Monday, 29 December 2014

MOOCs, Neoliberalism and the Role of the University

Draft of manuscript published as a chapter in
Markus Diemann and Michael Peters (eds) 2016. The philosophy of open learning : peer learning and the intellectual commons. New York: Peter Lang

MOOCs, Neoliberalism and the Role of the University

By David Small, Senior Lecturer in Education, University of Canterbury,


The Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) phenomenon emerged at the end of the first decade of the new century in a world that was being radically transformed in two major ways. Technological change, particularly with respect to digital communication, was progressing and being globally disseminated at breakneck pace. No less dramatically, neoliberal globalization had been on the ascendency for three decades, relentlessly applying itself to and transforming virtually every country in the world.

Widely contested but unrivaled by a viable alternative, neoliberalism exerted its influence at every level: the micro level detail of the thoughts, actions and feelings of individuals; through the operational processes and systems of the institutions with which they have dealings; and up to the macro level shaping the architecture of regional and global agreements on finance and trade. Among those institutions to be restructured along neoliberal lines was the university.

Compared to its previous incarnation, the neoliberal university was expected to meet different needs of a different society in different ways. Neoliberal policies placed public universities under intolerable strain providing the imperatives for reform that an emerging class of university managers embraced and implemented.

Constraints on public spending led to universities devising ways to intensify the exploitation of the academic workforce and shunting an ever-increasing burden of debt onto the shoulders of students. In this unsustainable context, MOOCs promised to be a game-changer, a way that people’s higher education needs could be met without an intolerable cost burden having to be borne by the state or the students. Could MOOCs represent a new form of university education that would be both financially sustainable and widely accessible? Could MOOCs really mean “free education for everyone”[1]? Does this mean that, as MOOC evangelist Thomas Friedman predicts, “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty”[2].

This paper examines the idea that MOOCs could enable an opening up of higher education to an extent previously considered impossible since the demise of social democracy. It also considers what negative impacts might accompany this new world of open online mass education. It argues that the arrival of MOOCs cannot be understood or adequately responded to without addressing at a fundamental level the role of the university in society.

The Rise of the Neoliberal University

Universities have thoroughly elitist roots stretching back to their medieval origins. It was not until the twentieth century with the social democratic emphasis on and investment in education that universities and other tertiary education institutions were made accessible to large numbers of people. Throughout the industrialized world and to a significant, though lesser, extent in developing countries, people from families where nobody had previously advanced their education beyond school were enrolling in and graduating from higher education institutions. The egalitarian and meritocratic ideals of social democracy held that people should not be limited in their educational pursuits by their financial means or social origins but be free to pursue their studies to the fullest extent that their ability, effort and ambition would allow.

Through decades of relative economic prosperity Keynesian economic systems enabled governments to resource the institutional expansion necessary to give effect to this vision. Universities constructed more campuses and employed more staff to conduct research and introduce students to the world of advanced scholarship. Higher education was made available to students through an ever-widening choice of courses and qualifications. Through their lives on campus, students were initiated into the boundless world of the pursuit of knowledge and learning from their structured and unstructured interactions with academic staff and other students.

This social democratic model of education like the broader social democratic project of which it was a part, was usurped by neoliberalism. Spurred by the inability of Keynesianism to deal with the economic crises of the 1970s and with the backing of powerful political patrons, neoliberalism was presented as both the only solution to the economic crisis and an inherently superior way for human society to be organized. The citizenry would be liberated from the stultifying social democratic hand of state influence shaped by unhelpful and unnatural attachments to collective approaches to social organization and a questionable ideal of minimizing social inequality[3]. In its place society would be organized according to a more efficient, non-interventionist market model that spoke to the genuine human spirit that Roberts called “the ontological heart of neoliberalism … a self interested, utility maximizing individual who is expected to make continuous consumer-style choices in a competitive world”[4].

By the end of the century, and despite considerable resistance from many quarters, neoliberalism had gained the ascendency in almost every country and had succeeded in reconfiguring the architecture of globalization; the institutions and agreements that shape the ways countries trade and interact with each other. Within countries, virtually every sector was restructured according to the logic of neoliberalism with the creation of quasi-markets within which corporate agents would operate.

Informed by what Davis calls “new institutional economics” [5], the corporatization formula that was applied to other public domains was also applied to public universities. They were to be managed according to what was viewed as best business practice, including an expectation that they would be geared towards generating an appropriate operating surplus. Typically, changes to university governance structures saw them oriented less towards “representation” and more towards “competence”. Invariably, Vice-Chancellors or Presidents of the neoliberal university were required to think and behave like corporate CEOs with responsibility for orchestrating the complex roles and relationships, the networks that “link institutions as well as faculty, administrators, academic professionals and students to the new economy” in order to sustain and grow their component of what Slaughter and Rhoades have termed “academic capitalism”[6].

In line with new public management theory, it became common practice for these CEOs to divide their universities into quasi-autonomous management units which would, in turn, comprise more layers of smaller subordinate units. Through a line management system of accountability and reporting, each of these units would be expected to pay its way with any budget shortfall commonly being seen as an illegitimate and intolerable form of cross-subsidization. Each unit had to stand or fall on its own merits, the ultimate unit being the individual member of academic staff.

In line with other neoliberal restructuring, the neoliberal university was required to reduce its reliance on public funding. By 2008, many public universities in the United States were receiving as little as ten percent of their operating funds from state governments[7]. Other revenue streams had to be developed. There was an increased emphasis on generating external research income which comes with its own challenges including undue influence over the research agenda, restrictions on the public disclosure of findings, and even pressure for a say in appointing academic staff[8]. Universities also sought to increase revenue by running businesses and soliciting donations. Ultimately, however, the reductions in public funding had to be met through a combination of cutting costs and increasing student fees.

It was cuts to public funding that created the imperative for universities to cut their expenses and increase student fees. However, these two strategies advanced the neoliberal project in far more significant ways than simply reducing public expenditure. They were integral to the neoliberal transformation of the university because they fundamentally altered the ways that staff and students engaged with the university.

The introduction and increase in student fees helped to replace the notion that university education is primarily a public good with one that focuses one the private benefits to the individual student. As Brown argues: “many of the benefits of university education accrue to private individuals, so criteria of both efficiency and equity are served if students or their families make some contribution towards the costs of obtaining the benefits”[9]. This userpays logic is embedded in the neoliberal notion that education is a tradeable commodity.

The creation of a market in higher education that confronts students with ever-increasing tuition fees also has the effect of constructing those students as consumers and investors. The act of having to purchase their education necessitates students considering what kind of return they might expect from their investment in themselves, even if that return is thought of in purely self-actualizing terms with no consideration given to obtaining a useable or marketable qualification. The fact that they are paying for their education with money they could have used in some other way has to a greater or lesser extent, imbued in students of the neoliberal university an entrepreneurial and instrumental attitude to their studies.

The tendency for students to view their study in this way is magnified by the significant increases in inequality that neoliberalism generates in society. Under neoliberalism, the rewards of success are becoming so much greater and the consequences of failure so much more devastating, with the consequence that the educational stakes under neoliberalism are far higher than they were previously. The cost of participating in this high-stakes endeavour has seen student debt rise to astronomical proportions, estimated to be in excess of $1 trillion in the US alone with one in six borrowers in default in 2012 representing $76 billion in non-performing loans[10]. Student choice of courses and programmes at the neoliberal university reflects the reality that confronts them in the neoliberal world. The choices students make, though circumscribed by neoliberal policy, can then be (mis)interpreted as evidence that they are indeed the self-interested, utility maximizing consumer for whom the system was designed.

Not surprisingly, students in the neoliberal university preparing to enter a neoliberal society are more likely to choose courses of study that will bring them financial return on their investment. One impact of this has been to reduce student demand for courses and programmes that do not lead directly to professional qualifications. This has seen a downturn in enrolments in the humanities or social sciences and consequent loss of staff. This trend has been so severe that in many state universities, such programmes and the professors who teach them are said to be “threatened with extinction”[11].

The humanities and social sciences are the natural habitat of the social critic. Their destruction weakens, marginalizes, silences and sometimes removes altogether that part of the university from which analysis, scholarship and research critical of neoliberalism and any other project of the rich and powerful would be most likely to emanate. It also reduces the number of students who are inspired, mentored and introduced into the world of critical social awareness and analysis, and who view universities as sites for such critical scholarship. The withering away of the arts, therefore, significantly curtails the capacity of universities to hold a critical mirror to society and challenge received wisdom, especially with regard to theories and perspectives that are favoured by the rich and powerful. The loss of these arenas for critical reflection, therefore, imperils academic freedom, in all but the most impoverished conceptions of that term.

The power of the neoliberal project, however, is such that it conceals the politics of this phenomenon. Education becomes “transfigured to act as if embedded in a competitive environment where the laws of economics reign”[12]. By establishing quasi-markets like that of higher education, the neoliberal project can be presented as enabling direct democracy to be enacted by way of consumer choice. Nothing as crude as censorship is required, merely the manufacturing of a context in which areas of study are no longer offered because they are no longer wanted by educational consumers.

The pressure to not just increase student fees but also cut costs was an important element of legitimizing the wave of managerialism that swept through the neoliberal university. Fundamental to this was the “imperative that a new relationship be forged between those who managed educational institutions and those who delivered the needed educational products”[13]. The new model transformed academics from relatively autonomous professionals into managed and audited employees “governed by central administrators and non-faculty managerial professionals … who are increasingly central players in the academic enterprise”[14].

In addition to redundancies, there was a major casualization of the academic workforce to the extent that by 2010 almost three quarters of the people employed to teach undergraduate courses in American universities were not full-time permanent professors[15]. The managers’ mission is to extract more value from the work of academics, a process legitimized by the imperative to maximize the return on the public funds being allocated to universities. Academic work became far more intensely defined, monitored and measured, and systems of incentives and punishments were introduced to ensure that academics focused on the kind and amount of work that their managers deemed to be of most value to the institution. As Peters[16] has noted, an essential part of this process has been to reduce the influence of academics in decision-making and sideline democratic structures and academic forums, replacing them with executive-directed systems of communication and “consultation”.

An important element of excluding academics from decision-making is that it positions university staff as responsible simply for performing their prescribed responsibilities to the standard required of them. It is not their role to contemplate much less challenge the aims of the university or the chosen strategies for achieving them. To the extent that they are consulted on such matters, it is not as of right but by grace and favour of management. This is part of a broader neoliberal strategy to lessen the ability of professionals and their associations or unions to influence public debate, particularly in the fields of health and education. This is achieved in part by seeking to depict any oppositional positions adopted by, for example, academics as representing no more than an expression of their vested interest. At the same, managerial practices are leading academic staff to do just that; to look no further than their own narrow interests. Individualized academic careerism, argues Kaufman, tends to discourage engagement with a community and over time “to actually produce a kind of hyper-pragmatism, a systematic disbelief in the possibility of radical change”[17].

The self-surveillance and self-monitoring that results from constant oversight and audit lessens the need for academics to be controlled through coercion and have, it is argued, “changed academic self-concepts, role concepts and emotions”[18]. Gill speaks of a profession overloaded to breaking point, as a consequence of the underfunded expansion of universities over the last two decades, combined with hyperinflation of what is demanded of academics, and an audit culture that, if it was once treated with skepticism, has now been almost perfectly internalized”[19]. Neoliberalism has rendered the academic workforce less inclined and less capable of either resisting it or developing alternatives to it. Heath and Burdon speak of “the gap between the exhausted and disempowered everyday life of academics ... and the levels of energy, time and collaboration required for effective resistance”[20]. This positioning of academic staff within the neoliberal university has profound implications for the arrival of MOOCs and the impact they may have on the world of higher education.

MOOCs and Education

MOOCs burst onto the scene so dramatically that, just a few years after the 2008 offering by George Siemens and Stephen Downes of what is generally recognized as the first MOOC, the New York Times declared 2012 to be “The Year of the MOOC”. Coursera’s attraction of a million users its MOOCs in their first four months was “a faster launching than either Facebook or Twitter”[21]. The scalability of companies such as Udacity would, its founder Sebastian Thrun predicted at the time, leave the world with only ten institutions of higher learning[22].

The appeal of MOOCs is obvious. To the state, they represent a way of meeting the growing consumer demand for higher education without either massively increasing public spending or loading even more debt onto students and their families. To students, MOOCs represent the prospect of accessing higher education from some of the world’s leading universities without having to make a significant financial investment. University management and staff, though differently positioned, were confronted with the imperative of analyzing and adjusting to a sea change in the globalized higher education industry. This required a capacity to sort fact from fiction in a whirlwind of commentary that Greenstein described as “a perfect storm of hype, hyperbole and hysteria”[23]. Daniel examined MOOCs according to the “technology hype cycle” in which the “trough of disillusionment” invariably follows the “peak of inflated expectation” and contemplated whether MOOCs would ever emerge in a form that would establish their ongoing impact on higher education[24].

Already, research on MOOCs has taken some of the shine off their promise. A survey of over 35,000 MOOC users found them to be more male, employed, already educated, and older than the average[25]. The other striking feature to emerge quickly was the very low completion rates for MOOCs. These findings were serious enough to force a rethink to the extent that, in 2013, Thrun himself came to express doubts and acknowledged that there were serious flaws in the way Udacity was operating. Reflecting on Udacity’s experience, he concluded “We don’t educate people as others wished or as I wished. We have a lousy product”[26]. Thrun was deeply troubled that MOOC non-completion rates were far too high and devoted himself single-mindedly to rectifying this problem, but his efforts were unable to change the drop-off curve.

Experienced distance educators had been raising these kinds of concerns from the outset. Baggaley lamented that MOOCs were “following none of the educational principles upheld for a century … dispensing with pedagogy, lecture rooms, and even teachers in placing the responsibility for learning squarely on the shoulders of the student”[27]. This led him to conclude that “all that has really happened is that solid educational principles have been replaced by a mass communication model with very few principles”. MOOCs, he subsequently declared “without equivocation” are “a naïve and damaging blip in the educational media’s long and carefully grounded history”[28]. Ironically, similar quality concerns were raised about distance education made in the pre-MOOC era by prestigious universities that were later to embrace and champion the MOOC model.

Irrespective of whether these technical hurdles confronting MOOCs can be overcome, deeper pedagogical, philosophical and political questions remain. MOOCs are the latest and dominant manifestation of the open courseware (OCW) movement which first came to prominence in 2001 with the launch of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare Project. OCW was making digitized educational resources freely available to anyone with access to a computer and an internet connection and developing what was seen as a more collaborative educational project than was found in traditional universities. Bonk wrote of the exciting possibilities of OCW in which “the instructional approaches of choice in online environments are more collaborative problem based, generative, exploratory, and interactive. There is more emphasis on mentoring, coaching, and guiding the learner than in the past”[29]. The OCW movement, it was argued, held the transformative potential “to revolutionize how higher education practitioners, scholars and policymakers think about and define democratic forms of access”[30].

However, critics have noted that much of the revolutionary potential of the OCW movement and the MOOCs that turbocharged it is undermined by the thoroughly conservative epistemology upon which the project is based. Rhoads et al argue that the dominant perspectives within OCW promote a positivist view of knowledge reducing it almost to a notion of information in which “truth is seen as existing within a particular environment or reality, and … students can be tested relative to their ability to regurgitate accurate conceptions of an existing fact-based reality”[31]. Irrespective of the interactivity of the OCW’s systems of instruction, they leave unaddressed and unproblematized issues such as how the validity and importance of the knowledge to be transmitted is determined. OCWs also buy into the commodification of knowledge by reducing the relationships in the education process to only two possibilities “producers and users of information and knowledge”[32]. Drawing on Foucault, Rhoads et al argue that in this internet world inhabited by content producers and content users, “what gets defined as knowledge or truth … cannot be separated from the ways in which power operates to enable a particular discourse to be advanced”[33].

The OCW movement can therefore be seen to assume an epistemology that is squarely in the realm of what Freire called banking education. The political impact of this conservative epistemology is to stifle the prospect that education will realize its liberatory potential of generating critical consciousness by engaging its participants in a critical action-reflection cycle. The Rhoads et al analysis of the OCW literature reveals that to the extent that there is any consideration of suffering, inequality and marginality linked to class, race, gender or sexual orientation, these factors are presented from a perspective that views them as “largely the consequence of lack of information” [34]. This further disengages people from critical and emancipatory forms of education.

What constitutes a critical and emancipatory project in higher education has long been a matter of analysis and contest. At a fundamental level, a commitment to some version of academic freedom would be common to all accounts of what it means to be a university. A more emancipatory model would also include provisions such as that prescribed in statute in New Zealand that an essential element of universities is that “they accept a role as critic and conscience of society”[35]. This latter notion moves beyond simply allowing (or even encouraging) a university to pursue knowledge without outside interference. It imposes a positive obligation on the university to confront society on matters to which the university attaches socio-ethical importance even, or especially if, these are matters to which significant sectors of society would rather not have its attention drawn.

Knowledge, social media and higher education

It is unlikely that these concerns are high in the minds of a generation that has grown up accustomed to the dizzying pace of change in digital communications technology, in the context of a society restructured along neoliberal lines, being schooled by a neoliberal education system, and which is now contemplating its response to the arrival of MOOCs. What this generation has seen emerge as a university has been described by Richards in very bleak terms:

“The adoption of a commercial ethos means that what used to be a community of scholars, staff and students, engaged upon a common intellectual pursuit of intrinsic interest, value and coherence is in danger of being turned into a series of shambolic academic supermarkets in which student ‘customers’ load their trolleys haphazardly from pick ‘n’ mix shelves with cheap, nasty, flimsy modularized products lacking in intellectual fibre and nourishment[36]

However, this is a generation that has not known the university of old and is not likely to recognize what Richards sees as the contemporary university’s lack of intellectual nourishment. Even if they did, it is doubtful that many would care enough to eshew any advantages they see in it for themselves, any more then they refused music in the convenient mp3 format because it was a hollowed out version of more data-rich formats. This generation has also grown up to enjoy quite different relationships with and understandings of knowledge, and ways of acquiring it. Popular conceptions of knowledge are being radically transformed by rapid advances in and ever-expanding access to technology. There is now a default almost common-sense view that knowledge is Wikipedia and research is Google. Alongside this is an entrenchment of the expectation that all manner of information from government departments, corporations, community groups, and even media and entertainment outlets will be available online at minimal or no cost. Together with the sense that everything is becoming publicly known or knowable, there now appears to be an endless appetite for a greater immediacy to knowing. In 2012, Time reported that ten percent of all photos ever taken were taken that year[37]. In 2013, “selfie” was named word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary and Facebook announced that its users were uploading 350 million photos per day[38]. Literally anything, from the kangaroo court executions of Saddam Hussein and Mohamar Ghadaffi, to the choking to death on the street of an African American by a New York police officer, to personal naked pictures hacked off the cell phones of celebrities, can now be recorded and made instantly available to the entire world.

The exponential expansion of social media is also transforming people from being just consumers of this “knowledge” to also defining, valuing, producing and trading it. At one level, one might say that this represents an opening up and democratizing of systems of knowledge. However, it is a world where anything goes; where the worth of knowledge is assessed by the number of clicks and likes that items attract from those who encounter them. It is also a world where there is often a minimal contest of ideas. A study of ‘the blogosphere’ revealed that blogs tend to attract primarily like-minded people so ideas often flourish because they go largely unchallenged[39]. It is from this world that people will be embarking upon their post-compulsory education and deciding whether they will opt for a MOOC, neoliberal subjects “who believe themselves to be both autonomous and free”[40].

Few academics would disagree with Roberts’ assessment that in the age of the internet, the challenge is “not so much gaining access to the information, but finding ways of distinguishing some forms of information from others” and that important “rules of interpretation” are required to “assist with the task of navigating our way through a sea of information”[41]. Indeed, most educators in today’s world would agree that meeting that challenge is a defining feature of their current mission. There is, however, another equally important challenge that is presented by the potential of MOOCs to radically reduce and concentrate the number and variety of sites where this educational mission can be undertaken.

MOOCs offer students a choice: they can pay money to attend a bricks and mortar university in their vicinity to take a course presented by whatever academic happens to be teaching it; or they can take an online course for free offered by an academic recognized as the world’s best in the field, the international rockstar academic. MOOCs offer policy-makers a choice: they can continue to pay to employ university staff in university buildings to provide the opportunity for students to attend university; or they can discontinue significant parts of the teaching programme and steer students to free courses available online through MOOCs.

The logic of neoliberalism has hitherto placed only an instrumental value on the university teaching workforce which has been casualised and controlled by a managerial class in response to consumer demand. Where the demand dries up and students decide not to purchase the product, those teaching it are dispensed with. If this logic is maintained in the face of the arrival of MOOCs, even allowing for exaggeration in Thrun’s prediction of there being just ten universities remaining, there is clear potential for large-scale and ongoing student uptake of MOOCs and consequent downsizing and closure of large parts of the university sector on an unprecedented scale.

The task of assessing the merits of that prospect requires one to focus the mind on the fundamental purpose and value of a university to the society of which it is a part. It requires a questioning of what the university has become and might become. Pate speaks of a primary orientation towards “aggregate productivity rather than the virtuous citizen”. MOOCs, he argues, are consistent with and supportive of a technicist, consumer orientation to society. Irrespective of the quality of the handful of professors left standing in the aftermath of the MOOC wave, Pate laments the reduction of voices and forums for critical analysis which represent “the scrutiny of competing ideas” that are necessary for a vibrant democracy. “MOOCs … are likely to wither away the dialogue, diversity and dissent, and replace the discontent with somnambulist disciples”[42].

These sorts of concerns have surfaced in public controversies over MOOCs such as the exit of a MOOC star, Princeton sociology Professor Mitchell Duneier, and the refusal of the San Jose State University’s Philosophy Department to teach an edX course developed by another MOOC star, Michael Sandel. The San Jose professors said that it was “far superior” to be engaging their own students and claimed that that this was “a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education”[43], a sentiment echoed by Professor Duneier.

MOOCs, Universities and the Neoliberal Society

According to the prevailing logic of the managerialism that underpins the neoliberal university, education has no claim to special status. This leaves no basis for distinguishing between the replacement of human tellers in a bank with automatic teller machines, for example, and the replacement of large numbers of academic staff teaching face-to-face with a digital connection to courses taught by one or two leading professors. As long as acceptable levels of customer satisfaction are maintained, the savings should be made.

Lost in this line of logic, however, are the consequences to society in hollowing out its academic workforce by treating them simply as cost categories. In a world economy which is inexorably drawn towards advancing growth, productivity and profitability, the human race is facing unprecedented challenges: persistent and often widening inequalities and experiences of injustice along class, racial and gender lines; seemingly inescapable cycles of military attack and reprisal taking ever more violent and extreme forms; the risk of global spread of increasingly virulent and diseases; and the ecological threat to the very continuation of life on the planet. These are some of the serious and complex matters whose solutions, while they may include technical dimensions, necessarily require understandings of and engagement with matters social, historical, political, economic, cultural and philosophical at levels far superior to anything the human race has yet achieved.

The university has occupied a unique role in promoting and carrying out the unencumbered pursuit of knowledge; advances that are motivated by factors such as intellectual curiosity and social responsibility whether or not any financial benefit may accrue. The positive obligation for universities in New Zealand to act as “critic and conscience” was inserted into statute at the time that the power of neoliberalism to thoroughly transform the university was becoming apparent. The Act included a definition of academic freedom as “the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”. It was an articulation of what legislators wanted to ensure was not lost in the rush towards realizing the neoliberal vision. It remains as a reminder of a core element of what a university needs to contribute to society, beyond its coursework and research. At the heart of this mission are academic staff who still in the main want to see themselves as charged with not only engaging in this mission themselves but also initiating future generations into it.

If the educational mission of universities is reduced to the efficient transfer of existing knowledge in identical packages as is promised by MOOCs, communities and societies at a local and national level will lose a unique and essential part of their social fabric. This danger is further magnified in societies that are already positioned primarily as the consumers and not the producers of knowledge and not only out of concerns about intellectual neocolonialism. “By promoting centralized knowledge production”, argue Lane and Kinser “MOOCs limit the spillover effects that can help built the academic infrastructure of developing nations”[44].

One of the challenges of the temptation presented by MOOCs is that any academic resistance to it, as is always the case when people oppose such market forces, is likely to be depicted as simply self-serving attempts to preserve privilege[45]. The challenge presented by MOOCs is one that requires the engagement of society on fundamental questions about the purpose of education, a process that requires critical scrutiny of currently prevailing models and ways of thinking. It will be a hard ask in a context where individuals, institutions and society have been neoliberalized.


The arrival of MOOCs have irrevocably changed the world of higher education. The terrain is being continuous made and remade by the deliberations and actions of university managers, academic staff, students and policy-makers. Were it to deliver on its promise of providing free and open access to higher education to all of humanity, it would be a profound influence for the good. However, it is impacting in a context where established systems of higher education are embedded within conflicting and overlapping challenges, interests, and power dynamics. Whatever potential gains it may bring, there are many complex risks.

It would be at their peril policy makers would either expose the university sector for which they are responsible to a sink-or-swim market competition with MOOCs or to reject them outright. If this is the case, a proper response would demand serious deliberation and wide public consultation over how any engagement with MOOCs should occur. This requires a close and considered examination by the communities and societies who the universities are supposed to serve as to what roles and functions are required and desired for the university of the future.

[1] “The Rising Power of MOOCs: Free Education For Everyone” (5 March 2014)
[2] Friedman, T.L. (26 January 2013) “Revolution Hits the Universities”, New York Times.
[3] Tooley, J. (1996) Education Without the State. London: Institute of Economic Affairs, pp.54-5.
[4] Roberts, P. (2013) “Academic Dystopia: Knowledge, Performativity and Tertiary Education”, Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies. Volume 35, number 1, p.40.
[5] Davis, G. (1997) “Implications, Consequences and Futures,” in Davis, G., B. Sullivan and A. Yeatman (eds) The New Contractualism? Melbourne: Macmillan, p.228.
[6] Slaughter, S and G. Rhoades (2004) Academic Capitalism and the New Economy. Markets, State and Higher Education. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, p.15.
[7] Mohrman, K., W. Ma & D. Baker (2008) “The Research University in Transition: The Emerging Global Model”, Higher Education Policy. Volume 21, number 1, p.21.
[9] Brown, R. (2011) “The Impact of Markets” in R. Brown (ed.) Higher Education and the Market. London: Routledge, p.21.
[11] Munch, R. (2014) Academic Capitalism: Universities in the Global Struggle for Excellence. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, p.43.
[12] Shamir, R. (2008) “The Age of Responsibilization: On Market-Embedded Morality”, Economy and Society. Volume 7, number 1, p.1.
[13] Ward, S. C. (2012) Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Education. London: Routledge, p.8.
[14] Slaughter, S and G. Rhoades (2004) p.10.
[15] Greyser, N. & M. Weiss. (2012) “Introduction: Left Intellectuals and the Neoliberal University”, American Quarterly. Volume 64, number 4, p. 789.
[16] Peters, M. (2013) “Managerialism and the Neoliberal University: Prospects for New Forms of ‘Open Management’ in Higher Education”, Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice. Volume 5, number 1, p.13.
[17] Kaufman, M. (2012) “A Politics of Encounter: Knowledge and Organizing in Common”, American Quarterly. Volume 64, number 4, p.824.
[18] Heath, M. & P. D. Burdon. (2013) “Academic Resistance to the Neoliberal University”, Legal Education Review. Volume 23, numbers 1 & 2, p.385.
[19] Gill, R. (2009) “Breaking the Silence: The Hidden Injuries of Neo-liberal Academia” in R. Flood and R. Gill (eds.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge.
[20] Heath, M. & P. D. Burdon. (2013) p.392.
[21] Lewin, T. 6 January 2103
[23] Greenstein, G. (1 July 2013) Innovation Exhaustion and a Path to Moving Forward Retrieved from
[24] Daniel, J. (2013). MOOCs: What lies beyond the trough of disillusionment? LINC 2013 Conference. Boston, MA: MIT. Retrieved from
[25] Alcorn, B., G. Christensen, & E. J. Emanuel  (4/1/2104) “Who Takes MOOCs? For online higher education, the devil is in the data”.
[26] Chafkin, M. (2013) “Udacity's Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course”. Retrieved from
[27] Baggaley, J. (2013) “MOOC Rampant”, Distance Education. Volume 34, number 3, pp.369-370.
[28] Baggaley, J. (2014) MOOC Postscript”, Distance Education. Volume 35, number 1, p.129.
[29] Bonk, C. J. (2009) The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p.33.
[30] Rhoads, R.A, J. Berdan and B. Toven-Lindsey. (2013) “The Open Courseware Movement in Higher Education: Unmasking Power and Raising Questions about the Movement’s Democratic Potential”, Educational Theory. Volume 6, number 1, p.88.
[31] Rhoads et al. (2013) pp.92-93.
[32] Rhoads et al. (2013) p.97.
[33] Rhoads et al. (2013) p.103.
[34] Rhoads et al. (2013) p. 97.
[35]  See Section 162 (4) (a) (5) of The Education Act 1989, New Zealand. 
[36] Richards, quoted in Ball, S. J. (2012) “Performativity , Commodification and Commitment: An I-Spy Guide to the Neoliberal University”, British Journal of Educational Studies. Volume 60, number 1, p.21
[39] Adamic, L., & Glance, N. (2005). The political blogosphere and the 2004 U.S. election: Divided they blog. In Proceedings of the 3rd International Workshop on Link Discovery. New York, NY: Association for Computing Machinery. Retrieved from
[40] Davies, B. & P. Bansel. (2007) “Neoliberalism and Education”, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. Volume 20, number 3, p.254.
[41] Roberts, P. (2013) p.36.
[42] Pate, R. (2013) “MOOCs and Modern Democracies”, Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice. Volume 5, number 2, p.45.
[45] Douglas, R. (1993) Unfinished Business. Auckland: Random House.

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