E-learning and Digital Cultures, Week 2: Perspectives on Education #edcmooc

I finally caught up on two of the education-centred readings for week 2 of the massive MOOC, “E-learning and Digital Cultures”.

Shirky, C. (2012). Napster, Udacity and the academy. shirky.com, 12 November 2012.

I admit to not always being the most successful critical thinker – I tend to want to believe the things I read, especially if they sound optimistic.

Having said that (and having read other articles that tout elearning and MOOCs as the next big thing to open up and democratize higher education), I admit that some of Mr. Shirky‘s opinions in this piece did cause me suspicion. I am wary of the for-profit world, and fairly cynical about why for-profit companies would offer any service for free. I believe that there’s a for-pay business model underneath a fairly thin veneer of “open access” and “free content”. Nothing is ever truly for free.

As for the Shirky article, first, there was his premise that elearning was going to do to traditional education what Napster and the MP3 file format did to the music industry. From a business perspective, yes, losing control of publishing and distribution is definitely a concern to manufacturers and copyright holders. I would say however, that Shirky is overstating things: MP3, creator-distributed content, and all that, certainly redefined the role of the music industry, and it changed the relationship between consumer, publisher and artist. But, it did not destroy it or change the world forever.

Shirky‘s overall position is that elearning (however imperfect) democratizes and opens-up access to learning, effectively reaching a much wider audience, and in ways that traditional institutions never could. His is kind of an “open internet, information should be free” kind of perspective, in a world he sees as dominated by massive commercial course and software publishers, which includes ,many of the large universities who are now sponsoring MOOCs.

Bady, A. (2012). Questioning Clay Shirky. Inside Higher Ed, 6 December 2012.

Mr. Bady makes effective counter-arguments to Shirkey’s article, more or less implying that Shirky is biased in favour of the modern elearning solutions and against the older (and in Shirky‘s examples, “elitist”) academic institutions. Bady takes issue with Shirkey’s comparison that a free MOOC is still a better education than no education at all – “something is better than nothing” is not a very powerful argument, Bady declares.

I think there are definite pitfalls in elearning, which will (IMHO) ensure that they will never supplant face-to-face learning entirely. However real the possible economic benefits are to the learners or the hosting institutions, I think that at best, we’re in the process of redefining the meaning and purpose of in-person higher education – but absolutely not replacing it.

At the end of the day, we must rely on objective evidence that any education is well-conceived, effectively designed and properly facilitated. We cannot rely on rhetoric from scared educators or overly aggressive pie-in-the-sky software vendors.

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