“Don’t go for second best, baby.”

10 05 2012

Yeah, I’m really going to blog about Madonna and I’m going to make it relevant too. First, however, let’s start firmly within the usual subject matter for this space. Peter Cohan writes about edX in Forbes:

So if pricing is a market signal, what message is the free edX sending out to consumers and suppliers of higher education? To answer that, it’s worth pointing out that there are many reasons that people apply to these top colleges – and among those reasons, free edX sends a signal that knowledge of an academic subject is nowhere near the top of the list of what is important to parents who are making the tuition payments.

“That’s not true!,” I can here you say, very defensively. Price does not signal the value of a college education! The real value of a college education is in the intangibles and you can never get those without personal interaction. I happen to agree with you on all of that. The problem though is that that may very well not matter.

The New Yorker has a fawning profile of Harvard’s Clayton Christensen this week. As much as I dislike his attitude toward nearly everything, I still think he’s right about this:

“He realized that, whereas in a regular classroom students could learn only in one way-the way the teacher taught them-online learning offered students who thought differently from their teachers a way to get help. What’s more, recorded lectures and online learning were much cheaper than teachers in a room, so they had the potential both to bring otherwise unavailable courses to underfunded schools and to disrupt not-underfunded schools, like Harvard. Few people at the not-underfunded schools agreed with him-they couldn’t imagine that an online course could ever be as good as the old-fashioned kind. They didn’t realize that a low-end product didn’t need to be as good as a high-end one to drive it out of a market.

[emphasis added]

It’s the same reason that students flock to for-profits. They do so not out of desire, but out of necessity as they have no viable alternatives. Online advocates tell you essentially, “If we build it they will come,” but then fail to mention that the main reason they’re coming is that poor public funding has priced even students from the middle class out of the market for the face-to-face alternatives.

Which brings me back to Madonna. Yesterday, I found a 1990 interview with Madonna on Nightline which I remembered from back in the day. Last night, it disappeared from YouTube because the user had closed their account. So you’ll have to trust my transcript of her defending the “Express Yourself” video at the top of this post:

“I chained myself though, OK? There wasn’t a man who put that chain on me. I chained myself. I was chained to my desires.”

It’s all about agency, people. Give students a real choice and there’s no way they’ll pick an inferior product. Destroy higher education through systematic under-funding and what students actually desire won’t matter. In that case, it should also go without saying that what professors desire won’t matter either.



7 responses

10 05 2012
Jonathan Dresner

Isn’t one implication of this line of argument that we should be working to create online opportunities based on our own pedagogical and methodological standards? (I admit that this is a self-interested question: we are creating online courses for our undergraduate and graduate programs, though only some of us and not for all classes. But it seems to me that it’s better that we do this than leave our students to the tender mercies of Phoenix….)

10 05 2012
Jonathan Rees

Fully fund public education and the choice wouldn’t be between bad and worse.

10 05 2012

as much as you dislike his attitude towards nearly everything? really? you might not like his research, but like you say, it’s scarily prescient

10 05 2012
Jonathan Rees

Fair enough,

I think Christensen enjoys the process of disruption far too much. There are lives and livelihoods on the line every time we accept creeping high-tech mediocrity over an established alternative. As the New Yorker made clear, he certainly profits from it.

24 05 2012
Which side are you on? « More or Less Bunk

[…] explains how Clayton Christensen’s prediction will come true. Students priced out of the face-to-face experience will demand online college […]

11 06 2012
Bad teacher (for just about everybody). « More or Less Bunk

[…] the lines that George Siemens does here, with lots of interaction and guidance, Clayton Christensen has suggested how the bad will drive out the good over […]

14 02 2013

[…] How does Clayton Christensen sleep at night?  Instead of suggesting that he enjoys watching professors (not to mention countless thousands of other university employees) lose their jobs, let’s stipulate that he’s excited about all the wonderful things that MOOCs and other forms of online education are going to do for students.  Of course, Christensen can’t be talking about the quality of the education that students will receive.  As the New Yorker explained his thinking a while back: […]

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