The MOOC revolution is indeed over.

The other day, after posting my last post here, I got into a friendly Twitter argument with the MOOC expert and future academic legend Rolin Moe. I, following conventional wisdom, noted that the MOOCs are as dead as doornails and pushing up the daisies. Rolin on the other hand noted that all the major MOOC providers have gotten more VC funding in just the last couple of weeks.

Yesterday, I noticed that Jeff Selingo (a guy who I’m kind of obliged to say nice things about since he’s the person who invited me to join Chronicle Vitae) went Rolin one better. “The Revolution Isn’t Over,” the title of this piece tells us:

In the news media, MOOCs had gone from being higher education’s savior to a bust in a little more than a year.

That doesn’t mean MOOCs are dead, however. Far from it. More than six million people have signed up for a MOOC since 2011. Massive open online courses are clearly resonating with an audience looking for instruction on the web. And the format is able to scale education in a way that simply can’t be done on a physical campus.

Sounds a bit like a #Slatepitch, doesn’t it? Maybe they’ll publish me again if Jeff and Rolin ultimately win this argument.

Actually, I think the key to understanding where I differ with both these guys is one of word emphasis. They’re both hung up on the word “over.” I’m more concerned with the word “revolution.” Later in that piece, Jeff kindly makes my argument for me:

MOOCs might not put thousands of colleges out of business in the next 50 years, as Sebastian Thrun, a co-founder of Udacity, predicted in 2012, but they are changing how students learn, how professors teach and grade, and how higher-education leaders figure out what differentiates face-to-face instruction from online learning.

Important? Yes. Revolutionary? Hardly. Heck, you don’t even have to put anyone on the unemployment for those things to happen. Why should Clayton Christensen even get out of bed in the morning in order to ponder such things since nobody is going to make a fortune changing how students learn?

In fact, when it comes to the ideology that gave birth to MOOCs, I would argue that they are downright reactionary.  As Thomas Frank just wrote in a must-read article for Salon:

[The higher education industry] despite its legal status as a public charity, is today driven by motives indistinguishable from the profit-maximizing entities traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

The coming of “academic capitalism” has been anticipated and praised for years; today it is here. Colleges and universities clamor greedily these days for pharmaceutical patents and ownership chunks of high-tech startups; they boast of being “entrepreneurial”; they have rationalized and outsourced countless aspects of their operations in the search for cash; they fight their workers nearly as ferociously as a nineteenth-century railroad baron; and the richest among them have turned their endowments into in-house hedge funds.

MOOCs are a perfect reflection of this ethos. Writing about the LEAST predatory of the major MOOC providers, the WSJ says:

Though edX is a nonprofit enterprise, it still needs cash to develop the free courses taken by nearly three million participants world-wide.

They, like Udacity before them, will get that cash by providing professional development opportunities and job training to large corporations.

Think of it this way: You’re a corporation. Your MOOC can train 30,000 people to do the same job that your employees do now. When more people have that same skill, they will drive down its value. That means you can pay whomever you hire a lower wage. MOOCs, in other words, are a ticket to lower wages for everyone, which means more profits for rich corporations which isn’t really revolutionary at all.

Any institution of higher education that participates in that shell game deserves the fate that inevitably awaits it. Call me an optimist, but I still think most potential MOOC consumers (not MIT and Stanford, but the community colleges and regional comprehensive universities of the world) simply won’t bite.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

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