A people’s history of MOOCs

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Massive, open to all, a democratic space that offers people from all walks of life exposure to the greatest thinkers of our time, and while we’re at it, a fabulous branding opportunity – welcome to the nineteenth century municipal public library.

When Boston built its majestic public library in 1895, a grand new home for the first publicly-funded free library established in a major city of the United States, it was meant to evoke Renaissance palaces, but with modern engineering and an American twist. This palace was the people’s, as inscriptions on the building explained: “founded through the munificence and public spirit of citizens,” “built by the people and dedicated to the advancement of learning.” Carved over the door is a very simple invitation that is also a radical expression of purpose: “Free to All.”

During the nineteenth century, the emergence of publicly funded libraries to which every citizen had access was a intended to empower the populace through educational opportunity and socialize a fast-growing and diverse population by providing membership in a common culture. These twin imperatives are inscribed in yet another inscription: “The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty.”

Order and liberty – such a strange pairing, yet so fitting for libraries. They are orderly places, but in a more or less fractal sense. The complexity of life is too varied, too chaotic to provide simple answers. A library provides a space within which the irregularities of the world can be arranged in patterns that make sense, yet always reveal more complexity the closer you look. The order libraries impose through their peculiar systems is not a means of creating one monumental meaning, but rather an organized way of discovering differences, exploring conflicts, asking questions that are never fully answerable. You may find an answer on the shelf, but there’s a different one right next to it. It’s up to you to decide what to make of it all, and making those choices is the practice of liberty.

We forget how radical an idea this was, to throw open the doors of knowledge to anyone who wants to explore it. We’ve begun to think that libraries are “free” as in beer – hey, here’s a cheap alternative to the bookstore or a Kindle purchase! Or free as in kittens – how expensive will it be to feed and give it shots and who’s going to clean the litter box? We forget that libraries like Boston’s are free as in speech, meant to enable freedom, not just provide consumer goods at a low, low price. For cities like Boston, the public library was a public commitment to the public good, and yes, a massive statement about the city itself.

It struck me how much the arguments made for MOOCs are similar to the public library movement of the 19th century. MOOCs are for the people, they are meant to spread knowledge, they help the poor and disenfranchised get a leg up by assimilating a body of knowledge created by great minds. They are free to all and a terrific opportunity to advance the reputation of that site of learning.

But there is a difference. MOOCs are not, like Boston’s library, founded by the public for civic purposes. They are not built by the people. They are gifts from great institutions to an invisible audience across for-profit platforms that will eventually have to come up with a steady revenue stream to keep going. They incorporate the entrepreneurial spirit of tech startups which is, at its heart, very much about products, markets, and individual desires. They fuse the intellectual star power of TED talks with the traditional authority of the universities involved, add a dose of educational theory, and mix in the fizzy, intoxicating momentum of the latest social media platform.

MOOCs are getting a lot of buzz as the latest shiny thing – but libraries were free to all a long time ago.

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