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6/10/2013
09:04 AM
Keith Fowlkes
Keith Fowlkes
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MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?

Massive open online courses are being promoted "for the students." But software execs and politicians pushing MOOCs have money and disruption at the top of the agenda.

Inside Eight Game-changing MOOCs
Inside Eight Game-changing MOOCs
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
Let me begin by telling you about a conversation I had recently with a couple of major higher education software executives. We had just finished hearing from a panel of higher education presidents talking about massive open online courses (MOOCs) and the future of education. I was listening to them talk about how "colleges just don't get the paradigm."

"MOOCs aren't for the institutions," one speaker said. "They are for the students."

I agree with that, just as I agree the higher educational institutions should be there for the students also.

[ A right-wing conspiracy? Read Ed Tech, Privatization And Plunder. ]

"Which students?" I asked.

They both replied, "The students we hire."

Being the annoying inquisitor, I asked, "What do those students look like?" I received an interesting reply.

One of the gentlemen told me that they did not care if a student had an English literature course or a history minor. They didn't care about their study of philosophy or even mathematics. All they wanted to know was could this student code in Java. So I said, "automatons?"

Silence ensued.

This discussion just strengthened a sad position that I had already held. In this technology age, many companies and politicians want programmers in seats typing away at code. They don't care what programmers think, what they feel or what they can do outside of churning out code they are told to write. It has been and will continue to be the same in many industries. The manufacturing industry is a good example. As long as the "widgets" keep on coming off of the assembly line and wealth continues to be accumulated, why does it matter who that person is or could become with a great education? Remember that Apple 1984 TV ad? This take on education feels pretty Orwellian to me.

STEM (science, technology, engineering and medical) initiatives are pervasive in our schools. Because there is such a shortage of technology professionals in the U.S. workforce, we are seeing diminishing GDP (gross domestic product) that translates into widening trade imbalances with developing countries, greater domestic inflation and greater U.S. foreign debt. We are desperate for a solution to the problems we face in the U.S. and it is becoming clear that we view technology as our only way out of a dire economic situation in this country.

Let's be honest. In today's society, the betterment of education is not at the core of most software executives' motives nor the top of the agenda for most politicians. It is money, economic recovery and new industry. This is at the core of these groups interest in MOOCs and other online learning initiatives. It's not devious, nor is it pretty, but it is capitalism at its best -- like it or not.

Sadly, many of our best higher educational institutions felt they were so slow to adopt online learning that they were pummeled by for-profits providing flexible ways for people to get online degrees. When the MOOC idea was presented to them (by very good entrepreneurs originally from academe), I'm sure many had in their minds that they were not going to get beaten out again.

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Keith Fowlkes
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Keith Fowlkes,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/26/2013 | 12:31:50 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
Sorry that should been... http://chronicle.com/blogs/wir...
Keith Fowlkes
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Keith Fowlkes,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/26/2013 | 12:30:44 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
Very interesting regarding MOOCs and the higher ed financial haves and have nots... See http://chronicle.com/section/H... that just came out.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
6/13/2013 | 3:44:46 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
I also can't help thinking of the comparison with journalism and publishing, where every professional operation from InformationWeek to The New York Times suddenly found itself in competition with every blogger willing to publish content for free. The whole economic model of the industry was disrupted, and many established publications failed to make the transition.
Keith Fowlkes
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Keith Fowlkes,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/13/2013 | 3:17:09 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
VERY good posts here and previous!! You all have just outlined even more of my concerns with your very intelligent extrapolations. Your points are well taken in that this whole process follows previous trends that have damaged the IT industry, talent pools and U.S. wages. Thank you so much for your input here. Greatly valuable!!
Certifiable
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Certifiable,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/12/2013 | 10:09:20 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
The upcoming devaluation of educational staff salaries for professors and teachers alike will occur because of labor arbitrage. As the need to physically attend a course decreases, both for professor and student, the access to and availability of offshore educational staff will become more important and relevant. The offshored staff benefit from much lower fixed and variable costs like cost of living, education debt, etc. So they will work for much less than locally grown talent and require fewer US based benefits such as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment. See where is this going? Anyone? Anyone?

We have seen this before with the IT profession having been massively offshored and outsourced over the last 10 years. It was driven by the ability to manage and troubleshoot IT from vast distances with little need for a physical presence. So now your potential labor pool opens up to countries where worker's wages, rights and benefits are considerably lower than in the U.S. Naturally, corporations drooled at this prospect and have since embraced it wholeheartedly. With the outflow of jobs came the destruction of local IT talent and their career prospects. Then came the current mantra and feigned surprise by corporations and government alike that we have an IT talent shortage!

Now we will be repeating the cycle with our education profession and MOOCs, where the US based highly qualified, PHd-only need apply, to justify their much higher wage and benefits demands. The lower, less qualified US based ranks will be supplanted by cheaper offshore "talent", which are "good enough". What is an aspiring student or career changer going to do, who wants to be an educator or professor, but can't get their foot in the door because most or all of the lower level educational opportunities have gone to the lowest bidder offshore?

If you don't nurture the US based career prospects of the lower rank and file in any industry, be it IT or education, how can you be surprised by a future talent shortage?
cbabcock
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cbabcock,
User Rank: Strategist
6/12/2013 | 9:21:07 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
I don't know how to answer the question of who wins and who loses among educational insitutions, other than suspecting the status names will gain and the little knowns will suffer. But I do know society as a whole benefits from a wide variety of educational insitutions. For education to get homogenized and concentrated around a few brands would be a huge loss of diversity, and the hidden intelligence contained in such diversity. It's that possibility that makes me nervous about MOOCs. Charlie Babcock, InformationWeek editor at large.
Some Other John Barnes
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Some Other John Barnes,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/12/2013 | 4:06:24 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
The biggest problem with MOOCs, since David referred in passing to
science fiction, is that they're likely to be something rather like
getting credit for taking a multiple choice quiz after watching TED
videos, and I can see that very quickly leading to a "reverse Turing
Test" result like the one in the classic D.C. Poyer story "Turing Test" -- rather than the machines' messages becoming indistinguishable from
the ones sent by people, people lose the ability to tell the
difference. In particular I worry about the "smart lecture" effect
(people think they know more than they do after listening to a really
good lecturer) leading to people getting certificates mostly for feeling
smart rather than knowing anything.
Keith Fowlkes
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Keith Fowlkes,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/11/2013 | 5:53:44 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
Excellent post! My article does actually state the broader concept of education that you espouse. I also agree with your idea that people learn in different ways and I also agree with your thoughts MOOCs increasing access to education for a larger population. I'm more concerned about what the market will do to those with MOOC credentials and exploiting those people with lower salaries than those with traditional degrees. Thanks for the good feedback!
raltmaier950
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raltmaier950,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/11/2013 | 4:46:34 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
Mr. Fowlkes presents an absurdly narrow view of the purpose of education. It is not to produce programmer atomatons or to produce broad thinkers of difficult problems. Education is to strengthen ones own understanding of the world such that you can be a productive member. The programmer is to write correct Java programs that don't crash, do useful things that users & customers want, and are fun. The public thinker is to understand the balance of human failings, motivation, legal constraints, and cost effective results.
If I the student can learn something to increase my skills from a MOOC, and less from a droning professor in a class, hurray! People learn in different ways. People seek out the school which works for them. MOOCs sure look like they can educate a few million people who otherwise might go without that education.
If no one seeks out University of Nowhere, yes they go out of business.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
6/11/2013 | 2:08:49 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
The MOOC Research Initiative funded just announced by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation may provide some data to replace speculation about the role of MOOCs. That would be a good thing.

See http://chronicle.com/blogs/wir...
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