There is now vigorous debate about how ‘we’ should understand what massive open online courses (or MOOCs) might do to the HE sector (today, for example, I read Clay Shirky’s epochal and rather technologically deterministic account, but also see here for a critical response and here for ‘a people’s history of MOOCs’). The public launch of Futurelearn (set up as a limited company with the Open University holding the majority stake) is just the latest in a string of similar announcements in recent months. These ongoing developments prompt the question of what it might mean for a MOOC to be public? Especially, that is, in the context of: proliferating crises; rapid technological change; and, at a time when the notion of the public, modes of public practice and public institutions are all also in states of increasing flux.
As we have explored elsewhere, different versions of the contemporary crisis call up and rely on different ideas of who ‘we’ the public are, in order to sustain and animate themselves in practice. With this in mind it’s possible to tentatively imagine three (not necessarily mutually exclusive) versions of what making MOOCs public could potentially entail at this time:
1. ‘We’ are currently experiencing a crisis of public access and public knowledge/skills. So public funding is made available to enable sets of lectures and course materials, produced by ‘elite’ academics, freely available online. This would offer lay-publics hitherto unavailable opportunities to overcome the obstacles of fees and access and begin to address deficits in knowledge and status.
2. ‘We’ are currently experiencing a crisis of public engagement and trust in public institutions, including those of public education. So universities agree to team up to design and build the infrastructure needed to provide new forms of guided, goal-driven, supported and peer-to-peer learning, thereby massively scaling up pre-existing and emerging forms of pedagogical practice in this area.
3. ‘We’ are currently confronting a crisis of democracy and inequality. Universities work and experiment as public mediators to help address contemporary issues of increasing public inequality and other areas of social, economic and environmental concern. HE providers would support spin-offs that would test-out ways of tutoring highly distributed pre-existing and emergent publics; offer alternative forms of public mediation (to those provided by existing forms of media); and (at this time of multiplying crises) provide resources for critical and creative reflection and participative and democratic experimentation.