For those who don’t know what a MOOC is, it’s short for massive open online course. All the cyberpundits are a twitter about it (pun intended), as it is a potentially disruptive technology (by the way, when did disruptive stop meaning ‘asshole’? Just asking). There’s an excellent post debunking MOOC triumphalism, which notes that pro-MOOCers are counting on an exploitative labor model (emphasis original, boldface mine):
When venture capitalists and startup gurus talk like anarchists, or align themselves with pirates, or zen monks, or promise any kind of liberation or democratization, you can be pretty sure you are getting hustled. Because they don’t necessarily share any ideals with anarchists, pirates, buddhists or revolutionaries; rather they adopt ideas that have revolutionary cachet as a tactic toward growing their brand. Ultimately they are hoping to generate some kind of return on investment in terms of cold, hard cash. That is their mission. For now, MOOCs are free, but they are run by for-profit entities funded with gobs of cash from VCs, which, last time I checked, doesn’t stand for Venture Communists, so one imagines these folks expect some kind of return on investment. Peek behind the curtain of all the talk of democratization and providing free services for free so that all of the disadvantaged children of the world who have broadband internet access can go to Stanford for free, and you will see the usual exploitative relationship between capital and labor: “Obviously, for these large-scale plays into open education to be successful, faculties can’t be half-assed in their adoption.”
Got the message, faculty? Don’t be half-assed when working for free to produce content that will become the property of a for-profit start-up that financial analysts imagine has the possibility to return many multiples of their millions of dollars of venture capital. That money is not for you. That money is going to the core of the business. People who work at Coursera itself get competitive compensation by Silicon Valley standards, and free catered lunch every day. Those people are not doing anything so mundane as actually developing courses and teaching students. They are building the distribution software and growing the market. These are Coursera’s values, not the “content,” which is viewed as a renewable and cheap resource, and certainly not the production of new knowledge, or the preservation of academic freedom.
Education is a human right. There must be some way to provide it for free without trading on massive exploitation of labor.
Underlying the MOOC argument is that the idea that education costs too much, that the new budgetary reality we face forces us to use MOOCs in lieu of actual, flesh and blood teachers. But that’s a bullshit argument. There is a way to provide education for free. At least in Massachusetts, it would be well within the realm of possibility to provide every state resident with a free college education–one that uses humans, not videos, as teachers. But in an environment where lower taxes on the wealthy are more important than safeguarding the order and liberty of the Commonwealth (thanks Mitt Romney!), MOOCs become the ‘only’ option that is affordable (remember the neo-liberal mantra: There Is No Alternative. Of course, there always is).
The irony is that many of the cyberpundits who view themselves as bleeding-edge radicals (disruptive!) are really nothing more than apologists for a neo-liberal economic order.
I imagine it pays well though….
Viva the faux disruption!