MOOCs, access, & privileged assumptions

In this blog post I compare the rhetoric of accessibility that occurs in arguments for MOOCs, to the kinds of examples chosen to represent this – in the context of an existing literature on higher education accessibility. Here is the original post, from June 19, 2013: MOOCs, access, & privileged assumptions.

Later this week I’m going to be on a panel about the inescapable subject of MOOCs, so for this post I’m thinking through an issue I’ve been noticing since I last wrote a big post on this topic, which was during the peak of the media mayhem in July 2012. For many of those researching higher education, even those who’ve been doing it for just a few years as I have, the ongoing hyperbolic MOOC debate that has hijacked the higher ed news has been quite frustrating. Of course, there is plenty of bluster on both sides of this debate. But it’s really troubling to see many perfectly legitimate criticisms reduced to straw-person arguments about “faculty fear” (“those teachers just don’t want to lose their jobs!”), or about how those who are skeptical must be “against accessibility”.

So I would like to address this issue of “accessibility” that has come up repeatedly in MOOC debates. In articles that evangelise about the benefits of MOOCs, it’s often pointed out that there there is a huge (global) demand for higher education and that many eligible students are losing out due to lack of resources or to their location in “third world” countries. Even in richer nations, student loan debt has become a more significant concern over time, alongside rising tuition; and postsecondary education is becoming more of a financial burden for those who can least afford it. All this has happened in a context where the economy has changed significantly over a period of about 30 years. Socioeconomic mobility has been stymied (including for those with education), middle-class jobs are being fragmented and technologised, and young people are finding it more and more difficult to get a foot in the door. This is the “perfect storm” often referenced in arguments for the “urgency” of turning to MOOCs as a solution.

Lest you should think I am blowing proponents’ claims out of proportion, I’ll provide a few examples. Take a look at this recent article in the Guardian UK, by Anant Agarwal of MIT, President of edX. Agarwal claims that MOOCs “make education borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind” (note the ableist language – and the fact that he left disability off the list). Moving on, in this article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Mary Manjikian argues that MOOCs (and other forms of online learning) “threaten to set [the existing] social hierarchy on its head” and that we should “embrace the blurring of boundaries taking place, to make room for a more-equitable society”, which can be achieved through the dis-placement of elitist place-based education. And lastly, I point you to an article written by a MOOC user who epitomises the claims to worldwide accessibility that Agarwal so keenly puts forward: Muhammad Shaheer Niazi of Pakistan, who, with his sister, has taken numerous MOOCs and writes enthusiastically about the benefits of online learning.

I think these arguments beg the question – if MOOCs provide “access”, who, then, has access to MOOCs? What is required of the user, to get the most out of these online resources? To start, you’ll need a regular, reliable Internet connection and decent computer equipment, which are of course not free. Assuming you have the right tech, you’ll also have to be comfortable with being tracked and monitored, given that surveillance is required to “prove” that a particular student did the work (there is much potential for cheating and plagiarism). There are also “analytics” being applied to your online activities, so you need to be on board with participating in a grand experiment where the assumption is that online behaviour shows how learning happens. In these “enclosed” MOOCs, there will be no private, “safe” spaces for learning.

And learning itself must fit the parameters of what is on offer – so the kind of “personalization” often touted is a rather limited one. You’ll be fine if you learn well or best at a computer, and if you don’t have any learning (or other) disabilities that require supports. The few demographics available also suggest that thus far, MOOC users are more likely to be male, white, to have previous postsecondary education, and (judging by course offerings) to be speakers of English, even while the actual pass rates for the courses are still proportionally very low. In terms of the actual needs of the majority of students, we should consider whether all this is really about privileged autodidacts projecting their ideal of education onto everyone else.

Questioning the quantification of assessment, the level of access, the cost of tuition, the endless search for “economies of scale”, and the funding troubles faced by public higher education, must happen if we are to find solutions to those problems. Yet plenty of people have been questioning these trends for a long time, and somehow the research they’ve produced doesn’t have the same appeal. Pro-MOOC critiques of the current system never seem to reference the existing literature about (for example) neoliberalism and the economization of education policy, increased privatization (from tuition fees to corporate influence on research), marketization and commercialization, and the unbundling and outsourcing of faculty work. Perhaps that’s because MOOCs would mostly serve to exacerbate those trends.

What then is the function of MOOCs in terms of “access”? It isn’t about extending real opportunities, because we live in a society and economy where opportunities are unequally distributed and even (online) education cannot “fix” this structural problem, which is deepening by the day; finding a solution will be a complex and difficult task. It isn’t about ensuring the students get higher “quality” of teaching, unless you truly do believe that only professors at elite universities have something to offer, and that all other faculty are somehow a sub-par version modelled on that template. Some have argued that MOOCs can reduce tuition costs for students, but surely there’s only so long a business can exist without making a profit, and the “product” clearly isn’t the same. The ongoing efforts to link MOOCs to the prestige of existing universities through accreditation deals are unlikely to leave these courses “cost-free”, and the hundreds of hours of work it takes to create one MOOC can’t go uncompensated.

Perhaps MOOCs in their revisionist, start-up incarnation are partly about projecting the possibility that even the most downtrodden can still do something to get ahead, at a time when the old path to mobility through hard work and (expensive) education seems less effective than ever. What could be better than more education, for “free”? In this sense, MOOCs really do help to “train” workers for the new economy, since they’re teaching us to govern ourselves, to be autonomous and flexible learners in an economy where businesses can simply refuse to provide on-the-job-training, instead holding out for the perfect custom candidate (while keeping wages low). This is framed not as a problem with business – or even with the long-term changes to the economy in general – but as a failure of education. Meanwhile, we’re encouraged to believe that we can mitigate personal risk by investing in ourselves, and if we don’t “get ahead” that way then it’s about personal responsibility (not systemic problems). If MOOCs “level the playing field” then no-one can complain when they’re left out of the game.

Who is most desperate for these possibilities? Maybe those folks will be the ones using MOOCs. But will the possibilities materialise into something real, for those who need it most, and not just for the few example “learners” who are invoked in MOOC-boosting articles and speeches? Are most current users there because they need to be or because they have no other option? Would massification through MOOCs be more effective that any of the other forms of educational massification that we have seen over the past 200 years – and if so, why? In what way will the new tokens of achievement be any better than a university degree at present, and will they translate concretely into opportunities for the least privileged? After all, isn’t that what “access” is about?

A deeper understanding of context is relevant to every argument being deployed. To return to Muhammad Shaheer Niazi, it’s clear that he actually exemplifies why we cannot make sweeping generalizations about students based on their location. Niazi describes how he had “access” to a supportive and education-oriented family; to “a very good school in Pakistan”; and to computers and books in his home. As Kate Bowles and Tressie McMillan Cottom have both pointed out, there are many families in the United States who wouldn’t be able to provide this kind of environment, and yet “Pakistan” is used frequently as a signifier of poverty, inaccessibility, and general disadvantage. Niazi’s piece shows us he is far from desperate – he is in fact part of the small international group of gifted and well-resourced students that universities most desire to recruit.

Because of the claims being made about disrupting hierarchies and helping the underprivileged, the MOOC trend calls on us to ask ethical questions. Questions about control, resources, and agendas; questions about who is excluded and who is included in this “new” landscape. Questions about how the story of this “phenomenon” is being re-written and re-shaped to reflect particular priorities. We’re seeing perverse exploitation of arguments about access, when the “solution” proposed involves breaking down the university into commodifiable, out-sourced units and reinforcing (or even exacerbating) existing institutional and social hierarchies. In the current political/economic landscape, where there are so many problems that seem intractable, the apparent concreteness of the MOOC “solution” is part of its appeal and also part of why uptake at traditional universities has been so rapid and widespread. But MOOCs are an answer that can only be posited if we construct the question in the right way.

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