Universities – MOOCS and the Future of the Walled Institution

Our Senior Associate, Raoul Mortley, shares some thoughts on MOOCS.

Of course we may point to the activities of Socrates or the Stoics who simply walked around engaging in scholarship through dialogue.      But the Hellenistic age was the age of writing and documents, and thus universities required a place, for example the library of ancient Alexandria. Learning was an outgrowth from the place.

The discovery of paper [papyrus] led to the massification of knowledge. People wrote because they could do so: as in other cases of technology inventions, the technology brings out a hitherto concealed aspect of human nature, in this case the desire to write, record and communicate through writing. In the case of our own day the invention of the social media has brought out the latent narcissism in us all, apparently. It took the technology to produce the human response, and now we are able easily to admire ourselves.

The discovery of the printing press contributed further to the massification of knowledge, since copying was so much easier and did not involve paying scribes. But the technology of books still required a place for learning to occur.

The distributive power of the internet spells the end of the place as the centre of all university activity. Place carries with it all sorts of consequences: people have to be organised in groups, timetabled, and assigned to certain areas. Timetabling has to be rigid: you can’t call everybody together in one place for less than one hour. You must supply rooms for that one hour, with limited numbers of seats. Thus the need for time and place brings with it quotas –fixed numbers, tied to the size of the place allocated at the given time. The constraints of place bring arrangements which may not be ideal: the attention span is tested by one hour lectures.

The internet does away with place (where people have mobile access), and because of that it does away with the need for timetabling, unless people want to meet in virtual groups. It can provide teaching at any hour of day or night, and in short doses, suitable for the limited attention span.

The internet further continues the process of the massification of knowledge and, as with the advent of paper, knowledge tended to be handed over to lay people such as the gnostics, who wrote their own accounts of scientific and philosophical knowledge.

Institutional bodies such as universities represent authority and they tend to oppose laicisation. Wikipedia represents the ultimate in laicisation, in that one does not know by what authority the entries are written. Normally dictionaries or encyclopedias are supervised by editors who are responsible for identifying experts, able to deal with the latest state of knowledge on the matter.

The MOOCS however do represent an opposite trend, since these mass open online courses represent the re-specialization of knowledge, and the return of authority.

The Internet is the medium of dissemination and it belongs to everybody: so now the blogger has been replaced by the authority. Many of us still secretly believe the bloggers, however.

Where will the MOOCS take us? There are certain key points about them.

Firstly they are free of charge, though ways of charging are now being found and given the amount of private money invested in them, they will not remain free for long.
Secondly they are delivered by authorities, often the best experts and teachers in the best universities.
Thirdly, they may (inconveniently) be better than the course you or I teach in content, course design or delivery.
Fourth, they do not have the capacity for Socratic interaction, except between the non-authorities in the course, namely the students. Of course one could do worse.
Fifth, they are causing industrial issues, as we saw with the San Jose philosophy department which resisted the use of the Harvard MOOC taught by Michael Sandel. The use of this course would not solve any pedagogical problems, the department elegantly said.

This last raises the question of the branding issue, in that most universities foster a sense of group identification and loyalty, an idea of belonging, which all adds up to the branding of the institution. If you bring in a MOOC course from outside, does this damage your brand? If it does so, and this turns out to be generally the case, then the predictions of universities disappearing over the next 30 years may well be borne out. However it is not necessarily the case, in that the instructor may simply use the MOOC in a way which disadvantages it, by demonstrating shortcomings, the prevalence of common errors and so on. This is no different to what happens with textbooks: most lecturers like to point out shortcomings in the texts they use, unless of course they are their own.

Branding: in order to preserve its brand a University must put out a high quality MOOC using its best teachers and scholars so that what is presented to the world is of unimpeachable quality and authority. It is not by accident that people are putting forward their best teachers in the MOOCS, and not the mumblers.

It is a revolution, but unless you are in it, you will be left standing in another place.

Presented at RMIT University, Melbourne, June 2013.