Students now have the opportunity to attend Harvard—without playing the high-stakes admissions game, or even paying a cent.

In May 2012, Harvard and MIT, along with a corporate partner, unveiled non-credit MOOCs (“Massive Open Online Courses”). This joint venture, which will offer free public online courses, is just one of a number of similar recent collaborations between select academic institutions and their corporate affiliates.

Encouraged to venture beyond faculty-assembled resources, students compile, debate, and synthesize knowledge using the MOOC platform, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, SecondLife, YouTube, and Google Groups. Within these networked learning spaces, the knowledge base evolves continuously, promising a more flexible and enriching experience than in traditional closed online courses. Education researcher Lynore DeSilets suggests that MOOCs cater to “free agent learners.” She says this new generation of self-directed learners “leverage emerging communications and collaboration tools to create personal networks of experts” (Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing, 2011).

The debut of MOOCs follows a trend toward open access scholarship, which proponents say will increase visibility of faculty research and the rankings of their institutions, and result in “greater distribution [and collaboration] of scholarship as well as some return to the public for funding its production,” according to scholar Annette Vee, in the 2011 CCCC-Intellectual Property Annual. But as critics charge, by offering MOOCs, elite schools draw students away from non-participating competitors, further widening the prestige gap between different rungs of universities. They also contribute to the corporatization of the university, particularly through distance learning initiatives. “These relationships place corporate sponsors in a powerful position to affect research agendas,” warns social sciences researcher Risa Lieberwitz (Public Interest Law Journal, 2002-3). Corporate intermediaries (such as Udacity) are eyeing to profit by playing matchmaker for headhunters vying for learners.

By catering to market-driven demands, and potentially threatening academic freedom, perhaps this “democratization” of education exacts too great a price?

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