I guess I was right (back in 2011) about one thing: we were witnessing just the beginning of colleges and universities offering massive on-line courses. And, I thought at the time, the interesting thing to watch was how the institutions would turn those courses into commodities.
Well, that day has come. And quickly. We’re now in the midst of the transition from Massive Open On-line Courses to Massive—but no longer Open—On-line Courses. In other words, on-line courses are being turned into commodities.
Coursera is doing it, having put together deals with ten public universities. So is Semester Online, with six private universities (including my own). They’re both putting together courses for which students will receive credit and that will only be available for students (or their institutions) that pay fees. (The Chronicle of Higher Education has posted the University of Kentucky’s contract with Coursera.)
What’s the significance of this move? Duke, which has been actively involved in on-line courses through Coursera, has recently opted out of Semester Online, the for-credit version of on-line education.
Does this mean we’re going be seeing a handful of prestigious universities at the top, producing MOOCs and MOCs (but making sure their own students still study in classrooms and residential environments), and all the other colleges and universities at the bottom (like Massachusetts Bay Community College) forced to have the freedom to pay for those courses so that their students can have the appropriate certified literacies to make it in the world?
So, what does this mean for aspiring, keep-up-with-the-Joneses universities in the middle? Two things, I think: first, it’s an attempt to develop the “branding” of the university, by producing and disseminating the kinds of MOOCs that have achieved such success at Stanford and elsewhere. MOOCs will take their place alongside athletic programs and branded T-shirts as ways such universities are using to attempt to make a name for themselves (even while they undermine the quality of the education they offer to their students). Second, the production and purchase of MOCs represent an attempt to increase in the productivity of faculty labor, by allowing more students to get course credit in activities beyond the classroom. It signifies a shift, in other words, from “more butts in seats” to “more butts in front of the computer”—under the presumption of course that education is a homogenous commodity, which can equally be produced on-line, in the classroom, and by professors at different universities.