Month: November 2014

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom, Part 1

Yesterday was Veterans Day. It was a cold morning here in Pullman: around 20 degrees, and we still have a few nasturtiums left in the front flowerbed. I’d listened to the NPR news piece about poppies and Flanders Fields and Remembrance Day in Commonwealth nations, and it occurred to me briefly that poppies would look nice when I opened the front door and went to put out the flag. With my hands so cold, I didn’t think long about poppies.

First Lady Michelle Obama had marked the occasion the day before by honoring women veterans at Arlington, and by announcing several technological initiatives related to careers and education. I think that’s a good thing, but I also had some difficulties with the ways military service and higher education were framed. As the White House’s strategic communications officer COL Steve Parker put it, “[t]o support veterans in their transition to meaningful employment, the First Lady announced two significant public-private partnerships with LinkedIn and Coursera that will help military members find and land the jobs they want.” For the sake of COL Parker’s ongoing career satisfaction and that of other servicemembers, let’s not talk about that “transition to meaningful employment” phrase, but the “public-private partnerships” are interesting in what they reflect about who we consider to be public and who we consider to be private. I see LinkedIn as the Facebook of the job search world, in both good and bad ways, and LinkedIn shows perhaps even more than Facebook how some efficiencies favor employers rather than would-be employees: as the axiom goes, if you’re not paying, you’re the product.

I have somewhat more difficulty with Coursera as a “partner” in a “public-private” partnership between veterans and American taxpayers as the “public” and a for-profit educational enterprise as the “private.” Coursera, as one might imagine, is very happy about an arrangement by which “[t]he VA will endorse Coursera to 21 million US Veterans” in the name of “expos[ing] Veteran learners to industry relevant education.” It’s a familiar trope: praise those wonderfully selfless irrelevant dopes who we all seek to honor, in the name (not spoken too loudly) of profit. If you’ve read Google Chief Economist Hal Shapiro’s early-oughts Harvard Business Press infocapitalism primer Information Rules, you’ll recognize it as coming straight out of that playbook: what Coursera has done, quite masterfully, is to achieve distance education lock-in of a captive audience. With the public aid of the VA and American taxpayers, Coursera is increasing its private profits.

Coursera specializes in MOOCs, or Massively Open Online Courses, a recently-touted solution to what regimes of increasing privatization and profit have spuriously manufactured as an economic crisis in higher education. As Charles Lowe puts it in his introduction to a recent edited scholarly volume on MOOCs,

Millions of dollars of grants have funded many experiments with a variety of MOOCs based on different theoretical principles and using different interactive tools. Elite colleges are creating MOOCs to enhance their own reputations, although ironically not offering college credit for the courses themselves. Politicians, looking for yet another route to cheap education, are pushing MOOCs upon public institutions, with commercial entities determined to monetize the MOOC equally prodding the debate in favor of MOOCs for higher ed. (xi)

Jeffrey T. Grabill acknowledges that “the ‘great recession’ of 2007–2008” was why he and his colleagues “were thinking about MOOCs at Michigan State in 2012” (40). Nick Carbone characterizes MOOCs as “just another business venture seeking to promise educational efficiency—more students served—at lower per student costs” (193). Efficiency trumps all, and in a political and rhetorical environment where we know that the price tag for veterans’ post-9/11 GI Bill is US $9 billion, perhaps MOOCs and their increased efficiencies of education offer an answer.

And so, in response to Michelle Obama’s initiative with the VA and Coursera and distance education, we might well ask Cicero’s question: cui bono?

In his co-edited volume, Charles Lowe traces the advent of MOOCs to the early 2002–2008 work of George Siemens (ix) and to MIT’s 2002 OpenCourseWare project. The MIT project resulted in discussions that led to UNESCO’s work with online Open Educational Resources (Lowe x), which I was grateful to make use of and share with Afghan English instructors when the United States Military Academy deployed me to Kabul in 2011. As Lowe observes, the notion of Open Educational Resources carries “an idealistic vision of creating freely available educational opportunities for anyone with Internet access, educational opportunities equivalent to the traditional classroom which would particularly help those in developing areas of the world” (x): an apparent public good, worth contrasting to the harvest of private profits from public service.

More to follow.

Works Cited

Carbone, Nick. “Here a MOOC, There a MOOC.” Krause and Lowe 193–203.

Grabill, Jeffrey T. “Why We Are Thinking About MOOCs.” Krause and Lowe 39–44.

Krause, Steven D., and Charles Lowe, eds. Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Online Courses. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2014.

Lowe, Charles. “Introduction: Building on the Tradition of CCK08.” Krause and Lowe ix–xiv.