“A profession may be defined most simply as a trade which is organized, incompletely, no doubt, but genuinely, for the performance of function. It is not simply a collection of individuals who get a living for themselves by the same kind of work. Nor is it merely a group which is organized exclusively for the economic protection of its members, though that is normally among its purposes. It is a body of men who carry on their work in accordance with rules designed to enforce certain standards both for the protection of its members and for the better service of the public.”
- R. H. Tawney, from The Acquisitive Society, 1920.
In a class of 82,000+ students, it is no wonder that Jeremy Adelman has both fans and detractors. If you think I’m hard on him, read James Atherton or even Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of the American Colleges and Universities. If you think I’m tough on Daphne Koller of Coursera, read Mazel on Sebastian Thrun of Udacity in the comments here.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all the critics that I’ve seen come from the ranks of the faculty. While some people have adapted an exaggerated sense of urgency to sell their own products, we’re defending a tradition that’s six or eight centuries old now. Things have gotten so bad that even professors in regular old online courses are beginning to speak out. What I don’t understand is why there aren’t many, many more of us MOOC critics out there explaining why our glorious all-online future is really a nightmare.
For example, Sebastian Thrun thinks there only needs to be ten universities in the future. Why does anyone think that’s a good idea? In the interests of novelty, however, I want to spend a little bit of time on something else Thrun said that I saw last week:
Now, most MOOCs consist essentially of lectures posted on the Internet—“very boring and uninspirational,” Thrun says. He compares the situation to the dawn of any medium, such as film. “The first full feature movies were recordings of the physical play, end to end. They hadn’t even realized you could make gaps and cut the movie afterwards.” Udacity is rewriting the script: Rather than a talking head, there’s Thrun’s hand, writing on a whiteboard (“The hand came along by accident,” he says, “but people loved it”); rather than a quiz a week later, the lesson is peppered with on-the-spot problem-solving.
So Sebastian Thrun thinks he’s D.W. Griffith? [Insert "Talk to the Hand" joke here.] If you read the Atherton post I linked to up top, you’ll find a thoughtful comment from Contingent Cassandra discussing how everyone tends to confuse the aesthetics of recorded presentations with the quality of the content. I want to make a much more direct point: Sebastian Thrun can produce the best movies that anyone has ever seen, but Udacity students will still be left watching f***ing movies.
Professors around the world are so busy being polite to the technologically inclined educators and non-educators alike who are trying to steal our bread and butter that far to few of us are willing to point out that the MOOC emperor has no clothes. We are all members of a centuries-old profession. It’s OK to stick up for ourselves. In fact, as I’ve argued many times in this space before, sticking up for ourselves in this case will also be, to use Tawney’s phrase, “better service of the public” because we’re defending the quality and integrity of our product.
Consider the consequences of continued silence. Florida Governor Rick Scott thinks that technology will make it possible cut the cost of higher education without affecting quality. Here’s Jerry Brown addressing the UC Board of Regents the other day:
“I appreciate the university and the durability of its ways. I won’t call them ‘folkways,’ but it’s a powerful tradition and I, and half of me very much likes tradition…. [But] just while people were talking I went to my iPhone and I went to Google and I typed in ‘university education online’ and there’s a lot there and we don’t have to wait until January, or February, or March. We can have it right now. So that’s the world we live in…. The newspaper, the Post Office, the university. We can build the most fabulous buildings, we can have the teachers, professors, all this kind of stuff. But if other people come along and offer the same, or better, when they want it, you’re going to find there’s pressure out there.”
Any guild with half an ounce of integrity would be marching in the streets if their employers made that kind of threat to open up their market to all comers. We professors, on the other hand, have to navel gaze about the implications of our own obsolescence before anyone chooses to lift a finger. If there really are only ten universities in twenty years and that Ph.D. of yours ends up as a really expensive wall hanging, don’t say you weren’t warned.