Can the magic of MOOC survive in this neoliberal knowledge economy?

Photo: Oscarfan

Knowledge is power; isn’t it?

Well, YES! In my last (first ever) blog I ended with a subtle ‘pop’ at the establishment on openness and what actually belongs to us, the people. I was ‘privilaged’ to have been recently invited to Buckingham Palace to celebrate 100 years of accident prevention as championed by the charity RoSPA; but whilst behind the palace walls only days after the terror attack in Manchester I reflected upon how we’re manipulated via class, culture and capitalism by the media, government, corporations and educational institutions; through their careful control of information and knowledge, we in turn, propagate these biases as educators to those who have entrusted the facilitation of their learning to us (deep breath).

So this is where I will pick up the discussion about openness as it relates to my current practice as a senior manager within PSS. I am currently reviewing the health and safety/ statutory training provision for 1300 staff and in doing so I will be considering whether I can identify and access an existing relevent MOOC (massive open online course) or whether I should develop a bespoke MOOC to support safe working in the Directorate of Estates; with the potential to make this freely available across the UK HE estates sector in the true spirit of open knowledge. In doing so I want to explore more generally, as the title suggests, whether MOOC’s can survive in this neoliberal knowledge economy and how this impacts on open knowledge in higher education.

In an attempt to start ‘somewhere’ I mapped out how I felt Open Knowledge connects with my professional practice in PSS and how it may help me problem solve my challenge of educating and informing up to 1300 staff with a financially sustainable learning offer – hence my interest in online learning and in particular the MOOC.

So I begin this voyage on the open ocean with a scribbled mind map:

I noted that power came up for me a couple of times so this has shaped my thinking about what is really open (and why) and in turn my post.

‘Knowledge is power’ was previously discussed in an earlier blog by my OKHE alumnus @Jonathan Winter:

Human history bears repeated testament to the view that those with knowledge have both power and control which they will do extreme things to retain. In the twenty first century technology-based communications, coupled with the possibility of ever quicker global travel, gives opportunities as never before to democratise access to knowledge. Even more significantly, with this access comes the potential means for many more individuals and groups to further the development of knowledge and also to use or abuse knowledge either for their own ends or for wider benefit.

So is it just all down to how knowledge is ‘used or abused’ – well yes, ultimately, but first you have to be able to get your hands on it and that’s where the problem starts. For knowledge to embody power suggests that there will be haves and have nots and this will be predicated on a class system. To guard knowledge will, in terms of economic theory, create scarcity and in turn value. This value may benefit individuals who can afford to pay for access when they enter the job market with degree qualifications on the ‘promise’ of higher salaries, organisations in terms of returns on investment through intellectual property rights and in higher educational institutions through rising student fees and commodifying research outputs. This is clearly at odds with being open.

Is this such a surprise in a capitalist society – I suppose not, yet it is disheartening and concerning nonetheless when neoliberalism rules.

Stephen Ball writes of neoliberalism in his reader on Foucault, Power and Education (2013, Routledge) that:

Neo-liberalism is realised in practical relations of competition and exploitation within business but also in very mundane and immediate ways in our institutions of everyday life… we can also think about how we are “reformed” by neo-liberalism, and made into different kinds of educational workers or learners. At its most visceral and intimate neo-liberalism involves the transformation of social relations and practices into calculability’s and exchanges, that is into the market form – with the effect of commodifying educational practice and experience (p.131–132).

Constraints of commodification; is free really worth it?

So if educational practice has effectively been commodified, how can a MOOC with is swanky new approach to offering free knowledge exist?

Well, for a start it wasn’t initially seen as direct competition by established HE institutions who award ‘credible’ degrees sought after by industry and other academics alike. In 2013 the economist reported that ‘Oxford and Cambridge remain aloof, refusing to join what a senior Oxford figure fears may be a “lemming-like rush” into MOOCs’.

However, it wasn’t long before MOOCs were to experience cash creep for certificates which was inevitable when you consider that the higher education sector is worth £73bn to the UK equating to 3% of GDP and generating a greater return on investment than health, construction and public administration.

In response to the emergence of MOOCs in 2013 David Willetts, the UK governments universities minister commented regarding FutureLearn:

The launch of the UK’s biggest online university venture has the potential to “revolutionise conventional models of formal education” and keep the UK ahead in the global race to deliver the best education.

To put this into context, in 2015/16 the turnover at the University of Manchester was close to £1bn with overseas students from 160 countries making up 30% of the 39,000 strong annual cohort and paying higher fees than their UK counterparts. Mike Gibbons, director of student recruitment at the University of Manchester firmly acknowledges that “they bring their hard-earned money” into our City and the wider UK economy “as they see the UK as the place they can do business with. Note my emphasis on ‘bring’, as these students have chosen to travel across the globe with a suitcase full of cash rather than sit at home and study for free online, yet the tide is starting to turn on MOOC credibility and no doubt in time profitability.

Perhaps MOOCs and online learning are the natural evolution following the shift during the 20th century from universities offering students enlightenment to the new business orientated approach through intense research and corporate partnerships with industry where the ability to ‘scale up’ is revered. The University of Manchester already hosts BP and Rolls Royce on campus amongst its strategic partnerships with blue chip companies such as Astra Zeneca thereby ensuring strong commercial outlets for new products or advances in technology. More recently Nobel Prize winners Professors Geim and Novoselov have made Manchester the home of Graphene with a Graphene City planned on campus and nearly £500m already invested in 3 new advanced facilities, perfect selling points for a chargeable MOOC in engineering should this be in the pipeline?

During his 2016 visit to Manchester, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne proudly announced that “we’ve got huge competition from around the world and we know there’s competition for jobs [but] we’re going to take this hard science and turn it into things… things that we discover in Britain we want made in Britain!”

This is supported by higher education scholars Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades in their book Academic Capitalism and the New Economy (2009, John Hopkins Press), where they discuss in detail:

‘the aggressive engagement of U.S. higher education institutions in the knowledge-based economy and analyse the efforts of colleges and universities to develop, market, and sell research products, educational services, and consumer goods in the private marketplace’.

Clearly then, knowledge is not only power but is also trafficked as a commodity whether that be through teaching or research outputs; journal articles alone generate a world wide industry worth $25.2 billion (as of 2015) according to STM the ‘global voice of scholarly publishing’. This is a whole open knowledge issue in and of itself and as had been discussed in great detail by @Jason Schmitt, Communication Professor at Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY and seperately by @Lucinda May as part of the OKHE class of 2016.

With regards to whether ‘free is worth it’ for MOOCs the numbers speak for themselves with an audience of 58m worldwide and growing this is ripe for advertising income, certification costs and now the emergence of full degrees and masters programmes being offered for thousands of $£.

Here a MOOC, there a MOOC, everywhere a….

Robert Zemsky wrote of MOOCs in the The Journal of General Education in 2014 with his pithy title ‘Here a MOOC, there a MOOC, everywhere a MOOC MOOC':

They came; they conquered very little; and now they face substantially diminished prospects. We should not be surprised. Massive open online courses (moocs) were neither pedagogically nor technologically interesting, being little more than videotaped lessons that dilivered little from the early-morning TV shows that dominated educational television in the 1950s and 1960s.

Whilst the initial shine was wearing from MOOCs at this time the stats on course availability indicates that the prevalence of MOOCs is on the up:

Here is a list of the top five MOOC providers in 2016 by registered users:

  • Coursera – 23 million
  • edX – 10 million
  • XuetangX – 6 million
  • FutureLearn – 5.3 million
  • Udacity – 4 million

Source: Class Central

These numbers are impressive and no doubt alluring to bricks and mortar campus based HE providers. The MOOC field is mainly dominated be this group who are partnering up with some of the worlds top 10 universities.

Photo: Centre for executive excellence

However, there is a particular fly in the ointment when it comes to MOOCs in that completion rates have been reported as being as low as 7% although that still leaves circa 4m students who do complete (and hopefully pass). This would be a great achievement in bringing open educational opportunities to 4m people who otherwise would not have access – alas… a study by scholars at the University of Edinburgh along with King Saud University found that:

Despite the initial rhetoric that MOOCs would offer universal access to higher education courses for the disadvantaged, this has not been evident in the data. The great majority of learners are well-educated (c70% with a first or second degree) and in employment. This has changed little between offerings of our MOOCs, and has been seen in the majority of MOOCs from other universities.

Should we be that surprised that MOOCs don’t appear to be widening participation despite being largely free when based in a neoliberal market?

In his 2013 TEDx talk Ro Khanna (former Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Obama Administration) proposes that MOOCs could make higher education more democratic whilst reducing costs to all.

Ro highlights 4 main benefits as summarised below:

  • Supplementing mainstream education
  • Improving access to higher education
  • Addressing certain skills gaps in industry
  • Showcasing HE to disenfranchised groups
The radical idea behind democracy is that extraordinary genius can come from ordinary men and women… MOOCs are only one answer and not the whole solution… but if the enlightenment ideal is the spread of knowledge, giving more people in the world access to higher education will ensure they can make a meaningful contribution in this century.

This is certainly an impassioned call to take up the pen (or stylus) and our own institution (UoM) has taken heed. Not just through its committment to social responsibility and widening participation but at a school level it has used a MOOC as a way of showcasing a main degree course to entice further interest and enrolment as highlighted in an earlier OKHE1 post by @Wall Flower based on their experience:

The MOOC I took part in was intended to “be used as a way of showcasing … educational provision. [in the] hope that students who are motivated to register and subsequently achieve satisfaction in their experience of the MOOC will subsequently enrol on to a .. course. In addition, the content and multi-media developed as part of this project may also be utilised in existing courses, providing additional value for money.” (Quote from Lecturer)

To MOOC or not to MOOC?

Well, after all this talk of MOOCs what about my practice problem of providing easily accessible and consistent quality learning to 1300 staff in the Directorate of Estates? Well now I’m not too sure if a MOOC is the way to go. I’ve searched the 6850+courses available and found no content to meet my needs. With a definate gap in the market should I take the leap and create a health and safety MOOC for the world? Orgainisational training is big business and as I mentioned in my previous blog, health and safety training is a lucrative industry in itself. Would I even be permitted to give away UoM intellecutual property for free even if I was only trying to be open about how to avoid injury, ill health and death at work – perhaps that’s just not being neoliberal! And not to forget those shocking 7% completion rates that do not insprire confidence. Constantly chasing managers and staff to to enrol and complete a MOOC is unlikely to make for a safer or healthier workplace – although it would tick a box. I can see the benefit of using film to help bring what is oft perceived as tedious policy and process to life, maybe hearing how to avoid danger from peers would be more powerful in a flipped classroom and be more engaing than a MOOC platform of one size fits all, which afterall may not be the right pedagogic choice. Perhaps I should heed the cautionary advice of Fiona Patrick at the University of Glasgow who concludes her article on ‘Neoliberalism, the economy and the learner’:

While the agency of individual students needs to be valued and reasserted, so too does the agency of teachers. They are teachers who can make pedagogic choices that will benefit their students by enabling the development of individual capabilities with a view to enhancing individual agency and wellbeing. Perhaps it is not just the self of the learner that has to be reclaimed, but the self of the teacher

So can MOOCS survive in a neoliberal knowledge economy?

Looks like they are starting to thrive let alone survive – clearly the impact of open knowledge in higher education will always be minimal whilst we live and learn in a dominant neoliberal knowledge economy. Unfortunately shouting ‘Open Sesame’ isn’t likely to give you access to the treasure of free knowledge for much longer – it’ll be more likely that you’ll be crossing FutureLearn’s palm with silver!

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