Yesterday I wrote how impressed I had been by Clay Shirky’s blog article about the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) and the implications these have for ‘traditional’ educational establishments.

This article (‘Napster, Udacity, and the Academy’) is part of the reading resources for Week 2 of the Coursera MOOC ‘E-Learning & Digital Cultures’ being run by the University of Edinburgh.

In the interest of balance, the course organisers have also included a link to a critique of Shirky’s piece. This is by Aaron Bady, a doctoral candidate in English literature of the University of California and was published online in December 2012 by Inside Higher Ed.

Bady’s criticism is lamely argued and contains a series of misreadings of Clay Shirky’s article. For example Bady writes that “Shirky talks dismissively about his own education at Yale” whereas Shirky is at pains to praise Yale’sincredible intellectual community where even big lectures were taught by seriously brilliant people”.

It suits Bady’s misguided argument to brand Shirky as someone with a “vested interest in arguing the benefits of radically transforming the academe”. In other words, the charge is that he has an axe to grind against educational establishments that fail to move with the times. The absurd suggestion here is that Shirky is not being transparent and bent solely on heaping unwarranted praise on MOOCS.

Bady doesn’t understand that Shirky’s analogy between Udacity and Napster was not intended to suggest that education is the same as music but was simply to draw a comparison between the way people now consume information online.

Most people recognise that MP3s are a poor alternative to CDs or vinyl but are prepared to overlook this because they are cheaper (or free!), easier to get hold of and can be accessed on a range of portable devices.

Shirky’s point is similarly that the learning materials offered by MOOCS are a cut-price (free!), accessible alternative to university courses. He writes: “Udacity may or may not survive, but as with Napster, there’s no containing the story it tells: ‘It’s possible to educate a thousand people at a time, in a single class, all around the world, for free'”.

This is not to say that the quality or the qualifications MOOCS provide are yet on a par with those offered by elite schools but, increasingly, they are no worse than the countless non-elite schools and universities that are strapped for cash.

The fact that MOOCS are open means that they will succeed or fail in the public domain. This question of openness is one that irks many people and Bady is one of them. He and Shirky trade anecdotes about their experiences as students and, not wanting to feel left out, I’d like to share mine.

I left school at 17 and began working immediately. I found a safe but dull job with the Inland Revenue. I never saw myself as university material and was glad to be free of institutionalised education and earning a modest salary.

After a few years of pen-pushing I felt bored and unfulfilled. I chanced upon an advertisement for the Open University and decided to enroll on an Arts Foundation Course. This, and the five that followed in successive years,  made me realise that learning could be stimulating, enlightening, and liberating. The only lectures I attended were held during one week Summer schools but these were so illuminating that they sustained me for the rest of the year working alone at home.

The fellow students I met during these study breaks were also inspiring. As with MOOCS, a high percentage were teachers but there were also many others from a range of ages and backgrounds who saw the OU as a second chance of getting a decent education.

I am not suggesting that MOOCS are a match for the OU’s high standards but the altruistic principles and,  above all, the sense of community among learners (albeit a virtual one) is just as strong. Such connections take root through the realisation that learning is an exchange between teachers and students; as one of my Twitter ‘friends’ noted, educators should be regarded “guides on the side not sages on the stage”.

I think it is significant that the criticisms levelled at the OU when it was established in 1969 are akin to those currently being levelled at MOOCS. Chief among these are that open learning can only work if accompanied by huge compromises and that this leads to an inevitable drop in quality. The massive success of the OU has proved this to be false.

The biggest problem with Bady’s opinion piece is that he doesn’t understand (or chooses to ignore) the background to the “educational philanthropy” on offer with online courses. “Why”, he asks naively, “[do] so many people want education without, apparently, being able to pay for it?”. He might equally ask equally dumb questions like ‘Why is the economy in crisis?’, ‘Why are so many people out of work?’ or even ‘Whatever happened to the principle that everyone deserves a decent education regardless of age, gender, race, creed or financial status?’

He is also suspicious of the fact that Udacity is “a lavishly capitalized educational start-up company” which means that their “primary obligation is to its investors”. Although I dislike the scaremongering tone of these statements, the question of how MOOCS can grow without an obvious way of generating income is the one argument he makes that rings true.

The question of who’s paying for all these courses  is not among the FAQs on Udacity’s home page and one imagines that the idea of charging people to pay for MOOCS  has passed.  Or maybe not. To return to Clay Shirky’s comparisons with the Napster-effect, you wouldn’t have imagined that charging people for ‘inferior’ music files would work while P2P sites like emule and Soulseek are still flourishing but the income generated by i-tunes, e-music and Amazon proves otherwise.

Aaron Bady argues that “because Udacity provides teaching for free, you can’t complain about its mediocrity”. This is true but, equally, if the teaching is mediocre people will take their custom elsewhere. You may not have to pay money but learners won’t waste valuable time and effort when the quality of the product is obviously inferior.

What the future has in store is in the lap of the investors and educational bodies but as far as the ‘where we are now’ debate goes Clay Shirky wins hands down and I’ll leave the final words with him: “open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment”.