The argument for the democratising effect of MOOCs is that, since they are freely available, at no cost to the student, they increase access to higher education. MOOCs, the argument goes, allows anybody in the world with Internet access to lavish themselves at the fountains of knowledge that top universities have decided to put online. This abstract argument is often embellished by stories about youngsters in developing countries who have performed excellently in some MOOC, thereby gaining access to scholarships that allow them to continue their studies at the very premises of the MOOC providing elite universities. Although I am willing to accept that it is quite a felicitous turn of events for these individuals, I will argue that these stories do not constitute evidence for the democratisation of higher education or its desirability. My argument is two-pronged. I will first argue that MOOCs are not a democratising force in the sense we commonly understand democratic; secondly, I will argue that we should have serious doubts about letting MOOCs rule education worldwide.
To flesh out my argument, let us assume that MOOCs will radically change the landscape of higher education in the world. Setting aside for the moment the effects MOOCs may have in the developed world, suppose that universities in the developing world would cease operating or would adopt the status of a MOOC study centre. Presumably, such universities would enter a kind of licensing deal with a MOOC provider. The deal could allow them, for example, to act as a hub for students to get together and collaborate, to offer face-to-face tutoring services, to stage the MOOC’s assessment (not for credits), or to set their own exams (for credit). So essentially they act as a conduit for educational content developed and maintained elsewhere. This scenario is not far off, it has been seriously considered by Dheeraj Sanghi, a professor of computer science at a university in India (blogpost, July 20, 2012: MOOC: Massively Open Online Courses). Would such an arrangement constitute a case of democratising higher education?
There can be no doubt that under this scenario many more people now have access to high-quality, university-level content than previously was the case. Also, they can participate in forum discussions with peers across the globe, further honing their skills, and take tests, which help them assess their knowledgeability. This clearly constitutes a widening of their opportunities to learn. But is it a case of democratising education? I think not. Democracy is about people’s (legal) right to co-determine the decisions that affect them, their lives and futures or, in the words of Tony Bates ‘their hopes and dreams’ (blogpost February 5, 2012: When MOOCs crash and burn. online learning and distance education resources). With MOOCs, I see very little of that. In MOOCs that are funded by venture capital (Coursera, Udacity a.o.) decisions are made by the investors, for whom returns on investments are the key concern, not people's hopes and dreams. And even in MOOCs such as Harvard and MIT’s edX, funded by donations, influence may be granted as a token of good will but not as a right. Please note that I am not here arguing that commercial and not-for-profit MOOC providers should be subject to democratic forces, I am merely concluding that, on a widely shared understanding of democratic, MOOCs cannot be said to democratise education.
One could rebut by saying that I take ‘democratisation literally while, obviously, the intention is merely to refer to widening access to education. And as I already argued, that is a lofty goal. However, should we embrace the kind of widening that MOOCs afford? Again, I don’t think so. My argument here is that the MOOC way of widening access is objectionable on moral grounds. Courses, all courses even those in computer science, come laden with cultural values. For an illustration of this point, read Dheeraj Sanghi’s blogpost already referred to, but also examples given by Ghanashyam Sharma in his blogpost in the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 15, 2012: A MOOC Delusion: Why Visions to Educate the World Are Absurd.) Cultural values pervade the choice of courses, the elaboration of topics, the pedagogy chosen but also the examples and assignments given. Such value-ladenness is desirable; pedagogically, as it allows teachers to make their teaching fit in with students experiences, but also socio-politically as it allows teachers to let a course contribute to the development of local culture. Value-neutral courses thus exemplify bad teaching, assuming it is at all possible to achieve value-neutrality (which I don’t believe one can). Now, developing countries lack the financial and human resources to develop an educational system with extensive, high quality, ‘localised’ content. So when confronted with MOOCs developing countries cannot afford the luxury of refusing them. After all, any course is better than none and a course laden with Western values is better than one that teaches severely outdated topics. So developing countries end up surreptitiously importing Western value systems with MOOCs. To me, this amounts to a form of cultural imperialism (other will even go so far as to use the term neocolonialism, which I find less apt). The MOOC providers profit from the developing countries' dire financial situation. This is morally objectionable and, according to Michael Sandel in his What Money can't buy: the moral limits of markets, exemplifies the argument from coercion: developing countries really have no choice other than import MOOCs (Sloep, 2013: MOOCs, what about them? Some moral considerations).
Importantly, this need not be. The morally right thing to do would be to provide financial support to developing countries to develop their own courses or to help them get access to the needed human resources. This could be done via Open Educational Resources (OERs). OERs are not open to the objection of cultural imperialism as they may be jointly created and their courses, unlike MOOCs may be adapted (assuming they are made available under a share-alike Creative Commons license). As MOOCs divert funds from the development of OERs - the money that the Gates foundation donates to MOOCs is not available for OER development any more - they are a threat to the maturation of this alternative route. This may be seen as a third objection to the claim that MOOCs democratise education on a global scale.
So I don’t subscribe to the statement that MOOCs will democratise education around the globe. But the health of MOOCs as an educational innovation does not hinge on this. MOOCs have a lot more to offer than is claimed in such ‘absurd views’ (in the words of Ghanashyam Sharma). I welcome studies in their ability to be effective and efficient learning environments, but let’s evaluate claims to that effect in culturally homogeneous contexts only.
An earlier version of this blog post has been published as part of a roundtable discussion that was held to inaugurate the launch of a new journal on MOOCs: MOOCs Forum, published by May Ann Liebert, Inc. Manuscripts are welcome, you may consult me about ideas.