The New MOOC Strategy: Rise of the Higher Ed Empires

Visions of the college classroom, 1967 and 2012 (Visviva and Axel Pettersson via Wikimedia Commons)

In the New Yorker’s May “innovation issue,” we were treated to a mostly celebratory take on the dissemination of video-based, auto-graded college courses known as MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses). Following in the footsteps of David Brooks (Chicago ’83), Nathan Harden (Yale ’09), and a legion of other educational one-percenters, Nathan Heller (Harvard ’06) marvels over the innovations underway at his alma mater and their alleged benefit to the educational ninety-nine-percenters previously excluded from the Ivy League experience. Heller’s article reveals how administrators, professors, and some students within the “top-tier” university bubble are currently thinking about the MOOC trend. In particular, it sheds light on the plans by universities like Harvard to develop MOOCs and market them to less prestigious institutions.

Legislators in my own state, California, spent a good part of the spring considering a bill requiring all state universities and colleges to give credit for approved MOOCs. After passing the state senate unanimously, the bill was ultimately shelved at the end of July. Its sponsor in the senate, Darrell Steinberg, says it will be taken up again after the California state system has had time to develop its own new repository of online courses. This is a temporary setback for the MOOC lobby, but MOOC skeptics should not celebrate yet: the effort will surely continue in California and elsewhere, given the widespread enthusiasm for for-profit online education among the policy and corporate elites.

A major beneficiary of any legislation that mandates credit in state systems for MOOCs would be the powerful “top-tier” universities whose course offerings would be set to replace the courses offered by professors at regional, non-élite colleges. If all goes according to plan, according to some MOOC enthusiasts themselves (see Thomas Friedman on community colleges), automated MOOCs will replace much of the course content currently offered by human instructors at underfunded colleges. Presumably, whatever instructors remained after the austerity-mandated pink slips go out would perform the deskilled, low-wage task of being long-distance TAs for well-paid “star professors.” Perhaps within the Harvard or Stanford orbit, allowing the educationally underprivileged to watch videos of people like you seems like a great gift. But outside of that orbit, there is growing fear that monetized, creditized MOOCs will convert state and community colleges into a homogenized, intellectually impoverished simulacrum of the élite university world, in which courses consist of streaming online videos of celebrity professors combined with an a robotic regime of instantly-graded multiple choice tests and software-evaluated essays (essay-grading software has been developed by edX, the MOOC wing of Harvard and MIT).

Instead of equalizing instructional quality across U.S. higher education, MOOCs will only increase the distance between Stanford’s “gold standard” and the education offered to most college students.

Heller alludes to this dissent, addressing a widely discussed open letter from the philosophy faculty of San José State University, a public college whose president has recently spearheaded an alliance with edX. The letter states their concerns forthrightly: “should one-size fits all vendor-designed blended courses become the norm, we fear that two classes of universities will be created; one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campus, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.” But when Heller returns to San José State later in the piece, he dismisses these concerns by paraphrasing former Princeton president William Bowen: “Struggling schools could use the online courses in their own programs, as San José State has, giving their students a the benefits of a first-rate education.”

In general, Heller’s reservations about MOOCs are balanced with projected positive impacts. He worries about the loss of the college seminar as he experienced it, but Stanford’s president John Hennessey reassures him that “the gold standard of small in-person classes led by great instructors will remain.” Hennessey’s metaphor is revealing. The monetary gold standard was generally good for the rentiers and bad for the people. By restricting the money supply, it consigned those without significant assets to penury. Comparably, Hennessey’s “gold standard” refers only to wealthy universities like Stanford and Harvard, which incubate the country’s political, financial, and media élite. Instead of equalizing instructional quality across U.S. higher education, MOOCs will only increase the distance between Stanford’s “gold standard” and the education offered to most college students.

Heller’s treatment of the “two systems” of higher education is obviously imbalanced. When he discusses how MOOCs will affect elite institutions like Harvard, he asks around at Harvard and its peer institutions; when discussing how MOOCs will affect regional and nonselective schools, he also asks around at Harvard and its peer institutions. He states that low-cost public institutions “are funded on fumes” and are “under extreme strain,” but does not interview faculty and students of such institutions for an inside view of the budget strain they face. Instead, he turns to Bowen (President Emeritus of the Mellon Foundation as well as Princeton) and William Baumol (NYU) and their diagnosis of a “cost disease” that “is thought to help explain why the price of education is on a rocket course, with no leveling in sight.” But the alleged “cost disease,” if indeed an apt diagnosis, afflicts all institutions, not just the underfunded ones. Such a “disease” would certainly help explain why Harvard and its ilk have raised tuition beyond the means of the vast majority of American families. The question is why the prestigious schools continue to thrive and expand while non-élite colleges are nearly all under constant threat of cuts. The answer, of course, would have to consider the structural roots of the rising inequality that stratifies society on all fronts, a context MOOC promoters are loath to discuss.

Unfortunately, the “cost disease” metaphor allows Heller and his interviewees to treat the plight of public colleges as a phenomenon of nature (and the naturalized “market”) rather than the consequence of a neoliberal political agenda. College expenses have been recast as a matter of individual responsibility rather than a public obligation to create equal opportunities and an informed and employable citizenry. For most other than the wealthiest, the withdrawal of public funding means higher tuition, which means taking out interest-accruing student loans that will burden them for years. There are many imaginable ways to reduce the costs to students of public colleges that rely on the political process rather than venture capital. One might be to cut the vast amounts that a state like California spends in maintaining a socially devastating mass incarceration system that benefits for-profit companies; another, to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund higher education (a modest version of this succeeded as a California ballot initiative in 2012), under the assumption that the wealthy already enjoy access to higher education and that its opportunities need to be more widely available so as to forestall the creation of an undemocratic hereditary oligarchy. But since the problems of low-cost public education have been framed as a result of market forces rather than political choices, the only apparent remedy is the “market solution” offered by private entities like edX, Coursera, and Udacity.

Correspondingly, the latter are now turning to the well-established practice of persuading public entities to outsource taxpayer-funded services to the private sector. As prison and health care profiteers (among others) have learned, this kind of arrangement is almost endlessly attractive to legislatures addicted to austerity rhetoric and sympathetic to private enterprise (as most are these days). And once the public spigot is turned on and political cronies have been found and given a stake in the perpetuation of the deal, it becomes a nearly impossible political task to end the outlays of state money to the preferred enterprises, even when the promised savings do not materialize and the quality of the service is poorer than promised. Meanwhile, the benefits of the political deal flow in both directions.

All of this marks a crucial change from the way that MOOCs were initially presented to the public. While it has always been clear that MOOCs would draw their content from courses taught in the élite university sphere and deliver the content to students not enrolled at such universities, the initial promise was that MOOCs would function as a free educational commons, along the lines of other free internet resources. The beneficiaries were discussed vaguely as people no access to higher education. In many articles on the subject, it was not clear that the authors had ever heard of the community colleges and regional universities that educate the vast majority of U.S. undergraduates, or the universities that already exist across the Global South. The MOOC 1.0 strategy, congruent with unspecific allusions to a millions-strong untapped audience for streaming videos of Harvard and Stanford lectures, was to simply put the courses out there for the multitudes. MOOCs 2.0 now involve “partnerships” with recipient universities (like San José State) that pay to use licensed MOOC content as well as producer universities that will be paid to generate it. Ultimately, this requires that MOOC credit be made transferable to recipient universities, a group that will likely expand apace. As Bob Meister notes in n+1, this arrangement presents “a quicker and surer solution to the pricing problem” facing revenue-seeking MOOC companies than anything MOOCs 1.0 offered.

If the rich universities are being paid by the poor ones, how is this a philanthropic arrangement by which “the best-endowed schools in the country could give something back to their nonexclusive cousins”?

If the rich universities are being paid by the poor ones, how is this a philanthropic arrangement by which “the best-endowed schools in the country could give something back to their nonexclusive cousins”? The only pro-MOOC response is: yes, but the latter are paying less than they would to hire new instructors to teach the course. MOOCs thus become a way of propping up the austerity agenda forced on underprivileged public colleges. If MOOCs help them slash budgets, administrators can presumably dismiss even more instructors and replace them with video feeds and auto-grading software (here I am echoing the concerns voiced by Harvard professor Peter Burgard, the only serious MOOC skeptic interviewed by Heller). But now I am engaging in “knee-jerk guild thinking,” the MOOC defender may respond, the likes of which “serve[s] the interests of tenured professors at other institutions before . . . students . . . or the public.” But why is self-interest inappropriate for trained college instructors (disclosure: myself included) facing unemployment, underemployment, and economic instability, but perfectly appropriate when it comes to the expansionary ambitions of the MOOC companies?

Stanford president Hennessey’s self-serving remark that “we are simply trying to support too many universities that are trying to be research institutions” hints at imperial ambitions beyond the capture of students and revenue promised by MOOCs. Heller follows up on Hennessey’s statement: “[i]f élite universities were to carry the research burden of the whole system, less well-funded schools could be stripped down and streamlined.” It appears that when presidents and graduates of wealthy institutions plot to downsize less privileged institutions, they even turn to the old rhetoric of European imperialism: Hennessey’s and Heller’s “research burden” recalls the “white man’s burden” of Kipling’s noble colonial enterprise. As for the complementary rhetoric of imperialistic philanthropy we hear emanating nonstop from Silicon Valley, Julian Assange has helpfully modernized the same phrase to “the white geek’s burden.”

The complementary efforts to “partner” with underfunded state colleges and to mandate the provision of public university credit for those who have taken MOOCs represent a crucial new stage in what has been a remarkably undemocratic process, pushed through by administrators, trustees, donors, and a host of influential publications and pundits. The MOOC fad exemplifies what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism.” Solutionism elides genuine political reform in favor of technocratic fixes invented by self-proclaimed experts for the supposed “bugs” affecting institutions. In solutionist rhetoric, Morozov argues, “deeply political reform efforts are . . . reinvented as mere attempts at increasing efficiency and promoting innovation.” The result is an erasure of the moral dimensions of the problemin this case, the way that rampant economic, social, and racial inequality impacts college accessibility. As the San José philosophy faculty puts it, “it is time to call it like it is.”


Geoff Shullenberger is a teacher and writer based in Monterey, California.