Duty now for the future.

15 01 2013

I had no plans to post anything today until I ran into @Zunguzungu’s thorough Twitter fisking of this depressing NYT article about Udacity’s deal with San Jose State to create MOOCs for their remedial classes. Like Aaron, I am appalled by the idea of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown cold-calling Sebastian Thrun to whip their higher education problem rather than talking to anyone who actually works in California’s university system. However, I have two related points about all this which, if I remember all of Aaron’s tweets right, he didn’t make.

1. They’re not just outsourcing education, they’re outsourcing professors. From the article:

“The Udacity deal could blunt some faculty opposition, because the effort will continue to involve professors — but it will also use online course assistants, or “mentors,” hired and trained by Udacity.”

[emphasis added]

Raise your hands if you think Udacity’s “mentors” will have tenure. The privatizers are simply following in the footsteps of the exploitive labor system that public higher education has already pioneered.

By the way, in traditional higher education, course design usually involves nobody but professors. The glass isn’t half full, it’s half empty.

2. This news is a disaster for higher education of all kinds, especially non-MOOC online education. From the article again:

The cost of each three-unit course will be $150, significantly less than regular San Jose State tuition.

Now Aaron was right to remind everyone:

But I think the more interesting comparison is in the other direction – between the price of this MOOC deal and other online courses. Until the year of the MOOC, I spent months and months bitching about the faults of regular old online courses in this space. One of the things I kept wondering is why online courses aren’t cheaper than regular face-to-face courses. Apparently, now they are – in this instance at least.

If you can get the same credit from a $150 MOOC that you can in an online course which costs much more because it has a living, breathing professor at the other end of the computer screen, which one are you going to take? In the regular online course versus face-to-face course, at least those of us on campus have the advantage of direct contact with students and football games to occupy their Saturday afternoons during the fall. If you’ve already compromised your education by moving it online, the only thing left to haggle about is price and universities with online arms that cost as much as on campus classes are going to find themselves in a terrible bargaining position.

If both these points have a theme it’s that we have a duty now for the future to prevent MOOCs from destroying a higher education system that has taken years to build up. Sure it may look like we’re whipping today’s problems good, but we’re really only whipping ourselves.

PS The Devo theme of this post is no accident. As Jeff Cowie explains in his magnificent Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (p. 343):

“[Devo's] Dadaesque anti-agitprop, as frontman Mark Mothersbaugh put it, was a sort of “guerrilla behavioralist experiment,” and the band’s music, as they repeatedly said, was “the important sound of things falling apart.””

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