“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.”
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.“
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.