Patrick J. Deneen, a professor of constitutional studies and political science at the University of Notre Dame, argues in the Chronicle that the MOOC movement is not an isolated experiment, but merely the latest example of a larger trend of universities converging towards cultural and institutional uniformity.
Student bodies are becoming more homogeneous, claims of “diversity” notwithstanding, as they are shaped by standardized high-school curricula and nationalized testing regimens. Universities look to one another for prevailing norms and settle on a standardless standardization: the universal commitment to the amorphous goal of “excellence.” Universities have come to value the same policies and practices: publishing in national and global academic presses and universally recognized disciplinary journals; participating in international disciplinary associations with conferences that “normalize” every discipline; emphasizing research (especially student research) at the expense of the humanities by insisting that the humanities are valuable only insofar as they create knowledge along the model of the natural sciences; and making broad institutional commitments to globalization, social justice, diversity, and the importance of STEM.
The assumption that knowledge is neither produced nor transmitted in local contexts leads, inevitably, to the conclusion that institutional identity is purely accidental—that every institution is, at its essence, a global content-delivery system. The result? Higher education is more monocultural than ever before.
As any botanist knows, a monoculture is highly susceptible to a single pathogen. A great shakeout is under way, and MOOCs are the logical outgrowth of this push for interchangeable educational delivery. Curricula, faculty, and students are overwhelmingly indistinct, and MOOCs are simply the cheapest way to combine those elements in our economically constrained times.
For reasons for this growing standardization, Deneen cites accrediting institutions, government bureaucracies, and a desire among faculty to compete and participate in the global academic culture. His response? Universities should be willing to be boutique shops with particular specialties, rather than seeking to be Wal-Mart.
There is certainly a risk that MOOCs will encourage further standardization of teaching, but there is an even greater possibility that this period of experimentation and risk-taking will generate new ideas and practices for how to best share knowledge. If anything, the ability to spend less classroom time on lecture can free up faculty members to develop innovative and, yes, specialized pedagogical practices.