MOOCs and the Masses: Big Data and the Question of Access in Online Teaching

Much of the heat and light generated by recent conversations about the crisis in higher education has been forced through the prism of the “MOOC” (Massively Open Online Course). This has been especially the case during the last year, as the trade press has provided daily click bait to MOOC proponents and opponents alike.

Rather than restate the various arguments for and against MOOCs, I want to focus on the Utopian claims made by the MOOC providers themselves, which invariably center on the concept of access.

At the outset, I should be clear that when I talk about MOOCs, I’m referring to the so-called xMOOCs promoted by companies like Udacity and Coursera. There is a useful pedagogical distinction to be made between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, but discussion about the latter type has been obliterated by the massive promotional campaign being waged by big course providers and their venture capitalist backers.

An important point to make about xMOOCs (and therefore about “MOOCs” as they are now understood in popular discourse), is that they reduce education to the transmission of information from an educator to the learners. A similar point can be made about large lecture courses. MOOC proponents will claim, of course, that online courses, however massive, can offer numerous opportunities for interactions among students and between students and teachers. This is a half truth. Student-to-student interaction, in face-to-face and online courses, often reduces to “Do you know what the professor wants us to do?” The MOOCs on offer do nothing substantial to improve on this limitation of the large lecture course; when classes of 200 become classes of 20,000, things probably get worse. When one looks closely at the pedagogical claims made by MOOC defenders, it becomes clear that interpersonal communication is replaced by something called “interactivity.” The course content itself is interactive. A course, then, is no longer a journey of discovery with its own temporality, open to multiple futures (“outcomes,” in the jargon of assessment); it is a vessel for “content,” information reified, then personified as something that can “interact” with students. Educational content is fetishized to such a degree that it becomes possible to imagine a group of MOOCs sitting around and interacting with each other and the occasional person in an online class. Perhaps soon bumper stickers will appear: “My MOOC is an Honor Student.”

To be fair, the content fetish is a feature of traditional classes, too, and not just in large lecture halls. MOOCs are big, though, so they dominate the current higher-education field like a fifth-grader with a moustache dominates the playground. Course providers leverage this size, displaying their real and potential enrollment numbers to tell a story about access. Traditional education at brick-and-mortar colleges has failed, they say, because it is too expensive and too restrictive for the billions of people who crave a deeper understanding of Artificial Intelligence and Astrophysics. Unless we are to take the reactionary position and refuse to acknowledge broad popular interest in such subjects, this claim should be taken seriously. In fact, course providers should be judged according to whether they uphold their own avowed goals. Let’s look at two examples.


We believe in connecting people to a great education so that anyone around the world can learn without limits.

Coursera is an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. Our technology enables our partners to teach millions of students rather than hundreds.

We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.


Our mission is to bring accessible, affordable, engaging, and highly effective higher education to the world. We believe that higher education is a basic human right, and we seek to empower our students to advance their education and careers.

There’s a touch of bootstrapping ideology at work here—”education that will improve their lives” and “advance their . . . careers”—but I want to ignore it in order to focus entirely on the Utopian language about educating the world.

To understand why course providers must use this kind of language requires understanding what they are really up to. Since the MOOC makers aren’t the first to advance claims about the power of communications technology to democratize knowledge and culture, it will be helpful to consider some history.

Before the Internet came television, which was preceded by radio. Robert McChesney has written about the battle over broadcasting that took place during the early 1930s. Private broadcasters, through a variety of legislative mechanisms, wrested control of the airwaves from the public domain.

[T]he late 1930s and early 1940s were far from halcyon days to many educators concerned with broadcasting. By 1936, only thirty educational stations remained, and most of these were still enmeshed in dire financial straits that were seemingly inescapable. (233)

At a very early date, then, the educational potential of mass media was curtailed by the profit motive. Many of the radio stations that existed in the early 1920s were operated by colleges and universities like the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Radio, as a medium of mass communication, was very well positioned to bring education to the public-at-large. In 1927, however, the Federal Radio Commission was established and immediately served up the biggest and best slices of the radio spectrum to the fledging commercial networks. This installed a mass media driven by an advertising-based profit model. Public, educational programming would be forced to operate at the edges of this media environment and according to the same profit logic. When viewed alongside their commercial competitors, public radio (and, later, television) stations would eventually appear inefficient and parasitical.

The University of the Air

The transformation of the airways from a public utility to a platform for profit didn’t happen easily or overnight, however. There was a fight, and the broadcast industry was forced to tread lightly. We are witnessing a similarly contested struggle over the Internet today. For the sake of drawing out such comparisons, I would like to consider a pedagogical project that, like today’s MOOCs, made philanthropic claims about its intentions.

In Robert Hullot-Kentor’s introduction to his edition of Theodor Adorno’s Current of Music, we read about the Princeton Radio Research Project. Paul Lazarsfeld, the project’s director, had brought Adorno on board, thinking that the German expatriate would assist efforts to foment music appreciation. A few months later, Lazarsfeld would rue his decision, citing Adorno’s “basically wrong attitude” (14). As it turned out, the project’s ostensible purpose, which was to spread musical culture to the public everyman, configured in the intellectual imagination of the day as the “farmer’s wife,” was in no way compatible with Adorno’s views on culture as an essentially negative category, something to be warded off. It also turns out that the project’s real aim was something quite different, as Hullot-Kentor explains.

The broadcast industry itself, having won the privatization of the broadcast system and the right to advertise, in a series of much-disputed legislative struggles then still within living memory, was piously careful to emphasize radio’s performance of social services and its contributions to national moral integrity.

This context certainly emphasized the philanthropic claim of a project to research ‘The Essential Value of Radio for All Types of Listeners’. But if this title is held up to the light and examined a second time, it did once refract other potentials, and still does. It might well name an undertaking to assemble information about what listeners most valued in order to provide the data to some third party with heteronomous purposes for this ‘essential value’. Once this is noticed, it is hard to decide what the title was about. It could, of course, have carried both meanings, as seems to be the case, but, if so, this ambiguity does not need to remain cloaked in lasting obscurity. An otherwise rarely acknowledged hermeneutical device, a dinner party, is available in historical documentation to solve the question. This particular supper, an award ceremony scheduled for the night of 15 February 1940, elucidates the definitive kinds of alliances at work at the Princeton Project: Frank Stanton, soon to be the president of Columbia Broadcasting System, wrote to John Marshall, the grant supervisor at the Rockefeller Foundation, to announce with pleasure that on that February evening Paul Lazarsfeld would be honoured by the advertising industry as the individual who had revealed ‘the educational significance of radio programs’. . . . Lazarsfeld had been chosen as advertising’s man of the year in the area of research for having brought together people from commerce and academia and thus having succeeded at demonstrating the economic significance of radio’s educational potential for advertisers. (11)

It’s possible to draw a number of comparisons between this particular configuration of interests and the current drive behind MOOCs.

Both rely on humanitarian and philanthropic language. “Social services” and “moral integrity” are replaced by “accessibility” and “human rights.” The Iowan housewife becomes a TED-talking, Davos-attending Pakistani girl, beloved of Thomas Friedman and the Gates Foundation.

Paul Lazarsfeld, the “academic tycoon” who sold out to industry, is reborn as a Stanford professor. Like the Princeton Project, MOOC initiatives serve a “third party,” the advertising industry. Robert Meister, president of the Council of UC Faculty Associations (CUCFA), recently wrote a provocative Open Letter to Coursera Founder Daphne Koller. It’s worth reading in its entirely, but one of its most important points is that course providers like Coursera are in the business of big data, the collection and warehousing of detailed information about students’ online behavior, study habits, consumer preferences, etc. This data is then sold to advertisers, or, in Coursera’s case, back to students interested in improving their academic performance and finding a job compatible with their data profiles.

Utopian claims about access are ideological cover for the enclosure of a commons (David Harvey’s “accumulation by dispossession” or, simply, “privatization”). MOOCs, like early radio, originate from technologies and practices pioneered at public universities, with public grant money, or both. Many academics are taking steps to make their research and teaching widely available online and to build databases and tools that allow extramural access and collaboration. This knowledge and technology is being pressed into service by a legislative-managerial class in order to dismantle these public institutions and turn a profit in the bargain. I’m looking at you, Richard Blum. As MOOCs become more widely accepted as alternatives to traditional classes, teaching itself could get outsourced (“unbundled” is the term of art) to private course providers. The consequences of such a Schumpeterian disruption are entirely unknown, so calls to slow down and get the pedagogy right are entirely welcome. But such calls will go unheeded, I fear, because a powerful set of interests has targeted higher education for “innovation” and “operational excellence,” both of which, in the Devil’s Dictionary of the MBA, mean looting.

I return now to my initial, framing point about the reduction of education to information.

As Aaron Bady writes, today’s heavily promoted MOOCs simply reinforce the fetish of the expert.

[T]he MOOCs which are being developed by Silicon Valley startups Udacity and Coursera, as well as by non-profit initiatives like edX, aim to do exactly the same thing that traditional courses have done—transfer course content from expert to student—only to do so massively more cheaply and on a much larger scale.

It’s evident that the Open Source Movement in education, which includes the concept of the MOOC, has been hijacked by course providers and debased as a buzzword for drumming up venture capital and selling their (inferior) product to university administrators eager to expand their market share beyond the geographical regions they normally serve.

Universities are paying for this market expansion with a peculiar currency—information about students. The big-data business model outlined by Meister brings up privacy concerns. Whether such data-gathering violates the spirit of FERPA remains an open question. These concerns about privacy are more pressing than ever in light of recent revelations that the biggest Internet companies give the U.S. government direct access to users’ data. Given the close ties among Coursera, Udacity, and companies like Google, students should think twice about letting these course providers collect and store data about them. For their part, the course providers’ true aims are remarkably consistent with their humanitarian mission statements. They are indeed concerned with increasing access to information . . . about students.

For a university, partnering with Coursera is like putting a bank on campus. It entices or compels them to use a “service” that they never asked for and that wants to extract as much value as possible from them.

It’s easy for administrators to make such deals, however, because they are consistent with the prevailing management philosophy. We often hear calls for universities to be “run like a business.” Well, universities have been run like businesses for decades. The current set of managerial practices, in vogue since the 1990s, is known as Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM).


According to this paradigm, the years spent at a university are not intended so much as to educate the student (either in the vocational sense or the liberal-arts sense of forming citizen-scholars), but rather to turn as many recruits as possible into “active alumni.” In the meantime, as much profit as possible should be extracted from the student, through amenities, food services, business partnerships, textbook sales, tuition, etc. Image and branding are extremely important to these efforts, but so is information. Universities now build data-driven profiles of prospective students in order to identify and recruit those most likely to be attracted to the university’s own carefully constructed market profile.

Over the past twenty years, often under cover of the euphemisms with which the industry abounds, enrollment management has transformed admissions and financial aid, and in some cases the entire mission of a college or a university. At its most advanced it has a hand in every interaction between a student and a school, from the crafting of a school’s image all the way through to the student’s successful graduation. Any aspect of university life that bears on a school’s place in the collegiate pecking order is fair game: academic advising, student services, even the curriculum itself. Borrowing the most sophisticated techniques of business strategy, enrollment managers have installed market-driven competition at the heart of the university. (“The Best Class Money Can Buy“)

A university is a factory whose customers are also its product.

Financial aid also falls under SEM’s purview:

By making some students and parents pay full fare, or close to it, while offering discounts to less wealthy students, colleges attempt to maximize net tuition revenue. Indeed, after many years of engaging in the “high sticker price, high discount” business model, colleges have acquired armies of “enrollment management” consultants who advise colleges on the best strategies for maximizing tuition revenue.

Some colleges, it turns out, maximize their tuition revenue by running what amounts to a legal scam by gaming the Pell Grant system.

The rapid increase in the number of university administrators correlates to the rise of SEM as a management paradigm. SEM’s reliance on big data requires an army of analysts, the appearance of which has been documented at the University of California.

In looking at what particular job categories grew the most, Schwartz discovered that computer analysts and budget analysts had the highest rates of growth: “Computer

Programming & Analysis—from 2,084 to 4,325 for an increase of 108% and Administrative, Budget/Personnel Analysis from 4,692 to 10,793 for an increase of 130%.” It is interesting to note that this growing class of administrators includes people whose primary job is to produce and analyze data for other administrators.

As more classes move online, this push towards big data acquires greater implications for teaching. The most commonly used online teaching platform is Blackboard. In 2010, Blackboard purchased iStrategy, a company devoted to data analysis that was rebranded as Blackboard Analytics. This analytical software plugs into Blackboard’s teaching platform and universities’ student information systems to compile data that allows administrators to “align recruiting strategies and institutional aid awards with enrollment and retention objectives.”

At a university managed according to SEM principles, online teaching becomes a valuable data-collection point. Teaching in general, though, becomes a potential sticking point in a student–customer’s trajectory from recruit to active alumnus. If a course is too difficult, the clients may complain or fail to complete the graduation-transformation into donors. If a course isn’t very marketable or doesn’t align itself with the university’s image, administrators may chafe at the traditional balance of power, which gives faculty control over the curriculum. Administrators covet this control; according to SEM, everything from the physical plant to the mission statement must be completely malleable. Faculty are a stubborn, if crumbling barrier. “These people can’t be led.”

Pliancy and obedience, it seems, are the most desired attributes for faculty, students, and citizens. In Current of Music, Adorno criticizes the NBC Music Appreciation Hour for “show[ing] scant respect for the works themselves but exhibit[ing] continuous obeisance to composers and particularly to the conductor” (200). This description bears a striking resemblance to today’s heavily promoted xMOOCs with their cult of content and superprofessors.

A mode of teaching that transmits information from expert to student is reflected in a communications infrastructure that collects users’ data for analysis by more experts, the ones who will make the decisions that matter. The duty of an educator, it seems to me, is to expose and undo these compliance-inducing teaching structures. As Adorno said, “Education must attempt to counterbalance the hegemony of the tool” (op. cit. 170). Do we want students to think and create for themselves, or do we just want them believe what we tell them and trust us with their information?

Lest I be accused of MOOC-phobia, I should conclude by stating that I like MOOCs and I’m glad they exist, in more or less the same way I’m glad YouTube exists. I teach face-to-face and online classes and I find that the same tension between possibilities and constraints exists in both traditional classrooms and online environments. But a hustle is still a hustle.