MOOCs, Pearson, and Profits


MOOCs may prove to be another “bubble” like the online for-profit universities are proving to be, but their widespread adoption could be a much bigger threat to higher education than the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University ever were or will be.

In “Teaching by Hand in a Digital Age” (Chronicle of Higher Education Blogs March 11, 2013), Joseph Harris persuasively makes the case that the lack of instructor-student interaction is the fundamental failing of MOOCs—and a failing that will be especially noticeable in writing courses. Despite dubious claims that robo-readers can evaluate student writing as effectively as human readers, robo-readers clearly cannot interact in any meaningful way with the student writers themselves. They cannot give those writers a sense of the nuances in a human response to their work, a sense of how the expression of their ideas fits within broader patterns of personal and professional communication.

Harris compares MOOCs to textbooks. But MOOCs are more like digitally jazzed-up, televised courses than they are like textbooks: that is, they permit a student to be even more passively engaged than a textbook does, and they will be effective for an even narrower percentage of learners than the online degrees offered by the for-profit universities that, like the competency-driven Western Governors University, have emphasized the importance of advisers over faculty.

Yet, it is hardly coincidental that the major corporate “educational providers” are already seizing on the enormous profit potential in MOOCs. Specifically, having bought up a slew of major textbook publishers, Pearson is now shifting to buying up very specialized technology companies. A large percentage of their income in the U.S. already derives from standardized K-12 testing. In her education-focused blog, Diane Ravitch has posted the following paragraphs from Pearson’s 2012 annual report:

“The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a consortium of 23 states, awarded Pearson and Educational Testing Service (ETS) the contract to develop test items that will be part of the new English and mathematics assessments to be administered from the 2014-2015 school year. The assessments will be based on what students need to be ready for college and careers, and will measure and track their progress along the way.

“We continued to produce strong growth in secure online testing, an important market for the future. We increased online testing volumes by more than 10%, delivering 6.5 million state accountability tests, 4.5 million constructed response items and 21 million spoken tests. We now assess oral proficiency in English, Spanish, French, Dutch, Arabic and Chinese. We also launched the Online Assessment Readiness Tool for the PARCC and the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) Common Core consortia to help 45 states prepare for the transition to online assessments.

“We won new state contracts in Colorado and Missouri and a new contract with the College Board to deliver ReadiStep, a middle school assessment that measures and tracks college readiness skills. We extended our contract with the College Board to deliver the ACCUPLACER assessment, a computer-adaptive diagnostic, placement and online intervention system that supports 1,300 institutions and 7 million students annually.

“We won five Race To The Top (RTTT) state deals (Kentucky, Florida, Colorado, North Carolina and New York) led by Schoolnet. PowerSchool won three state/province-level contracts (North Carolina, New Brunswick and Northwest Territories). We launched our mobile PowerSchool applications and grew our 3rd party partner ecosystem to over 50 partners. PowerSchool supports more than 12 million students, up more than 20% on 2011 while Schoolnet supports 8.3 million students, up almost 160% on 2011.″

As MOOCs are migrated into general-education or core college-level courses, Pearson and its imitators (such as Academic Partnerships) will make a push to provide the “competency measures” for those courses: that is, they will seek to adapt what has been so profitable on the K-12 level to the post-secondary level.

A discussion about the social cost of allowing higher education to be pushed down the dreary path K-12 education has already tread is long overdue.