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Online Education: Silver bullet or cyanide pill?

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For a conference focused on higher education and media, it was fitting to start off the final day with a keynote presentation on online education.

Given by Sir John Daniel, expert in online education and former vice-chancellor of the Open University in the United Kingdom, the conversation debated democracy in higher education and the appearance of MOOCs: massive open online courses.

Daniel's argument, constructed around notions of democracy as he believe it pertains to higher education, conclude that access to high quality MOOCs are central to improving the quality of higher education

The presentation had two major flaws: first, Daniel's definitions of democracy obscured what true democracy means within higher education.

He defined democracy in two ways: first as being the massification of higher education; the broad and universal access to higher education for all people. Second, he argued that democracy equals students' ability to choose the creation of their own degree. For Daniel, a student being able to freely choose the courses that comprise a degree and even have input in its content is democracy.

With this definition, he argues that MOOCs and online education are critical to the natural evolution of higher education.

The problem with this argument starts with the basis of Daniel's definition of democracy.

Democracy already exists within institutions. Through various flawed structures such as Boards of Governors or Regents, senates and departmental councils, institutions are supposed to be run through these democratic structures.

Of course, they offer the illusion of democracy more than actual democracy, but fixing these issues are possible and necessary. By obscuring the definition of democracy from being one where the people most affected are most involved in the governance, operations and planning of the institution, to one where democracy simply means wide access to education, Daniel is able to make several logical leaps. 

Just like capitalism, where a positive argument constructed on paper void of any discussion of current economic, social or political realities is possible but vacant, so too is the debate about online education. Yes, online education could be a useful addition to the academic offerings of an institution. If designed properly and funded adequately, offered freely to people for credit, online education and even MOOCs could be effective. 

However, there is an important political context perverting how politicians and policy makers view higher education, online.

Austerity measures, inflicted against the academy, have privatized Ontario's system by stealth. For politicians, online education offers the silver bullet to all fiscal constraints: no classrooms, fewer professors, no need to hire support staff to care for physical infrastructure. No need to tenured professors. Lower costs. 

If online education is done on the cheap, students will be ripped off. If implemented directly into the core operations of institutions, it will offer a cheaper stream of education; a lower-class degree, for students who cannot get into the physical schools. 

And, most importantly, if students, faculty and staff are not at the core of the design of online education, students will be failed by what's produced. 

Online education has the potential to open wide the doors of higher education and unlock academic research. But, just as possible are the dangers: exploitation of faculty and their work, exploitation of students both financially and academically and the quick erosion of policy. 

The pushers of online education cannot avoid talking about these realities. If debates about online education continue to ignore the political pressures of austerity and neoliberalism, online education, especially MOOCs will never be a positive addition to higher education in Canada. 

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