Friday, December 13, 2013

MOOCs: Education (not information) wants to be free

They say that information wants to be free. Actually, that is wrong, information (data) should not always be free. Privacy matters. Sustainable business models matter. Ownership of data matters. Education, however, does want to be free. Like health, it is a human right. This is the real gift that the web offers, to free us from the tyranny of time, place and above all, learning that is bound up in institutions.
I’m fine with good institutions; schools, colleges and universities but when they start to act as if that’s the only place that real learning takes place, I’m not so fine. Scarcity in education is not a virtue, neither is restricted access, unnecessary expense, loans and debt. The western model of scarce, elite, expensive institutional learning is starting to creak. If we really want a step change in education, we should make it free, or at least as cheap as possible. This does not mean simply ballooning the public debt. We know what happens when we simply displace debt to the state. We need to make it more efficient and therefore cheaper.
That’s exactly what’s happened with Google, Wikipedia, YouTube and many other useful resources. They’re free and they’re popular. Abundance is what we need and that means low cost. As with all successful learning tools and experiences on the web – make is free and compelling and they will come.
We have to get out of the model built on scarcity towards the democritisation, decentralisation and disintermediation of learning – the Napsterisation of learning. MOOCs, for me, are a way of reframing learning around this idea, seeing it as a right, something that is free (at least affordable), open and not locked up paces where people charge you extortionate sums for entry. We know that this means a shift from high cost, low occupancy buildings to online.
I’ve heard a number of arguments against education being free, none of which convince me. The first is that people won’t value it unless we charge them money. No, education should be like love and sex, something you want, enjoy and don’t have to pay for. We don’t need to build campuses as that’s where people learn. They’re far too big as they are thank you very much. Stop constructing buildings and focus on constructing minds. Never have there been so many teachers in so many institutions, yet teachers are not a necessary condition for learning. It may very well be the case that we need less teachers, just as ATMs meant less bank tellers, online booking less travel agents, online shopping less shop assistants, spreadheets, less accountants, word processors less typists and so on. We have to be realistic and accept the fact that the world has changed and that this change is irreversible.
We have had a phenomenal rise in the number of teachers since the introduction of universal and compulsory schooling, a huge increase in academic teachers due to the massification of higher education and a massive rise in the number of trainers post second world war. The fact that turkeys do not vote for Christmas, does not negate the fact that most people love Christmas and want to eat turkey.
One 'O' in the word MOOC means more to me than any other and that's Open. The spirit of openess is a moral, not technical issue. It means open access and that means free or at least very cheap. MOOCs are one, and only one, way of achieving that goal.

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