Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Never Mind Antioch, What’s Up with Ourselves?


Two recent articles in Inside Higher Education connected the topics of MOOC finance (MOOConomics) and openness. In this post I question why is it apparently OK, or at least more acceptable for a group of elite colleges and universities to engage in a business enterprise in which they vend their courses, while it is not acceptable for a college or university to purchase those services? There are optimistic explanations and some that are less so.  I am not sure which are more realistic.

I am trying to resist writing about MOOC’s. After all it is a preoccupation throughout the sector and I can’t imagine that I would have anything to say that is terribly novel. It is my intent then to use the MOOC as a way of talking about something else.

We are fortunate that Steve Kolowich wrote two smart and related articles for Inside Higher Ed within the span of about a week. The first, MOOCs for Credit was posted on October 29, 2012 and the second, How 'Open' Are MOOCs?, was posted on November 8, 2012.

MOOCs for Credit focused on Antioch University Los Angeles’ decision to contract with Coursera as a vendor of “MOOC” services and accept credits for cohorts of Antioch students who participate in specific courses. Antioch LA plans to provide additional support to its students to help ensure student success. In the article there were a lot of great quotes by Coursera and Antioch executives, as well as folks at Coursera partner institutions. One of the take homes from the article, that was not much discussed in the article comments was that
Antioch will pay Coursera an undisclosed amount for permission to use several courses, including ones from Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania. The company will share that revenue with the universities, which own intellectual property rights for their courses as part of their contracts with Coursera.

Ten days later, Steve Kolowich neatly connected the two articles by referencing a tweet by Derek Bruff, the director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching, in which he wrote
“What I don't see… is why Antioch would pay Coursera to use their open courses. What am I missing?”

This reintroduces an aspect of openness that has fueled discussion within the community for a very long time - the difference between free (like free beer) and free (like freedom). But this distinction still misses a whole range of points, as openness touches on a lot of qualities that require thoughtful reflection, which seems lacking in much of the discussion. This is fine - it means that the openness community is growing and there is the need for more accessible “education” on the relevant topics. Fortunately there are a lot of resources. Some of these can be found in the Comments to the 'Open' Are MOOCs? posting by Wayne Mackintosh and Cable Green.

Ok, I felt that I had to touch on openness, but it is not want I want to talk about. I am interested in exploring the differences in the reactions by commenters and others to the topics raised in the two articles relative to
  • Antioch University LA’s decision to accept credits for some Coursera courses, and
  • the commercial arrangements that Coursera and other big MOOC providers have with their partners and “customers.”
Let me start by saying that I have no problem from a service provision perspective, absent any notions of falsely marketing “openness,” of charging for services. As the executive director of Penn State World Campus and CEO of UMassOnline, I purchased plenty of services, and had developed and managed internal and external financial arrangements including revenue sharing with internal academic units and external partner/clients. These were simple business arrangements, most of which were designed to facilitate or incentivize the development and delivery of online educational programs.

Once again, I am interested in the response that Antioch University got for their business decision, and the responses that Coursera and its partner institutions have received for their business decisions. I think that it touches on a cultural characteristic that may be unique to education (and maybe some other human and public services).

The tone of the comments in the MOOCs for Credit article contained a fair amount of criticism of Antioch and Antioch leadership, while the comments in the MOOCs Openness article were more educationally oriented. I am guessing that the Credits for MOOCs topic itself is more incendiary than the status of the first “O” in MOOC or any implications of openwashing. That said, the topic of financial arrangements was not raised in the comments associated with Openness article, even though it was one of the punchlines. Why?

Why is it apparently OK, or at least more acceptable for a group of elite colleges and universities to engage in a business enterprise in which they vend their courses, while it is not acceptable for a college or university to purchase those services? I am going to offer-up one very optimistic response. Perhaps it is because there is something in the University culture that is student focused. Perhaps our responses as educators is influenced by the fact that the Duke and Penn students are not impacted by any of these financial and credit awarding decisions, while the Antioch students are impacted. And perhaps there is even a whiff of collegial concern about the potential of financially sound institutions taking advantage of those in the community who are less so.

Now, an alternative response could be that the agitation is about colleges and universities simply resisting change and seeing the very worst in events that threaten their world view, the integrity of the institutional order, and the cultural norms that are part of their self-concept. It could also be a rational, although largely not articulated, concern about the impact on institutions that view themselves as more than certification machines and that a MOOCs for credit trend challenges the value that colleges and universities deliver beyond teaching in content areas and the production of certificates and degrees. Who knows, but I think that there is something important about the reactions of our communities to important events.

The last point that I want to make is that I know nothing at all of the financial arrangements between the MOOC consortia (i.e. Coursera), their partner universities (i.e. Duke and Penn), and their clients (i.e. Antioch Los Angeles). It might be that there is no money changing hands, but that does not change the importance of the reactions to perceptions. Do the reactions tell us something about ourselves?

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