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Higher Education III: MOOCs and Inequality

There was a period, now lost in the mythical sands of time, when massive online courses were considered the savior of the unwashed. Here’s a quote from Daphne Koller:

“high-quality education provided by MOOCs can be a significant factor in opening doors to opportunity — even among the college-educated.”

— Daphne Koller

Here’s another from her East Coast competitor, Anant Agarwal:

“So we are applying these blended learning pilots in a number of universities and high schools around the world, from Tsinghua in China to the National University of Mongolia in Mongolia to Berkeley in California — all over the world. And these kinds of technologies really help, the blended model can really help revolutionize education.”

— Anant Agarwal

Now we know better. Students who do well in MOOCs are richer, better educated and more likely to be men than students as a whole. In other words, a technology that was supposed to help the poor and the oppressed is a great boon for her exact opposite.

There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s great if smart people everywhere have access to high quality knowledge. However, we should be careful about creating new inequalities in the name of reducing inequality. In education as in everything else, information economies are of the winner-take-all kind. Where there were hundreds or thousands of providers, we might be left with one or two or ten. That would be a real tragedy.

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