MOOCs are to Higher Education as _________ are to __________.

MOOCs are to Education as __________ are to ___________. I’m in the process of trying to figure out an apt analogy. Feel free to offer your own.

First you need to know what a MOOC is: Massive Open Online Course. Next, you have to understand the wave (tsunami, it’s been called) these courses are riding, a wave big enough to carry hundreds of thousands of digital natives into the academies of higher learning and the workforce. As a result, the idea that one must follow a traditional path to learning and earning (elementary, secondary, college, (perhaps) graduate school, job) is quickly becoming obsolete. Sites like Uncollege have erupted and argue for potential learners to access the skills and knowledge to pursue their dreams in alternative ways. Uncollege’s “Hack Your Education” is a subtitle I love for the consonant shove. Although one could fathom that hacking an education might result in becoming a hack, I admire the way the Uncollege folks are vying for a different connotation of “hack,” a connotation understood by the digital natives more as “rebellious” or “rough-and-ready” rather than “dull and uninspired.”

On Coursera’s Twitter feed, I ran into this Inside Higher Ed article about possible funding sources for MOOCs. The article is interesting, yes, but what’s even more interesting to me is the first comment on the article.

The basic unseriouness [sic] of all this in regard to anything recognizable as education, is the stunning disregard for librarians, teachers, and scholars that is apprent [sic] in the idea that money might be made by “providing — or outsourcing — library resources, tutoring services, and other accouterments of collegiate academic life.” Accoutrements? Provide, outsource? As long as it looks like a Prada who cares? I wonder if they’ll send the police around every once in a while to check on things. A decent knock-off will serve just as well. After all, it’s just an accessory anyway, next year it’ll be old news.

The writer is comparing his Harvard degree to a authentic Prada handbag. And he is reviling MOOCs for being in the business of offering knock off Prada handbags. I don’t think his analogy works that well, though. It’s not visionary enough. I want something better than a handbag (although, if what a Harvard degree buys its students is higher paying salaries, then perhaps the Prada bag analogy is apter than I want it to be).

I’m intrigued with the bitterness of the above comment. When I followed the linked name of the commenter to his Facebook page (because that’s where it took me), I found out that not only did he graduate from Harvard, but also University of Wisconsin-Madison and George Washington University, damned good schools, at least one of which is considered “elite.”  His flippant “next year [Coursera} will be old news” is probably right; next year Coursera will be old news. But is he correct in his comparison of MOOCs like Coursera, Udacity and edX to knock-off Prada bags?  MOOCs are an entirely different thing than counterfeit luxury handbags.  MOOCs are to Education as ______ are to _________.

Well, what they do have in common — Harvard and Prada — is that they are both in the luxury brand management business. In his 2005 essay, “Getting In,” Malcolm Gladwell asserts that

Ivy League admissions directors … are in the luxury-brand-management business, and “The Chosen,” [the book Gladwell is reviewing by sociologist Jerome Karabel]  in the end, is a testament to just how well the brand managers in Cambridge, New Haven, and Princeton have done their job in the past seventy-five years.

As a teacher at a private Independent Day School, I am well-aware of the belief that getting into Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, or another school of their ilk is the pinnacle of academic and social achievement among many of my students and their parents. I’m interested in MOOCs in part because of their potential to liberate more people from ignorance, poverty, basic “stuckness” through access to education, a potential which the above commenter seems to overlook. The people who are signing up for these courses — motivated to do so in part by the schools’ “eliteness” — are not the students who are going to attend Harvard or Princeton or Yale or Stanford. Not yet, at least. The people signing up are ones — like me — who would not have the chance to attend those schools, either because of their station in life, their geographical location, their GPA, their age, their SES. And for those students whose families can afford Princeton, I believe that MOOCs could lead to alleviating some of the pressure of having to get into a good school in order to have a satisfying and successful life, a fallacy if ever there was one.

Read more:

Inside Higher Ed