“All the promises our teachers gave. If we worked hard, if we behaved.”

18 07 2013

It has been years since I recommended to anyone that they go to grad school in the humanities. In this market, even the most talented students face a likely future of adjunct destitution. When college has come under attack though, I’ve always defended it. “Sure, it’s no guarantee of a job,” I say, “but it certainly makes your chances better.”

I still believe that, but a whole series of recently published articles about the changing nature of work have depressed me beyond belief, making me worry about how long I can promise students that that’s still true. For example, there’s this from Salon:

Technological advances are putting serious pressure on the working person’s ability to command a living wage. If the data showing that workers are grabbing a smaller and smaller piece of the overall income pie even as productivity continues to grow tells us anything, it’s that employers are benefiting far more than workers from Silicon Valley’s disruptive innovations.

The same forces that have enabled American corporations to offshore and outsource so much labor overseas are now atomizing the most basic tasks of daily life — everything from lawn mowing to scheduling a dentist appointment. Fancy Hands employs only American contractors, but the principle is the same. With the Internet, and particularly with the mobile Internet, anyone, anywhere, is a potential employee.

Or, if you have about 15 minutes to spare, go listen to this, then hug your children tight after you’re done.

Call me cynical, but I can’t help but wonder if this drive to educate the world is part of a deliberate effort to drive down the wages of college-educated workers everywhere. The MOOCs increase the supply of labor. The robots decrease demand. The result will be that a free degree will be worth exactly what students paid for it.

Is the Internet going to do this to my profession too? I’m actually a little more optimistic here. It’s not like this is news, but apparently if you throw students into the deep end of the pool, many of them will sink to the bottom. The other end of the spectrum, babying them through their online courses doesn’t strike me as any better. For example, here’s the vision for the future of higher ed that Bill Gates’ money is trying to promote:

Mr. Crosgrove and his classmates study clusters of curated online materials, such as the free “Smarthistory” videos presented by Khan Academy. They let students show mastery of competencies by completing “tasks.” One task, for example, asks them to research potential works of art for a museum exhibit and to create a PowerPoint on their findings. The completed tasks are shipped out for evaluation to a pool of part-time adjunct professors, who assess the work and explain to students what they should do to improve.

A coach helps Mr. Crosgrove set goals, navigate materials, and handle problems. The faculty role in College for America involves curating the content for students and assessing tasks.

I remember when I was shocked that people in India were reading our x-rays overnight. Now that they’re serving as personal digital assistants, this is practically commonplace. However, the difference between all those general work-related examples and higher education is that your x-ray can be read just as well remotely as in person while “curating online materials” is, the obvious labor issues aside, a lousy excuse for a college education. It’s even a lousy excuse for an online college education!

As I keep saying, what scares me most is that students will vote with their feet. Given a choice between an all-MOOC degree or nothing, they’ll pick nothing or – perhaps more disturbingly – even if they have the choice to get a traditional college education, the all-MOOC option will make the competition too stiff for anyone to keep the traditional option viable.* If bad education drives good education from the market this is not a good thing as nobody will actually have the skills our economy needs to innovate or succeed.

In this scenario, academia will become one big Allentown and it will be “getting very hard to stay” for all of us professors except the super ones. Creative destruction may be creative, but that doesn’t always represent progress.

* Of course, all of this will have to happen before the MOOC providers inevitably collapse, but $43 million can last an awful long time.

Update: I’m teaching the New Deal in summer class today, so I thought maybe I could end this discussion on a happier note:

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4 responses

18 07 2013
RAB

Just read about the Koch Brothers and ALEC trying to do away with public school, in Utah for starters. Do you get the feeling that we’re witnessing the melting of modern culture just as surely as we’re witnessing the melting of the Polar cap?

18 07 2013
Norm Matloff

I don’t mean to depress you any further, but what you’re describing is “the new normal.”

Case in point: Internships. It is now standard for new college grads in humanities and social sciences to go through a series of internships after graduation in order to have even some hope of ultimately landing a permanent job. And often the first one or two internships are unpaid. If the worker is lucky, he/she then may get “promoted” to a paid internship after, say, six months, and then hopefully later to a real job.

Engineering is not nearly as hot as claimed, in general. It is true that computer science grads, especially with GPAs above 3.5, have it very good right after graduation, but 10-15 years there are very serious problems of age discrimination.

Due to many factors–globalization, and oversupply of the college-educated and so on–the employment picture is one of a very harsh buyers market, and it appears to be permanent.

One bright spot: SJSU put one of their major MOOC projects on hold, after the students performed poorly: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/07/18/citing-disappointing-student-outcomes-san-jose-state-pauses-work-udacity Even then, it should be pointed out that the criterion used to measure performance doesn’t reflect the intangibles that many of us feel MOOCs lack, so who knows? Maybe SJSU will fiddle with the MOOC, find that performance is now fine (under the restrictive criterion), and then go right away with it.

22 07 2013
Geoff Falen

Jumped in to agree with you about internships. However, I would add that ideally students should do them DURING their college career (summers, during the semester, inter-session, etc.). However, many simply don’t (or can’t because they’re working too many hours to pay for school already). In the liberal arts college world, somewhere between 50 and 60% of students (disclaimer: at places I’ve worked/am familiar with) self-report an internship during their college experience. Undoubtedly some of the students who don’t do internships don’t need them (because they have industry/political/social connections), but many don’t do them because a) they don’t think about it in time and/or b) they can’t afford to do an unpaid internship at ANY point in their college career.

In my opinion, colleges can do a better job incorporating experiential learning (including internships) into the curriculum (tricky, but not impossible) as well as developing funding to support students in otherwise unpaid (but skill- and career-building) internships. Employers want “job-ready” and industry-interested candidates (they aren’t going to train them much any more), and the best way of determining both those things is through a series of practical experiences.

19 07 2013
Chuck Rybak (@ChuckRybak)

The quote that’s been my head for a long time now… “America doesn’t need workers anymore; it only needs consumers.” Sigh. Sadly, this post echoes a lot of what’s been on my mind as well.

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