The central figure in Shirky’s article is the assertion that “MOOCs are a lightning strike on a rotten tree” and he goes on to argue that while most people focus on the lightning (“on MOOCs as the flashy new thing”), he wants to talk about the tree. That’s fine. I want to raise the stakes: let’s talk about the forest he’s missing when he focuses on that tree. The rhetorical function of “MOOC” is this bait and switch: MOOC is a fantasy of potential, a stand-in for what could be, whose possibility makes it unnecessary to produce evidence for its plausibility. This is also why Shirky doesn’t talk about the lightning that’s destroying the rotten tree. He doesn’t talk about what will replace “College” once MOOC’s have destroyed it, or defend the proposition that a world with MOOC’s instead of colleges is a good thing. He just talks about how terrible actually existing college is. The aftermath can take care of itself; the futurologist places his faith in it, but he does not subject it to all that much scrutiny.
-Aaron Bady, “Tree Sitting”