Digital sharecropping, Coursera’s business plan and the future of higher ed.

11 12 2012

I’ve mentioned the term “digital sharecropping” before here, but I think it bears repeating in light of more recent MOOC madness. All the way back in 2006, the amazing Nick Carr explained the logic of digital sharecropping this way:

One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few. It’s a sharecropping system, but the sharecroppers are generally happy because their interest lies in self-expression or socializing, not in making money, and, besides, the economic value of each of their individual contributions is trivial. It’s only by aggregating those contributions on a massive scale – on a web scale – that the business becomes lucrative. To put it a different way, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy. In this view, the attention economy does not operate separately from the cash economy; it’s simply a means of creating cheap inputs for the cash economy.

He was talking about Facebook and its ilk, but he might as well have been talking about Coursera. All for the love of knowledge, students willingly grade each other’s papers, monitor course discussion boards and in a few cases actually serve as teaching assistants. What I didn’t realize until last week, was that in at least one case, the superprofessor wasn’t making any extra money for doing this either.

I don’t intend this post to be about Jeremy. After all, if he did take money for being a superprofessor then somebody would be attacking him for cashing in. As I did in the comments on Friday, I just want to ask rhetorically, “What other profession besides college professors would do so much additional work for absolutely nothing?” Coursera has a fiduciary obligation to deal in the cash economy while its students and at least one superprofessor are somewhere in the mid- to late-nineteenth century.

Part of me wants to shout, “Good for them!” That’s what being public-minded is all about. But then there’s the part of me that wants to put food on my family’s table. As long as people are willing to do what I’m doing on a larger scale while accepting no money for it, my livelihood is threatened.

The more people there are out there willing to teach for love, the less valuable the work of the rest of us professors becomes. It’s the same dynamic that brought us adjuncts. Given a choice between people demanding health insurance and sabbaticals, universities will gravitate to the exploitable workforce that’s willing to work for love and peanuts. Given a choice between expensive professors and people who don’t even ask for peanuts, universities will turn to the free labor in six cases out of seven.

The sad thing is that if crowdsourcing education ever becomes acceptable amongst employers, students will probably cut universities out of the picture entirely. Tamson Pietsch writes:

By running and certifying their own online courses, and in some cases making them credit-bearing, universities are once again embracing their enemy. Making such courses available at no or low cost to large numbers of people also enables universities to widen their educational franchise: supporting their claims (made to governments and the public alike) to be useful institutions that equip people to be workers in the knowledge economy. Lending their prestige to large-scale online courses may well enable universities to maintain their role as credentialisers of educational content. But it is not clear what will happen to that other aspect of 20th-century university education: the credentialisation of context.

If nobody wants to pay for the context that universities (and especially we professors) provide anymore, most everyone working in higher education today will be SOL. As Cathy Davidson explains it, MOOCs are just a desperate attempt to keep the same old business model in changing times.

Sure, this plan will work for some schools. Princeton will always have living, breathing professors, but what about the rest of us? We all know the idea of students paying universities to teach themselves is bad for education and bad for educators, but that’s where we’re headed unless educators everywhere put their foot down before it’s too late.

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