What took everybody so long?

20 12 2012

There are days when I want to turn over this entire blog to nothing but culinary history. It’s a very interesting, under-blogged subject that would probably bring me a lot more visitors than education technology does. This could also save me from ever having to encounter the word MOOC again. I’m not sure whether what seems to me like a recent spate of anti-MOOC writing that I’ve encountered makes me more likely or less likely to take up this new banner. However, it certainly makes me wonder what took everybody so long to get where I’ve been for a while.

Those of you out there who have only begun to have visited this blog recently may have missed one of my favorite posts about this subject. I wrote it back in May. It has a “Grapes of Wrath” theme, and it somehow attracted the attention of someone who I shave ince learned is one of the inventors of the entire MOOC concept. He wrote in his very first comment:

A university education is priced beyond the means of most people in the world, and those who profit from reserving it and treating it as a social club for a moneyed elite, those professors with their six figure incomes and retirement packages, you call those the dispossessed.

There are, of course, two problems with that assessment. First, something like 75% of the American professoriate these days are adjunct and most of the rest of us don’t make anywhere near six figures. That was my obvious response, and if you do bother to read all the comments to that post you’ll see that discussion didn’t start well and it got worse from there.

The second problem with that assessment has taken me more time to nail down. Here’s the pithy version: If higher education is really broken, why do faculty have to bear most of the cost of fixing it? Seriously, if you want to fix higher education, shouldn’t you actually fix education rather than automate it? Instead of beating up on professors, all these reformers might actually consider other parts of the university budget.

Complaining about presidential salaries or the cost of football is easy. I want to complain about borrowing costs. I find most of this article absolutely appalling, but there’s a good point hiding here:

In 2007 Princeton completed construction on a new $136 million luxury dormitory for its students—all part of an effort to expand its undergraduate enrollment. Last year Yale finalized plans to build new residential dormitories at a combined cost of $600 million. The expansion will increase the size of Yale’s undergraduate population by about 1,000. The project is so expensive that Yale could actually buy a three-bedroom home in New Haven for every new student it is bringing in and still save $100 million. In New York City, Columbia stirred up controversy by seizing entire blocks of Harlem by force of eminent domain for a project with a $6.3 billion price tag. Not to be outdone, Columbia’s downtown neighbor, NYU, announced plans to buy up six million square feet of debt-leveraged space in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, at an estimated cost of $6 billion. The University of Pennsylvania has for years been expanding all over West Philadelphia like an amoeba gone real-estate insane. What these universities are doing is pure folly, akin to building a compact disc factory in the late 1990s. They are investing in a model that is on its way to obsolescence. If these universities understood the changes that lie ahead, they would be selling off real estate, not buying it—unless they prefer being landlords to being educators.

These are the social clubs for the moneyed elite, and they’re riding the MOOC wave rather than stifling it. How much will these very rich schools be paying in debt servicing over the next thirty-odd years for all those buildings and all that land? How much of that money could be going to hiring and keeping the best full-time faculty possible? How much of it could have gone to scholarships instead? And remember, bond holders have first dibs on whatever revenue those schools maintain. At state schools like mine with debts to pay from building booms, the faculty are at the very back of the line.

And notice the schools in that last quote are precisely the kind of schools that are signing on with MOOC-providers like Coursera. That’s why you have to wonder whether they intend these MOOCs to be educational endeavors or revenue generators because they obviously need all the revenue they can get. Some of that money would come from monetizing all those eyeballs, but the initial bonanza would come as a result of saving money on labor costs.

I’m not saying all MOOCs are the same, but no matter how wonderful your MOOC is it still means fewer jobs in the future for underpaid faculty everywhere. That’s why they get funded. I have no idea why many more of my colleagues around the globe apparently haven’t been able to see that fact sooner.



5 responses

20 12 2012

I’ve been wondering about the role of new construction in the rising cost of higher ed. Has anyone done a study on that? There’s more to it than borrowing costs, of course. There’s ongoing maintenance and upkeep, facilities management and security personnel, insurance… A growing student population will cover those costs to some extent, but we can’t expect the student body to grow indefinitely.
I don’t mean to derail the MOOC-rant, but you bring up something I’m curious about.

21 12 2012
World History MOOC Report 16: In which I try to sum the whole thing up. « More or Less Bunk

[…] I think I’m going to start back after Christmas with a whole new topic. No, it won’t be all culinary history but there’ll definitely be a lot more history here than there’s been lately. I suspect […]

21 12 2012
The Rich (Universities) Are Different QOTD « A (Budding) Sociologist's Commonplace Book

[…] One of this recent posts takes on the issue of the cost of education in reference to MOOCs, and specifically the perception that guild-like professors are trying to maintain their cushy lifestyles at the expense of needy students who can’t afford expensive tuition. This argument has more than one flaw, as Rees notes, especially the idea that most university faculty make a lot of money (in fact, by volume of teaching, I believe most are now adjuncts working a low piece-rate). Rees goes on to quote an article from The American Interest on lavish expenditures by top universities: […]

23 12 2012

I pay over $12,000 a year for my children’s college room and board, and they live in closets and eat cafeteria food. I believe that room and board is a profit center for colleges and universities. Not to mention that by adding new dorms, schools can increase class sizes. I don’t think it’s at all obvious that Yale’s real estate investments will cost the school money over time.

6 01 2013
Kathleen Lowrey

I did miss that earlier exchange, thanks for the embedded link. Stephen Downes makes some very good points, I think, but what doesn’t follow at all from them is that MOOCs as currently packaged and promoted will lead to the affordable universalization of higher ed. Consider the cast of profiteering weasels behind them.

I would argue that, first, free online education already exists in the form of many, many blogs — I’ve participated in wonderful “seminars” on feminism, for example, from which I have learned a lot and for which I have not paid one thin dime. I don’t believe Clayton Christensen was involved (nor, of course, was credentialing).

Second, for-profit online education will not, repeat NOT, be cheap. It will, if the MOOC profiteers have their way, be obligatory; once it is obligatory, only the very naive can suppose that they won’t charge the same high prices for that digitally-mediated credential that are being charged to students for the current in-person-mediated credential.

I don’t think organizing around protecting professorial salaries is a good strategy in the face of this. That strategy doesn’t include most of the people doing most of the university teaching anyway. I think the point to make is that anybody who tells you out one side of their mouth that they want to help the world’s poor and out of the other side that they plan to make a profit doing so should be watched very closely and with at least a moderate degree of skepticism.

In the meantime, professors might start doing a lot more free open accessing of their own syllabi, lectures, and other materials. This would also help to clarify that it’s not really the “broadcast mode” aspect of university teaching that is the precious part — it’s the attentive evaluative side, which can’t be massively scaled.

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