14 02 2013

“Fifteen years from now more than half of the universities will be in bankruptcy, including the state schools. In the end, I am excited to see that happen.”

Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School, 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:

“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]

So assuming that Christensen isn’t just a sadist, he must think the price advantages of MOOCs and online education for students will more than make up for whatever defects it faces with respect to educational quality.

But educational quality isn’t measured only by how much students learn.  It also depends upon the climate in which that learning takes place.  Sure, it’s possible to film superprofessors lecturing and deliver that content online, but there are so many other basic cornerstones of a university education that MOOC providers have yet to figure out.

For example, consider grading.  I’ve participated in peer grading of writing assignments.  It doesn’t work.  Nobody in a MOOC has any incentive to do it well.  Besides, if students knew how to write they wouldn’t be taking a humanities classes in the first place.  What about computer grading writing assignments instead?  Laura Gibbs, writing on Google+ this morning, answered that question this way:

I am searching for software that can accurately check for what IS objective – punctuation, for example. There are rules – but they are rules based on MEANING (Let’s eat Grandma v. Let’s eat, Grandma) – and because those particular rules are based on meaning, even though they are objective rules (all humans know we are not going to eat our grandmothers), the computer cannot even do that much. The computer cannot understand the meaning, so it cannot apply the rules.

Even if she’s wrong, how far in the future is that going to be?  Will most people forego English classes for several decades in the interim?  If it happens quickly, how expensive will that kind of computing power be?

Or suppose you want to take a class that can’t be taught on a computer?  This includes whole disciplines:  Music, Art (outside of computer graphics), lab science, etc.  I asked my last Provost about online lab classes once (he’s a chemist by training) and he described to me a scenario in which students got packages through the mail and mixed dangerous chemicals in front of their computer screens.  Listing all the reasons why that’s never going to happen would take me all day.

Or what if students can’t attend online class at all because they don’t have good Internet access or don’t even own a computer?  The amazing Tressie MC pointed out the other day that:

Technology is great. It can be easy to forget when you live in a world of high iPad concentration that not everyone in this country has reliable access to the high speed internet that makes these cool devices and systems so, well, cool.

Much of rural America still struggles with access to broadband internet. And if there is a racial/ethnic/class divide in educational access there is just as serious a rural/urban divide. In eastern North Carolina where my family is from it is not at all uncommon for a family to share the expense of a satellite dish because the infrastructure for cable is not there.

Education for all, in other words, isn’t really education for all.

Sure, all these problems might be solved someday, but what happens if Christensen’s dream happens before any of these problems are solved?  Or suppose you don’t want to major in business or computer science?  Or suppose you teach English or history at a community college somewhere?  I’ll tell you what happens: No future, no future, no future for you.

Clayton Christensen, on the other hand, will still be doing fine.



10 responses

14 02 2013

If self-education worked really well, there would be a whole lot more brilliant and well-educated auto-didacts out there having gotten their education at local public libraries. But the truth is, most people need incentives, structure, and guidance, and watching a film doesn’t provide those any more than making books available in a library. I’m all for films and books, but I know I need a reason to learn and structure and guidance to learn well.

Unfortunately, I think many of the MOOC proponents don’t care so much about real learning as they do about money, whether in profits or savings.

14 02 2013
Kathleen Lowrey

I think it is worse than that — I think they want universities killed. It’s far more ideological than it is financial. If you read Christensen’s book, his “exemplary” school, BYU-Idaho, didn’t start using on-line courses on a voluntary basis; they introduced requirements for certain majors that at least 2 courses *had* to be taken on-line. If MOOCs were a genius business idea, they’d be making a private-sector profit already. Instead companies like Udacity “partner” with public universities (and thus attach their private-sector funnels to public funding). Eventually, students from average to poor backgrounds are not going to be given a choice between “traditional” and on-line versions of college. They are going to be informed that if they want a degree, and of course they will want one because it will be necessary to even be considered for any of the few jobs left in the economy, they’ll have to sit in front a screen for a few years, at the end of which they can take some credentialing exams. Rich students will still pay premium prices for traditional higher education, especially because it will remain — and be reinforced as — a marker of super-eliteness.

But money isn’t really the point for zealots (and I use the religious term advisedly) like Christensen. They want the publicly-funded enterprise, through which independent, critically-minded researchers in everything from geochemistry to gender studies are enabled to work in many institutions and influence many other fellow citizens, destroyed. It’s a wild-eyed ideological campaign disguised (as is so often the case) as a common-sense pragmatic one.

Arguing the technical dimensions of whether MOOCs could be effective for democratizing certain aspects of knowledge-diffusion (they could be, managed entirely differently than they are at present) misses the point.

14 02 2013
David Golumbia

i only disagree about “money isn’t really the point.” it’s the point because a) true liberal arts education tends to produce people of all political stripes who question the foundations of big social questions, and therefore make profits more difficult (a major reason for the neoconservative war on education); b) Christensen’s B-school buddies want to tap into/divert that big income stream from both funders and students that they now see going toward the state, instead of private corporations.

14 02 2013
David Golumbia

thank you for writing this.

my state university forces us to indicate how we will implement Christensen’s creative disruption (mentioned by name and with references) in all our internal funding applications. every time I see it I want to run into the President’s office with the quotations you’ve picked out (and others) and ask him how long he plans for the university to continue to exist, so I can figure out my career plans.

14 02 2013
Jonathan Rees

My first guess is that you live in Texas. Second guess is Florida.

14 02 2013
David Golumbia

Virginia (running a close third in neocon anti-education bluster, & home to both K. Cuccinelli and E. Cantor)

14 02 2013
Jonathan Rees

That would have been my next guess.

15 02 2013
Kathleen Lowrey

Bet you wouldn’t guess Canada! But Christensen’s tome is the little red book for the Board of Governors at my institution, the University of Alberta.

14 02 2013

Thank you for writing this. About the lab science component: I’m not a scientist, but just how far will the chemistry major get without the complex and expensive equipment that any university lab has? To graduate school? To real-world applications of the science and discoveries?

And once university research funding dries up (no need for professors = no one to do research and write grants), who’s going to do the fundamental R & D that companies have increasingly farmed out to (or stolen from) research institutions over the past few decades?

The only thing that won’t be at a premium are “ideas” like Christensen’s.

15 02 2013
University teacher

It doesn’t matter what we think; it matters what student value. We can argue that MOOCs don’t provide the same climate, or (for the moment) the expert feedback that is found in a traditional setting, and I agree with these views. But the students will vote with their feet, so it may be worthwhile being clear about the value we add, and perhaps seek ways of enhancing this.

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