**If they say that knowledge is power, it is easy to see how the internet has become one of the most powerful platforms of communication in history. With its speed, transiency and the sheer amount of information, such an abstract world has inevitably raised questions about the transfer of knowledge from reality to online. Is the digitisation of knowledge liberating or dangerous? **
Currently one of the biggest debates in higher education is what Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) will mean for the material university. MOOCs typify the idealism of the internet community: the notion of an online education that transgresses economic and political boundaries, underscoring a utopian attitude that appears to be for the good of the people.
“Fifty years from now, there will be only 10 institutions in the whole world that deliver higher education.” This bold claim by the renowned educator, Sebastian Thrun, makes one wonder about the implications of seeing MOOCs and traditional universities as opposing fountains of knowledge. If Thrun is right in his claims, I would wager two possible situations:
First, I feel that if MOOCs replaced concrete degrees, someone will make sure that they become increasingly commercialised (because students really desire a market, apparently) and cease to be free. However, if people then retort that Harvard and Cambridge “will at least survive”, there is an implication that people will be tempted to make value judgments. The exclusivity of traditional degrees may serve to stigmatise the online degree, adding to generalisations within the discussions about educational worth.
I’d like to stress that whilst this globalised forum appears to mirror the online, encyclopaedic sharing of information that I love, I feel worried about potential for a homogenisation of knowledge.
Some users believe that localised education is more generalised in its biases and that sharing discourses on online forums makes knowledge richer. However, it is not the act of sharing of knowledge that worries me, but the presentation of content.
I feel more cynical about the generalisation and limitation of content. A few weekends ago I attended a talk for Warwick Modern Commons Research Group and there was an interesting discussion on the standardisation of university teaching, something that I think is potentially dangerous on a global scale. There was an interesting notion that commercial vested interest limits research and, if we take this to an online scale, the notion of one lecturer speaking to thousands is potentially revolutionary and potentially dangerous.
How do we make sure that the information is not dictated by a mere few? How do we make sure that deeply sponsored and damaging ideologies aren’t presented as popular and factual data? Will the specialities, the eccentricities of knowledge that made online collaboration so interesting be eradicated for standardised, commercialised and controlled education?
Additionally, I find it quite hard to believe the idealistic intentions of MOOCs when examples such as when the late internet activist Aaron Swartz was potentially going to be imprisoned for 35 years for downloading and redistributing files from digital library JSTOR in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It seems that free knowledge is not always in one’s hands after all.
However, despite this, there is a sense that some on the internet are resisting. Movements like Anonymous, hacktivism and stop SOPA demonstrate a complex resistance to the law, copyright infringements and censorship, a struggle between the public and authority.
The seemingly derogatory label “internet generation” is now a massive advantage in a place that is constantly changing and expanding. For instance, when managerial tw-illiteracy allowed a disgruntled social media member to describe the cull of HMV employees on the company’s Twitter account, it became obvious how subversive and powerful knowledge is and how the accessibility of the internet exacerbates this.
I see MOOCs as a complementary platform to concrete universities, not a binary opposite; as an expansion of knowledge within reach of the students’ fingertips. I just hope that the content is not reduced and manipulated due to funding issues and censorship.
Hopefully, this freedom will destroy the pervading sense of astonishment that maybe, just maybe, the individual who furiously makes Nyan Cat memes might be as influential in the online world as the person who, in the material world, rules because they wield the most money and weapons.