“Suicide Squad…attack.”

29 05 2012

I hate to pick on Kate as she’s so nice. Besides, this post is smart and reasonable in its own way. It’s also so much better than the technological utopian day-dreaming that I often find myself reading. Still, her analogy is really useful for helping me make my point here:

A couple of miles away from the place where I grew up is this beautiful Iron Age hill fort…Within the inner circle are the remaining stone foundations of an original castle, and—critically—the well that stored water for the whole settlement. Soldiers controlled the resources in the middle, and the villagers and clergy lived in the outer circle, in wooden buildings of which nothing remains. In the early 12th century, exasperated by disputes with the castle guard over access to the well, the clergy took off with the community and restablished the city in a new location, where it still is today.

It’s a metaphorical stretch, but for me this decisive, strategic and disruptive move is a caution to those who are guarding the well of traditional higher education. For a long time, we’ve held the inner circle, letting prescribed numbers in across narrow bridges that we also control. We’ve enjoyed the security of higher ground, protected by an impressive moat. But here’s the tricky part: we only get to do this as long as the whole village accepts the way in which we manage their resources.

In other words, we’re not kept in business by market demand for the service we supply, but by taxpayer-voter consensus that a public higher education system is national infrastructure worth funding, even though the majority of the population don’t get to use it.

Perhaps I should have found a Holy Grail clip to respond to this one. Nevertheless, this kind of argument always reminds me of the suicide squad from Life of Brian because no army worth its salt would give up their fort or their village voluntarily. Maybe they’ll fight to the death. Maybe they’ll negotiate a surrender that will guarantee them their lives. Maybe the soldiers will open access to the well, but get some nice land to tend somewhere outside the castle walls in return. Only academics and the Judean People’s Front will up and kill themselves before the battle or even the process of negotiations ever starts.

The American financier Jay Gould once said famously that he could hire half the working class to kill the other half. Something similar might be said of professors. The super-professors work for Gould, but they aren’t going to constitute anywhere near half the professoriate that we have now. In this case though, I at least understand their motives. The rest of us are bringing a knife to a gun fight – or worse yet, no weapon at all.

For so many academics, all you have to do is say “Think of the children!” and rational self interest flies out the window. The founders of Udemy aren’t thinking about the children. The founders of Coursera aren’t thinking of the children. [And if I’m wrong, and students are somewhere down there on their list of concerns, they certainly aren’t thinking about what happens to the professors they want to displace.] I, however, am thinking of students, thank you very much, even if I’m also thinking about the fate of myself and others like me too.

American higher education doesn’t have an access problem because the face-to-face relationship between teachers and students has somehow failed. It has an access problem because the number of administrators has exploded, the pay of university presidents has become obscene, football programs at all levels are engaged in an eternal arms race with each other and directors of admissions insist that universities need to have not one but two climbing walls in the gym in order to attract the best students. Most importantly, American higher education has an access problem because state and federal revenues have dried up since the one percent don’t want to help anybody but themselves.

Fully funding public higher education not only benefits the mostly underpaid professors (adjunct and otherwise) who work in the current system. It creates better-educated students than you’d get if you just sit them in front of a computer screen and make them watch tapes of super-professors all day. Direct interaction isn’t just key to the educational process. It’s key to the social dynamics that make real learning possible.

Professors welcoming the advent of MOOCs are therefore, to my mind at least, worse than suicidal. They’re a distraction from fighting the battle that really matters, namely the fight for a quality education for everyone who can directly benefit from it. Offing yourself before that battle is even over isn’t going to help anyone.



14 responses

29 05 2012

Sharing like crazy. Completely right.

29 05 2012
Alan Trevithick

Excellent. That’s all I have to say.

29 05 2012

So much wisdom here. Maybe a little more: the student/teacher interface has failed precisely because of the intervention of administrators and support staff, which trend has helped — along with the well-known increasing hostility to teachers that goes along with the funding squeeze and the withering perception that education’s a public good — undermine educators and education. Diminished access is a shameful fact, but so is the fact that even those who do gain access are getting a watered-down, if energetically marketed, product.

30 05 2012
Music for Deckchairs

OK, since you said I was nice, here are some thoughts — this post has really touched on such important issues and I’ll be reading it again and again.

First up, I’m shoulder to shoulder with you on the industrial issues you cite here. Things are bad, and the ways in which the most disadvantaged are being coopted by systems that ensure their continued disadvantage is becoming harder to track or understand. Your vigilance has been really important for me in connecting techno-evangelism to labour issues.

But I don’t feel that “MOOC” convincingly represents for me a simple pathogen that we can isolate and target, because there are so many versions of MOOCs, and some come with virtues that I would adamantly defend.

I’d be entirely happy to think of new names, and to develop a more focused critical response.

30 05 2012
Jonathan Rees

Good MOOC. Bad MOOC. The economic effect of undercutting the existing product is the same.

30 05 2012
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30 05 2012
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[…] and some interesting comments and replies https://moreorlessbunk.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/suicide-squad-attack/ […]

31 05 2012
luke_fernandez (@luke_fernandez)

This is an important message to disseminate especially to technologists who keep heralding Clayton C.’s notion of disruption. To be sure academe is under fiscal siege these days and we need to make it more affordable. But (in pursuing your martial metaphor) we need to choose which battles are really worth fighting. It’s possible that we can squeeze greater productivity out of our teaching. After all there is some apocryphal contingent of mossback professors whose tenure allows them to teach ossified courses in inefficient ways with little accountability. Maybe the MOOC will serve to disrupt them out of their complacency. But the mossback doesn’t describe the majority of instructors in higher education. Many have gone through a decade of advanced training for the privilege of teaching 4/4 loads for under $30,000 a year in cutthroat highly competitive labor markets. Given those miserable levels of compensation (especially when compared to other professional classes) is this the area of academe that is really driving up the cost of a degree? Is it really the source of higher education’s inefficiencies? Highlighting the MOOC potentially obfuscates where the problems really lie and distracts us from the battles we should really be fighting. As you eloquently put it:

“American higher education doesn’t have an access problem because the face-to-face relationship between teachers and students has somehow failed. It has an access problem because the number of administrators has exploded, the pay of university presidents has become obscene, football programs at all levels are engaged in an eternal arms race with each other and directors of admissions insist that universities need to have not one but two climbing walls in the gym in order to attract the best students.”

Yes perhaps we need something like MOOCS to disrupt higher education. But perhaps those techniques would be better put to use in disrupting these other far more obvious causes of our current fiscal crisis.

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