Can MOOCs Save Academic Freedom?

Historically, the three forces that have defined the human condition and human progress have been economic wealth, political power and social beliefs and values. Like the keeper of the fire, academia in the role of keeper of knowledge, has sought to preserve and protect the light of reason and wisdom against the excess of wealth, power and fanaticism. This is the ultimate modern purpose of academic freedom.

Although globalization is commonly treated primarily as an economic concept, its impact on political power and social beliefs and values has changed the frame of reference for how we must now think about academic freedom.

The digital communication revolution that has flattened the earth into a global playing field is disrupting higher education in the form of massive open online courses (MOOCs). However, the value of MOOCs as a powerful force to protect the fundamental purpose of academic freedom has been lost in the current distraction of debating the relative value of online as opposed to traditional classroom teaching.

Of far greater importance for human progress and the nature of the human condition is the essential prerequisite of independent critical thinking that can neither be bought nor suppressed.

This noble justification of academia is now more than theoretical, it is actually possible – but not without a struggle. The commercialization of learning that has overtaken higher education over the past 50 years has embraced MOOCs as the next big growth opportunity for venture capital. In this sense, MOOCs have become the last stand for the defense of academic freedom because ownership of knowledge and information is the key to controlling the political power and social beliefs and values determining the distribution of wealth in the 21st Century.

Unfortunately, academics are typically weak warriors, and our colleges and universities are deeply compromised fortresses for combating power and belief in the service of greed.  For example, at the University of Wyoming, the mining industry was successful in the early removal of a “Carbon Sink” sculpture which called attention to the dangers of climate change. At the University of Iowa, the appointment of a director for the Center for Sustainable Agriculture was blocked by agribusiness because the nominee’s research supported the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency. The student loan crisis provided a financial accounting of shifting the cost of a college degree from a public to a personal responsibility, to mention only a few illustrations of the commodification of education.

On the one hand, MOOCs offer the opportunity to fully democratize knowledge and learning, by facilitating the flow of all information into the public domain. Finally, with open online courses there is an opportunity to make teaching and learning available to everyone. Now, the ultimate civic accomplishment of balancing the dynamic resultant of the three forces of wealth, power and belief in the service of human progress and the enhancement of human condition is possible.

But, our institutions, as owners of copyrights and patents, contribute to making knowledge and information a commodity by removing it from the public domain. Apple is attempting to control the K-12 academic market in which an iPad can replace many of the functions of a physical classroom. State legislators see the cost of education going down and control of content going up through online learning. AAUP is confronted with a dilemma that the instrumentality of job protection as the strategy of choice for defending academic freedom will be compromised by MOOCs. Colleges and universities are searching for a business model to survive in a competitive market in which a few winners supported by venture capital provide courses administered by others with a minimum of financial support from state governments.

The potential endpoint is an economic market which owns the political power and social beliefs which determines the preconditions for the distribution of wealth, globally and nationally.

MOOCs may well be the last stand in defense of academic freedom if knowledge is to increasingly belong in the public domain, and not increasingly become a commodity. This is our academic challenge. We must own and use MOOCs to elevate general public knowledge to be an effective civic moderator of wealth, power and belief. If we do not, control of information will replace resources, just as resources replaced land, as the currency defining the human condition.

Seeing knowledge as public domain, not as the newest commodity market, can secure our legitimate place in human progress as the keeper of the fire. We must now occupy learning. In the long term, MOCCs can provide a strategic and powerful defense of the ultimate purpose of academic freedom, not job security in the short term.


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