On Being Unhelpful


MOOC – licensed CC BY-SA 2.0 by cogdogblog

My two previous posts have considered the role of venture capitalists in higher education and my disagreements with a fiercely critical anti-mooc article by Jennifer Cost and colleagues. From this you could be forgiven for thinking that I am some sort of arch capitalist hell bent on exploiting higher education for profit.

Peter Sloep picks this up in a blog post about ‘unhelpful’ arguments. He states that:

Quite obviously Mark sits on the ‘make money’ side of the fence, as is evidenced by such terminology as delivery model, product, marketplace, consumer.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I actually dislike the use of the language of commerce being applied to higher education. Nothing irks me more than hearing students being described as consumers or customers. They’re  not; they’re students. The reason I used that language in my blog post was that it is the language that Clayton Christensen uses when he talks about disruptive innovations. It was just clearer to use that language in describing the way that MOOCs are working as a disruptive innovation in higher education. That was the point I was trying to make.

Having said that, I do think that Peter is right in that Jennifer et al and I are operating on different paradigms although not, I suspect, the paradigms that Peter would like to attribute to use. Well to me at least. Here is what I think in a nutshell.

I believe that the current model of higher education is broken. It is hugely expensive. It doesn’t deliver very good outcomes for many students. It doesn’t encourage self learning. It’s not open. It’s not accountable. Etc. You know the arguments.

Surprisingly I am not particularly enamoured of MOOCs either. Particularly xMOOCs. Even cMOOCs have lots of issues that they need to overcome if they are to become a sustainable method of higher education.

What I do like about MOOCs is that they are, at last, disrupting the current system of higher education and making the people that run higher education think about doing things differently. I really hope that we come out with something that is fundamentally better and fairer for everyone. This is the main question that both Peter and I want answered “how we as a civil society want to build and run our educational institution”. I suspect we may not agree on it but at least we could have a discourse.

In terms of MOOCs I have to disagree with Peter when he writes:

I believe we need to tackle the issue of whether we should want MOOCs or not, by addressing the issue of we are ok with monetising education.

This assumes that we don’t already monetise higher education. Maybe in the Netherlands this isn’t the case but in the UK and, particularly Australia, universities are already highly commercialised operations working at an industrial scale in the ‘production’ of graduates. They often rely on large fees from domestic and, especially, overseas full fee paying students. Are we OK with the way we monetise higher education right now? I’m not.

I think the real question about whether we want MOOCs or not (and it’s a moot question because we’re going to get them anyway) is whether we want open courses or not. The first O and the C are the only things that matter in the acronym. I do find it hard to find any argument that says we would not want freely accessible, open courses. But then that’s the thing about incommensurability to use Thomas Kuhn’s term.

I reviewed my blog post following Peter’s description of it as being ‘unhelpful’. I’m probably guilty of replying to a rant with a rant. In that sense it may have been unhelpful although I stand by my points. Hopefully, this post will have cleared some things up though.

6 Comments On “On Being Unhelpful”

  1. Following this with interest. (I am entrepreneur using eLearning tech as well as Adjunct at Aus university.)

    MOOCs address some of the deficiencies in educational delivery model – but not all. Won’t go through the list, but suffice to say that:
    The technology that will eventually ‘win’ and become the new standard will be the one that enables & empowers the true auto-didact.
    (The only ‘obstacle’ is society’s insistence/addiction to certification of learning. It is ridiculous but it exists unit there is a better substitute.)


  2. Wow, that was a quick response Derek. I totally agree with your thoughts certification of learning. I do think that, eventually, social professional reputation will play a much bigger role but certification is with us for a long time yet unfortunately.

    Thanks for the reply.


  3. A couple of random questions for you Mark if I might?

    1. Why do you consider students not consumers/customers? What in your personal opinion makes them not (or why they should not be) consumers/customers? Is it a philosophical stance on the original bedrock of academic and knowledge acquisition?… or something else?

    2. This is something I am often confused about when the argument around “monetisation” of education comes up…. (and I ask this question neutrally, simply interested in hearing the sides of the story out there to further my own understanding around ‘the issue’ and I figure you have probably heard them all).
    What exactly is the assumption of academics as to how they would continue being paid to do their jobs…if there was no ‘transactional’ nature in the process? Is this something that is actually really more of a ‘political’ opinion than an academic postion? Ie- The belief that all education should be government funded (aka tax payer funded) thereby not only ensuring supposedly quality education…but inadvertently the jobs of those against the monitory discussion around education? Also assuming that through this method that the quality of the education remains intact…and that a ‘free market’ education economy structure would only apparently open the doors to the ‘profit hungry’… as opposed to potential accountability and competition in regards to the products all institutions are ‘peddling’?

    This probably comes over as though Im coming down on the side of the ‘money’…but its not exactly the case either…what I feel like I am finding….is that the counter arguments leave me just as dissatisfied in their logic and solutions as the ‘monetisation’ arguments.

    I’m actually surprised there is such a one way or the other/black or white approach to this sort of thing, seems counter intuitive to the outcome I thought we were all ‘going for’….and somewhat remise from the underpinnings of constructive, evolving knowledge that academics philosophises…. perhaps there is an cumulative and evolutionary future for both sides of the coin?


    • Tx for the reply.

      To answer your questions:

      1. I think that describing students as consumers or customers implies a power balance that I’m not happy with. The notion is that the customer is always right. Well in this case the student is rarely right. Students should be challenged and questioned. This doesn’t fit with the word customer. BTW this is completely different from saying that students shouldn’t expect to be treated well, respectively and fairly.

      I also think that a teacher centred approach in HE is not helpful either. All course participants are students or learners. Some have just learnt more already than the others and they’re sharing their knowledge.

      2. There are a couple of answers to this. Firstly, it can be argued that the cost of providing higher education is too high and that an equivalent or better higher education can be provided for less cost to the student. In short, the process can be more efficient although I know faculty don’t like the use of that term.

      Secondly you can also argue that there are many ways that subject matter experts can make a living from their expertise that doesn’t necessarily involve being paid to teach classes. Courseware in itself worth that much because of the high availability of free content. What is of value is having someone to curate, contextualise, guide and assess students through courses. Experts still need to be paid to do this. I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t be.


  4. Mark

    I think we need to admit that the current monetization of education services places students in the position of consumers–it’s just that what they’re paying for (credits) operates more like loyalty scheme credits than the commodity itself. Pay for enough credits and you can leave with a thing (a testamur). So it’s a confusing business model for many of the people whose connection to this enterprise is through the selling of their labour, both tenured and untenured, especially as it’s masked in thick layers of marketing that imagine that none of this is actually happening at all.

    What I think we’re failing to resolve or progress beyond is the simplistic binary of “traditional educational model” and “shiny new thing”. The problem is that this conflates business model with actual educational practice. One might be breaking, but the other is a honeycomb of ideas, practices, and outcomes with the smallest possible o, that are producing good things all the time. The conversation around what it is that MOOCs are disrupting (or not) isn’t helping us work this out at all.


    • Tx for the reply Kate. I’m sorry to say I can’t agree with your last point. Maybe I am misunderstanding. I think it is important to understand MOOCs as disruptive innovations to both the current business model and to current educational practice. I think cMOOCs are far more disruptive to the latter than xMOOCs incidentally. But I also think it’s very difficult to separate the educational business model from the pedagogy when the economics of knowledge access have changed so fundamentally over the last 20 years. The ability to self learn is vastly greater now than it was before. This is a challenge for many universities.


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