Tech & Innovation in Higher Ed

If I had choose two (nice) words to describe present-day society (even though there are a multitude of words I could use) those words would be: technologically integrated. Technology has taken over our lives, and I’m certain most of us could not function if it somehow disappeared from existence. The world of higher education is no exception. Those of us in academia have adopted technology and evolved our research and, yes, even our teaching methods to incorporate it. The integration of technology in higher education has spawned  an evolution in teaching methodology: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

MOOCs (e.g., Coursera, edX, Udacity) are courses available online that allow unlimited access and participation, provided one has access to the Internet. Besides there (almost) universal accessibility, a benefit to taking MOOCs is that they provide provide traditional course materials in addition to interactive user forums and support from the global online community. Sounds pretty perfect, right? Well, as it turns out, many teachers, universities, and even students take issue with MOOCs. In a quest to better understand the controversy, I discovered a paper in the International Journal of Communication by Jose Van Dijck and Thomas Poell titled Higher Education in a Networked World: European Responses to U.S. MOOCs.

Van Dijck and Poell begin by stating the objective of their paper: “analyze the dynamics underlying the development of MOOCs in the context of an emerging global social Web where these courses are implemented in systems of higher education that are often institutionally grounded and largely nationally based” and “to understand how emerging commercial online infrastructures affect public systems such as higher education”. In the introduction, they describe how MOOCs are designed to function based off of the same mechanistic underpinnings of the ecosystem and other connective platforms: datafication, (algorithmic) selection, and commodification. Datafication is defined the tendency to quantify all aspects of social interaction and turn them into code. These codes signal for algorithmic selection (based off popularity of the course, student success in assessment modules, etc) of how the course will be enhanced and evolve overtime to meet the needs of students. The last mechanism of how MOOCs function is commodification, which involves the transformation of objects, activities, and ideas into tradable commodities. The majority of this paper involves the authors discussion of the pros and cons of how these three mechanisms impact MOOC and their stakeholders (i.e., students, teachers, program developers & entrepreneurs, and Europe). I’d go into more detail and discussion on this, but it’d be difficult to do the 19 page paper justice in one blog post.

Next, the authors introduce the following questions: Is education a public good. How do MOOCs relate to key public values-sustaining systems of higher education?  The authors mention that main disputes concerning MOOCs focus on the impact they have on core values of education. Because the paper’s discussion is focused on the U.S. and Europe, there were come interesting contrasts presented. For instance, many U.S. universities have been, to some extent, privately or corporately funded, which is one reason why many of them embrace the for-profit (or at best nonprofit) high-tech apparatus (i.e. MOOCs) that renders them part of a global online market. In contrast, European taxpayers have traditionally supported a public system of higher education that is focused on commodification, deregulation, globalization, and is economically distinct from its U.S. counterparts. I found the discussion on these contrasting frameworks super interesting and rather thought provoking. I wonder how systems of higher education in other countries (besides the U.S. and Europe) are approaching MOOCs?

The paper concludes by mentioning that MOOCs are  “an ideological battleground where a revamped definition of what public education means in a networked world is wagered and contested”. In our technologically integrated society, there exists an ever present battle over privacy, accessibility, inherent and protected freedoms, and the meaning of publicness . Higher education is one battleground where this struggle takes place. Governments and university administrators will eventually need to address the regulatory problems at stake here, as well as the potential profound ideological shifts in the emerging global market for online learning. Even if online mass instruction will never come to replace traditional college education, MOOCs will inevitably have a substantial impact on how education is defined as a public good.


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