Successful parasites never kill their hosts.

31 03 2014

“I think this really makes clear that we are not out to put universities out of business — have never been out to do that.”

Coursera’s Daphne Koller said this to Marketplace last week after hiring ex-Yale President Richard Levin as CEO. My immediate response was, “Who ever said Coursera wanted to put universities out of business?” They partner with universities to produce MOOCs and have just started to contract with other, less-prestigious universities to consume them. Tuition, after all, is where the money is. It reminds me of why Willie Sutton robbed banks. As Chris Newfield put it last night:

“Universities may have a cost disease, but they now have a privatization disease that is even worse.”

Successful parasites never kill their hosts. They just slowly suck the lifeforce out of them.

The real criticism against Coursera from MOOC skeptics like me is not that they want to put universities out of business, but that they want to put faculty at non-elite universities on the unemployment line. Too many university administrators dream at night of faculty at Point A, students at countless point Bs and themselves at Point C simply cashing the tuition checks. Coursera’s MOOCs offer these administrators the opportunity to cut out point A almost entirely, making sure that they don’t have to pay the glorified TAs tending to MOOC administration a living wage or give them anything that even faintly resembles tenure.

Perhaps this future awaits me. Perhaps not. Nevertheless, of all the responses that I get to my MOOC skepticism, it’s the people who like to point out my self interest who drive me more than a little bonkers. Don’t get me wrong: I am indeed self-interested when it comes to MOOCs. I like my job (or at least my profession) and want to keep earning a living wage doing what I do now. What makes me crazy is the notion that my bias somehow makes me wrong by definition. “Oh, teachers can’t critique MOOCs on grounds of pedagogy,” the counter-critics are implicitly saying, without noting that all of us potential professorial dinosaurs have a lot more experience with actual teaching than the vast majority of MOOC enthusiasts do. Professors are the check built into the system to make sure that any technological innovation maintains higher education’s academic integrity. Sell your faculty down the river and your students to the highest bidder and there’s likely going to be very little academic integrity left in the system that results.

My arguments here is really simple: Destroy professorial jobs and education will suffer because we professors do it better. That’s not just because Stephen Greenblatt will not take questions. It’s that we’re all right there every step of the way to monitor progress and provide the kinds of personalized guidance that students can only get from other human beings, and that’s true even for the largest classes. While people who know nothing about education seem to think that education can somehow be automated, the professoriate understands that teachers matter and that the more qualified the human being at the front of the classroom the better.

Unable to articulate a coherent educational vision of their own, the MOOC enthusiasts are forced to rely on the incredibly lame argument the way people learn now has to be changed just because it’s old. Perhaps it’s old because it actually works? Here’s a business proffie from Columbia who should really know better getting in on what is now a very tired schtick:

Further, the exact problem that MOOCs are designed to address remains unclear. They call to mind the earliest movies; in possession of new technology, no one was quite sure what to do with it, so they filmed theatrical productions! Only with time did it become clear that “moving pictures” could do things that stage productions could not, at which point the medium came into its own. MOOCs are very similar, filming professors talking in classrooms, essentially tying the technology to a pedagogical approach that harks back to the age of Socrates!

That Socrates, what did he know about learning? The Socratic Method, you say? What has the Socratic Method ever done for us? How big was its IPO?

We professors shouldn’t have to be the ones to tell the world that waving a few videos in front of people’s faces does not equal an education*, but it appears that somebody has to before the parasites and their profit motive redefine education out of existence.

* No, giving students multiple-choice tests after they’re done watching those videos doesn’t make it an education either.

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2 responses

31 03 2014
Steve Sorensen

Yes, and why is innovation never questioned on the grounds the innovators are self-interested? Is only the old promoted by self-interest and never the new? I thought the whole point of patent law was to link self-interest to innovation.

I think I am going to start arguing that we have been innovating now since the time of Socrates. Innovation is old. Therefore not innovating is new. Anyone defending innovation is immediately refuted because innovation is old and therefore they are self-interested.

1 04 2014
Saucyturtles

MOOCs are a solution to the problem that tuition is spent on Point A. If it’s such a great pedagogy, why is it not being proposed for high school, so we could do away with all the individual public high schools around the country? Maybe because there’s no tuition money? I suppose the edupreneurs could claim public money that’s currently being spent on those schools, but that might be politically different.

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