The academic conversation on MOOCs is starting to polarize in exactly the talking-past-one-another way that so many complex conversations evolve: with very smart points on either side but not a lot of recognition that the validity of certain key points on one side does not undermine the validity of certain key points on the other. I regret this flattening of online learning into a simple binary of “politically and financially motivated greed” on the one hand and “an opportunity to find out more about learning” on the other. Some of both in different situations can be true. It’s always hard to be able to hold two complex and even contradictory ideas in one’s mind at once but, well, that’s life. Both can be true. And there is so much to be gained from a sustained conversation on every side and from each side’s learning from the other without assuming the other side is being naive or callous in its concerns.
Here’s a case in point: although I’ve not done a data count, I would say that, about a year ago, the majority of articles on higher education in the mass media ran the gamut from snide to extremely negative, often springboarding off entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s offering cash rewards to students choosing not to go to college. The rhetoric of so many articles seemed to be “is higher education really worth it?” These articles (I bet there were dozens if not hundreds) were often filled with hard data about the soaring costs of higher education and horrific student debt pitted against anecdotes of unemployment among the college educated. It was virtually a meme, that if you are fool enough to go to college, you end up deeper in debt and unemployed and therefore college isn’t worth it. The tone in the press emphasized that latter point, demeaning the importance of higher education, laughing slyly at anyone who thinks higher education is a worthy goal.
Enter the MOOC: whatever else one may think about MOOCS, their vast popularity proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt that seemingly everyone wants–really, really wants–more not less higher learning. Has anyone else noticed that the tone of the conversation has now shifted from “is college worth it?” to “how can we make necessary, important, invaluable learning available to the widest number of people for the lowest cost”? I certainly have.