rise of inequality is a general trend: “Distribution inequalities and corruption are among the main concerns of the Chinese population according to recent surveys”. Poverty affects the lives of millions of people not only in developing countries, but across the European Union. The International Red Cross announced that that the amount of food aid distributed to people in Europe by their institution has reached levels not seen since World War II.

In the US, unemployment among 18-29 year olds is above 12% (and we can add 1.7 million young people who have just given up looking for work entirely – with this figures included the effective unemployment rate for youth is over 16%). Muhtar Kent the Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, publicly expressed the concern that youth unemployment “has a chance of cracking the social fabric“.

The fact is that inequality across the world reached unthinkable proportions and youth are one of the most disadvantaged groups. A recent report released by the Urban Institute reflects: “Despite the Great Recession and slow recovery, the American dream of working hard, saving more, and becoming wealthier than one’s parents holds true for many. Unless you’re under 40. Stagnant wages, diminishing job opportunities, and lost home values may be painting a vastly different future for Gen X and Gen Y.”

Youth, including prospective students and graduates, find that their future is bleak and a diploma is not dramatically changing what they can expect. The Urban Institute study documents that youth is facing a decline in opportunities with a clear impact on all aspects of their (and our) future.

In the last years, the most important international organizations – from OECD and UN to Eurostat and Oxfam – release severe warnings to politicians and governments around the world on the risks involved by the record inequality between rich and poor, youth marginalization and social injustice.  However, academics and universities (and loud voices of all mindguards of academic dialogue) insist to believe that higher education is looking at “golden age” if MOOCs are adopted and markets are served. It may come as a surprise that most students don’t care if they are part of a class of 100,000 and do what they already do on their own Twitter and Facebook accounts. If we continue our parallel dialogue about technology and ignore their interests and concerns students see just that they don’t find educational solutions to feel engaged and effectively learn for their future.

Before this ‘golden age’ universities will see – providing MOOCs or not – that prospective student find harder and harder to go into insurmontable debts and social tensions are on the rise. Online chats and the illusion of higher learning in massive crowds with resources that are most of the time already accesible may be insufficient to deal with daily realities. There are too many cases in history when the mistake to believe an utopian “golden age” turned into a nightmare. The next 50 years definitely require much more from higher education than an online platform solution and old neoliberal ideas packaged as serious visionary analysis.

The last MOOCs

MOOCs are one solution for an area of higher education. Online education opened decades ago new opportunities and possibilities for students and educators. Nevertheless, this is already part of learning in all modern universities. There is a time to take a look if we are not contaminated by groupthinking and shift to seriously explore wider implications of the future of higher education. We can start by seriously questioning the strident voice of those mimicking academic analysis for their vested interests. Adopting the long forgotten academic skepticism may prove once again the solution for our common progress.

If higher education reached the point of simple delivery of various reading lists, different resources, standardized tests and formal processes then it may be that the history of education really ended and we reached the days to accept it. If universities find the idea that they are responsible to their societies to provide alternative and courageous solutions, unaffected by corporate interests and short-term profit perspectives, to contribute to the world by making of higher civilization, then we have to admit that the entire discussion should be reduced to the packaging and technological solutions. We just have to provide pre-packaged education to all who can pay a small price. If it works for cheap hamburgers, it should work for junk education. Moreover, the idealistic perspective of alternative thinking as solution for flexibility, creative and new ideas for our crises may be just a futile and dangerous exercise for consumers and amenable employees.

The last MOOCs will most probably serve independently as academic ATMs for delivery of resources, tests and “academic credits”, charging just few cents per transaction. Creativity, imagination and the aristocracy of the intellect will be part of a MOOC course on ancient history. 

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36 comments
  1. John Newell said:

    Hi
    Together with a small group of FE tutors and educationalist we are creating an on-line college that offers a pathway to an accredited degree qualification within the UK Educational Framework. Whilst, initially operating as a for-profit college we will rapidly move to a Community Interest Organization. We are presently keeping below the radar of the vested interests of large organizations, political and academic institutions who have a reason to ensure that HE remains an expensive undertaking. Whilst paying a good income to tutors/mentors (and limiting the number of students to 10 per tutor) we can keep the fee to students to less than £3,500 pa. Your analysis of MOOC’s is spot on! However, we have started from the position of believing that OER’s are the way forward and then trying to overcome the weaknesses of MOOC’s especially with regard to student experience and preparing learners to be successfull human beings.Whilst we wish to remain below the radar at the moment I would be happy to share with you some of our ideas and practical solutions that we have developed.
    John Newell
    “A vision without a task is a mere dream – A task without a vision is mere drudgery!”

    • Thank you John! Please share!
      It will be good to stay connected.
      Kind regards, Stefan

    • Sorry John
      ONLINE is for many students. The MOOCs I calculate beakeven point is 500 students per semestyer and $ 200 fee per course. Then you collect in 10 semester or 5 years 500 x 10 x$ 200 = $ 1,000,000 it is emnough for cost and profits.
      How come you charge pound 3,500 that is $ 5,000 per year. That is for 10 courses . Then per course is $ 500

      It is my vision that a school without a brick and mortar school behind it lile MIT Harvard cannot be succesful in online education . Only online schools do not have a knowledge worthwhile to disseminate .
      Therefore I endorse MIT Harvard Berkeley only to people .

  2. Popenici
    In most points you are wrong.
    What ruined the MOOCs is ” to deceive people as usual ”

    MOOCs are not massive. But providers still insist that they have millions of registration while real attendance is only 500 or so on the average . ( Then I know they expect some advertisement, they just announced that )

    MOOCs are not free . Today they refer you to Pearson for € 100 . Tomorrow they will charge something.

    They started with elite schools. Now they accept every one passing by the house .
    And many poor universities attempt to provide MOOCs . They are out of their mind .

    Even MIT and Harvard became for profit . I am very sad about it .
    Did you see the agreement they did with new members . $ 50,000/$ 10,000 fee per semester + 50/50 revenue share .
    EDX just provides a platform and now asks 50 % of the schools revenue . Isn’t that a wild capitalistic view .

    I lost all my confidence on MIT and Harvard . I was defending them every where saying they are non profits.
    They can be the only MOOC provider in the world at a small fee, not free .

    I lost my faith on HE in the USA . Everybody tries to monetise it rather than solving it .
    I see the future , no solution .

  3. Panteli Tritchew said:

    Great analysis, Stefan. Thank you for the insights. Panteli

  4. Spot on. Universities are drawn in by the hype. In the latest venture (FutureLearn) participating UK universities have signed away any possibility of profit, while throwing themselves at something that at worst might cannibalise their core market and at best will be a peripheral marketing exercise.

  5. cj13 said:

    Patterns of responses about new digital moves in education have been more or less predictable for decades. I take Lanier’s argument that the Net is a natural incubator of monopolies as useful in thinking about MOOC moves as probes, experiments. Its the offspring of MOOCs and their offspring that may make things more interesting. In all the noise about MOOCs what tends to be missed are interests by some in becoming the Google of HE for the planet or at least establish a sufficiently large ‘following’ and sell the business to Google. To me, the more interesting challenge to HE may come from moves to establish new forms of accreditation. http://www.chrisbigum.com/wp/2012/08/12/australian-higher-education-on-rapidly-shifting-sands-coming-to-terms-with-the-emerging-mega-fauna-of-the-digital-education-tundra/

  6. Josh said:

    The purpose of MOOCs should not be assessment at all, but actual skills and knowledge. Forget credits and certificates and grades, De-incentivize plagiarism by removing assessment entirely. Online education should be reserved for those that want to actually learn something. Want to start an online business, but don’t know know how to design a web page? Go read some reviews on web Design MOOCS. Want to stop paying others to do simple repairs and maintaince on your car? Try an automotive course. Intimidated by cooking? Learn from a world class chef. MOOCS have a place as enrichment courses. Soon, combined with motion tracking technology you could learn dance, yoga, or martial arts.

    The mandate of universities to sell certification has long been an issue that interferes with their true purpose, to provide education.

    An example, the software

    • Tony said:

      +1 on what Josh said.

      I’ve got both a computing degree, and have done Stanford’s free iOS programming course.
      They both gave me value. One didn’t replace the other.

      At this point, as a professional with years of experience in the field, a MOOC is great way for me to pick up new skills & information from a structured course, at my own pace, at convenient times (such as while on the bus) – that’s much more relevant to me than taking a traditional course.

      But it’s not a good way to prove my knowledge. I need to do that through references, past projects, or university degrees.

      It’ll be interesting to see the evolution of online accreditation. For IT, it’s relatively easy (use your skills to go out and do something!) but for other areas, I have no idea what it might look like.

    • Josh said:

      I was going to go on to say that many software companies do their own skills assessment, honoring self taught programmers as well as college taught ones. A MOOC would be a great way to get a programming job, if it successfully taught coding skills. Many fields benefit from actual knowledge and skills more than degrees and credits. Small Business entrepreneurship comes to mind.

  7. Stefan, good thinking.

    This is just another venture capitalist bubble. There is no MOOC tsunami, and MOOCs wont threaten good universities, or good e-learning.

    MOOCs are much more interesting if you look at them from a broader perspective, as you are doing in this post. We have been participants and researchers in MOOCs for some years now. We set ourselves the task of describing the actual dynamics of what happens in MOOCs, and decided that we first had to construct a sensible theoretical framework, based on emergence, from complexity theory. Emergence has been used, implicitly, by Stephen Downes and George Siemens, and Etienne Wenger in their work, but it needed to be made explicit.

    So we published a paper in IRRODL on Emergent Learning, in 2011, which does just this, within an ecology for learning which includes both emergent and prescriptive learning – on the basis that both are required, the trick is to get the right balance. Having done that, we set out to describe – and to communicate graphically – the dynamics of emergent learning in these learning ecologies. Sure, we had an interest in MOOCs, but we developed what turned out to be a 3D topography of learning by testing our ideas against actual case studies in MOOCs, in Montessori pre-schools, in interactive installations for Autistic Spectrum children, and in graduate university courses. That led to a second paper in IRRODL, on Footprints of Emergence in 2012.

    When you approach it in this way, you find that MOOCs do have interesting affordances to add to the educational mix, they are not the answer to everything, and more importantly, finding the right balance between structure and openness, and prescribed learning and emergent learning, is far more complex and interesting that the likes of Fukiyama could ever envisage. We are currently working through these issues in a wiki, which you can google at footprints-of-emergence – its a creative commons open space for exploring these issues, and trying out the 3D template.

    • Thanks Roy! Very interesting message. I appreciate the balanced view and the sensible points you make. I will look now for the paper you mention…

  8. Jon Bower said:

    Thanks Stefan,
    I’m going to try to contribute to your posting by expanding on the elements that are truly important to successful learning. Remarkably, few are present in the MOOC experience.
    1. Motivation to learn the content – present as often with MOOCs as with face-to-face courses, but no improvement
    2. Opportunities to learn from other learners – harder to come by in the online environment, still available IF done well
    3. Feedback from and interaction with the professor – no more available in MOOCs than in standard lectures, and those have little interaction
    4. Informal opportunities to discuss content outside of the classroom – harder to come by in MOOCs, though possible
    5. Motivation to absorb and consider content related to, but not part of, the syllabus – just as low as lectures

    So, what would work better? What would an effective course design look like?
    1. Student interests would be considered in the development of the syllabus, assignments and suggestions for auxiliary reading
    2. Students would learn together, in small groups, to encourage informal discussion of content
    3. Student work is read by peers to add motivation, feedback and idea exchanges
    4. Students have easy access to professors & teaching assistants to discuss content, receive feedback in skill areas (e.g., writing skills) and receive introductions to other learners with similar interests or skill development needs
    5. Courses integrated into a program of study that helps students link ideas across classes, and apply skills across classes

    Interestingly, this more effective course design already exists at many small private colleges, and in the upper division courses at larger private and public universities. It is usually known as a seminar, taken as a part of a course plan developed by each student working with a faculty adviser. So, the very model that is supposed to be replaced by MOOCs seems to deliver a much better education experience than MOOCs. Are we sure that the new will replace the old? I don’t see it. Sure, MOOCs provide access to courses to those who couldn’t otherwise afford them. That is a boon to bright students coming from poverty around the world. But, that doesn’t mean that higher education as we know it is over.

    • robertmcguire said:

      I’m as suspicious of MOOCs as anyone, but after taking a few, I think you’re mistaken about 1,2, 4 and 5, John. Motivation is precisely the quality that is in greatest abundance in MOOCs. Because there is no credential, they attract people who as far as I can tell are motivated by education for its own sake. They respond and interact with their similarly motivated peers — inside the classroom and out — much more than I see in traditional classrooms. And they share and seek out resources not on the syllabus. The quality of education that results is debatable, but I don’t see how anyone who’s been in a MOOC environment concludes that motivation to learn the material is low. Motivation is the main thing MOOCs have going for them.

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