It is amusing to see an article fit for the advertisement section managing to find space in the Idea section of the Indian Express. The article, A More Democratic Learning tries to persuade us to buy an academic product, Micromasters in Data and Economics for Development Policy, a package of five online courses leading to a degree from MITx. It is low priced, why, donly a lakh “for all but the richest Indians”(whatever that means) and much lower for those who can ‘demonstrate’ they cannot afford even this much. The ‘x’ factor needs to be noted, for MITx is a newly setup degree granting institution under the MIT umbrella. But MITx is not MIT.
The idea of high quality knowledge products available at such a ridiculously low price is seductive to our governments, for whom being digital is to be progressive and who see professors and higher education as liabilities to be gotten rid of.
Our colleagues in the high-end institutions like the MIT and Harvard tell the third world youth that since your universities would never be able to appoint excellent academics as teachers, it would be better for you to register with start ups like MITx and get access to the lectures of the brightest minds of the earth and get credentials bearing their stamp.
This is exactly what the technology wizard from India, Sam Pitroda had told the graduating students of Delhi University at their convocation that all we needed were five excellent teachers in a discipline, whose lectures should be made available digitally to the youth worldwide, who would be supported by facilitators. He was envisioning a world without teachers but apparently not without knowledge.
Companies like Udacity, Coursera and Edx ,which started producing MOOCS five years back presented themselves as benevolent knowledge givers to the educationally malnourished Third World countries. All you needed was an internet connection. MOOCs sceptics had warned they were not going to remain free. After all, Capitalism is not a philanthropic project.
What could be more democratic than deciding your own pace and having freedom to choose from the thousands and thousands of courses milling around in the digital world? It would be entirely your decision. But as we can see, these companies did not leave it to the judgement of the youth and the teachers. They started lobbying with governments and university leaders in the US itself and outside to include them in their formal curriculum. A licence fee was required. Some succumbed and others resisted.
The letter the faculty of the department of Philosophy of the San Jose state University refusing to include the MOOCs of the celebrated Harvard don Michael Sandel needs to be recalled. They told him, “the thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary – something out of a dystopian novel. Departments across the country possess unique specializations and character, and should stay that way. Universities tend not to hire their own
graduates for a reason. They seek different influences. Diversity in schools of thought and plurality of points of view are at the heart of liberal education.”
Do our departments have the guts to exercise their agency in the face of a government order? We saw how all the universities fell in line when the UGC dictated that they had to use syllabi prepared by it,allowing only a 20% local content. We do not have, either heads of institutions like Teresa A. Sullivan , President of the University of Virginia who preferred to resign rather than bow down to the pressure by her governing board to introduce more market savvy, cost cutting measures and was brought back after the university community rose for her.
The San Jose teachers put the real intent and effect of MOOCs very succinctly when they said,” should one-size-fits-all, vendor-designed blended courses become the norm, we fear that two classes of universities will be created: one, well- funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other,financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant. Public universities will no longer provide the same quality of education and will not remain on par with well-funded private ones.Teaching justice through an educational model that is spearheading the creation of two social classes in academia thus amounts to a cruel joke.”
The question of inequality is not so insignificant as is supported by a recent study of the state of MOOCs. It says, “Twenty percent of massive open online courses offered by U.S. News and World Report’s Top 100 National Universities are offered by the Top 5 universities …Over half (i.e., 56%) of MOOCs … are offered by schools in the Top 20. Almost 90 percent (i.e., 87.6%) of all MOOCs .. are offered by schools within the Top 50. Course offerings per institution drop off exponentially at a rate of -700% after those Top 50: that’s an average of 21 MOOCs per university in the Top 50 decaying to an average of 3 MOOCs per university in the bottom 50. Comparing these averages, we see a massively unequal distribution of massive open online courses toward some of the most expensive, highly valued, and heftily-endowed universities in the world.”
Going further it says, “Looking at these numbers, we begin to see why few institutions have embraced MOOCs full-on. Not only do they cost more to make ($152,000 on the low-end, $244,000 on the high-end) than an average salaried professor, but they also run the possibility of crowding out colleges that are low hanging fruit for MOOCs to replace. At the worst, this means shaking the tree for low- and middle-tier universities. Professors at high-tier universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and U.S. News and World Report’s Top 20 National Universities (i.e., institutions that spearheaded MOOC development) have no need to fear. Their fruit grows high enough on the tree of global higher education marketplaces for them to be safe. It’s the small schools that may start to feel their stems being picked at: community colleges, liberal arts schools, small private colleges, and non-flagship state schools on the lower end of the rankings.”
It is very clear from this study then is that there is nothing democratic about MOOCs, all this seeks to do is to create two very distinct sets of higher education institutions: One who would hire the best minds and manufacture MOOcs with their help and the other which would consume the high quality product they market.
If this is democracy in education, one does not need to say more.
- Indian Express, February, 2017