Something I learned in high school history has come back unexpectedly while I’ve been brooding about Jonathan Rees’ opposition to MOOCs and his views on what they threaten.

A couple of miles away from the place where I grew up is this beautiful Iron Age hill fort:

Old Sarum iron age hill fort, Wiltshire, UK (image borrowed from

Within the inner circle are the remaining stone foundations of an original castle, and—critically—the well that stored water for the whole settlement. Soldiers controlled the resources in the middle, and the villagers and clergy lived in the outer circle, in wooden buildings of which nothing remains. In the early 12th century, exasperated by disputes with the castle guard over access to the well, the clergy took off with the community and restablished the city in a new location, where it still is today.

It’s a metaphorical stretch, but for me this decisive, strategic and disruptive move is a caution to those who are guarding the well of traditional higher education.  For a long time, we’ve held the inner circle, letting prescribed numbers in across narrow bridges that we also control. We’ve enjoyed the security of higher ground, protected by an impressive moat.  But here’s the tricky part: we only get to do this as long as the whole village accepts the way in which we manage their resources.

In other words, we’re not kept in business by market demand for the service we supply, but by taxpayer-voter consensus that a public higher education system is national infrastructure worth funding, even though the majority of the population don’t get to use it. Looked at this way, Australia’s target of 40% of 25-34 year olds being degree qualified, is also a target of 60% of the population not getting above themselves—that’s the uncomfortable consensus we have to maintain.

And in return, we offer something that’s under our exclusive control. This is why even though interested learners can now access free, open, online course content from anywhere around the world, this capacity on its own doesn’t change much, for a simple reason.  Ryan Craig of University Ventures, writing for Inside Higher Ed, points out that:

the threshold issue is the gap between non-credit-bearing MOOCs and meaningful credentials, currently in the form of associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. … We would live in a better world if love of learning were the key motivator for payment and persistence in higher education.  Alas, based on the 85 percent drop rate in Thrun’s non-credit bearing MOOC, we can fairly conclude that it is the credential that attaches to you for a lifetime.

In other words, as long as there’s a gap between MOOCs and massively open online degrees (MOODs?), the self-accrediting degree-awarding power of traditional institutions is safe in the keep.

Ryan Craig doesn’t think the world’s elite institutions will start awarding degrees assembled out of certificates of completion of even their own massively open course offerings.  Why would they?  The money they can throw into high quality resource development is small beer in relation to their overall budget. They can put their content online where others can access it for free, and as users and reusers we’ll all be doing our tiny, abject bit to promote their global reputation—potentially even creating a new future indicator against which they can rate themselves in rankings season.

But he sees the potential for a more disruptive MOOC-led shift coming from a different kind of university, that will somehow find a way to offer a low-cost, no-frills education using the mass transport model, airline-style:

It could be a private-sector university.  Or perhaps a very innovative traditional university with a clear vision of educating and granting credentials to millions of qualified students from around the world, along with a willingness to throw aside its existing model.

This is exactly what worries Jonathan Rees: what else will be thrown out, along with the existing model?  If MOOCs represent a threat to the working conditions assured by the existing model, should we be opposing them now, on principle?

I agree that the Stanford-style MOOCs present a bluntly unappealing vision of worsening rank divisions in the global academic workforce: a small number of international scholar-superstars, a larger number of tenured faculty operating as local learning management franchisees, and an even larger number of local and virtual adjuncts competing on the world market to offer the best coaching service at the lowest rates. Companies like this one who have already built a business on capturing outsourced student support tutoring business will be in the front line to capitalise if traditional universities think this is the right way to position themselves.

But before we haul down the portcullis, it’s worth remembering that the older, flatter connectivist MOOCs have been built on really different principles. They use a loosely networked model of peer collaboration to support participants working together on shared ideas, not just standing about as witnesses to the spectacle of expertise. They’re genuinely open to passers-by, as I found when Vanessa Vaile invited me to check out a facilitated discussion of digital identity on Bon Stewart’s blog during the final weeks of #Change11. And they demonstrate that effective participation in a large community of strangers requires social confidence and the capacity to set your own goals and navigate your own journey. That’s why they require less in the way of tutoring, but it’s also why they’re not going to replace undergraduate programs, where much of this capacity is still to be acquired.

So the place where MOOCs could really challenge universities is in our attempt to hang on to the contract for graduate professional development.  This is post, post-compulsory education, and it’s where universities often seem to be at their most regrettably business-focused, offering programs that are less fully realised than they might be because they’re not able to attract a large number of students to a particular campus or location. They’re also not flexible, or mixable, and by definition they’re restricted in entry, which means they also act as a licensing system for the undergraduate services we offer.

What if we stopped guarding this well? What if we all started working openly across institutions at the graduate level? This way, we would share the role of facilitation, provide more collaborative models of expert thinking, and offer wider access to a much more imaginative range of graduate-level offerings with a much more open model of cross-institutional accreditation. This way, students who want to pursue a self-managed and self-tailored approach to their later learning and professional development could do so with others from around the world.  What would we lose?

And what would we gain?

18 Responses

  • I’ve been waiting for this one (sigh) and am still mulling over my own version. Extreme reactions are fear driven (fear in a handful electrons) and possible outcomes (among many, some we cannot yet imagine). Since they represent possible, even likely scenarios, I plump for being as well and widely informed as possible. Nobody, neither boosters nor doomsayers. know how changes will play out. Those with power over the academic workplace are more likely to keep it than ones without power are likely get some. There will be losers, more than a few among friends and colleagues. That both stakes and risks are high making disapproval even approbrium a price I am willing to pay.

    I do not see myself as “not standing with my colleagues.” No doubt, many among my own adjunct activism colleagues will. Instead, I see it more as looking out for them when they can’t keep their eyes off the rear view mirror and on the road. Maybe it’s left over from the nuclear 50s, home fallout shelters and regular bomb alert drills in school (as if getting under your desk would make a difference).

    The question is not how to prevent change, but how to navigate it, minimize damage, look for openings, even opportunities, i.e. “locally sourced, sustainable, handcrafted education” or self-owned and administered cooperatives like InChorusInc, an adjunct initiative that seems to have dropped off the radar ~ but on my follow up list. I’d like to hear more about the potlatch model you mentioned. Can’t do any of those without an open mind and good, first hand intel. Recycled, second hand accounts and opinions in higher ed media do not count.

    Others have written about it in more detail. I came across this simple layout of the difference in current tech-enabled mega courses, “Scaled Free Enrollment Course #SFEC = #Coursera #MITx #edX, #MOOC = #Change11 #LAK12 #ds106.” Where else but in a tweet?

    • Hi Vanessa
      I was also wondering what happened to InChorus. The Adjunct Project’s news about cross-union solidarity between steelworkers and university adjuncts in Pittsburgh also seemed to me a sign of practical, forward-thinking navigation of change.
      What interests me is that MOOCs and adjunctification have got themselves hitched together, and I think this does require us to figure out how to manage the potential of more open educational initiatives without panic. The differentiation between SFECs and MOOCs is valuable; the proposition I’m inching towards is to add a third model: TIOC (trans-insitutional open course).
      You are so right: the question is how we steer the processes of change with sensitivity to all the collateral implications, particularly for those with least institutional power.

      • I’m not quite sure how MOOCs and adjunctification got quite so connected, although the cynical voice whispers, It’s the “faculty minority” realizing they too could be adjunctified. Could that be why adjuncts seem to be the new black in higher ed media? I like that third designation but have also been following the OER University movement and would like to suggest OERU or an OU (Open University) variant. Debra had one on her Left Forum panel and in his latest post. John Casey talks about one in Chicago that has been going since the 50’s. Add those to TIOC. There are still a lot of issues to address, but if we don’t think about it now (getting into the game late at that) others will do the thinking and deciding.

      • John Casey’s post, Criticality and the Rebirth of the Public Sphere/, in which Bernard Harcourt refers to MOOCs:

        “Having addressed his theoretical points, Harcourt moved on to examine what he saw as three key historical moments relevant to the topic of freedom and education in the 21st century. The first of these was the “corporatization of Higher Education,” a topic that I have written about on this blog several times, typically in relation to Adjunct Labor. To this phenomenon he linked the expansion of free online courses (referred to now as MOOCS or Massive Online Open Courses), which are increasingly being relied upon by students who could not afford the cost of rising college tuition. The final historical moment he referred to was the emergence of the Occupy movement whose teach-ins and recent Peoples Summit offered another venue for public learning that was dependent neither on the traditional college campus or online course portal.”

        PS Debra interview the USW organizer last week. About InChorus: The college rejected contracting out to the adjuncts (although they had previously tried to outsource to a contrator) and the p/t union organizing InChorus de-certified.Not much word since but I’ve got an email for one.

        A question: how goes the casual (insecure lecturer) ratio in the UK or where could I find out?

  • Reblogged this on Tales from the Adjunctiverse and commented:
    Kate asks, “What if we stopped guarding this well? What if we all started working openly across institutions at the graduate level? This way, we would share the role of facilitation, provide more collaborative models of expert thinking, and offer wider access to a much more imaginative range of graduate-level offerings with a much more open model of cross-institutional accreditation. This way, students who want to pursue a self-managed and self-tailored approach to their later learning and professional development could do so with others from around the world. What would we lose?”

  • Rob Gee

    My first visit to your blog. You’re sounding a note that is, I think, similar to a post I put up yesterday at Stillwater Historians ( You’re talking more specifically about MOOCs, whereas my intent was to address attitudes about technology and change more generally. But I think we arrive at similar perspectives–right down to our resource allocation metaphors. For my own part I’ve been frustrated at what seems like a rather narrow-minded effort to lump together online and distance education, MOOCs, “robo-grading”, and various other technology-based approaches to teaching and learning, and demonize them all as threats to meritocracy, and the very place of the university and education in modern society. This makes it very hard to have an actual conversation about the potential benefits and applications of technology. Anyway, thanks for this–I’ll be checking back. –Rob

    • Welcome, Rob. Jonathan Rees and I have been debating this same point for about a year: are all the phenomena that you mention linked by some kind of common strategic goal (that might well be hostile to the values of higher education), or are they aggregating more randomly, and if they are, what do we make of that? The conversation is genuinely hard because it raises such big questions about the prospect of agency within gross global systems. And the capital that’s piling in is really significant. College faculty labouring within their own disciplinary camps haven’t been encouraged to look up and out at the emerging structure of the education-technology partnership in business terms, but I think now we should. But as Vanessa points out, it’s really hard to make sense of the view from under the table.

  • Must be the season… adding to discussion, Revenge of the Underpaid Professors + better comments than usual

  • Interesting post. Thanks. I visited Old Sarum in 2000, and it certainly made me think about culture and change. The credentialling role of Unis is becoming more and more of a talking point, but not all commentators understand the interface with changes in the online world.

    • Yes, it’s a complicated collision of technical opportunity and business incentive/risk. So we have the odd sight of radicals defending conservative institutions, and traditional institutions proposing themselves as arch disruptors.

      Old Sarum is lovely, and a compelling historical case study in the ordinary human mechanics of power. And of course, the ordinary citizens in the settlement were caught in the middle, between two powerful parties who were mostly interested in maintaining power over each other, using the citizens as collateral. Ouch.

  • A most interesting discussion! thanks KB. I don’t think there is anything so intelligent as a conspiracy going on, but there are always idiotic yet financially successful business models waiting in the wings for any given opportunity – witness the TESOL testing industry poised to take advantage of any unwitting institution that thinks issues of ‘English language proficiency’ they experience with their international students can be ‘dealt with’ by subjecting the hapless students to even more testing, followed up by… nothing.

    Anyway I’m really prompted to reply to, rather than lurk think about, your end question “what would we lose… if we all started working openly across institutions at the graduate level?” because I work primarily with post-graduate students of the international variety, and endeavour against the institutionalised odds to focus on the linguistic nature of the dialogue that constitutes disciplinary education (violently avoiding the extra-curricularisation of language education, for good reason), and to cut a long story short, may I urge one and all to beware the rapid industrial growth going on in this area! []. It seems to me, the more the-exchange-of-language-that-develops-knowledge gets conceived and practised as an exchange-of-written-text, that can now (thanks to technology and global connectivity), be created by anyone anywhere for a fee (it seems to be mostly Russian and Chinese businesses capitalising on this particular business opportunity at the moment), you can expect only more of this kind of interpretation of how students might “want to pursue a self-managed and self-tailored approach to their learning and professional development with others from around the world”…

  • Welcome, Emily — lovely to see you out there. Just a quick question, so I’m clear: what you’re thinking about here is the risk that if we use online environments to bring graduate students together, the risk of fraud is higher?

    • indeed – and let me clarify for other readers, my job is language education across the disciplines, so I am not commenting without extensive knowledge of different approaches to language education in universities and beyond – and I am not implying anything about international students being more likely to plagiarise (or enterprisingly ‘outsource’ their work) – I am simply drawing attention to the fact that the vast majority of graduate students at our particular institution in Australia, whether in coursework or research programs, are L2 (using English as a second or additional language) and the learning experience is extraordinarily fraught for them, especially when those with whom they spend most of their time (i.e. their teachers of the chosen discipline) have no theory of language and language development, and tend therefore to be rather innocently unaware of how essential certain types of dialogue actually are in the development of knowledge… what we need is edtech that facilitates, and does not facilitate outsourcing, the real work of education, which is authentic conversation between teachers and students..

      • and let me quickly add to that – the ‘fraud’ I see being at risk here is not what is commonly understood around the phrase ‘academic integrity’ – I am far more concerned to talk about what I understand by the phrase ‘educational integrity’, which is not, to me, the same thing, however much the current growth industry in that area seeks to conflate the two (either out of sloppy thinking or political intent) – I am on about the integrity whereby stated learning outcomes align with teaching and assessment practices, not whereby the institutional gaze is constantly shifted onto the hapless student and their behaviour with words they are struggling to learn, if you see what I mean..

  • Brilliant discussion, thanks everyone I love the insightful angles you all bring to Open Ed ….. thanks for caring about education!!

  1. “Suicide Squad…attack.” « More or Less Bunk  May 29, 2012

    […] hate to pick on Kate as she’s so nice. Besides, this post is smart and reasonable in its own way. It’s also so much better than the technological […]

  2. Pieces of the sky | Music for Deckchairs  October 20, 2013

    […] I went back to the post that Jonathan threw up as evidence that I’ve been some kind of MOOC apologist, and found there isn’t anything I’d […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.