xMOOCopoly: Will this end in the Wal-Martification of higher education

Recently I’ve been mulling over a comment made by Sebastain Thrun, founder of Udacity, in a piece in Wired last year that in 50 years time there will only be 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education.  I find Thrun’s vision for the future of higher education a bit depressing and if it proves to materialise I wonder what the economic and social impact on our communities will be, how will it affect the overall quality of education and the level of choice.

Whilst edX is being run as a not for profit outfit, the other key xMOOC players Coursera and Udacity will be hoping to return a profit for their investors. If these organisations thrive, other xMOOC providers join the frey and Thrun’s vision is realised will we see an xMOOCopoly in higher education emerge that will come to be viewed in the way that Wallmart and Tesco are in the world of supermarket retail. Supermarkets and out of town retail parks have brought us benefits in the way of cheaper prices and convenience.  However over time there is evidence that the likes of Walmart and other big companies have a negative impact on local businesses and beyond.

Thinking back to my childhood, I remember there were 3 or 4 butchers on the local highstreet, family run bakeries, fabric shops, wool shops etc. Today two of the green grocers remain, but none of the butchers, and whilst there is a bakery, the ones that were there when I was a kid have long closed down. Many UK high streets have vacant and boarded up shops, the hustle and bustle is gone.  In the UK Prime Minister David Cameron has turned to Mary Portas to help reviatalise the high streets of towns up and down the country as part of the Government’s policy on Improving high streets and town centres.  The policy is in response to the issue as outlined below:

“High streets are recognised as important hubs of social interaction and cohesion, as well as providers of local jobs. They’re a visible indicator of how well, or how badly, a local economy is doing.

But our high streets and town centres are facing serious challenges from out-of-town shopping centres and the growth of online and mobile retailing.

The government recognises that our high streets have to offer something new and different that neither shopping centres nor the internet can match. They need to offer an experience that goes beyond retail – the high street should be a destination for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning, with schools, doctors’ surgeries and offices along with shops. Our high streets should be social places that make creative use of public spaces and with a vibrant evening economy.”

I’m not sure if our cousins on mainland Europe have quite the same problems in their town centres.  Visitng France, Italy or Spain, I’m always struck by the number and variety of shops in small towns.  In the UK every town centre seems to look the same, with the same chain stores, we don’t seem to have the same level of choice that our European cousins have. There’s choice in the supermarkets, but I think there’s less choice than in the past as chains like Tesco increasingly give more shelf space to their ownbrand products.

So what, boo hoo, what’s the big deal, isn’t this just a fuss about nothing and what’s this got to do with xMOOCs and the future of higher education.  The big supermarkets have got progressively bigger and once they’re in an area they tend to have a monopoly.  They’re large corporate companies striving to make ever larger profits.  That’s all well and good in the commercial world but do we want a higher education system in the future that is run solely to make profit for investors and shareholders.  What will the rise of xMOOC outfits like Coursera and Udactiy be on our existing universities. Furthermore if universities cease to exist in their current form and are driven by the need to generate profit what willl be the longer term econmic and social impact on our communities.

I have fond schoolgirl memories of going along to events at Nottingham University with some of our teachers. Screenings of Russian films and the fantastic Colonel Shaw chemistry lecture. These events gave a glimpse into the world of higher education.  Similarly today at Dundee University, where I now work, there are events for local school children, our students from medicine, dentistry and nursing go into schools and teach on health.  Other students run the Teddy Bear Hospital to inspire primary school children to consider a possible career in medicine.  There are widening access intiatives including summer schools. The University runs public lectures and a series of courses for the public.  There are collaborative events with the local Science Musuem with Galleries.  The University has been a key player in the V&A coming to the City, it also runs the local Literary Festival which has become a popular annual fixture.  The University is a significant employer in the city and generates income for the local economy.  The annual degree show of art work produced by students is a prime example of this, for example in 2009 it attracted 11,000 visitors generating £1.5million for the local economy (source – Contact).  Similar activities will be run by Universities up and down the country.  The public at large can also engage with openly accessible learning resources via platforms such as YouTube, iTunesU and the OU’s OpenLearn.  Nottingham’s periodic table videos on YouTube are a great example of this serving as today’s equivalent of the Colonel Shaw lecture I attended as a teenager.  Will this still be the case if Thrun’s vision comes to pass?  Sure there is lots of free and openly accessibe content on the web to engage people and perhaps TED will still be inspiring people about big ideas and similar initiatives may come to the fore. However if universities don’t exisit as they do currently and there are only 10 institutions worldwide running higher education how will the economic, social and cultural health of our university towns and their hinterlands be affected?  How will the social capital of communities be affected?

Goetz and Rupasingha looked at the impact of Wal-Mart on the social capital of US communities in the 1990s and found that those communities where new Wal-Mart stores were built or had an exisiting store and found it to be lower. The impact of the presence of Wal-Mart included:

  • the disappearence of local family run businesses, impacting on social relationships and the local leadership class typically involved in local networks and encouraging co-operation to address local problems.
  • local lawyers, bankers, accountants etc see a reduction in demand for their services and they leave the community and their contribution to the social capital of the community is lost.
  • opportunities for local entrepeneurs diminish.

Other trends seen in these communities were lower voter turnout in presidential elections, fewer voluntary groups and orgnisations that generate social capital such as business groups, churches, political organisations.  Meanwhile other studies have highlighted the impact of Walmart and other big retail corporations on low wage rates, lower volunteering rates.

Technology is drivng all sorts of change, the world has become a global village.  Big multinationals dominate in industry and retail.  Long loved names on the highstreet have disappeared.  Will universities disappear as we know them to be replaced by 10 corporate mega universities in the way that Thrun suggests?  Will any of these 10 operate on a not-for-profit basis?  A piece in the American Interest on ‘The end of the university as we know it‘, hails this future vision of universities.

“The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.”

The piece continues to hightlight the impact that technology and the internet has had on destroying other businesses and this vision of the future is unstoppable.

“We are all aware that the IT revolution is having an impact on education, but we tend to appreciate the changes in isolation, and at the margins. Very few have been able to exercise their imaginations to the point that they can perceive the systemic and structural changes ahead, and what they portend for the business models and social scripts that sustain the status quo. That is partly because the changes are threatening to many vested interests, but also partly because the human mind resists surrender to upheaval and the anxiety that tends to go with it. But resist or not, major change is coming. The live lecture will be replaced by streaming video. The administration of exams and exchange of coursework over the internet will become the norm. The push and pull of academic exchange will take place mainly in interactive online spaces, occupied by a new generation of tablet-toting, hyper-connected youth who already spend much of their lives online. Universities will extend their reach to students around the world, unbounded by geography or even by time zones. All of this will be on offer, too, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional college education.”

“The changes ahead will ultimately bring about the most beneficial, most efficient and most equitable access to education that the world has ever seen. There is much to be gained. We may lose the gothic arches, the bespectacled lecturers, dusty books lining the walls of labyrinthine libraries—wonderful images from higher education’s past. But nostalgia won’t stop the unsentimental beast of progress from wreaking havoc on old ways of doing things. If a faster, cheaper way of sharing information emerges, history shows us that it will quickly supplant what came before. People will not continue to pay tens of thousands of dollars for what technology allows them to get for free.”

WIll this really be free in the longer term?  The 10 mega universities in this higher education future will have to make money some how to survive, they won’t be able to give everything away for free.  This view is also though guilty of not looking at the bigger picture, what will the cost be in terms of impact on local communities. Dusty university libraries may be boarded up, buildings demolished or turned into car parks because students no longer study on a University campus.  But. what happens to rental housing market in our University towns, to the local economy to the cultural and social life of our communities.  Students make a significant contribution to the local communities they study in, economically, and socially through volunteering and fund raising activities. Will we see the Wal-Mart effect and depreciation in social capital as mega universities take hold?  Will there also be a McDonaldisation of higher education, no matter where you are in the world the same menu, with perhaps one or two local twists.  Ultimately a lack of choice, a blandness and reduction in quality.

Maybe xMOOCS won’t be around in 20 years time, perhaps they will be a passing fad.  It maybe the ‘open’ in xMOOCs disappears over time, or perhaps just like you can download a sample chapter of a Kindle book or hear the first 20 seconds of a song in iTunes, you can sample a week or two of a massive online course before signing up and enrolling on it.  But then you can already do that with OpenLearn resources from the OU, or with the countless resources in iTunesU.  xMOOC hysteria seems to have resulted in people forgetting that open online resources and cMOOCs have been around for quite sometime.

Conscious this has emerged into a bit of rambling post, and also not as well as referenced as I would have liked due to lack of time.  Personally I’m not sure I view the prospect of there  just being 10 higher education institutions in 50 years time as particualrly positive, but can appreciate others will think the complete opposite.


Goetz, Stephan J., and Anil Rupasingha. “Wal-Mart and social capital.”American Journal of Agricultural Economics 88.5 (2006): 1304-1310.

One comment

  1. Hi Natalie:
    As I mentioned on Twitter, I think this point makes sense–that in a way, we can think of at least some of the xMOOC companies as heading us towards, potentially, a kind of Walmartification of learning. Of course, this depends entirely on whether the image that Thrun or some other commentators paint, that other institutions really will be put out of business, is likely going to happen. I’d like to think it won’t, because many students will come to realize that value of face-to-face education, of small classes with meaningful peer discussions, etc. It’s early days, but I’m not seeing evidence that the xMOOC models offered so far are being taken up in a deep way by a lot of students–there are a lot of enrolments, but also a lot of dropouts. People seem to be taking these courses in different ways, and for different reasons, than they take courses at colleges and universities. But I haven’t done a lot of research on this, so I won’t go any further into trying to say anything about what the future might bring.

    I just want to point out that there is a sense in which some of what you fear here is likely already happening. What you describe is the difference between a business that is grounded in a local neighbourhood and serves that local neighbourhood, including by having goods and services tailored to that local place, and one that has uniform goods and services no matter where it is–the loss of differentiated shops, and the way everything looks the same no matter what city you’re in. I am sad about this sort of thing too (and it’s very prevalent in North America!), but I wonder if it hasn’t already happened with some universities. What I mean is that universities, as large, research institutions, are often disconnected from their local communities, teaching courses and doing research on things that are considered important in the larger disciplinary communities in each field rather than what is relevant and meaningful to the local community. It’s not just a matter of holding events that are open to the community; I’m thinking of whether or not students are getting much of a different education whether they are in one part of Canada, or the U.S., or England, than another. Is there much in the way of local differentiation, or is the education more or less about the same things in each place? It probably depends on the discipline, of course. At U of BC in Vancouver, there is a good deal of emphasis on teaching and learning about local indigenous cultures, and Asian cultures (since we have a very high Asian population). But the philosophy courses (my field) are, I think, the same as you would get more or less anywhere in N. America, beyond the minor differences in departmental strengths in one area or another, which may have nothing to do with the local area in which the courses are taught.

    I think of this partly because an open letter to Michael Sandel, from the San Jose State University (California) Philosophy department (in the Chronicle of Higher Education) spoke of one of the problems with xMOOCs being that they can’t tailor courses to specific issues faced by people in specific places, like local colleges and universities can. And it made me think about whether such things are happening as much as they perhaps should.

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