I’ve been taking MOOCs for years, watching sites like Coursera and EdX develop from a small handful offerings into something decidedly and globally on-trend in the higher education sector. At first, in 2012, the motivation for many of the courses that sprang up seemed to be love of learning, and providers seemed to offer liberal arts education at the far reaches of the word ‘liberal’, a utopia of free access to knowledge that could democratise education across the globe. However, MOOCs have so-far proved a bit of an echo chamber.
Although it only covered EdX, a recent MIT-Harvard study found that 40% of MOOC participants are teachers, an astonishing statistic. 70% of all participants already have BAs. An earlier study, which focused on UPenn Coursera students, found that students tended to be young, well-educated, and employed. MOOC participants are well-educated people who value learning and education. Those without access to tertiary education, particularly in developing countries, are under-represented. Meanwhile, philomaths with relatively high levels of privilege flock to subjects that can bolster their CVs and enhance their careers, choosing computer science over the humanities at a ratio of nearly 4:1, and MOOC sites are developing ways to monetise their offerings: verified certificates, ‘nanodegrees’, and ‘specialisations’.
This suggests that, without further efforts to deliver on the oft-quoted democratising aims, MOOCs will become a new tool in the increasingly frenetic CV arms race, often starting at undergrad level, which already sees students throwing thousands at professional qualifications (the UK legal profession is a prime example and has been for years…), and those with masters degrees taking entry-level jobs.
At the moment, MOOCs’ pay-off for participants is still unproven. Whether they will prove valuable on CVs will depend on how employers across industries respond to verified certificates, ‘nano degrees’, and ‘specialisations’. However, the increasingly professionalised offerings (a course on Public-Private Partnerships starts imminently on Coursera) suggest a wholesale divergence from what many had initially hoped would be the result of the MOOC explosion. Capitalising on the insecure labour market with career promises is the clear intention of some sites. Udacity’s front page recommends “pick which programming language to learn first based on salary, geography, application types and recent trends”. There is no particular love of learning here. Even the suggestion that the decision is based around the “lifestyle you want” is suspect. Salary comes first. It’s all about the ££.
To me, one of the most worrying elements of the MOOCs-in-an-arms-race is the gender disparity, in developing countries, between male and female participants in MOOCs (30%) versus in traditional education (10%). We already know women often have to appear more qualified than male competitors in order to land a job. Taking a MOOC in one’s spare time to boost one’s CV, particularly a paid one one leading to a verifiable certificate or the completion of a particular ‘track’, might become another hurdle to women participating on equal terms with men in the labour market. Advantages and disadvantages will continue to accumulate on either side of a MOOC-divide, and those with more free time and free cash will push even further ahead.
So it is with a rather heavy heart that I must confess to having succumbed to the lure of Coursera’s ‘signature track’. I could say that it was all because of the allure of the Leadership specialisation that might be coming soon, which course announcements have taken care to mention. I could point out that I’ve taken a few leadership-related MOOCs before, and I’m particularly passionate about women’s leadership roles. I could claim to be investing in MOOCs as a whole (or Coursera, at least). All of these things played a part in the decision. However, what tipped me over the edge was something incredibly petty: the ‘signature track’ badge in the Coursera forums.
I don’t even particularly like the forums. They’re badly designed, leading to many repetitive discussions/comments because submitting something is more valued than contributing to a good conversation. But it was the marketing of the ‘signature track’ within them, seeing the little badge repeatedly, that reminded me of the reasons one might pay for the signature track, proving effective on me in a way that the countdown for signing up had never been.
The first time I posted in the forum after I’d paid up, the badge came up next to my name, and I felt immediately suspect. I looked again at the badge, one of the few on display on that particular page. And it occurred to me, rather too late, that in fact those little badges are more questionable than the direct positioning of MOOCs as weapons in a CV arms race, because they make inequality tangible in the day-to-day space of the course. Why should fellow students know that I am on the ‘signature track’? That information is imposed on my fellow students because I have chosen to pay up. Within a course, signature track students might have access to additional resources, and will have a different certificate at the end of it, but the forums, where posting is often mandatory, are a digital space that now explicitly privilege some participants over others. Coursera’s marketing proves more effective by virtue of creating a hierarchy of students. If an arms race between MOOC participants starts within the pedagogic space, then the education on offer is ‘liberal’ in only the shallowest sense of the word.
I’m really rather ashamed of myself for signing up to it.