Is the issue really about control, #MOOCs, and platforms?

After reading Keeping Higher Education in Control of Higher Education, I immediately thought of a phrase commonly used in Mexico: ¿y que?

I certainly appreciate Winkler’s (2013) take on the issue of control, but I’d like to try to unpack her perspective in order to offer an alternative point of view.

The article seems to pose the problem being about control. Who has control of content that is being delivered (presumably to the public) online?  The universities? Or the third-party platform providers (i.e., for-profit businesses)?  The argument seems to be in favor of the universities with the Miles Coverdale quote at the beginning of the piece, yet seems to switch to platform providers by the end of the article: “…a withdrawal of courses [from a platform provider] created by the top universities…could be fatal”.  So, who should have control?

Another thing that muddies up the argument is the use of the term MOOC.  Just as an experiment, read the article again but this time when MOOC is used as an adjective (“MOOC backlash”), remove it entirely.  And when MOOC is used as a noun (“…if MOOCs had started…”) simply use either “open course” or just “course”.  When I did this, I quickly realized that the main point was between technology, material objects, platforms, etc. and educational institutions, academia, scholars, and in-house public relations.

Now, the first sentence of the article suggests that universities do not need platforms.  But as I reflect back on my experiences as an educator and learner, I don’t recall ever seeing a university that offered a distance course that did not use a third-party platform: Angel, Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas, etc.  Granted, these days we can include Coursera, Udemy, etc., but the difference here has more to do with degree of openness than it does about control over course content (universities or platform providers).  Not using a third-party platform would be like using a specific in-house LMS especially designed for the institution.  I’m not saying that they don’t exist, but I’ve never seen or used them.

Instead of using the term MOOC platform, let’s refer to them as business platforms (BPs) in order to distinguish something like Coursera, Udemy, even YouTube from Moodle or Canvas, for instance.  I would assume (and Winkler would know better than I), that Coursera has some sort of business plan or model from which to work with while Moodle, at the opposite side of the spectrum is simply an open source LMS.  When a university decides to offer a distance course, the platform they decide to use should align to the institutional policy that mandates who owns course content.  In some cases the institution owns the content, other times the educator owns the content. Whatever the policy, the BPs or open source platforms like Moodle must align with institutional policy, most likely by both parties signing a binding contract.

I don’t think the problem is about control at all.  I think it’s how institutions find value in the way they choose to deliver distance courses.  Which platform or combination of platforms adds the most value, both from an economic standpoint and an educational standpoint?  If institutions find ways to deliver distance courses in a way that adds both economic and educational value to the learner, who’s going to argue against replacing faculty (besides the ones getting fired)?  I would rather avoid hyperboles like “…replacing faculty with cheap online education”, and instead discuss how platforms become a natural extension of the entire institutional infrastructure that adheres to the mission, vision, values, and goals of the school.

The phrase …y que… in Spanish means, So what? Winker’s piece allows for a serious discussion that needs to be addressed with regard to institutions, platforms, etc., but I ask, So what if educators are not realizing the need to hone knowledge and skill sets in order to be more competitive?  So what if universities use Udemy as their platform for delivering distance courses?  So what if institutions use YouTube?  So what if BPs take over ownership of content due to poor planning on the part of the university (and I’m not saying that this is happening, although it could)?  My attempt here was to try to unpack these “So what?” questions by following them up with a simple (yet complex) notion that institutions, educators, and platform providers will co-exist if each takes a critical and honest look at how to plan and compromise for the betterment of higher student achievement.