MOOCs: Education’s “The Emperor Wears No Clothes” Moment

by Abraham Bolish


The recent backlash against MOOCs has tended to romanticize an ideal of public higher education.  Yet, education has always been tied up with systems of domination, and MOOCs present an opportunity to reveal the contradictions of higher education—to expose the emperor’s dirty secrets.  Instead of ‘re-clothing the emperor’ with appeals to a lost ideal of public higher ed, through eight propositions I argue that we should seize the ‘MOOC moment’ as a start for breaking the capitalist, colonial chains of global higher education.

1) MOOCs are presented as simplifying ‘solutions’ to higher education’s ‘crises.’

The technology of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offers a new tool for spreading higher education across the globe.  As of May 2013, the for-profit Coursera had over 3.2 million registered users and contracts with over 60 universities, while the non-profit EdX had over 900,000 users and contracts with 27 universities.  Most classes are coming from professors at elite universities such as Harvard and Stanford, lecturing to students all over the world.  Beyond their potential ‘global’ reach, corporate philanthropists have touted MOOCs domestically as a solution to various ‘crises’ in higher education.  In a time of state budget crises, they offer university administrators a cheaper mode of ‘delivering’ knowledge to student-customers.  Further, they address the concern that many students who are ‘dropping out’ of schools and colleges do so because they are bored with them and want to have easier and cheaper access to more learning opportunities (Carr 2012).  For example, see the Gates Foundation’s statement of support for MOOCs, including “strategic investments” in MOOCs of grants totaling over $3 million in 2012.


2) The backlash against MOOCs tends to romanticize an ideal of public higher education.

Against such reductive ‘solutions,’ many academics have argued that these MOOCs are merely a way to increase profits for increasingly profit-driven administrations and ‘star’ faculty.  For example, in the article “Unthinking Technophilia,” six community college faculty members denounced MOOCs for disconnecting the practices of teaching and learning from their affective grounding in face-to-face interactions.  These critical responses often appeal to an ideal of public higher education.

In Aaron Bady’s incisive essay, “The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform,” he sees the “direction the MOOC tsunami is taking” as “the capture of public education.”  In an Open Letter to co-president of Coursera, Daphne Koller, Robert Meister argues, “The question is not whether we who teach in public higher education can or should resist the creation of a truly ‘free’ informational Common, but whether we can keep education as a necessary knowledge commons public in innovative, egalitarian ways that run counter to what you and your rivals are planning and doing.”  Six professors at San Jose State wrote an open letter to Professor Michael Sandel criticizing him, edX, and the California State University system for attempting to implement MOOCs.  Their letter concluded with the argument that: “Professors who care about public education should not produce products that will replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”


3) A higher education system worth defending or reclaiming has never existed.

The critiques of MOOCs that call for ‘defending public education’ can be effective rallying cries for organizing against the most obviously corporatizing forces in higher education.  Yet, their arguments often ring hollow because they rely upon a mythical view of higher education’s history.   Responding to the use of similar slogans in the recent student movements, Mark Paschal’s essay, “Our University?”, argues: “the institutions of higher education we mobilize around are not now and have never properly been ‘Our University.’”  Drawing from his dissertation research on the history of universities, Paschal writes: “The ‘American Public University’—which should include private universities as a subset—is a fundamentally capitalist organization of knowledge and laborers that arose as the industrial capitalist class in the United States was coming to assert its hegemony over the US in the mid-19th century.”  Throughout this history, Paschal highlights how reform has been thrust upon universities from bodies outside of them, especially from changes in “the economic and political conditions that foster and encourage its existence.”


4) Education has always been tied up with capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and colonialism.

Another recent essay, “MOOCs: Gender, Class, and Empire,” by Susan Amussen and Allyson Poska, highlights the ways that MOOCs push higher education back at least 100 years to a model that is more sexist (overwhelmingly male and top-down pedagogy), classist (assuming that the ‘best’ teachers are at the most elite, exclusive universities), and imperialist (mostly U.S.-based professors projecting their Western perspectives as universal ‘truth’).  Their critiques of MOOCs are in the right direction, but then they fall back on a romanticized view of higher education in their conclusion: “Before we rush into the massive open classroom, we need to consider whether we want to be so closely connected to sexism, classism, and imperialism.”  Thereby, they seem to neglect the many ways ‘we’ are already so closely connected.  Rather, higher education has always been thoroughly integrated with systems of domination and exploitation.  While the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, referred to by Amussen and Poska, to broaden the academy and make space for feminist pedagogy and anti-colonial discourse were important moments in the history of higher education, decades of corporatization and neo-liberal governance have undermined those small steps forward.

Seeing higher education as the top of the pyramid of education broadly, this modernist project has always had its constitutive exterior with those persons who are treated as undeveloped, uncivilized, and uneducated.


Educational discourses, such as ‘the dropout,’ de-value those who are marginalized from education, making their ways of life, knowing, and studying into a kind of ‘waste.’  In combination with racist criminalization, these discourses legitimate young people of color being funneled into the ‘schools-to-prisons pipeline’ (e.g., black students in grades K-12 are suspended and expelled at rates more than triple those of white students).  Education has legitimated state authorities and produced managerial and disciplinary practices that, alongside sheer military force, have created the conditions for colonization and resource extraction. At the same time, education has been used to alienate indigenous peoples from their linguistic and cultural practices, attempting to assimilate them into becoming obedient workers.


5) MOOCs starkly reveal the contradictions of higher education’s legitimating ideologies.

            The promoters of MOOCs make claims of ‘global inclusivity’ for higher education. For example, Anant Agarwal, the President of EdX, imagines that the expansion of MOOCs in French would create “huge reach” in Africa, and “in the longer term, our mission is to dramatically increase access to education worldwide” (Rivard 2013).  Yet, the very technologies needed for consumption of MOOCs, computers and smart phones, are produced by the labor of people who are de facto excluded from this so-called ‘globally inclusive’ higher education.  Consider miners of coltan in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and assembly line workers in Chinese Foxconn factories.  Not only do their meager wages prevent them from purchasing these technologies and internet access, but also, even if they were given such technologies for free, their very activity of laboring exhausts their time and energy, preventing them from having an opportunity to use MOOCs.


Workers at a Foxconn factory in China (pic via

            These contradictions in higher education have always existed.  But, considering the ideology around MOOCs—their claim of ‘global inclusivity’—in combination with the material conditions of production and consumption of their technologies, opens up a line of questioning that can be taken into the very heart of the modernist project of education.  Are the very people who produce these technologies included?  If not, why not? What are the conditions that make them excluded?  Following this web of inquiry can lead to a deeper questioning of how higher education is co-constituted with capitalism and (neo)colonialism.             


6) Appealing to a lost ideal of ‘public’ higher ed serves to ‘re-clothe the emperor’ of education.  Instead, since MOOCs provide a key opening for revealing higher education’s relations of power, we should seize the ‘MOOC moment’ as an opportunity to expose the emperor’s dirty secrets.

Education has been a key technology in creating the material conditions for colonization. And, this exploitation of peoples and lands has been key in developing education institutions in the U.S. and Europe, providing them with research subjects and material resources, such as precious metals that workers in the Global South mine and manufacture into computers. Another set of such abject figures of ‘global higher education’ is the exploited, precarious, migrant workers who build, maintain, and perform service in the ‘global satellite’ campuses of US and European universities, such as NYU-Abu Dhabi—in addition to the workers on the home campuses of these universities who have relatively better but still exploited and neo-colonial labor conditions (Ross 2008).

Theories of ‘underdevelopment’ portray how the creation of ‘modern’ and ‘developed’ institutions and ways of living has been premised on colonial forced labor and expropriation of resources (Irogbe 2005; Rodney 1972).  The creation of a devastated quality of life in colonized lands appears through the lens of Western theories of ‘modernization’ and ‘development’ as justified for ‘improvement’ while omitting or explaining away the co-constitutive character of these processes.  The relations between higher education and colonization were complementary.  In the ‘Scramble for Africa,’ for example: in one direction, professional geographers, anthropologists, and other social scientists created maps, statistics, ethnographic studies, and narratives for guiding and legitimating imperial exploration and colonialism (cf. Asad 1973; Moore 1994; Said 1979).  In the other direction, the material conditions of electricity and car-based ‘automobility’ were crucial bases for the development of university campuses and the increased productivity and hegemony of U.S. and European academics.

This history of co-constitution of higher education with its abject, colonized figures and spaces continues in the present with the production of the technologies for the ‘information revolution.’  Through neoliberal globalization with capital investment that ‘hops’ from point to point rather than ‘flowing’ across contiguous spaces, the continent of Africa has been divided into ‘usable’ and ‘nonuseable’ places that allow ‘global’ integration to coexist with exclusion and marginalization (Ferguson 2006, 36-39).  In ‘usable Africa,’ spatially segregated, secured enclaves for mineral extraction are governed with militarized, private and semi-private means, while very little of the profits are invested in wider social programs.  Outside of these enclaves are spaces of ‘nonusable Africa,’ which are governed more by warlords and humanitarian NGOs than nation-states.  Through the commodity chains of mineral resource extraction, and consumer technology production in other countries—such as ‘iSlaves’ in Foxconn factories—‘global higher education’ is integrated with ‘usable Africa,’ while simultaneously participating in the production of marginalized ‘global shadows’ in ‘nonusable Africa.’


Young coltan miners in the Congo – “An estimated 2-million child-slaves work from sunrise to sunset to dig coltan by hand from the soil – and it is traded on the black market for US $400 a pound.” (Adriana Stuijt – via Digital Journal)

The neoliberal globalization of higher education works on a similar ‘point-to-point,’ ‘globe-hopping,’ model.  The enclaves for extraction of oil and coltan share features with global campuses: spatial segregation from the surrounding places, militarized borders, using exploited migrant labor, and having a relatively “socially thin” impact on the wider society (Ferguson 2006; Ross 2008).  In addition to students’ consumption of the commoditized teaching at the campuses, they are themselves produced as commodities, i.e., as degreed graduates, who will hop to some other part of the globe to sell their own labor power.  Students from the U.S., Europe, and wealthy enclaves of ‘developing’ countries hop to the global campus, consume the commodity of higher education, and then hop back to live and work in a rich country or enclave.

7) The emperor’s clothes re-appear through shading, distancing, and commodity fetishism.

Discourses around ‘global multiculturalism,’ ‘global campuses,’ ‘study abroad,’ and ‘MOOCs’ create images of higher education as ‘covering the globe’ with cohesion and contiguity, while actually creating merely ‘globe hopping’ circuits for neoliberal, “strategic cosmopolitan” entrepreneurs, corporations, and commodities (K. Mitchell 2003; Kamola 2013).  For these ideologies of ‘global inclusivity’ to be believable, their promoters need to hide from view the process of co-constitution of higher education with its abject figures on a ‘global’ level (such as Congolese coltan miners). “Shading and distancing effects” do much of this erasing for them (Princen 2002). The limiting conditions for discourses of ‘global higher education,’ such as MOOCs, to re-code these abject figures as potentially included are reduced through the shading of national borders and the distancing of geography, culture, and degrees of agency—e.g., the myriad ‘middlemen’ in global commodity chains—between the laborers who extract the minerals and manufacture the technologies for consumers of higher education.


These consumers are further prevented from reflecting on the effects of their consumption by their fetishizing the commodity of higher education.  Through fantasizing about their subjectification as a ‘global entrepreneur’ whose identity will take on the ‘globally ranked’ brand of the university from which they received their degree, they reduce any potential affects of care with the others whose labor is implicated in the history of production of the commodities they used during the process of their education.

8) In the face of these obstacles as well as anxieties about de-skilling, we should use the ‘MOOC moment’ to ask questions about breaking the chains of global higher education. 

Much of the anti-MOOC response has been motivated by anxieties about further de-skilling of the professoriate.  Rather than dismissing these anxieties, I am calling for us to analyze them into two main parts: one to be affirmed and the other to be troubled.  Part of the concern is about the danger of MOOCs further preventing faculty from having control over their labor.  With the turn to MOOCs’ packaged curricula, contingent academic labor could be further down-sized, flexibilized, routinized, and dispossessed of the ability to design and write their own syllabi and lesson plans.  Teachers’ desires to resist this disempowerment and to gain control over their labor and workplaces should be affirmed and recognized as an essential ground for organizing.  Yet, at the same time, another part of these anxieties should be questioned: assumptions that this de-skilling is new, unique, or especially bad for academics.

Situating higher education’s relations of consumption and production in the wider geographic and historical context that I have presented in this essay, these anxieties can be seen to come from insular and privileged positions, in three main ways.  The first is to recognize the ways in which the de-skilling of the professoriate has been accompanied by the calling into being of a new group of “differently-skilled” education workers: “graduate students, part-time faculty, technology specialists, writing consultants, and so forth,” as well as undergraduate students who take on debt and work in precarious positions (Bousquet 2002, 10).  A key way that capital exploits this ‘flexible’ labor is by offloading the costs of reproducing the workers—housing, clothing, feeding, training, etc—onto the workers’ parents and partners, wider social institutions, and hyper-exploited workers in the Global South and marginalized peoples in the North (e.g., prison laborers and undocumented workers) who produce cheap goods and services for Northern consumers.

Considering this latter group of workers brings up a second way to problematize anxieties about de-skilling: to see them as by far the majority of persons involved in producing the conditions on which ‘global’ higher education depends, and as systematically forced into exploitative, low-skilled, ‘flexible,’ ‘just-in-time’ labor.  MOOCs, with their ‘global inclusivity’ claim, carry the potential to bring this issue to the fore—by highlighting the contradictions between this claim and the marginalized workers’ effective exclusion from becoming students because of their very labor of producing the technologies and other conditions for global higher education.  The MOOC debate opens discursive space to push these contradictions.

Finally, these contradictions need to be seen not as a loss of an ideal of ‘public’ higher education but as inherent to education.  They are an expression of the constitutive exclusions that education has always had, because it is an institution inseparable from coloniality.  Thus, a third way that the anxieties need to be troubled: by expanding the critique of de-skilling to the pyramid of education as a whole, seeing higher education as merely its top.  There is great potential for linking the movement against MOOCs with struggles against the routinizing of curricula in K-12 education, such as seen in the recent rebellions against standardized tests by students in Chicago and teachers in Seattle.

Bringing together an affirmation of the desires for greater control over our workplaces with an expansion of concern about de-skilling and casualization to include all student-laborers, we can ask better questions for engaging in contemporary struggles.  How can we bridge the struggles of these different groups of increasingly flexibilized, exploited laborers for gaining control over their conditions of work, study, and life?  How can we militate against distancing effects and work through our anxieties about de-skilling in ways that build solidarities across the global links of production and consumption? How can we organize to take over all of the sites of education’s production and consumption—from coltan mines and Foxconn factories to schools and universities—and use our labor and study for creating a better world?


Abraham Bolish [pseudonym] is a graduate student-worker at a large university in the United States.