Guarding the well

Something I learned in high school history has come back unexpectedly while I’ve been brooding about Jonathan Rees’ opposition to MOOCs and his views on what they threaten.

A couple of miles away from the place where I grew up is this beautiful Iron Age hill fort:

Old Sarum iron age hill fort, Wiltshire, UK (image borrowed from

Within the inner circle are the remaining stone foundations of an original castle, and—critically—the well that stored water for the whole settlement. Soldiers controlled the resources in the middle, and the villagers and clergy lived in the outer circle, in wooden buildings of which nothing remains. In the early 12th century, exasperated by disputes with the castle guard over access to the well, the clergy took off with the community and restablished the city in a new location, where it still is today.

It’s a metaphorical stretch, but for me this decisive, strategic and disruptive move is a caution to those who are guarding the well of traditional higher education.  For a long time, we’ve held the inner circle, letting prescribed numbers in across narrow bridges that we also control. We’ve enjoyed the security of higher ground, protected by an impressive moat.  But here’s the tricky part: we only get to do this as long as the whole village accepts the way in which we manage their resources.

In other words, we’re not kept in business by market demand for the service we supply, but by taxpayer-voter consensus that a public higher education system is national infrastructure worth funding, even though the majority of the population don’t get to use it. Looked at this way, Australia’s target of 40% of 25-34 year olds being degree qualified, is also a target of 60% of the population not getting above themselves—that’s the uncomfortable consensus we have to maintain.

And in return, we offer something that’s under our exclusive control. This is why even though interested learners can now access free, open, online course content from anywhere around the world, this capacity on its own doesn’t change much, for a simple reason.  Ryan Craig of University Ventures, writing for Inside Higher Ed, points out that:

the threshold issue is the gap between non-credit-bearing MOOCs and meaningful credentials, currently in the form of associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. … We would live in a better world if love of learning were the key motivator for payment and persistence in higher education.  Alas, based on the 85 percent drop rate in Thrun’s non-credit bearing MOOC, we can fairly conclude that it is the credential that attaches to you for a lifetime.

In other words, as long as there’s a gap between MOOCs and massively open online degrees (MOODs?), the self-accrediting degree-awarding power of traditional institutions is safe in the keep.

Ryan Craig doesn’t think the world’s elite institutions will start awarding degrees assembled out of certificates of completion of even their own massively open course offerings.  Why would they?  The money they can throw into high quality resource development is small beer in relation to their overall budget. They can put their content online where others can access it for free, and as users and reusers we’ll all be doing our tiny, abject bit to promote their global reputation—potentially even creating a new future indicator against which they can rate themselves in rankings season.

But he sees the potential for a more disruptive MOOC-led shift coming from a different kind of university, that will somehow find a way to offer a low-cost, no-frills education using the mass transport model, airline-style:

It could be a private-sector university.  Or perhaps a very innovative traditional university with a clear vision of educating and granting credentials to millions of qualified students from around the world, along with a willingness to throw aside its existing model.

This is exactly what worries Jonathan Rees: what else will be thrown out, along with the existing model?  If MOOCs represent a threat to the working conditions assured by the existing model, should we be opposing them now, on principle?

I agree that the Stanford-style MOOCs present a bluntly unappealing vision of worsening rank divisions in the global academic workforce: a small number of international scholar-superstars, a larger number of tenured faculty operating as local learning management franchisees, and an even larger number of local and virtual adjuncts competing on the world market to offer the best coaching service at the lowest rates. Companies like this one who have already built a business on capturing outsourced student support tutoring business will be in the front line to capitalise if traditional universities think this is the right way to position themselves.

But before we haul down the portcullis, it’s worth remembering that the older, flatter connectivist MOOCs have been built on really different principles. They use a loosely networked model of peer collaboration to support participants working together on shared ideas, not just standing about as witnesses to the spectacle of expertise. They’re genuinely open to passers-by, as I found when Vanessa Vaile invited me to check out a facilitated discussion of digital identity on Bon Stewart’s blog during the final weeks of #Change11. And they demonstrate that effective participation in a large community of strangers requires social confidence and the capacity to set your own goals and navigate your own journey. That’s why they require less in the way of tutoring, but it’s also why they’re not going to replace undergraduate programs, where much of this capacity is still to be acquired.

So the place where MOOCs could really challenge universities is in our attempt to hang on to the contract for graduate professional development.  This is post, post-compulsory education, and it’s where universities often seem to be at their most regrettably business-focused, offering programs that are less fully realised than they might be because they’re not able to attract a large number of students to a particular campus or location. They’re also not flexible, or mixable, and by definition they’re restricted in entry, which means they also act as a licensing system for the undergraduate services we offer.

What if we stopped guarding this well? What if we all started working openly across institutions at the graduate level? This way, we would share the role of facilitation, provide more collaborative models of expert thinking, and offer wider access to a much more imaginative range of graduate-level offerings with a much more open model of cross-institutional accreditation. This way, students who want to pursue a self-managed and self-tailored approach to their later learning and professional development could do so with others from around the world.  What would we lose?

And what would we gain?