MOOCs and the Democratization of Online Education

Online course.(Photo: Ryan Hyde / Flickr)

Online courses are supposed to be the great equalizer in education, attracting people across all class backgrounds and nationalities and putting everyone on a level playing field. However, unless radical and progressive organizations insert themselves into the landscape of online education, we won’t see change, only more of the same. I’ve been immersed in this topic recently as my business, the Toolbox for Education and Social Action, has begun piloting participatory online courses. Our intention is to offer engaging and interactive courses that help people make a difference in their lives and communities while changing the way online education is done.

The onset of the internet age was hailed as one of the greatest opportunities for facilitating open and transparent democracy. Its ability to connect people across continents, age ranges and backgrounds for free was going to democratize the global community.

Echoing much of the same rhetoric, the recent explosion of online education and massive open online courses, or MOOCs, has been lauded as a way to offer free education to anyone anywhere – a chance for “great online courses from the best universities.”

Yet, in the same way that the NSA and continued internet privatization have eroded much of the idealism around the internet, we also must question what MOOCs, and online education, mean for education – pedagogically, institutionally and as a tool for empowerment.

MOOCs are relatively new, yet they have taken the field of education by storm. In 2002, MIT launched OpenCourseWare, aiming to make all of its course materials free and online. With the growth of other such initiatives, and the emergence of Khan Academy, the field began to take shape. It wasn’t long before for-profit companies like Udemy and Udacity arrived. Most recently, Edx, a project of MIT, Harvard and Berkeley, and a growing list of universities are offering courses from their professors that are open to literally thousands of people per course offering. Similar to privatization of public schools, MOOCs have become big business, often driven by venture capitalists.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Ed, it costs a college or university a base rate of $250,000 per course, and $50,000 each time the course is offered.

What does that massive cost mean for higher education? It means increased tuition, professors spending more and more time developing and maintaining online courses and, in turn, the world of higher education becoming less and less accessible. This widening divide serves only to add to the privilege of those who can afford and have access to higher education.

I’m not opposed to open, free and widely accessible avenues to educational opportunities. Quite the opposite. MOOCs and the dominant trend in online education represent an effort to find ways to distribute knowledge to as many people as possible. While in theory that is admirable, the quantitative circulation of information is not all that matters if we are interested in revolutionizing how people teach and learn in the internet age. Transformative education isn’t just about the number of people we reach. More than anything, it is about how that information is shared, taught and learned.

Unfortunately, MOOCs tend to represent some of the worst pedagogical practices in education: There is rarely a size limit to the class (some with hundreds or thousands per class), peer-to-peer conversations aren’t verbal (the same applies in peer-to-teacher conversations), and the teacher presents while students do little more than listen.

These practices run directly in the face of research that shows that smaller class size and a smaller student-to-teacher ratio have been proven to be essential in bridging the achievement gap and making education more accessible.

All in all, massive online courses exemplify the banking method of education, which Paulo Freire, the renowned Brazilian educator and founder of popular education, warned against. Freire, who worked with illiterate agricultural workers, stressed the need for a more democratic approach to education. He advocated pedagogical practices rooted in dialogue, problem solving and cooperation. The pillar of his philosophy was that people learn best when they are active participants, shaping the educational process so that it directly addresses their needs and interests.

MOOCs, however, are not pedagogically designed to teach the skills – like critical thinking, dialogue, the ability to question and discuss – that make education so transformative. Although they often purport the opposite, MOOCs aren’t designed to teach people the skills they need to cultivate new, democratic spaces. Unfortunately, MOOCs are riding the tide of current negative educational trends, as opposed to being a wave of educational revolution.

While opening up and democratizing knowledge is an absolutely crucial step in creating a more equal and just world, using traditionally hierarchical approaches to distribute information will not cultivate learners capable of making change. To do that, we also need to foster educational environments that grow people’s abilities to think and take action. This can only come through the process of participation.

This is not a call to retreat to the brick schoolhouse, which has many of its own problems. Clearly, technology is changing the educational landscape and is providing people with many excellent opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. Instead of replicating the problems that already exist in education, though, we need to use technology and online courses as areas to exemplify best practices in education – quality, not quantity, must be our focus.

Progressive and radical organizations need to reclaim these spaces for educational opportunity and create online courses and learning environments that are focused on face-to-face video interactions, student-focused learning, interactive activities, group work, and critical thinking.

I speak from the experiences of piloting just such an initiative. TESA offers online courses that use democratic practices to teach about democratic workplaces, the cooperative food economy, and popular education. Instead of giving lots of people more access to rote learning, which is insufficient in preparing people for life’s challenges, we should be using online courses to enrich learning and build critical and engaged thinkers. We shouldn’t allow venture capitalists and wealthy educational institutions to continue to dominate education – we need to use online courses to create a more participatory democracy.