The MOOC as a trojan horse

I’ve long had an ambivalent relationship to MOOCs. In principle, I don’t see anything wrong with the idea of distance learning of this sort and they are something that I’ve personally enjoyed in the past. This is far from a ringing endorsement, in fact MOOCs leave me lukewarm in many respects, but I think it’s important to be clear about what exactly we’re opposed to when we oppose the MOOC.

The hype surrounding them is a good place to start. The absurd overstatement of their implications, as well as the wilful disregard for history which critics like Audrey Watters have ceaseless pulled apart. These ‘groundbreaking innovations’ can only be constructed as groundbreaking and innovative by systematically obscuring a longer and messier history of educational technology which there is value in our recovering. But as Aaron Bady points out, what’s offensive about the hype is the way it gives voice to speculative interests seeking to ‘disrupt’ higher education:

In the last year, MOOCs have gotten a tremendous amount of publicity. Last November, the New York Times decided that 2012 was “the Year of the MOOC,” and columnists like David Brooks and Thomas Friedman have proclaimed ad nauseum that the MOOC “revolution” is a “tsunami” that will soon transform higher education. As a Time cover article on MOOCs put it—in a rhetorical flourish that has become a truly dead cliché—“College is Dead. Long Live College!”

Where is the hype coming from? On the one hand, higher education is ripe for “disruption”—to use Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation”—because there is a real, systemic crisis in higher education, one that offers no apparent or immanent solution. It’s hard to imagine how the status quo can survive if you extend current trends forward into the future: how does higher education as we know it continue if tuition fees and student debt continue to skyrocket while state funding continues to plunge? At what point does the system simply break down? Something has to give.

At the same time, the speed at which an obscure form of non-credit-based online pedagogy has gone so massively mainstream demonstrates the level of investment that a variety of powerful people and institutions have made in it. The MOOC revolution, if it comes, will not be the result of a groundswell of dissatisfaction felicitously finding a technology that naturally solves problems, nor some version of the market’s invisible hand. It’s a tsunami powered by the interested speculation of interested parties in a particular industry. MOOCs are, and will be, big business, and the way that their makers see profitability at the end of the tunnel is what gives them their particular shape.

The ideology of innovation obscures the interests vested in what is deemed to be innovative. Not only is it dishonest, shutting down debate through the breathless invocation of technological inevitability, it also crowds out earlier and worthier experiments in digitally mediated distance learning. These communal and collaborative projects were focused on empowering networks rather than facilitating individuals. As Bady goes on to compare:

The MOOCs that emerged in 2012 look very different, starting with their central narratives of “disruption” and “un-bundling.” Instead of building networks, the neoliberal MOOC is driven by a desire to liberate and empower the individual, breaking apart actually-existing academic communities and refocusing on the individual’s acquisition of knowledge.

These connective technologies have been pushed out by what Audrey Watters describes as a ‘content-delivery model’. On loc 2256 of her The Monsters of Educational Technology, she describes what it is like to be on the receiving end of such a model, having content delivered to you as a distance learner:

Receiving this box of materials in the mail was a literalization of the idea that education involves “content delivery.” That is, the courseware for Intro to Statistics was quite literally delivered to my doorstep. I’d insert the videotapes into the VCR, and the content would be delivered to my living room and purportedly into my brain. “Content delivery” is not always quite so literally enacted, of course, but it’s still the paradigm education largely operates within. This is not a new paradigm, of course. But for me this was the moment –looking with frustration at this this box of videotapes –in which I realized that that’s what education privileges. Whether it’s in a textbook or in a video-taped lecture, it’s long been the content that matters most in school. The content is central. It’s what you go to school to be exposed to. Content. The student must study it, comprehend it, and demonstrate that in turn for the teacher. That is what we expect an education to do, to be: the acquisition of content that becomes transmogrified into knowledge. (The focus is certain content, of course and thus certain knowledge –that which has been decreed significant by a host of institutional, cultural, historical, political, intellectual forces.)

The MOOC dresses up the most uninspiring and uninspired aspects of actually existing educational initiatives in the cloak of technological progress. As Bady puts it, these start-ups “aim to do exactly the same thing that traditional courses have always done—transfer course content from expert to student—only to do so massively more cheaply and on a much larger scale”. These are technologies of modernisation rather than progress, intended to lock in existing arrangements in a way that disempowers those who might impede their smooth operation. They are technologies of scale and control, masquerading as tools of liberation. They represent, as Audrey Watters puts it on loc 3443, a trojan horse which we need to resist:

Education technology is the Trojan Horse poised to dismantle public education, to outsource and unbundle and disrupt and destroy. Those who tell you that education technology promises personalization don’t actually care about student autonomy or agency. They want surveillance and standardization and control. You have been warned.   Education technology is full of monsters. We’ve given birth to some of them. We’ve given birth to the “everyone should learn to code” narrative. We’ve given birth to the “everyone should be online” story too. We’ve demanded that everyone have their own device. Education technology requires our love and our care so as to not become even more monstrous, so that it can become marvelous instead. It demands we resist and we fight and we build and tell a different story. Folks like Seymour Papert started a powerful storytelling for us. We just need to pick up that tale.

But doing so effectively necessitates unpacking the technology, the interests expressed through it and the context within which these are being pursued. We can still reclaim educational technology, but doing so necessitates that we don’t condemn technology by the uses to which it is being put.

Categories: Digital Sociology, Higher Education

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