MOOCs and the United States Government

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have received considerable attention from the US government, although very little of this sunshine has translated into any policy decisions. Beginning with the Obama White House, the potential of MOOCs has been recognized. Since 2009, education has been the hot button topic in policy circles but with an innovative twist: the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has digested the issue mentioning MOOCs as a promising form of education in a memo to the President in December 2013. Knowing that President Obama since 2012 has spoken extensively on the affordability of education, PCAST wrote that technology in delivery of education could change the economic tide if new innovations could replace the brick and mortar setting of learning – and MOOCs play a prominent role in his persuasive argument: as universities and for-profit companies have embraced the technology and made it work, the government could support this migration by doing the following: Allow free market forces to decide which innovations are best, encourage accrediting bodies to be flexible to educational innovation, and to share results of the new platforms to measure effectiveness. Written by Tracy Dove, Elena Lorenzo, Andy Ledergerber

Granting mechanisms as the key to promote MOOCs?

And what are the tools with which PCAST wants to leverage this support? The answer according to them is: granting mechanisms. The advisors conclude that proactive support of target-based research and grant rewards to those innovators is a vehicle to elevate MOOCs to the importance of a real change in the affordability of higher education. They specifically identified the Federal Government as a sponsor of an exchange mechanism of educational data, which could support a nationwide network of research nodes to pursue the goal of “learning from those learning”.

One would expect that the U.S. Department of Education would be sounding its trumpet in PCAST’s march, but the government’s role concerning MOOCs can sometimes be ambiguous. “It’s an ambitious challenge. None of this is easy,” Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education said, echoing the President’s call for affordable education, but his job is also to protect the integrity of academic quality. “The last thing we want to do is hand out paper that isn’t real,” he said. The Department of Education is sitting on the fences: MOOCs could be viewed by the establishment as what the food truck parked outside is to the restaurant: unwanted competition.

The Department of State, however, lost no time in embracing MOOCs. It has recognized that MOOCs are cool and talked about, so they have become the perfect tool to reach the developing world. English classes have gone from being boring and online to cool, because now they are called MOOCs, and this particularly attracts young, well-educated individuals who are trying to advance in their jobs. Thus the dawn of “MOOC Camps” which are hosted by American embassies and consulates around the world;course content is drawn from major MOOC providers, including Coursera and edX, as well as from multiple OpenCourseWare (OCW) providers.

However, the State Department also had to deal with the fact that the “openness” that MOOCs promise cannot always be taken for granted by everyone. In February 2014, the British newspaper The Guardian reported that Coursera – a widely-known for-profit MOOCs platform – had to refuse potential students from Iran, Cuba and Sudan in order to comply with the economic sanctions the U.S. government has imposed on these three countries. This case is a reminder of the complex encounter between the wish to offer wide access to education for everyone who is willing and able to learn and the economic interests and incentives that are tied to higher education in general and specifically to MOOCs.

Prospects: Grants as a potential game changer for MOOCs

With the increasing success of MOOCs, the state’s role as a funder of higher education could wither away as the student consumer becomes King with options outside universities for talented students. In the end, the government has few powers of persuasion beyond the Power of the Purse: once grant money and Pell grants would be applied to MOOCs, there could be a watershed of change in the higher education landscape now only dotted with MOOCs. However, MOOCs are still a relatively recent phenomenon with many facets which partly explains the lack of more tangible and binding policy decisions in the United States. Considering the strong attention and involvement of the higher education sector in this topic, it is on the other hand very likely that MOOCs will be able to defend their place on the political agenda and can live up to their asserted role of an educational revolutionary.



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