During the 1840s and early-1850s, American ice harvesters tried to sell their product in Great Britain for the first time. It was the technological marvel of its day – clear ice cut from lakes and ponds in New England shipped intact across the ocean. When you think about it, it’s still an impressive technological feat. Cut ice in regular blocks and pack it in a ship, the blocks separated with sawdust like mortar in a brick wall and 50-75% of the ice will still be intact when you take it to the other side of the world.
London had never seen anything like it. One supplier displayed a block in their window on the Strand. People would stop and gawk on it (not realizing that they would replace the block as it melted). That same supplier convinced Queen Victoria to endorse their product. Another brought over American bartenders to make “American” iced drinks. Unfortunately, the hype couldn’t sell enough of this novel product to keep the market afloat.
While natural ice was a sensation with the upper crust for a few seasons, the product never penetrated the middle or lower classes. Cost explains that result to some extent, but so does culture. The British just didn’t much care for iced drinks. For decades, the only place you could buy ice in England was at the fishmonger, where they used it to display their catch. It’s been seven years since the last time I was in England, but I remember it was next to impossible to get ice cubes there even then. Because I didn’t want to be an Ugly American i just stopped asking.
Why am I writing about ice cubes in what’s clearly a MOOC post? Well, there’s the fact that I’d much rather be promoting my book than going to this well yet again, but this piece really did make me think of the longstanding British distaste for ice cubes:
How do critics expect a MOOC to simply come in and present itself as a viable and legitimate replacement as a signal of student competence against some of our most revered and trusted institutions? Harvard, Yale, and Princeton opened their gates in 1636, 1701 and 1746. I daresay that it is asking a tad much of this nascent experiment to eclipse the prestige of these institutions after a meagre few years.
Harvard, Yale and Princeton, bless their hearts had paying students right from the beginning. MOOCs, alas for the techno-utopians among us, have no business model to speak of at all. American ice providers would have loved a few extra years in order to convince British people to consume cold drinks, but Mean Mr. Market didn’t give any to them. I think the same thing will be true for MOOCs, no matter how successful their experiment happens to be.
While I think we have enough evidence to pronounce MOOCs a pedagogical failure (if not a business one), the author of this piece has a much rosier view of education technology. If you’re stomach is strong enough to click this link, you’ll see that it’s response to Sarah Kendzior’s recent Aljazeera piece on MOOCs, “When MOOCs Profit, Who Pays?” Luckily for me, Sarah Kendzior is more than capable of taking care of herself so I have no need to violate my pledge not to rehash arguments from the “Year of the MOOC” that I’ve been over 1,000 times before in this space.
Nevertheless, there is something new and different here. The faith-based manner in which the author accepts arguments of the Masters of MOOC Creation is almost touching in its naiveté. That’s why a long excerpt is in order:
The very notion that MOOC providers are wedging income groups further and further apart is laughable after just a cursory read of the quixotic and lofty aims that their founders propagate. To say that MOOCs are an accomplice to the hardships suffered by students because of the tortured state of higher education is to fail to understand what one actually is and why the mode came into being.
Their founders talk of goals such as bringing the highest quality education to the remotest parts of the world, to offer students the same level and depth of instruction, irrespective of their financial or ethnic background. How can a concept so fundamentally egalitarian and open be accused of creating educational inequalities? MOOC providers can boast stories of their courses giving new leases on life to Syrians suffering the tolls of war and giving humanitarians new tools to inform their field work. Is this not the exact opposite of increasing inequality? And given that MOOC providers have not the ambition nor aspiration for their platforms replace the institutions of university, there is no immediately conceivable possibility of a two-tiered education system arising as a result of their existence.
This is pure faith-based education reform if I’ve ever seen it. The author sees the potential for helping suffering Syrians and therefore assumes that all of us must accept one and only version of the potential future so that those Syrians can get their MOOCs. If the people being helped can’t actually pay for their MOOCs, then American college students have a duty to propel this experiment forward.
If I see Elvis everywhere, does that mean we need to go to Graceland and dig up his body just to make sure he’s really dead? It reminds me of one of those charities that’s all smiles in their infomercials, but 95% of the donations go to the founder’s bank accounts. We’re helping because we say so. Period. End of story. Don’t follow the money or you’ll hurt the people we’re helping.
MOOCs, in short, have become all things to all people. For the naive techies of the world, they will end inequality. To investors in Udacity and Coursera, they will hopefully make enough to aggravate it. To superprofessors, they will bring quality learning to the masses. To the retired physics professors of the world who take every MOOC in sight, they’re more of an opportunity for entertainment that beats whatever is on television. All of this is a product of the fact that MOOC providers have absolutely no idea what their market even is. Unfortunately for them, they’ll have better luck bringing Elvis back from the dead than they will satisfying all these constituencies at once.