Business as usual

In an evolving market, the development of sustainable business models is always a challenge but I believe that if we build something great, a whole range of business opportunities could come our way.

Simon Nelson, CEO, FutureLearn, Feb 2013

Over the past year, MOOCs have opened the doors of access to quality education, and have captured the attention of educational leaders and students worldwide. Today, we’re excited to announce the next step in our mission to foster student learning without limits and expand the possibilities that MOOCs and online education can enable.

Coursera blog, May 29 2013

One of these statements is more candid than the other. Even if FutureLearn can’t yet tell us much about their platform, at least they’re clear that business opportunities are their horizon view. They’re also open about their parochialism: FutureLearn is a multi-institutional initiative to promote UK educational businesses in an “evolving market” already dominated by providers from “another continent”, as they put it coyly. It’s a joined-up national effort that’s at slight risk of overpromoting Britishness, but at least FutureLearn is prepared to say that educational globalisation isn’t just corporate social philanthropy on a global scale: it’s a matter of national interest.

Coursera, on the other hand, is still carrying on about the worldwide mission, using the aspirational language of venture philanthropy—all that fostering and expanding and enabling—to alibi their next move, which is equally parochial. After a loss-leading year of facilitating free and not-for-credit access to some signature higher education brands, Coursera is pushing into the market that will be most straightforward for them to monetize at scale: the massive, underresourced and evidently troubled US public education system. The prize is what comes next: being able to cover production costs at home is what enables US producers of anything to offer irresistible pricing to markets abroad. And as Ernst & Young so tactfully remind us, these emerging markets include the rapidly growing Asian middle class who are the gleam in the eye of higher education providers all over the place.

Education is a goldfield for opportunists, and MOOC providers are on it, head-to-head with LMS platforms who are also diversifying into hosted open learning. Both are able to exploit the fact that traditional higher education institutions acting competitively—which seems to be the only way we know how to behave—can only provide services at a scale calibrated to traditional staff-student ratios. And this is why the growth potential in these new markets is still tethered to the resourcing costs of academic labour.

The disruptive intervention by which commercial platforms have secured their startling competitive advantage is simple: they have done away with service labour costs.

That’s it.

Once content is created to be infinitely reusable, once the work of learning is managed by learners, and once assessment can be automated or outsourced to other learners, then normal service labour costs can be stripped back aggressively. Without these shackles, the opportunities for profit-taking in higher education are suddenly formidable again, which is why traditional textbook publishers and content retailers have perked up.

Why have higher education institutions allowed themselves to be so boxed in, that we end up auditioning to be let back in to our own field?  In part, it’s the science of distraction that explains the most basic card tricks. As those institutions, professors and graduate TAs who could best afford to engage in philanthropic volunteering made themselves available for free, so the risks of scarcity, exclusivity and closing opportunity were used to hustle others into joining up. Without having to produce so much as a single standard for quality, MOOC providers harvested the signalling value of their elite partners, and then used this to spin story after story about enhanced global educational equity, making any criticism seem like the wounded howls of the professoriate protecting their turf. Jonathan Rees has been right all along that this is about academic labour—just not that it’s primarily a threat to the tenured. What should really concern us is the astonishing prospect that things can get worse for our local adjunct colleagues, who now face being priced out of work by superprofessors with quizzes.

And now we have the low-frills version of the whole thing—the move that actually makes sense of the past 18 months. As the contractual details for the new product line make clear, after endless talk about quality education, what Coursera actually mean by quality involves video and audio standards and assessments that add up; timeliness of content delivery; and something else called “quality issues observed by Coursera”.

The nearest any of this comes to a definition of quality pedagogy is this:

“Course Criteria” means a rigorously designed Course meeting high academic standards that uses multi-media Content in a coherent, highproduction-value presentation (i.e.,not just simple lecture capture) to provide the End User opportunities for a rich set of interactions and assessment(s) (whether provided by automatic grading technology or by peer-to-peer interaction activities), resulting in a meaningful learning experience that significantly transcends static Content or plain videos.

This isn’t a quality standard, it’s PR. In fact, it’s transcendingly meaningless.

Trying to recover a sense of which way is forwards from here, I’ve been re-reading Richard Hall’s recent pieces on the enclosure of academic labour under austerity. His latest post has really helped me to see what any of this has to do with our students. Reviewing Andy Westwood’s analysis from earlier this month of the UK government’s proposed austerity budgeting, he questions whether we’re right to continue to frame educational participation only in the metaphors created by capitalism. This is really important for Australia, where we keep getting caught up in defending higher education against efficiency by talking about what our graduates do for national productivity. Hall argues—and I think he’s right—that this is a limiting vision for educational participation.

Perhaps the key is in refusing to see those social forces as human capital or means of production. Perhaps what is needed is a critique of the forms of political economy/political debate/politics of austerity that force us to view human lives and society as restricted by the idea of economic value. What is certainly needed is a recognition that the forces of production across capitalist society, which are increasingly restructuring higher education as means of production, are also increasingly ranged asymmetrically against the everyday experiences of young people.

It’s a vision, and it’s tough to operationalise. So here’s the question for those of us still labouring in higher education: in the smallest detail of our everyday working lives, what does it mean to practice this refusal effectively?

Related articles

This important development has been widely covered in the past few days.  Here are those I’ve found particularly helpful.

and see also this open letter to Coursera, if you missed it:

3 thoughts on “Business as usual

  1. I’m not sure there’s much to add to your acute and comprehensive overview here. One of the side-comments that struck me was the one about universities treating each other as competitors: I quite often upbraid management here about that. However, it’s true that the UK Government has institutionalised competition with the trading of student quotas. And it’s certainly true that the sector is segmented: my university caters mostly for poor, minority ethnic and local students: the Russell Group isn’t interested in them at all – with ramifications for political and cultural mobility in the future (not that I think ‘top’ universities should cherry-pick ‘bright’ students: I just resent places like mine being expected to fulfil the needs of students with complex needs, without sufficient funding, while STILL being patronised by the Russell Group).

    You’re exactly right that the MOOC model is to abolish academic labour costs. I don’t quite understand what then makes them any different to the courses advertised in dubious magazines, whether it’s ‘Great World Thinkers’ or ‘Success With Ladies: Guaranteed’. The students won’t get any sort of personal attention, exacting examination, pastoral care: they’ll be identical to customers of World of Warcraft. This might appeal to some people, but not for long, once the realise that completion of these courses will be viewed by the world at large as little more than a hobby.

    Your point about MOOCs attracting the free labour of academic superstars as a marketing technique is absolutely right. Those who participate might think they’re liberating knowledge, but they’ve actually tacitly admitted that their work is a fungible asset to be traded. This isn’t education, it’s a fairly useless version of training. Without the back-and-forth of personal interaction, which remains expensive and requires buildings, salaries etc, it can’t be education. We need to loudly point out that education is messy, complex, expensive and above all, difficult – which is why it’s rewarding. If we allow people to think that education is something that can be bought, or ‘completed’ via MOOC engagement, we’re deceiving them and in the case of MOOCs, ripping them off. Education requires commitment: of time, of resources and above all of emotion – from institutions and students. A Coursera module doesn’t fulfil those criteria. The Open University knows this, which is why its students still have to meet several times a year and go on a residential course.

    You and Hall are absolutely right that once we capitulate to the market discourse, we’ve lost the argument. I don’t know how we persuade wider society we’re right, other than to link MOOC promises to the risk-free, easy-money seduction of banks, mortgage providers and the stock market (‘”invest” in yourself? Markets can go down as well as up’). But in my classrooms, I relentlessly talk about and encourage my students to talk about, elements that aren’t easily examined, commodified and gradeable. If I’m any good, my students leave the classroom changed, mostly due to their own efforts. I doubt the same can be said for anyone completing a MOOC course.

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