In his new book, Who Owns the Future?, Jaron Lanier warns us about “Siren Servers” (sirens because they appear to offer amazing value for our lives and seduce us by not charging for this) sucking the worth from our futures while externalizing risk and hoarding the aggregated value of our contributions as their own assets. He is talking about Facebook and Amazon and Google and Apple, etc.. In our present economy, he argues, she who owns the server owns the future. Many of his concerns apply rather starkly to the big MOOC consortia. As he notes, “(h)igher education could be Napsterized and vaporized in a matter of a few short years.” (Lanier, 84).
In some ways, the picture of higher education as an advanced content delivery system—where MOOCs and other internet services will disintermediate the jobs of faculty by providing content universally—offers a Dorian Gray solution to the problems of accelerating costs in higher education. In this scenario, if you could MOOC-ify as much of the classroom content as possible, you could eliminate a majority of faculty jobs while offering city college students Harvard-level classes. Higher education would look and work better and brighter, and be cheaper and more available than it is now. However, the real picture of higher education (presumably withered and grotesque, hidden in a locked closet somewhere) would remind us that learning only starts with content delivery and that understanding content (however this is delivered) is really just the first step in higher education. Everything beyond this improves with and through classroom conversations. In a recent (May 20, 2013) New Yorker article on MOOCs, Nathan Heller ends his exploration of online courses with a paean to in-class conversation: “Their discussion left an energetic silence in the room, a feeling of wet paint being laid on canvas.” If MOOCs were the only option left for students in the future, higher education would be as impoverished (in terms of learning) as its graduates are today (in terms of loans).
I discuss this issue more on HASTAC: Flipping the MOOC: networked badges and massive online peer evaluation (MOPE)
Image from the Picture of Dorian Gray… [Image used under CC license on Flickr: photo by MassafelliPhotography.]