MOOCs have caught the public eye and not just those of education professionals. The reason is that potentially they change the game of higher education. Not just because some claim they will (as does Sebastian Thrun of Udacity) but also because many fear or predict they will. So, engaging in ongoing debate about them is necessary, to steer their future development and to be prepared for their potential influence on higher education. At present, I am at the ASCILITE 2012 in Wellington, New Zealand, where this morning a 'great debate' was organised about MOOCs. The debate was lively, although it was a pity that the normative ('should MOOCs have a role in HE?') was not sufficiently divorced from the factual ('will MOOCs have a role in future HE?'). I here want to expand a little bit on two remarks I twittered during the debate. They regard the normative aspect of the debate.
cMOOCs aside - the Siemens and Downes kind which embrace networked or connectivist types of learning - the xMOOCs exemplify a development in higher education that mark a landslide. Private companies have always had a role in education and there is nothing wrong with that. However, with xMOOCs for the first time they may end up as helmsmen of higher education. Sebastian Thrun predicts so much when he says that in five decades or so there's room for 10 universities only, the rest of the market being catered for by venture-capital sponsored companies such as Udacity, Coursera (or more likely, the companies that will have bought them). Is this what we really want? In my view, education in general and higher education in particular is a public good. The goals that it serves are manifold. They include preparing adolescents for the job market, but also educating them to become well-informed citizens who can make judgement calls. A viable democracy needs critical people. And then there is also the goal of helping these adolescents to find out who they are, what really interests them and what they want to do with the rest of their lives. I have a hard time believing that for-profit companies would be interested in promoting competencies and skills other than work-related ones. It is not a matter of blaming them for their disinterest in this, it is a matter of us deciding how we want to organise higher education: Run by a private company as a private good or by democratic institutions as a public good?
Second, MOOCs have been hailed as contributing to inclusion. Again, I have a hard time believing that MOOCs run by private companies will see this as their duty (I am still talking xMOOCs of course). They will, but only to the extent that providing courses for free is a means of 'scouting out' the really talented, almost as talented athletes, soccer players, etc. (Cf On two kinds of MOOCs) True as this may be, you could still argue that a great many people in developing countries would still have access to high quality, higher education courses, which they otherwise would never have had. Although this is not entirely true - see the Open Educational Resources movement - there is also the issue of cultural imperialism. This will not be much of an issue for AI courses or courses learning to program with Python, but things start to change with courses on social network analysis and certainly with courses on social issues and culture. The developed world should make sure not to make the mistakes it has been making consistently all over again.
In conclusion, I think we should continue experimenting with MOOCs but at the same time we should be very suspicious of what Coursera and Udacity are doing with them lest in a year's time we academics have to admit we were lured into doing something we in retrospect had absolutely wanted to avoid. For those of you who want to read up a little bit on MOOCs, you may find a collection of 6 months of scoops here.
Note added January 3, 2013. There was an annoying mistake in the original text. In the final sentence of the one but final paragraph, it said developing world, which should have been developed. I have corrected this now.