MOOConomics   no comments

Posted at 12:49 pm in Uncategorized

After reading Winner’s (1980) article ‘Do artefacts have politics’ in our FoWS class, it seemed worth trying to think about MOOCs (as a technical artefact) and the way that they might influence or even determine future methods of delivering education. If I am to address the question of who benefits from MOOCs, then the political aspects or implications of their potential proliferation might be important. However, I’ve just found a rather scathing response (Joerges, 1999) to Winner in the journal Social Studies of Science. It’s full of some pretty impenetrable jargon (for me, anyway), but it might help develop my currently quite shallow understanding of this topic if I can get my head round it.

It has been suggested (by Wendy Hall and Johanna W. during our tutorial) that provision of some kinds of services over the Web tend to be dominated by large entities (such as Facebook, Amazon, or eBay). It may be likely, then, that organisations which already have a strong brand (iTunesU, Google, or well-established universities) may achieve a position of dominance in the provision of MOOCs – perhaps by attracting the ‘biggest names’ in education or industries related to particular subject areas.  It’s possible that monopolies or oligopolies will emerge – the start-up costs for some kinds of MOOCs are not insignificant, and such courses do require ongoing allocation of resources, maintenance, and of course regular updating (to contain cutting edge knowledge). It seems unlikely that all education providers will be able to compete on MOOC projects which have, to say the least, intangible returns.

Some further questions might arise from this:

  • Is it possible to have ‘monopolies’ in education (are universities public or private bodies these days)? If so, how would such monopolies be defined, and to what extent does the government have authority to make policy/enact legislation to address this issue?
  • Should individual universities opt out of the MOOC development process, and invest resources in other areas in which they may be able to compete more effectively?
  •  Is this an area where consideration of economic ‘opportunity costs’ are relevant, where weighing up the costs of MOOCs against the ‘next best alternative’ determines the outcome?

Looking more broadly at the assignment overall, I’m a little concerned about the potential to combine the thinking behind my two chosen disciplines. One (economics) is built on the basic assumption that human material wants are unlimited, and everyone is motivated by the satisfaction of those wants in conditions of scarcity of resources. Philosophy, on the other hand, contemplates the nature of being, knowledge, truth, right and wrong and other lofty matters. It seems like an ultimate fighting match between a hungry 2-year-old and a Buddhist monk.

In other news, this week I’ve mostly been reading about the fundamentals of economics, about which I will post soon-ish.


Joerges, B. (1999) Do politics have artefacts. Social Studies of Science. 29 (3) pp. 411-431

Sloman, J.(2009) Economics (8th edn.). Pearson: Harlow

Winner, L. Do artefacts have politics? Daedelus. 1 pp. 121-136


Written by Steven White on October 26th, 2013

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