The Patron Saint of MOOCs

by lissajuliana

Carnegie, right, with James Bryce, 1st Viscoun...

Carnegie, right, with James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MOOCs are so of the moment, they barely seem to have a past. The coinage of the acronym dates to just 2008. (It stands for massive open online course, but the unfortunately bovine MOOC might also contain a subtle suggestion of a herd mentality and the ever-growing likelihood of a stampede.) Yet every movement needs a guiding light or heavenly advocate. Since MOOCs are a secular phenomenon, their acolytes have looked to historical figures to play the role of patron saint. To date, the front-runners include Ben Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, and Abraham Lincoln, American auto-didacts all.

The MOOC is an international phenomenon but like Silicon Valley from which much of the enabling technology has sprung, it remains an emphatically American way of thinking about education. If Ben Franklin is sometimes known as “the First American,” it has a lot to do with his up-by-the-bootstraps boyhood. Pulled out of school at age 10 to be indentured to his older brother’s print shop, Franklin spent his limited free time holed up in his room studying books that he borrowed or bought with the money he saved by becoming a vegetarian. He mastered the art of English composition in prose and verse by inventing ingenious exercises for himself using nothing more than a few editions of a popular publication. When he later ran away to Philadelphia with just a few coins in his pocket, these skills served him well as he was able to get in on the ground floor of the newspaper business in colonial America. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Franklin’s poor boy made good story has inspired generations of Americans. It’s the reason that Jack Hitt was able to write a very entertaining chapter in Bunch of Amateurs contrasting Franklin’s innovative, ahead of his time genius with John Adams’s boring old traditionalism. Sure, whatever, Adams helped out a little here and there with independence, the Revolution, and all that. But Franklin was a dropout and Adams actually graduated from Harvard so his accomplishments are hardly impressive. We all know that that these days the cool kids make a point of dropping out—Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg—or not even starting college—David Karp, founder of Tumblr. (If you’re interested, there are lots of “famous dropout” lists; there aren’t any for dropouts who didn’t do so well.) So Franklin’s got a good claim as patron of the MOOC revolution. Sure he founded an Ivy League school (Penn) but he also got together America’s first lending library—for a fee.

Andrew Carnegie went Franklin (whose Autobiography Carnegie adored) one better when he gave a great deal of his fortune to fund free public libraries. Carnegie, the child of a poor immigrant family who left school to start working at age 13, educated himself in the private library of one of his employers and wanted to give others the same chance that he had. This backstory makes Carnegie a likely candidate: MOOC developers like to highlight stories such as that of the poor, bright striver in a country like Mongolia who suddenly vaults into the big leagues via the miracle of MOOCs and is applying to MIT and Berkeley. (Oddly, Thomas Friedman, who recounts this anecdote, seems to have missed the contradiction here in which MOOCs are supposed to be reasonable substitutes for a quality education.) And Carnegie knew a thing or two about economies of scale. His recipe for beating the competition in the steel industry remains a classic:

Two pounds of iron-stone purchased on the shores of Lake Superior and transported to Pittsburgh. Two pounds of coal mined in Connellsville and manufactured into coke and brought to Pittsburgh. One-half pound of limestone mined east of the Alleghenies and brought to Pittsburgh. A little manganese ore mined in Virginia and brought to Pittsburgh. And these four and one half pounds of material manufactured into one pound of solid steel and sold for one cent. That’s all that need be said about the steel business.

The MOOC business model, on the other hand, remains a bit uncertain. It involves economies of scale, and putting together lots of the component parts of different industries, but it’s not quite clear to everyone just yet where the money-making part is going to come in. So far, the best indication of the future of profit making in MOOCs is the recent announcement that a series of public universities have partnered up with Coursera to introduce a MOOC model for scaling up large enrollment courses. On a per-student basis, the costs, compared to a traditional teacher-taught course, are very competitive:

In a typical case, the company would charge the university a flat fee of $3,000 for “course development.” After that, Coursera would charge a per-student fee that would decrease as more students registered for the course. The first 500 students would cost the university $25 per student; the next 500 would cost $15 per student; the university would pay the company $8 for each student beyond that.

Carnegie may have the jump on Franklin after all. Abe Lincoln who, according to legend, studied by firelight and scratched out his lessons on the back of a dirty shovel, is probably running a distant third. Still, Lincoln started out with even less schooling than either Franklin or Carnegie. And if Lincoln didn’t quite teach himself to read, as some versions of the myth have it, he made up for his lack of opportunities by sheer tenaciousness. This is a pretty good qualification for patron saint of MOOCs: it looks like 90 percent of those who start them fail to finish.

Such statistics have made some a little cynical about whether the much-ballyhooed “disruption” that the MOOC-ification of higher ed promises to deliver is really the promised land after all. Because when the odds are stacked against you, it takes more than the average amount of drive to succeed. It’s funny that Frederick Douglass isn’t in the running for patron saint of MOOCs, but maybe it has something to do with the uncomfortable reminder of how unreasonably high the bar is for some people. The heart of Douglass’s Narrative recounts his struggle to learn to read and write while an enslaved boy in Baltimore. Since it was illegal to teach slaves, Douglass bartered bread for letters with white street urchins who knew how to make out a word or two. He copied the letters he saw ship’s carpenters use to mark boards. He fed his masters’ paranoia about slave rebellion by sneaking off with newspapers left lying around the house. And he became ferociously literate. So much so that the best tack pro-slavery critics had of his Narrative was to claim that he could not possibly have written it. This is precisely the kind of thing that MOOC defenders claim that the new technology would eliminate. MOOCs are a perfect meritocracy since they promise to extend educational access to all the world. The meritocratic claim that a level playing field justifies the outcome of ultimate inequality means that original inequality is not a problem. As long as opportunities are available, then effort is all that is required to succeed.

This is an old argument in American society and it explains our deep love for the stories of self-made men. If the poor boy can become a robber baron, then robber barons must not be so bad. After all, they have made a habit of endowing educational endeavors with their wealth. This was true of Carnegie and is now true of the Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation, among others. Speaking of which: maybe Sam Walton is the real patron saint of MOOCs. True, he pursued a traditional education but his rise to become the worldwide king of big box retail from a single storefront in Bentonville, Arkansas is surely an American Dream. Mohammad H. Qayoumi, the president of San Jose State University (an early adopter of MOOCs as replacements for courses taught in-house), thinks that higher ed can learn a lot from Walmart. The retail chain employs massive economies of scale to be able to cut costs to the bone and offer shoppers truly remarkable savings. Walmart, at least back in the day, was pretty much the poster child for disruptive innovation, much like MOOC providers seek to become. The Walmart-ization of higher ed. What could possibly be bad about that?