If Udacity is Napster, Who Will Be iTunes?

My Who Decides? post has produced some rather heated email. In answer, no, I am not defending the existing university system: I quit my faculty position at the University of Toronto in part because it doesn't serve students well, and doesn't have a future beyond elite networking-building [1]. But the fact that educational reactionaries are wrong doesn't mean that all educational revolutionaries are right; it particularly doesn't mean that the centralizing pseudo-progressives are on the side of the angels.

For example, quite a few people have pointed me at Clay Shirky's recent post comparing Udacity with Napster. In it, Shirky says:

The possibility MOOCs hold out isn't replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system, in the same way phonographs expanded the audience for symphonies to people who couldn't get to a concert hall, and PCs expanded the users of computing power to people who didn't work in big companies.

OK, I buy that. But in talking about some feedback Udacity got on the awful quality of its statistics course, he says:

Conceding that Delta "points out a number of shortcomings that warrant improvements", Thrun detailed how they were going to update the class. [emphasis added]

Aye, there's the rub. In the Udacity/Coursera/Khan model, "they" are the only ones who can update the learning material, and thereby decide what's to be learned. Where's the hackability? When, where, and how can I fork their course, make changes, and send a merge request? Sure, I can set up my own, but if I have to compete with Harvard's prestige (read: its old boys' network), that's like saying that anyone could set up their own TV network—in practice, only those with bankrolls like Turner's and Murdoch's can pull it off. (I used to write for The Independent in London, and felt very sad when it stopped deserving that name.)

As far as I can see, the pseudo-MOOC model that the New York Times and others are gushing about effectively concentrates power in ever-fewer hands. Some of it is indirect—if 90% of learners get their lessons from six "prestige" schools, a lot of voices will effectively be silenced—and some of it is pretty explicit:

You may not take any Online Course offered by Coursera, or use any Letter of Completion as part of any tuition-based or for-credit certification or program for any college, university, or other academic institution without the express written permission from Coursera.

Got that? You can watch their videos, and do their exercises, but you can't even take the badge they give you somewhere else unless they say you can. That's a hell of a lot more restrictive than any policy any old-style university I know of could get away with: there, the receiving institution decides whether or not to accept prior work, and the granting institution has no say in the matter.

A while back (January? February?) somebody in Mozilla's learning team asked whether we should be teaching kids how to re-mix their Facebook pages. I think we should instead teach them how to re-mix the walled-garden LMSes that everyone seems to want to hand their future to.

[1] I predict that within five years, we will see companies offering residential campus life to 18-25's who are getting their education online. They'll provide exam invigilation (so that those digital badges the kids are earning actually mean something), a gym, lab and studio space for sciences and the arts, and most importantly, a chance to socialize. I do not think this is a good future—in practice, it will set the clock back to 1950, when higher education was the preserve of a privileged few.