MOOC Debriefing Essay

Sarah Tompkins
English 516
Professor Krause
11 March 2013

College Courses vs. Songs

     “In the US, 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. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as as songs came unbundled from CDs”, Clay Shirky claims in his blog titled Napster, Udacity, and the Academy (Shirky). It’s interesting to consider the political implications of the MOOC for the larger academic world, and the economy.  Shirky talks about higher education and learning sharing history with music, for two main reasons.  The MOOCs, like Napster, allow for flexibility of content and they’re free.  Obviously, people value both musicians and education.  The problem behind all of this, on the surface, is the system.  The cost of education is increasing at the same time the astoundingly huge possibilities of the internet are coming to light.  Ultimately, though, running an organization such as Napster or a MOOC takes time, expertise, and money.  We figured out that we don’t have to pay for every song on an album, and it will be interesting to see if the idea of the well-rounded education is going to change back to more of an apprenticeship situation as we get the idea that we can take classes only in things that we find interesting or useful, for free, from some of the best institutions and minds in the world.

     Will there be one “best course” on every subject, with institutions using them as guidelines or supplements for their courses in many (or all) subjects?  I mean, as a student, are you going to listen to a less eloquent professor lecture on a topic you are interested in when you have access to the eminent minds of the field?  Well sure, sometimes; people still go see their favorite musicians in concert, because of having the studio versions at home. It’s about the experience of seeing the musicians face to face in whatever venue they are in, just as it is about being able to question the professor, not just take a web lecture without critical analysis facilitated by the speaker. While not the best analogy, comparing music and education works in respect to this. The experience is not the same. The discussion is so big and the feedback is from peers, not faculty. In some ways it’s only a degree away from what we already have; a motivated individual will research and learn about a topic on their own time using the Internet. You have to be motivated to succeed in learning from a MOOC, with the benefit of the content being organized for you.

     Economically, it seems as though it’s going to boil down to what is most advantageous for the capitalists profiting off the venture, but society also has a say. As Shirky points out, Napster lost in court but its idea lived on and flourished. I imagine that it will be difficult to separate the world from advanced knowledge once it is realized that it can be disseminated so easily.  Obviously, the system isn’t perfect.  But neither was Widipedia’s, and yet here we are today in a world where free doesn’t mean a bad value.  We enjoy open source software, and open access to so much information.

     What the farther reaching implications of expanding free online education are remain to be determined.  It is easy to envision a world where there are courses for everything and students pay a small fee to participate in the grading for a certificate portion of a class.  It is easy to imagine us recognizing the benefit of a society where everyone with internet access is able to benefit from some of the best lectures and chosen materials. Of course, this is an ideal vision in which access approaches universality, and intrinsic motivation is widely facilitated.  This would rely on more systems of social support than are currently in place, surely, but this cannot but be an example of an idea that is bound to help foster these changes in our society.  It’s a paradox, in the sense that we need broader educational practices to help build a society where education and wisdom are readily valued by the majority of people, which is only possible when society is educated enough to recognize the benefit to a highly educated populace.

     Online education could be the track that makes all this possible.  It has the potential to become the seed of a revolution. It begs the question, ‘why don’t we make education accessible to anyone that wants it, where practical?’.  The ‘where practical’ is the physical side of things.  Not everyone has access to a computer or the Internet.  Not everyone receives the same basic education that makes engaging in critical thinking and advanced reasoning the standard background to taking MOOCs.  Conversely, we will always need research facilities, and chemistry labs, and other practices that are not replicable in an online environment.

    “Open systems are open. For people used to dealing with institutions that go out of their way to hide their flaws, this makes these systems look terrible at first. But anyone who has watched a piece of open source software improve, or remembers the Britannica people throwing tantrums about Wikipedia, has seen how blistering public criticism makes open systems better. And once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class, it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment.” (Shirky)

Shouldn’t these be more accessible once society as a whole recognizes the benefit of raising the bar? Isn’t this the pathway to a society with less inequality, and better methods, and better information?  Or is it really just another business ploy, doomed to enhance the experience of the elite and further widen the gap between those in the know, and those out of the loop?  I think the former; we have Wikipedia, and we have Linux, and we have any number of sites that provide access to free music, movies, and other entertainment. This hasn’t meant that people quit purchasing CDs or going to concerts and movie theaters.  The aesthetics of certain things will always have intrinsic value.

     The question of whether or not education has intrinsic value has already been answered.  Of course it does.  So a database filled with classes taught by the best of the best, and spaces for people to interact and connect with one another without the constraints of time and place appears to be set to take the academic world by storm. Questions remain as to whether the experiences for an online course are comparable to those at physical institutions.  But most institutions offer some things online already-so it obviously works out okay for many subjects. Also, classes at physical institutions are by no means perfect all the time. The implications economically are difficult to predict.  I’d imagined the courses being open with regard to content and participation with fees for being graded for a certificate. How will these certificates be acknowledged in the larger scheme of earning a degree, or considering a resume for an employment opportunity-be you the employer or prospective employee? Many questions remain.

        “Things That Can’t Last Don’t. The cost of attending college is rising above inflation every year, while the premium for doing so shrinks. This obviously can’t last, but no one on the inside has any clear idea about how to change the way our institutions work while leaving our benefits and privileges intact” (Shirky). One must consider the counterpoint argument to the idealism Shirky embraces in his article. Aaron  Bady in his piece titled Questioning Clay Shirky says: “But how “open” is Udacity, really? Udacity’s primary obligation is to its investors. That reality will always push it to squeeze as much profit out of its activities as it can. This may make Udacity better at educating, but it also may not; the job of a for-profit entity is not to educate, but to profit, and it will.”   Also, “The key difference between academics and venture capitalists, in fact, is not closed versus open but evidence versus speculation. The thing about academics is that they require evidence of success before declaring victory, while venture capitalists can afford to gamble on the odds” (Bady).  He also points out how happy academics are to give away their product, as are many musicians; that said, both teachers and musicians have to eat, so power is shifted to administration for the profit portion of the business.

     “If you are getting a degree at a for-profit institution, you probably are paying too much for too little. But would it be any less mediocre if it were free? Udacity’s courses are free to consumers (though not, significantly, to universities), at least for now.”  Bady is making an important point here.  Many aspects of providing education freely are unlike other non-participatory structures.  And most importantly, in a capitalist society like ours, it is critical to examine the underlying structures and motivations. I found it difficult to get involved in some of the content for the MOOC we took, which meant that my reasons for taking it were solely resting on my grade in the course the MOOC was assigned for. I have to imagine it would be different, at least to some degree, if I were only taking online courses on topics I found interesting. The fact that MOOCs aren’t free to universities is one that also requires some thought. For instance, what is stopping a professor from requiring his students to sign up for it and turn in the certificate showing they participated? So why deny access to universities?

     Education has become increasingly inaccessible, unless one is willing to be saddled with rather exceedingly uncomfortable mountains of debt.  In the political climate of the United States, the rhetoric abounds that ‘if it’s free it can’t be worth anything’, a notion not erased by the existence of structures like Wikipedia. Even with music, having materials beyond the music itself becomes a collector’s obsession or even a status symbol.  There also exists the notion that you get what you pay for, so it is difficult to envision the path that will be taken when it becomes politically uncomfortable to argue against free education in the face of a revolution composed of overwhelmed student debtors.  Overwhelmingly, there are aspects of the internet that make the political structures moot. That has been demonstrated with music and intellectual property, though the complications rage on within the discourse and legal actions arise. If employers start accepting certificates from these free and  fully online courses, I don’t think there will be any stopping this revolution of learning…especially if MOOCs can come close to providing learning experiences similar to expensive institutional classes.


Works Cited

Bady, Aaron. “Questioning Clay Shirky”. Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed. Web. 3 February 2013.

Shirky, Clay. “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy”. Web. 3 February 2013.


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