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MOOCs – The Opium of the Masses

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

“MOOCs are the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. They are the opium of the people. The abolition of MOOCs as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”
(Modification of Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)

Replacing "Religion" with MOOC in the quote above should give a pretty clear indication of where this post is heading. There is a confluence of circumstances at play in the United States right now, culminating with the President’s recent State of the Union call to reduce the cost of higher education, that is sending one of our most important and progressive social institutions on a crash course directly back to the Industrial Age, mass-production model that we have struggled to escape for so long. The cost in progress of lowering what society pays for higher education could be a devastating blow that accelerates our fall from atop the global power structure. MOOCs are a symptom of a larger problem, but perfectly exemplify what is wrong with the focus of our discussions on college affordability. We seek to blindly lower costs, placing that burden on the institutions themselves rather than on a society that should be embracing higher education and calling for more expenditure on learning, rather than less.


(
Storming of the Bastille and arrest of the Governor M. de Launay, July 14, 1789. Artist, unknown. Wikipedia Commons)

Massive is Not Better
Masses, massive, mass-production. All three of these terms stem from the same root, and the latter two seem to indicate that something of larger scale is inherently better. The first, in contrast, has often been used as a pejorative term to describe the 99% as in, "dirty, uneducated masses." Why suddenly then are we so eager to accept Massive Open Online Courses –gigantic classes for the masses- as a good thing? The truth is that the massiveness inherent in the MOOC model is a throwback to darker days of Industrial Age education packaged in a shiny new hi-tech wrapper. And we, the sheep-like masses are swallowing this hollow candy with reckless abandon.

Embracing Our Oppression
Certainly the call for everyone in this country to be more educated is a noble aspiration. I agree with this notion wholeheartedly and believe that a more broadly and deeply educated population is the only hope for the future of the United States. In a recent interview John Boyer (AKA The Plaid Avenger), who teaches massive face-to-face classes at Virginia Tech, discussed the primary shortcoming that he sees with MOOCs as their lack of interpersonal interaction. He believes that personal interaction is what makes college special and that students are not receiving the full benefit of higher education if they are not actively discussing issues at a personal level (Marquis, 31 Jan., 2013).

MOOCs are, just as Marx indicated, an insubstantial placebo that is pushed onto the masses as an offering to placate their desire for real and meaningful education. This is not to say that things cannot be learned from a MOOC or from other free informal sources on the Internet. Certainly, information can be acquired in a variety of ways, but knowledge is something different from information and it can only be acquired by the active application of learning (Marquis, 11 Aug., 2011). Most MOOCs do not facilitate the kinds of interactions that allow for real learning to happen. By embracing MOOCs we are showing our willingness to accept a cheap substitute for what education could/should be in place of the rich and interactive experiences we deserve.

Watering Down Education
So what should education be if not the acquisition of information? For starters there is a deep intellectualism that is fostered by immersive college experiences, whether face-to-face or online in a more conventional setting, that cannot be achieved on a massive scale. In order for the burgeoning intellect to think deeply about issues, a person needs mentoring and opportunities to explore issues personally, confrontationally, and in an environment where time is taken to work through the issues that arise. This intellectual support cannot happen amidst the masses in a massive, automated course format.

In addition to intellectualism, how can students learn to communicate at a personal level in these massive situations? As a high school, college, and graduate student, I was able to work closely with faculty mentors to develop my voice and craft of clear articulation both in speech and writing. Individual teachers took the time to work with me on a personal level to support the development of these two skills that are in danger of extinction if the cheap or free MOOC is fully embraced as a solution for mass education.

Caving in to a Business Model
The rise of MOOCs and our willingness to embrace cost-cutting measures in education is a sign of our eagerness to embrace a business model of learning in which efficiency is valued above effectiveness. People do not seem to understand that education is not a business. It is a social institution, a social service, even an entitlement (though I despise the current use of that word) that all members of society have an undeniable right to. Not for their own good, but rather for the greater good of the society as a whole. We cannot treat education as a business venture. Doing so does a disservice to all of us.

Education and our higher education system are an investment in the future of all of us. If you were investing in stocks to provide for your future, you would not arbitrarily choose the cheapest options simply because they save you money today. You must invest your money in institutions that will grow and that have a plan for a long and productive future. Education is the same type of investment. We must invest both wisely and extensively to ensure a robust return on our money. MOOCs are a minimalist investment with a very poor potential return.

Stratifying Education
The MOOC model is also troubling because it potentially does something else that Marx saw as a larger failing of society – stratification. Why are low-cost or free educational options necessary or acceptable for some members of society? Because we as a country are unwilling to support the needs of those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Setting forth free or absurdly cheap education options is, in strictest Marxist interpretation, a way to placate the masses with something that seems like a viable alternative to the far more effective conventional college education.

What MOOCs are doing is creating a multi-tiered system in which cheap, inferior options are available for the masses and traditional institutions cater to the elite. This is simply a further symptom of the widening gulf in the United States between the haves and have-nots, that has been expanding dramatically in the last 20 years (NPR, 26 Sept., 2012). MOOCs become, in this view, a powerful vehicle for reinforcing the class structure in the U.S. while duping the masses into thinking that they are receiving an "education." In fact, what they are receiving is a cheap option to keep them quiet and prepare them for their future life of serving the elite.

Demanding Real Happiness and Education
The old axiom that "history repeats itself because no one listened the first time" really is true. Looking at the Occupy Movement and the MOOC Revolution as the next battle grounds in the long history of social unrest in the tradition of the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the American Revolution, it is painfully obvious that we have not overcome the basic human tendency to oppress others. Times of social and economic stratification in the past have led to violent revolution and incredible turmoil and unrest. Those in power in the U.S. seem to think that they are beyond the reach of such events – primarily because they have not paid attention to the past.

Throwing MOOCs, instead of real education, to the hungry masses is the next incarnation of "let them eat cake." For the benefit of the masses as well as for the ongoing health of the country, it is imperative that we wake up and provide real, robust, personally interactive educational options for everyone. Certainly the cost of education is great. It should be! We must invest in ourselves in order to ensure the brightest possible future for all of us.

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