There is some interesting discussion happening right now about Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. I think a lot of it conflates education with universities as an institution of learning. To better untangle some of this it is helpful to think about earlier changes in communications technology and how they changed learning. To that end, I’d like to discuss an article by my thesis advisor, F. Niyi Akinnaso (1992): “Schooling, Language, and Knowledge in Literate and Nonliterate Societies.”
Akinannso’s article questions the casual equation of formal learning with literacy. He shows how Yoruba traditions in Nigeria associated with Ifá divination have many of the same features we associate with formal learning, even though it is an entirely oral tradition. There are schools, exams, and, importantly for the present discussion, a process of socialization into the use of texts (whether those texts be written down or memorized). He compares the training of diviners to Peter Burke’s description of the training of Catholic priests in early modern Italy:
During the course of their training, these professionals develop special exegetical abilities and become speakers of the appropriate language of authority.These attributes and the specialized knowledge they have acquired become the chief source of their power in society.
The point being that these functions of the university (or seminary) as an institution can be fulfilled separately from the technology of literacy.
Having said that, however, it would be a mistake to say that the technology didn’t have an impact on education institutions. The printing press was the first “massively open” educational technology and elsewhere Akinnaso acknowledges the importance of such technologies, even if he rejects the simple dualism which draws a sharp line between literate and nonliterate cultures. Scale matters, and the printing press allowed for mass literacy and education in a way that threatened the elitism of older scholastic models of learning.
This brings us to Bourdieu who, together with Jean-Claude Passeron, showed how modern, mass education was much less threatening to the preservation of social hierarchy than the ideology of meritocracy would suggest. Bourdieu argued that much of the socialization into the practices of literacy valued by formal education actually happened before children entered into the schools. Subsequent research, by scholars like Shirley Brice Heath have given us detailed ethnographic accounts of exactly how such socialization happens, largely confirming Bourdieu’s theories. It turns out that opening up public education to the masses mostly serves to further entrench the elite, rather than threatening their status in any meaningful way.
Now it is true that there was a time that American universities provided an important social ladder, allowing for unprecedented social mobility, but I think Bady and Konczal make a mistake, in their otherwise brilliant account of the decline of public higher education in the US, by starting their history in the 1950s. The problem is that the narrative of decline obscures the exceptional nature of post-G.I. Bill higher education in the United States. Although African-Americans were systematically excluded from these benefits, it was a period of tremendous social leveling as many men (not so much women) were given access to higher education for the first time. And it wasn’t just education. An entire industry was put to work educating people on how to be middle class. The Boston Pops taught them to appreciate elite music (while simultaneously popularizing that music), museums taught them to appreciate elite art in much the same way, etc.
I want to emphasize the exceptional nature of post-war education in America because I want to make the point being that, while the technology of mass education (i.e. books) have been around for a long time, higher education also needs to be thought of as an institution whose purposes include socialization into a particular culture of using texts as well as serving a gate-keeping function for the meritocracy. If we want to understand the impact of MOOCs we need to better see how they affect the ability of universities to serve these functions.
Here it is useful to distinguish between MOOCs offered by for-profit colleges and those offered by elite universities. For the latter, MOOCs serve to enhance their status as gate keepers. If anything, it accentuates the value of the on-campus socialization experience by serving to highlight how unimportant the lectures themselves are as a portion of that total experience one calls an “Ivy League Education.” You can’t be on the cheerleading squad with George W. Bush if you are taking the same course as him online. For the for-profit universities, MOOCs usefully obscure the importance of socialization into literacy practices as a central part of the learning experience by making it seem as if learning is simply a bunch of information one can consume through online lectures and regurgitate through tests and term papers emailed to your professor.
There are also important questions to be asked about “the territorial dimensions of MOOCs.” Kris Olds asks some sharp questions about how MOOCs might better serve people in very different contexts. I myself have had to think hard about these questions teaching in Taiwan, where many of my syllabi from the US were inadequate for the needs of my students. MOOCs assume a one-size-fits-all approach which might work for developing iPhone apps, but won’t necessarily work for teaching ethnographic film.
Having said all that, I am not in any way anti-MOOCs. I encourage my students to make use of online courses to flesh out their education in ways they might not otherwise be able to while attending a state university in rural Taiwan. I think they are especially useful for students trying to think about future careers and graduate education, offering them a chance to audit classes before committing themselves to a particular field of study. I also have used some individual lectures from MOOCs to supplement my own courses, and I haven’t given up on my idea of a Khan Academy for Anthropology.
Still, when talking about MOOCs, it is important to be realistic about what they do and what they are capable of. In some ways I think the many pirate-book sites on the internet are much more revolutionary than are MOOCs. Akinnaso once admitted to me that, having come thousands of miles to the US for graduate school, he spent much of his time at Berkeley in the library. Access to those books was more exciting to him at the time than the opportunity to hear Foucault lecture. (Although he did attend J.L. Austin’s lectures.) Perhaps the same can be said of the appeal of libgen.info vs. listening to lectures at a Harvard-run MOOC?