A shift in the MOOCmentum (part 5): Tressie McMillan Cottom on what MOOCs learned from for-profit colleges, and on challenging the framing of higher education as a market.

In my last post, I insisted that you read what Aaron Bady has to say about “The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform”. Now, I’m going to insist that you engage with Tressie McMillan Cottom’s compelling look at dueling narratives around higher education. One of them is the narrative of market forces, of individuals as rational actors (and communities as mere collections of same), and of every single challenge having a market-based solutions — and some market-based solutions being so attractive that folks seem to need to create problems on which to unleash these solutions. The other is a less economic, more sociological narrative — one in which we get to see the salient details of the experiences of the students largely served by for-profit colleges, students who are offered (at least in the abstract) as the perfect clientele for MOOCs.

You will maybe not be surprised that for-profit colleges, and the current market-logic of higher education, does not always serve these students so well. However, if you teach at a place like San Jose State, you may be surprised by how much these students have in common with some of your own students.

Anyway, I’ve been recommending a lot for you to read, about MOOCs, which may seem contrary, given that some MOOCs seem content to assign “viewing” rather than reading. You’re in luck! You can watch a video of Tressie McMillan Cottom presenting her arguments at UC-Irivine. (Her talk is from about 0:36:50 to 1:08:00.)

Here’s just a taste:

When the story of profit in higher education tells us it will disrupt, it will innovate, it will cage-bust, it will unbundle, it is using the language of markets. It is telling a story of education as a tool of markets. We become a serf that exists at the largesse of market morality and financialization. When we use that language to resist our own commodification, even when we have the best of intentions but we use and adopt that language, we are limited in the possible outcomes of our resistance. If the language gets to define the problem, then it gets to define the solution. …

So how did higher education become a market is a thing I’m very interested in. That’s a story that’s integral to the narrative being sold about this “calcified” higher education system, particularly public higher education, that has been so in need of disrupting and innovation. I put this before you because in California recent legislation,… Senate Bill 520, would have you take for granted that “something” needs to be done about public higher ed. Something. That’s always the starting point. Nobody ever interrogates whether or not that’s actually the case.

If you want to keep the written word, and your ability to read it, alive (on principle, probably because you’re old, like me), I’ve tried to capture an approximate transcript here.

Posted in Academia, Current events, Curricular issues, Institutional ethics, Politics, Social issues, Teaching and learning.


  1. I love Tressie McMillan Cottom, and really enjoyed that transcript.

    At the same time, I have a really hard time with some of her arguments. Anyone who can look at e.g. student loan debt and ask “does anything need to be done about how higher education functions in our society?” is really out of touch. I think she’s right to ask the question inasmuch as it directs our attention to the fact there are large disagreements as to the appropriate functions of higher education, and there are aspects in which we have a great system, but I don’t think “it’s good” is going to cut it.

    The problem with the response of “there is a problem with higher ed and it’s called access. The Answer is to *fund public education*.” is that it ignores Bachmol’s cost disease. We need to be honest- if we continue on the path we’re on, higher ed will eat up an ever increasing percentage of GDP, like healthcare will keep increasing. And that’s to educate *the same number of people we are currently educating*, not to expand access. That may be ok with me, but it does necessitate an honest conversation about what we gain and what we loose as a society when we prioritize this over other things. It’s important to note that the US is average among OECD countries on elementary and secondary education, and the highest among OECD countries on higher education.

    Traditional colleges and universities are trying to serve a great many masters. They are called on to substitute for the work K-12 should have done, provide an avenue to upward social mobility for the academically inclined lower-income folks, provide ways for the social elite to signal that eliteness, provide infrastructure for research, produce knowledge that industry can apply, provide infrastructure and human power for various types of outreach, pass on the most successful human ideas from past generations to the next, help individuals become more self-actualized, serve as an outlet for smart people to argue about crazy ideas without resorting to revolution, provide a thin cover of psudeo-respectability for those in industry who wish to claim that their refusal to pay a living wage is the result of a poorly trained workforce… and many more things. Sure, there’s specialization within institutions (nobody expects the local CC to do the same things that the state flagship does, and the financial elites have still different objectives). It’s much bigger than the traditional “liberal arts” vs. “vocational ed” debate, although some academics like to get tripped up in that aspect.
    As a starting place for “what role should MOOCs play” I’d really like to see a more complete and honest assessment of “what role are colleges playing now, and what needs to be improved”.

  2. “Something” always needs to be done but it’s never “adequately fund public universities and ensure access” -which would, of course, mean bringing a little social justice to our k-12 system. I have observed that many who do not think money is a big part of the answer, are also quite unwilling to let their kids go to under-resourced and under-staffed k-12 schools or chronically underfunded public universities. But by all means, let us innovate! Let us use the shredded books to make paper bricks to repair campus buildings – green technology! The downsized professoriate can be “retrained” for new careers in making bricks out of books! Not that buildings are all that necessary anymore – but why should they be retrained for a “career” with any more future to it than what is currently on offer to most displaced workers? When they begin starving, remember to rely on private charity to feed them! Nobody wants a government handout!

    It is not yet clear who will be left to purchase any goods and services – let alone offer private charity – in our Innovated States of America. But we can’t let that stand in the way of efficiency!

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