This week in eLearning and Digital Cultures was rather meta. We read two opinion pieces about MOOCs, Napster, Udacity, and the Academy and Questioning Clay Shirky, and watched a lecture about open education by Gardner Campbell.
In “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy,” Clay Shirky compares higher education with the music industry. He argues that Napster and MP3s told the world that you don’t have to buy a whole CD; you can just buy one song. He claims that MOOCs are similarly offering a new narrative: education doesn’t have to be something that only the elite can access, and maybe we don’t need to buy a whole degree; maybe we should just download the courses we need. Shirky points to the inhibiting expense of a college education to bolster his argument: “an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it.”
Aaron Bady responds to “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy” in “Questioning Clay Shirky.” He criticizes Shirky’s lack of evidence that online education is valuable or that MOOCs are truly “open,” and argues that a comparison of higher education and the music industry is problematic. He further contends that Shirky is dividing students into “elite” and “non-elite” and then not expecting MOOCs to offer the same quality of education as institutions like Harvard, but Bady’s arguments get a little confusing because it seems that he’s advocating for quality online education while at the same time condemning MOOCs for being the equivalent of “a link to WebMD as a replacement for seeing a real doctor.”
I wasn’t particularly impressed with either of the articles, mainly because both authors are so defensive of their positions that their arguments lack balance. Instead of pitting MOOC supporters against the academy, I’d like to see the conversation back up to more fundamental questions: What is the purpose of higher education? What intrinsic value do students gain from a four-year degree? Is there something in the four-year experience that’s inherently valuable, or is the value tied to the specific institution?
In his keynote lecture at Open Ed last October, Campbell approaches these questions, claiming that there is a tension between what education is supposed to do (he draws on Bateson’s Hierarchy of Learning to argue that education should push students to think differently and creatively), and the structures built into institutions of higher education that force students to “play the game” of learning to satisfy the teacher’s expectations and earn an A.
I think Campbell would say we need to not only ask, what is the purpose of education? But also, how can we change our education practices and structures to actually accomplish that purpose? With this framing, I don’t think it needs to be Higher Education versus The MOOCs. Instead, MOOCs, for-profits, non-profits, ivy leagues, community colleges, state schools are all part of a larger conversation that is trying to solve a very real problem.
PS: Students from the University of Edinburgh joined the MOOC this week; they created digital artifacts and posted them on the course site. Here is my favorite, by Amy Woodgate: