This year, the École Normale Supérieure is launching itself into the MOOC adventure — "massive online open courseware," in English. Three new courses in math, physics and philosophy were listed and put online through the private American platform Coursera. This is a revolution in the higher education system which we think needs to be debated publicly.
The emergence of MOOCs in the United States during the 2010s points to economic choices and pure cost-effectiveness. The stated objective was to respond to the crisis of private American universities, due to rising tuition costs, increasing student loans, increasing unemployment among young graduates and the weakening return on their investment. The profits of private universities have been slumping and applications have been redirected toward public universities — more than 53 percent in 2011 — unable to respond to the demand because of poor funding.
The economic model of MOOCs attempts to respond to these problems thanks to gains permitted by virtual learning. For the time being, access to the courses is free, but certification costs money. MOOCs also benefit from publicity revenues or even by selling student information to data companies. We understand that this response could be attractive in France, in the context of a budgetary shortage caused by the government's disengagement from the university. Incidentally, private businesses profit. In order to be hosted on a platform, a university must pay a very high price — $50,000 per course on the Coursera platform in 2012 — and it does not receive more than 20 percent of the revenues.
Eventually, putting lessons online allows for crossing geographic barriers and unifying a market that has until now been limited by spatial constraints, while putting establishments around the world in competition with each other. This attempts to reinforce the concentration of means in major university poles at the expense of the "small" establishments. The last step that remains to be taken is that all universities, notably in Europe, agree to recognize the certifications that these platforms confer in order to finish unifying this market primarily financed through public funds and students.
We could otherwise fear, as envisaged by Bill Gates himself, "a selection process so brutal" during which "90 percent of the courses will never be seen" and will disappear.* This way the offer would be standardized by the emergence of courses marketed by prestigious universities. The small schools, in order to reduce costs, would have to use these courses and substitute seminar instructors and other adjuncts.
The development of MOOCs does not therefore follow the philanthropic reasons tied to the democratization of knowledge, which in reality we can doubt. In fact, access to digital technology is socially uneven; online courses, taken at home, keep learners in their native environments and reduce the already insufficient scholarly mingling. The enormous dropout rate — around 90 percent — would also counterbalance the ease of access to these resources and the large numbers of registrants.
These packages should also raise certain questions about the meaning of the teaching profession. If they are going to spread, we will no longer be dealing with taking a course adapted to a class and in line with research activity, but to clarify a prefabricated course, at the expense of interactions between the professor and his class. The concept of academic freedom will also not make sense anymore because the repetition of imposed content will replace the task of understanding.
It is in this context that the management of the ENS implements with enthusiasm the ministry's directives regarding MOOCs. The presentation of this decision as a simple experiment must not hide the fact that the competitive factor is claimed under the guise of "international visibility." Shamelessly, the management even imagines that in the future there will no longer be more than two or three courses in the entire world on the same subject.
In reality, MOOCs and in-class learning are not complementary. The arrival of the former means the end of the latter, or in any case, its subordination. This is why we are firmly opposed to the implementation of MOOCs, which follow the neoliberal politics on education by Ministers Valérie Pécresse and Geneviève Fioraso.
*Editor’s Note: This quote, accurately translated, could not be verified.
About this publication
Circulation: 134,800 (2006)
Owner: 39% of shares in the paper are owned by Edouard de Rothschild. A staff consortium holds an 18.4% stake, and the remaining shares are owned by Pathe, the investment group 3i and friends of the paper.
Launched in 1973 by Jean-Paul Sartre and a group of like-minded left-wing intellectuals, Liberation was aimed at the “1968 generation” – those who felt frustrated by the slow pace of social change in France and wanted a paper with an alternative outlook. What started off as a radical chic publication moved closer to the mainstream from the 1980s onwards, and by January 2005, when the banker Edouard de Rothschild became the main shareholder and invested 20m euros (£13m) in the title, the process of counter-revolution seemed complete. A restructuring plan proposed by Rothschild gave rise to protracted and acrimonious battles with staff, and many of Liberation’s most respected journalists left the paper.