Digital sharecropping: Higher education edition.

30 05 2012

Nick Carr has had a couple of really interesting posts up lately about what he calls “digital sharecropping.” First, from the earlier one:

One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few. It’s a sharecropping system, but the sharecroppers are generally happy because their interest lies in self-expression or socializing, not in making money, and, besides, the economic value of each of their individual contributions is trivial. It’s only by aggregating those contributions on a massive scale – on a web scale – that the business becomes lucrative.

As I noted when I used this quote before, he’s writing about Facebook there, but the more I learn about MOOCs the more I think there will ultimately be no differences between the two entities on a commercial level.

Here’s Carr from his most recent post that covers the same ground quoting the Economist:

Some of the biggest brands in software, consumer electronics and telecoms have now found a workforce offering expert advice at a fraction of the price of even the cheapest developing nation, who also speak the same language as their customers, and not just in the purely linguistic sense. Because it is their customers themselves. “Unsourcing”, as the new trend has been dubbed, involves companies setting up online communities to enable peer-to-peer support among users. … This happens either on the company’s own website or on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and the helpers are generally not paid anything for their efforts.

We professors tend to get all misty-eyed when students can help explain difficult concepts to other students, but what happens if we collectively decide that it’s acceptable for computers to do all the grading and for explanations from peers to be the only explanations students ever get? I’ll tell you what happens, professors lose their jobs.

I’ve already seen signs of this trend before. [You can see a couple of them in this post from last September.] I thought of this again in the middle of an argument with Stephen Downes I’ve been having in the comments to this post. He sees a new MOOC-y world where today’s adjunct can be tomorrow’s superstar. I see a new world where even the adjuncts are out of work because other people will do what they’ll do for free.

As I’ve been saying for some time now, we all operate inside markets. Even academics. Offer the same services that colleges and universities do for less (or especially for free) and there are inevitable consequences. Commodify that service by allowing private companies into the mix and there is no way to keep market values out. Even if your MOOC is the most wonderful and caring MOOC in the entire MOOC-osphere and it brings wonderful knowledge to the unenlightened everywhere, you are undercutting the value of an existing industry that employs tens of thousands of people worldwide. Yet we are told that we have to sit idly by and accept this as both inevitable and good for humanity.

To this I say, “Balderdash!”. You might be able to steal my bread and butter thanks to the miserable circumstances at American universities that I described here, but there is no way in heck you will ever convince me to like it.




One response

11 12 2012
Digital sharecropping, Coursera’s business plan and the future of higher ed. « More or Less Bunk

[…] mentioned the term “digital sharecropping” before here, but I think it bears repeating in light of more recent MOOC madness. All the way back in 2006, the […]

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