Thursday, 6 March 2014

MOOCs, Status, Economics and Fairness

One of the great problems in thinking about the funding of education is the fact that economic life, from where the resources to fund education must be found, is difficult to separate from the processes of learning which we all undergo continually. The fact that some of that learning takes place in institutions with a particular status, and studying at which leads to 'status awards' (degrees) to individuals for which they have to pay large sums of money, is not an indication of a 'market' in learning. It is a market in status. MOOCs are not telling us about learning. They are telling us about status. Currently the vast majority of those engaging with MOOCs already have relatively high social status.

When the education 'market' is understood like this, it is little wonder that MOOCs are in the trough of disillusionment right now. What kind of status is associated with studying in a MOOC? Mary Beard's critique of them the other day (see was really an expression of worry that the MOOC would become a barrier to opportunities for certain individuals to increase their status. Resources would be diverted to establishing a 'false' status-increasing instrument (the MOOC) which actually served to enhance the status (and relative inaccessibility) of prestigious face-to-face education. I think the broad thrust of her argument merits serious attention. Because education is so confusing and so contested, it is easy to get side-tracked into an argument about the wrong thing (learning), when the thing that really matters (status) is overlooked in the interests of those who wish to preserve it.

What do we mean by status? John Searle, in his recent work of social ontology (see ) proposes one way of looking at this. He argues that human beings have:
“the capacity to impose functions on objects and people where the objects and the people cannot perform the functions solely in virtue of their physical structure. The performance of the function requires that there be a collectively recognized status that the person or object has, and it is only in virtue of that status that the person or object can perform the function in question"
By 'capacity', Searle means that individuals can declare status. This move of linguistic reductionism is in line with his earlier work on Speech Acts, but his acknowledgement that institutions are created through the declaration of status adds a powerful new twist to his general theory of the constitution of the world through language, and one which ultimately admits to the inadequacies of simple linguistic reductionism, and the importance of taking social structures as 'givens'. In effect, we might say, status is a given - it's there, real, substantial. Functions of declaration are given at a different level, but equally real. Status has causal powers, tendencies, etc; functions have causal power. Through this route, there isn't much difference between Searle's position and a less linguistically reductionist position as is articulated in Critical Realism (for example).

Universities declare status. They create a division between themselves and the rest of society. This division is a division relating to rights, duties and obligations. If we want to compare MOOCs with the rest of education, we have to look at the associated rights, duties and obligations in each. Revealing differences emerge. The whole point with MOOCs is that the duties and obligations relating to students are simply not there: it's laissez-faire education. The obligations and duties bear upon the providers of the MOOC. They must make their lectures and activities available and organise effectively the assessments of the students. Who gains status in this? Answer: the people who subject themselves to the rights, duties and obligations! That's not the students, but the providers of the courses.

Compare a traditional university. On gaining admission, students are subjected to a different set of rights, duties and obligations. They must obey the rules of the institutions, do their assignments on time, pass exams, etc. Teachers have rights and duties to give lectures, mark work, etc. But in upholding the compliance with the declared rights, duties and obligations, both teachers and students gain status. The degree of status gained is dependent on the perceived level of duties and obligations to be complied with. The obligations and duties of a degree at Oxford are not the same as the obligations and duties of a degree at Bolton. However, if Bolton was more creative, it could create situations with other kinds of duties and obligations (other than academic ones) which might be seen to be of equal value. For example, if Bolton were to create duties and obligations to serve the local community in some way (maybe through some form of service learning), then this would also serve as a way of increasing the status of the individual.

I'm currently thinking about the Higher Education Academic Record (HEAR - see , which seeks to recognise and validate student achievement outside academic qualifications. This is a good way in which status functions might find rich expression in university participation, and which might serve to translate that added status into the employability of students.

But what of economic life, social life and status? To start with, Searle is explicit that money is a 'status object': "I promise to pay the bearer" is a status declaration. In many ways money can buy status. The big car, house, etc, all articulate some kind of status (even a slightly shabby one!); however, so does the cramped house in a bad area full of books! Increases in status can give rise to greater opportunities to make money. To some extent, the rich get richer because they can afford to buy the status opportunities which give them and their families access to further status-increasing opportunities. But there are limits to this. The rich will tend to want to conceal the advantages they had in acquiring their status (private school will become an embarrassment!). Whilst the real business of being subject to rights, duties and obligations is theoretically open to anyone, it may require a state of ontological security which is easier to have with the emotional stability of a loving family, good schooling, etc.

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