MOOCs and neoliberalism: for a critical response

George Siemens published a post over on his blog titled Neoliberalism and MOOCs: Amplifying nonsense. George’s key points in my opinion were that:

“Numerous quasi-connected fields that thrive on being against things have now coalesced to be against MOOCs”

“The more prominent argument emerging is one of classifying MOOCs as neo-liberalism. This is disingenuous.”

I wrote a comment-as-response. It was long. I have decided to republish it here.

Hi George,

There are several moments in what you post/your slides where I feel we need a wider discussion.

1. Critiquing MOOCs is now more fashionable than advocating for them.

Either way, we need to talk about techno-determinism (revisiting Andrew Feenberg’s work would be a good place to start: and the reality of technology/technique-as-fetish. MOOCs/whatever need to be critiqued from inside the system of production/consumption in which they emerge. This is deeply political, and has a politics that is amplified by an overlay of crises: socio-environmental; economic; inter-generational etc.. This is why a critique of MOOCs/whatever as they are subsumed inside capital’s drive to reestablish profitability post-2008, and the systemic need to seek out new spaces for that profitability (public education, healthcare etc.), is key. The idea of the MOOC (as learner-focused, enfranchising, entrepreneurial etc.) is secondary to the co-option of the idea for the extraction of value. The fetishisation of the learner or learner-voice sits inside this systemic narrative/critique and needs to be politicised.

2. The faculty response to MOOCs is particularly important.

This is important. MOOCs/whatever risk being co-opted inside a process of global labour arbitrage. We need to discuss that, and not hide behind narratives that either seek to save or restore the traditional university/college/school (whatever that is/was), or that state that traditional educational institutions are vested interests that won’t change.

3. The more prominent argument emerging is one of classifying MOOCs as neo-liberalism. This is disingenuous. First, I don’t think anyone actually knows what neoliberalism means other than “that thing that I’m thinking about that I really don’t like”. Second, if we do take a stance that neoliberalism is some combination of open markets, deregulation, globalization, small government, low taxes, death of the public organization, and anti-union, then MOOCs are not at all neoliberalist.

I think you are wrong here. A number of academics/activists have done wide-ranging work in defining neoliberalism. It is more than a thing I don’t really like. It is a global pedagogic project aimed at subsuming the whole of social life under the treadmill logic of capitalism. It is a project that seeks to deny sociability and to enforce individuated entrepreneurial activity. Under global agreements like GATs it enables transnational activist networks/elites to marketise the idea of the public good in the name of private profit, and to diminish our collective ability to emerge from the current set of crises. There are a number of people/projects seeking social, co-operative responses to this, and critiques of MOOCs/whatever generally end with “what is to be done?”, rather than simply saying “no”. I have blogged about this extensively, and can point to a number of academic critiques that are more than “I don’t like this.” The issue is how/why MOOCs are being co-opted, and we witness this in the UK in the Coalition Government’s pronouncements and those of the private sector/IPPR. In my opinion the co-option of MOOCs inside a specifically-defined neoliberal restructuring of HE is clear. See:

This also denies the extensive work done by Christopher Newfield amongst others in critiquing MOOCs and education policy in California.

4. The argument is simple: Much of today’s economy is knowledge-based. In a knowledge economy, we need to be learning constantly. Universities have failed to recognize the pent-up demand for learning as the economy has diversified and society has become more complex and interconnected.

Again, I fundamentally disagree. The argument is complex, and the presupposition that the economy is knowledge-based is also wrong. It may well be that knowledge/immateriality is some of what education produces, and the global economy as it has been restructured post-1970s oil crisis has been painted as a knowledge economy. However, this does no favours to the billions in the global South and in the global North who are unemployed, low-skilled, engaged in dangerous manual productive labour, engaged in menial service work, whose work is militarised etc.. This view disenfranchises those who labour globally to enable our rarefied view of the economy as knowledge-based – witness those mining rare earth metals in the global South or laboring in poor conditions in Foxconn factories. It also doesn’t enable us to engage with the crisis of over-production/under-consumption in the real economy, or the dislocation between immaterial labour (or knowledge work) and what has been termed the real economy. William Robinson amongst others would argue that the economy has been globalized and stratified, and the complexities that you allude to merely reinforce the hierarchical power of transnational elites (

Your argument here is also determinist of one view of activity/life, as ostensibly economic. I would argue that we need to restore sociability and to push-back against a view of education that is about economic value or entrepreneurial activity. The demand that you highlight also needs to be critiqued rather than simply accepted (from whom and why?)

5. The reason MOOCs are being classified as neoliberalist is because entrepreneurs see the changing landscape and have responded before many universities.

As Stephen Ball notes neoliberalism is revealed through the following. • The economisation of everyday, social life, in order to realise new opportunities for profit. • Reconfiguring governance through an appeal to the entrepreneurial self, with the State as regulator and market-maker. • The State acting transnationally in concert with supranational bodies like the IMF, the European Central Bank and the World Bank, imposes the control that a free market desires, and removes impediments to the logic of the market. • There are several active waves of neo-liberalism: proto (the intellectual project of Hayek and Friedman); roll-back (of Keynesianism); and roll-out (of new state forms, modes of governance and regulation). • The creation and extraction of value is predicated upon mobility and connectivity. • The (networked) structures that enable neoliberalism are polymorphic and isomorphic.

Entrepreneurial activity, effectively a pedagogic project designed to transfer the risk for the creation of value/management of risk from the public to the individual, is a cornerstone of critiques of neoliberalism (Robinson, Lambie, Ball, Lipman, Newfield, Hoofd etc.). If MOOCs emerge from entrepreneurial activity then given the accepted analyses of neoliberalism they fall within that frame. They therefore need to be analysed in terms of the ways in which they are co-opted inside the global system of value production/extraction/subsumption.

6. Don’t blame the ill motives of others for what was caused by inactivity on the part of the professoriate and higher education in general.

Is that what is happening? I guess that the emergence of MOOCs has enabled a critique of education and technology inside this current phase of capitalism. It has also enabled the idea of the university/public education to be critiqued. That is a wholly good thing; nothing is sustainable. However, this is not limited to us-and-them inside the academy. As Newfield notes again-and-again about California, the University is subsumed inside a much wider political context that we need to understand in order that we can take action.

MOOCs/whatever need to be critiqued and alternatives developed in light of that politicisation. That doesn’t mean negating this MOOC or that ds106 or this social science centre or that college. It also means that we do not fetishise them…

7. In your Slide 41: the task of education is not to enculturate young people into this knowledge-creating civilization.

We need to talk about this in light of critical pedagogy. As the edufactory collective have shown, we need a robust and democratic discussion of what education is for – who has power to enculturate and why? What is this knowledge-creating civilisation? I return to the work of Amin and Thrift ( that: our work is political; that there must be better ways of doing things and resolving crises; that we must help people to out power; that we need to be reflexive. The quote on this slide feels like it is about enclosure and closing down deliberation, in the name of the knowledge economy. In engaging with immanent crisis we need a better way.

Take care.

2 Responses to MOOCs and neoliberalism: for a critical response

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