There’s a refrain we keep hearing in the current debate over MOOCs: people don’t complete. Only a small fraction finish. The dropout rate is enormous.
It’s all true. As illustrated in Katy Jordan’s excellent data visualization,  released this spring, less than ten percent of registered students actually complete all their MOOC course requirements.
To which we tend to respond, Oh dear! MOOCs have a big problem.  They aren’t serving their students sufficiently.
MOOCs may well not be serving their students sufficiently, and their non-completion rates may be highly informative in that regard. But the fact that our default approach is to assume that their purpose IS to serve students seems to me to be a symptom of a bigger problem.
We insist on thinking about educational ventures in institutional terms, even when those ventures are framed as direct assaults - erm, I mean “disruptions” - to institutionalized education as we know it.
This, people, is why higher education can’t have nice things.
Completion as Credentialing: the 'Hand Up'
Non-completion is only a problem if we accept MOOCs as alternative revenue-generating credentialing system.
As a cultural institution, education has long served two relatively separate purposes. One of these is learning. The other is credentialing. Only one of these is reliant on course completion in order to have value.
Learning’s value is understood to be both individual and inherent. The credential, on the other hand, is a social signal: it is standardized, transferable, and earned by successful completion of a societally-agreed upon course of study. Unlike learning, it is meant to function as a currency which can be cashed in for specific societal opportunity.
Students implicitly understand this separation of credential and learning. When my college roommate and I took different sections of the same course, we often found ourselves with different textbooks and differing assignments, depending on our professors’ focus. What we each actually learned and retained from our respective endeavours was likely even more distinct. But we each earned the same credit, the same prerequisite needed to move on to higher levels within the discipline, and ultimately, the same degree.
This was an institutional education system for an institutionally-structured society. It relied on public acceptance of the ceremonial legitimation of individualized learning into the currency of credentials. More broadly, it depended on the mythology of education as a means to individual betterment within the societal hierarchy: on the premise that if an individual learned enough to earn credentials, they would serve as a ‘hand up,’ a marker for entry into the professionalized institutional world.
This is the very premise of public education: learning transubstantiated to credential equals opportunity.
Thirty years of rising neoliberalism and globalization, however, have changed the reality of this social contract. We live in a time when educational institutions are beset from all sides, and expectations of their capacity to deliver success far outstrip society’s ability to offer meaningful opportunities even to those who meet the requirements. Decreased public funding of educational institutions, rising student debt, and labour precarity all combine to make the mythos of credentialing as a means to betterment a shaky one.
And make no mistake, MOOCs as credentials will topple it from within.
Completion as Myth
MOOCs started, in a sense, as a recognition that the credentialing equation was hollow. The early MOOCs were actually extra-institutional: they aimed to enable learning outside the system, focusing on generating and networking knowledge. They were learning for learning’s sake.
But credentialing is where the money lies. The mainstream thrust to position MOOCs as a disruptive replacement for conventional academia allows market forces to capitalize on the old mythology of institutionalized education and its ties to social mobility.
That myth hinges on completion. Institutions take the two separate acts of learning and credentialing, and marry them through the formalized process of completion. When a student completes a course, s/he is graded, accredited, and - when and where the mythology functions - accorded a level of public recognition in return. Stay in school, we tell our young. It’ll pay. And in spite of generationally-diminishing returns, it broadly has.
But the era of protected, bureaucratic jobs for the educated is over. At the individual level, there may still be opportunities, and some form of credential may still be better than no credential. The societal equation by which completion becomes credential becomes social mobility, though, increasingly fails to add up. Market forces have changed the game.
And if market forces open up cheap credentials to everybody in a society where even expensive credentials struggle to translate to opportunities, the whole currency will collapse.
Completion as False Promise
We need to understand this when we talk about MOOCs. MOOCs may be touted as a revolution in education,  but they actually organize learning opportunities. The fact that they’re elbowing in on the ceremonial business of credentialing  and therefore taking on both roles of a conventional education institution does not mean they can or will serve the societal function of educational institutions. Educational institutions have writing centres and Student Unions and myriad supports focused around helping students gain achieve the kinds of learning that count as currency and opportunity. Institutions explicitly serve the citizenry, not the market.
MOOCs offer organized, affordable learning opportunities at a mass scale, and that has a great deal of value. But MOOCs are not a system.  They are not education for the masses.
We are accustomed, in our society, to understanding education in institutional terms, and to thinking of learning opportunities as tied to the mythos of betterment and mobility. We’ve been acculturated to this from childhood. But MOOCs are not the inheritors of our public education myth. They are, at least in some models, the inheritors of the forces that have gutted that myth.
Whether people complete their MOOCs or not, Coursera credentials will not bring back institutionalized, protected careers for the educated. So we need to be wary of bringing in MOOCs to prop up overstretched institutional systems, as California is doing. We particularly need to be wary of invoking MOOCs to deliver on the mythology of education as access to betterment; as a proverbial hand up.
If we don’t, we may find that MOOCs’ so-called free education costs a great deal to those in our society who depend most on that social contract of mobility, after all.
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada.
Bonnie Stewart is a Ph.D. student at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada. In higher ed since 1997, Bonnie has lived and taught on all three coasts of Canada and in Eastern Europe and Asia. Her research explores social media identity and its implications for higher education. Published at Salon.com and winner of the 2011 PEI Literary Award for creative non-fiction, Bonnie blogs ideas at http://theory.cribchronicles.com. Find her on Twitter at @bonstewart.