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Why MOOCs are Like the Music Industry

Every year, I have students in my media history class break into two teams. One side has to argue that the media in America have become more homogenous and monopolized by a small handful of corporate interests -- the Viacoms and Murdochs of the world, and possibly the Koch brothers (if they can get their hands on the Los Angeles Times).

The other team argues the counterpoint -- that despite the consolidation of radio stations, newspapers, and other traditional media by a few big corporations, the media have actually grown more open and diverse over the last thirty years, with the proliferation of cable, video, blogs, tweets and texts and so forth. Consumers have more options, not less.

The first story is familiar to scholars of media, who have read Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent with a sense of dread. But the second story is a more powerful and romantic one, with deep roots in an American faith in pluralism, innovation and a dynamic public sphere. Technologies from the telegraph and radio to television and the Internet have promised to democratize access to communication and provide universal, immediate access to knowledge. Americans have taken up these tools time and again with high hopes of uplifting the masses and leveling cultural barriers.

What does it mean for media to be “democratic,” though? Many students see the Internet as inherently democratic, since any writer can have a platform by starting a blog and musicians can distribute their music without going through the traditional gatekeepers of record labels, radio stations, and retail. This brave new world of music has been hard on the traditional industry, which was shedding jobs and profits until recently. (Recent data suggests that both began to tick up in 2012.) But the Internet has also undoubtedly allowed numerous artists to reach audiences they might not have found in the old days of Top 40 and Tower Records.

Then again, the seemingly flat, open, and horizontal world of online music may have its own gatekeepers. Influential music blogs and editors can decide who gets exposure, while Google profits from the “user-generated content” that artists upload to YouTube. As one of my students, Ben Krakow, discovered in researching his senior thesis several years ago, bands can find themselves forced to crank out a constant stream of free new material just to hold people’s attention online, with little opportunity to make money.

As musician David Lowery has worried, the new digital world might not be a case of “new boss, same as the old boss.” It could be “new boss, worse than the old boss.”

What does all this have to do with MOOCs? Everything. Proponents of “massive open online courses” argue that by putting an entire course’s lectures online and letting students anywhere in the world “enroll” for free tears down barriers that keep students out of the college classroom. People who could never have the money or cultural capital to attend MIT can acquire the same knowledge as a coed in Cambridge. In one recent experiment, over 93,000 students participated in Jeremy Adelman’s world history course at Princeton.

MOOCs, then, appear to represent everything democratic, inclusive, and populist about American culture at its best. Knowledge is freed from the halls of academe and anyone can learn -- they can even earn credit for taking certain courses, and some traditional colleges, including my own institution, are increasingly willing to accept it.

If we’re being open and inclusive, though, what are we opening and what we including people in? Is watching a series of videos the same thing as taking a course? How can a professor evaluate the performance of 93,000 people? It seems indisputable that tens of thousands of students cannot possibly receive personal feedback and mentoring from one instructor.

As philosophers at San Jose State University argued recently, in a widely circulated letter, the MOOC vision of democratic education raises some serious ethical concerns. Is a lecture recorded in Princeton or Cambridge, for a highly privileged group of students, going to be relevant to diverse, working- and middle-class students at a large public university? Will there become two tracks of education -- one for the elite, who get the luxury of having their own, real, live professor, and a system for the masses, where college means watching videos and taking quizzes?

Indeed, at its extreme the MOOC movement threatens the very existence of “professor” as a job, as some scholars are no doubt beginning to realize. If a university can license a MOOC for a few thousand dollars a year, why would they want to give a middle class salary and health benefits to a tenured faculty member? A few institutions might retain a handful of well-known faculty for prestige, but the business of moving students through the system and depositing knowledge in their brains will require far fewer instructors.

In a less dystopian scenario, Coursera could still be a trojan horse for a corporate takeover of higher education: swapping standardized, prepackaged learning for the old model of professors drawing on their own distinctive expertise to teach and guide students.

These concerns have nothing to do with Luddism, and professors are not just worried about their own jobs. MOOCs raise fundamental questions about what education is and what the institutions we care about so deeply ought to do and ought to look like. I don’t see education as merely a transmission of knowledge -- a filling of a pail, which can be done individually or en masse -- but about the building of skills and capacities, relationships and experiences. Who ever felt the same way about a YouTube video as they did about the great teacher or professor who changed their lives?

The problem is not with the technology, but with scale. Indeed, professors ought to be more open to tools that can enhance their teaching, from posting podcasts of lectures online to piping in experts from around the world to speak with students via videoconference. Where I teach, students of all ages enter the classroom struggling with jobs, kids, and long commutes; hybrid courses that mix in-class experiences with out-of-class projects and modules could make it easier for them to succeed, undeterred by the challenges of making it to campus or finding a sitter. Entirely online classes can achieve a great deal of good too, as long as students are able to interact with each other and instructors are able to provide extensive feedback on student work. Where MOOCs fall short is by making that personal relationship between student and professor next to impossible.

As the New Yorker recently said of MOOCs, “their stated goal is democratic reach.” And many of the impulses behind this movement are laudable. When MIT began posting lectures and course materials online through its OpenCourseWare initiative several years ago, I applauded. MOOCs, like blogs, wikis, and countless other innovations, can open up knowledge to vast numbers of people in ways that were never before possible. Like public libraries, they could be a peerless friend to the autodidact.

But as with any promise of democracy and liberation, we should be cautious about what lies behind the hype. What claims to be leveling and inclusive could be exclusionary, shunting the less privileged into an inferior system; what is meant to empower the masses could end up enriching a small few, like Coursera and Udacity, at the expense of the many. Everyone wants to make college more accessible and ensure all students achieve the greatest possible success. But pretending that watching a bunch of videos is the same thing as a college education seems like a massive betrayal of the technology’s democratic promise.

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