The online education fairy.

14 07 2012

There’s nothing like leaving the country in order to turn you into a citizen of the world. I got an invitation last week to be a panelist for a Guardian online chat entitled, “Freelance, part-time or fixed-term: Is this the future of academic careers?”. Since it was actually much more convenient to do that at Noon London time while here in South Korea than back in Colorado, I decided to give it a go. You can see my comments and everyone else’s at the bottom of the above link.

While it was my Denver Post op-ed about adjuncts that got me an invite to the panel, I spent an awful lot of my time writing about the effects of online education on academic employment of all kinds. About three quarters of the way in, this comment popped up:

I have championed the need for a new academic performativity one where technologies are embodied, multi-media content is embedded and education is co-created interactive experience. Most importantly, rather than hidden behind the hallowed walls of institutions where authority of educators is to be maintained at all costs and dry sanitized content masks as education, let the world be the judge through the conduit of technology. Intensify the gaze put the wares on show and let the market decide. Again although this might smack of neo-con ideology in education I am vociferously against that stance – the problem is it’s here and been here for ages. I advocate this techno-transformation and new performativity because it will kill the virus of self-interest and institutional protectionism, protect the idea of education and project aspirations, which should be for the many not the few.

I actually think this principle is a good one when carried just to syllabi. However, the faith exhibited here in both markets and in the extraordinary awesomeness of our online future (albeit from the opposite political perspective that I usually encounter) reminded me of the Confidence Fairy.

I think it was Paul Krugman who first used the term “Confidence Fairy” to describe wishful thinking in support of economic policies that translate into permanent austerity. Here’s the economist Paul Davidson, who actually lived two doors down from me while I was growing up (his son was my favorite babysitter), formally defining the Confidence Fairy at Naked Capitalism:

Conservative economists and their friends like to trot out a mythical being whenever they want to make arguments that favor an economy built for the wealthy at the expense of ordinary people. This imaginary being, known as the Confidence Fairy, is only happy when capitalists are given free rein to do whatever they want – even if it brings us to the brink of a global economic meltdown.

His counter-suggestion is direct stimulative spending à la John Maynard Keynes. Some of that spending might actually go towards education:

The fact is that even if this large, needed Keynesian stimulus spending were financed by large federal deficits, we would not be impoverishing our children. Instead we would be investing in the future of our children by providing them with an adequate educational system so they could be qualified to take on future productive hi-tech jobs.

Yet instead of more government contributions put towards higher education, we’re getting less. Instead of spending what’s left on proven methods of education, government funds in programs like Pell Grants are going towards efforts aimed at disrupting higher education rather than supporting it. Universities (public, private and for-profit) are spending all this money on technology in order to expand the market for their product whether an online education actually helps those new students or not and whether or not there are any jobs available for them once they graduate. That’s why I think it’s time to recognize that a lot of smart people whom you’d probably expect better from under other circumstances actually believe in the online education fairy.

Professors are workers too. The American economy would improve far faster if we gave every adjunct in the country a living wage than if we sent every new freshman to cyber clown college for free. The adjuncts would use that money to buy homes, cars and meals that are more expensive than ramen. On the other hand, most of the cyber clown college graduates would still be looking for work after they’ve graduated because there still wouldn’t be enough jobs to go around.

Encouraging students to enroll in online clown college or MOOCs (for-profit or otherwise) in order to retrain themselves for a brighter future that doesn’t exist is not only bad policy, it’s just cruel. The fact that so many students go into debt up to their eyeballs in order to attend college of any kind only makes it crueler still. If American higher education were really making the transition to an online future for the sake of students, why don’t online courses cost less than their inefficient, face-to-face counterparts?

Yet students are hardly the only victims here. The jobs of too many working, family-supporting, taxpaying professors at all levels will be sacrificed the longer we insist that the online education fairy is real. Her partisans don’t even bother hiding this objective. Just look at Helen Dragas’ reading list. Apparently, she was particularly smitten with this Wall Street Journal op-ed which argued that:

Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive)—as has happened in every other industry—making schools much more productive.

More people with college degrees competing for the same limited number of jobs as before, and now they can join most of their professors on the unemployment line! Exactly how long are incoming students going to put up with that arrangement? Do we really want to find out? It’s as if everyone who’s been arguing that there’s a higher education bubble is using online education to manufacture that bubble in order to prove they were right in the first place.

Helen Dragas will be out of a job too when that bubble pops, but she can go back to selling real estate full time. The rest of us will have to live with the supposedly “creative” destruction that the online education fairy will wreak.



One response

28 08 2012
Paul Krugman, Conservative Fairies and I | वसुधैव कुटुंबकम

[…] The online education fairy. « More or Less Bunk…/the-online-education-fairy/ […]

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