The MOOC Industrial Complex

March 3, 2013 | Blog

These days, every education reform movement seems to generate profit for multiple partners.  Take No Child Left Behind, the latest testing and accountability regime. As many scholars have documented, billions of dollars have flowed to corporations providing the tests, textbooks and “supplementary education services” required by that federal policy.  Advocates say this is appropriate since it means the market is functioning freely to provide high quality services, while critics note that absent government regulation (carefully limited under the law) public goods are quickly becoming private ones.

In recent blogs about MOOCs, I questioned their business model, asking why supposedly cash-strapped universities (like mine) would choose to engage with them when there is no evident monetary return?  I received little response from MOOC advocates on that question. But the answer is becoming increasingly clear.

Many universities have stated that MOOCs are the kind of innovative activity that donors would like to support, and that we would gain new donors if we engaged in creating them.  University foundations, including UW-Madison’s, seem quite confident in this– to the point that they are putting in their own dollars for the initial investments to get MOOCs off the ground.  While it’s possible that this is sheer altruism, it’s doubtful– their leaders always expect a return on investment.

Where will it come from?

Why, the industry that supports the MOOCs of course.  For example, today’s New York Times  documents the growing testing industry associated with online proctoring, helping colleges “keep an eye” on online test-takers. Unfortunately that article failed to investigate the money involved in this effort, focusing instead on the quality of the services provided to prevent cheating. This is unfortunate, since tracking the dollars created by the work of educators, ultimately benefiting the corporate bottom line is exactly what the “paper of record” should be doing.

What other entities will benefit from the instructional activities provided by public and non-profit universities?  Write in and let’s start a list.  And while we’re at it, let’s think hard about the likelihood that these corporations will eventually constitute those “benevolent new donors” our universities are counting on.

ps. I keep meaning to direct my readers to this excellent commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I highly recommend reading it in full.

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