I dropped everything to read last week’s New Yorker report on the MOOCification of higher ed. Naively forgetting that this austere publication’s emphasis is decidedly elite. What with its umlauts and ninja writing and sassy annual contests celebrating itself.

The piece wasn’t really about MOOCs. It was about Harvard’s experiments with MOOCs. And a few kooky professors (Harvard Kooky emphatically different than State School Kooky, o’course) trying to adapt their lectures to 12 minute chunks of TED-friendly learning units.

Heller’s most cogent critique of MOOCification was the Nostalgia/Fantasy Critique, in which his college experience mirrored our every dream of the liberal arts. Intimate scholarly exchanges with professors, serendipitous juxtapositions of ideas exploding into KNOWLEDGE and TRUTH firebursts reflecting starrily in a 19 year old’s impressionable irises.

And seriously? He only talked to Harvard people. Plus a few at Amherst.


So you may want to check out this open letter to the founder of Coursera, one of the top for-profit MOOC companies, for a more cogent critique of MOOCification’s impact on our education system and our democracy.

The short version:

MOOC advocates present this technology as an effort to increase access to higher ed and improve democracy globally.

BUT, given its for-profit status, its business model, and the climate in which it thrives, it will actually increase inequality. Dramatically.

From here to there Meister outlines some business theory, wielding phrases like “price points” and “brand spread.”

A startling and depressing framework—the economic one, not the fantasy one—that was entirely absent from the New Yorker piece.

Also absent from the New Yorker piece:

  • Any serious discussion of the economic implications of MOOCs.
  • Any serious discussion of the academic labor force (minus one Harvard grad student’s shrug that it couldn’t possibly worse. Yeah, it could if your PhD isn’t from hassenfrassenHARVARD).
  • Any serious critic of MOOCs from the formidable ranks of academics who have studied the economics, history, and sociology of higher ed
  • Any serious discussion of the public university system
  • Any serious discussion of the controversies about academic quality, student retention, and the like—except by implication, during misty-eyed evocations of the socratic method in humanities seminars. Which, to be sure, are dope. But this omission implies that scholars have not, in fact, been studying this stuff, clear-eyed and bushy-tailed like their lives depended on it for years. Because their lives do depend on it
  • Any serious mention of the economic, political and social context that gave rise to MOOCs in the first place
  • Any analysis of the difference—if any—between for-profit Coursera etc and non-profit EdX, or, indeed, any mention that most MOOC companies are for-profit and plan to go public—and therefore have a particular business model for which Linked In and Facebook are more relevant than hassenfrassenHARVARD

So, you know, a post-academic bookish blogger can be disappointed by our most august magazine. Occasionally.

Mostly, though, I want to remind my readers (many of whom have already heard this from me):


I’m not sure what we can do to stop the Titanic force of business believers who want to apply consumer industry theories to higher education and administrators who agree, against accumulating evidence.

But the more I read, the more convinced I am that we will soon return to a society in which higher education increases inequality, rather than the opposite. And that, in fact, it has already been doing so for decades.

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