Creating the Education Death Star

The damage that Coursera, EdX, Udacity and others have done to a decade of open education progress becomes more apparent by the day. In today’s installment, the kettle at SJSU comes to a full boil, with the faculty association there joining the Philosophy department in expressing opposition, not to open education, but to the badly deformed version of it that CourdacityX has produced. Some choice snippets:

“…The pedagogical infrastructure and work that has gone into the preparation of the edX material could easily be replicated if SJSU made a commitment to pedagogy and made training in pedagogy central to all faculty.”

“…In an environment where faculty are constantly reminded that fewer resources for public universities are available, CFA is disturbed that President Qayoumi is not actively lobbying Sacramento and Silicon Valley venture capitalists for more public funding of education. The people with whom he associates, members of the Silicon Valley elite, are the very people who have succeeded in privatizing the wealth generated by our society and making the rules that reduce their tax obligations to California. The partnerships with Udacity and edX will put more tax dollars into the pockets of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and at the expense of the State’s taxpayers.”

“…CFA also urges the public to write letters to the CSU Chancellor, SJSU President Qayoumi, and elected officials expressing concerns and questions regarding online education and massive open online classes, and the use of private companies for public education.”

Mark my words, within a couple weeks you’ll begin to see similar statements bubble up from larger and more influential faculty associations. After years of systematic defunding of public higher education, the brush is dry, dry, dry, and edX just lit the spark.

How the hell did we get here? Speaking about the previous statement of the philosophy faculty, David Wiley nails it:

If entities like edX and Coursera and Udacity would simply be open – meaning, use an open license for their materials – the concerns of SJSU faculty and others could be assuaged. Rather than pre-packaged, teach-as-you-receive-it collections of material meant to undermine faculty, openly licensed course frameworks empower faculty to tweak and customize and modify while still saving money. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You can have your cake and eat it, too, when you use open licenses. The either/or presented by the SJSU faculty is only true when purchased-pre-packaged courses are copyrighted – like the edX course is.

The problem is that these organizations have made enclosure of public resources their business model. What’s happening here is not some trivial misunderstanding, but a very intentional closing of education. Audrey Watters:

At last week’s Ed-Tech Innovations conference in Calgary, Stephen Downes quipped that “Coursera is the last gasp of the standalone education application.” Even learning management systems — once the pinnacle of isolated and restricted education applications on the Web but never of the Web — have recognized the importance of becoming a platform and have opened up APIs in order to connect to third-party applications.

But not Coursera. It runs counter to the early MOOCs that Downes and others created that grew from and exemplified the theory of connectivism — learning on the Web, from the Web, of the Web. The Web was the original MOOC platform. Coursera seems to be the education anti-platform.

The place where Wiley, Downes, Carson, Mackintosh, Groom, and a hundred other people who have been arguing with each other for years about what web-based education should look like agree is this: locking down reuse — by students or faculty — is anti-educational. It’s anti-educational because it gets in the way of the teacher who is trying to teach, and needs to localize materials based on specific needs, personal insight, or based on all this data-driven practice we keep pushing (but never want to support at the local level). It’s anti-educational because it gets in the way of students, who need to learn that education is a process of sharing and conversation, and need the power to take learning into their own hands. Students who may want to do crazy things, like discuss assignments on forums outside the course without breaking copyright law.

The sad thing to me is that all this is happening at precisely the point that open educational practice is poised for broad adoption. has put together a couple hundred classes of open material. Connectivist MOOCs demonstrated ways to pair co-creation of open resources with a peer-to-peer teaching paradigm that served many types of learning well, and changed the way we think about education. The UMW experiment has gathered so much steam that the only thing holding it back at this point is the tracks. Wiley and Thanos’ Kaleidescope Project (disclosure: of which WSUV is a part) is finally addressing the training and integration needs that have so often been ignored in institutional reuse of open resources.

When I look around at everything *but* xMOOCs, I see a open education movement coming into maturity.

But then. there’s edX. There’s Coursera. There’s Udacity. All of them seemingly dedicated to paving over faculty and students in the name of “open”.  And the backlash is just beginning.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In the hands of other actors the xMOOCs could form a core to thousands of localized experiences that dramatically rewrite what is possible in education while treating teachers as partners instead of roadblocks. In other hands, xMOOCs could empower students to rewrite their educational materials, and make their education a mashup of what works for them, instead of what the Five-Year Plan determined they should have. In other hands, xMOOCs could promote the communities of practice we want to build around education rather than destroy them.

There’s still time for edX to turn their ship around, although I doubt that will happen. In the meantime, maybe we should do something novel, like figure out how public money could support the public good?

4 thoughts on “Creating the Education Death Star

  1. For decades professors have cultivated an academic environment where things “political” are considered unscholarly and taboo. Professors again and again refuse to band together and exert political power–these is the only cohort that had the intellectual capital to credibly and authoritatively wield benevolent political power. In the name of gutlessness and careerism the professor cohort chose to relinquish their public duties with respect to politics. Now the capitalist class–unafraid of exerting maximum political power–has taken over all public goods. Did professors think their chunk of public territory was immune? Plato said it best: the price profs pay for ignoring politics is to be ruled by Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

    It’s too late to save public education or the public domain. The capitalist class already owns all the government and media. Now they seize the last of the universities–their intellectual capital.

    Sorry profs, you’re an extinct species. You had the chance to reform ulster society according to enlightened humanism and you decided to castrate your own institutions. Now you’re irrelevant–as prophesied–and all the whining in the works won’t change that.

    If you wanted The University to have a future you should have grown some balls, banded together, and used coercive collective action to prevent what we all saw coming. Instead you let yourselves get union busted. Unlike the proletariat you actually had the skills to prevent it.

    Governments are irrelevant. The future is being written by transnational capitalists and its too late to stop it without violent revolution. Sorry.

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