I think heard of the late David Noble’s unbelievably prescient analysis of American higher education, “Digital Diploma Mills,” when he first wrote it. However, young and naive proffie that I was, I didn’t actually read it until all sorts of people started quoting Noble to make a lot of very salient points about MOOCs. You should certainly make time to read the whole thing if you haven’t already, at which time this part will give you chills:
“[O]nce the faculty converts its courses to courseware, their services are in the long run no longer required. They become redundant, and when they leave, their work remains behind. In Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel Player Piano the ace machinist Rudy Hertz is flattered by the automation engineers who tell him his genius will be immortalized. They buy him a beer. They capture his skills on tape. Then they fire him. Today faculty are falling for the same tired line, that their brilliance will be broadcast online to millions. Perhaps, but without their further participation. Some skeptical faculty insist that what they do cannot possibly be automated, and they are right. But it will be automated anyway, whatever the loss in educational quality. Because education, again, is not what all this is about; it’s about making money. In short, the new technology of education, like the automation of other industries, robs faculty of their knowledge and skills, their control over their working lives, the product of their labor, and, ultimately, their means of livelihood.”
Did I mention that Noble wrote that in 1998? Now his timing might give you solace, knowing that this kind of automation hasn’t happened yet. That’s been true because the technology hadn’t fully caught up with higher education’s aspirations for automation.
It has now.
What interests me more though is Noble’s description of the long-running campaign to discredit faculty in order to make this kind of automation possible:
“[University administrators] are mounting an intensifying propaganda campaign to portray faculty as incompetent, hide–bound, recalcitrant, inefficient, ineffective, and expensive — in short, in need of improvement or replacement through instructional technologies. Faculty are portrayed above all as obstructionist, as standing in the way of progress and forestalling the panacea of virtual education allegedly demanded by students, their parents, and the public.”
Certainly, plenty of evidence exists which demonstrates that that campaign continues to this day, but we should not forget the potential carrots that go along with those sticks. For example, the edtech startup StraighterLine depends upon the hopes of adjuncts everywhere that the Internet and the free market will somehow combine to make them millionaires. Making this same pitch to tenured faculty is even easier. Here’s part of a brief from yet another computer scientist at Stanford which I got from his web site (.pdf)*:
New types of institution are not the only threat to traditional universities. In a flat world, everyone can be a student and everyone can be a teacher. Some professors will become popular celebrities; a thousand Carl Sagans and Jim Collins’s will bloom. There will be competition among universities for those stars,and in the longer term some of them will leave the university system altogether and act as independent teaching businesses, sometimes in partnership with the new emerging institutions.
Pay no attention to the unemployed professor lying in the gutter along the edge of campus. A couple of people at big universities got rich!!!
Of course, many professors see technology, especially MOOCs, as an extraordinary opportunity to make the world a better place rather than as a way to enrich themselves. For some reason, many of them seem to be Canadian. Here are two of those Canadian academics, the MOOC pioneers George Siemens and Dave Cormier:
Open learning does not negate the role of the educator. Instead, open learning adjusts the role of the educator with respect to access to new content and engagement tools now under the control of the learner. Educators continue to play an important role in facilitating interaction, sharing information and resources, challenging assertions, and contributing to learners’ growth of knowledge.
Now all of these things would be awesome if it weren’t for the fact that the ongoing war against faculty that Noble describes will prevent almost everyone from adopting such a role. [Are things better in Canada? Somehow I doubt that.] Here in America, we’ll never get down to a $10,000 college degree if we keep giving professors crazy things like health insurance and a living wage. Sure the powers that be will give all faculty the opportunity to become as famous as Carl Sagan was, but in our winner-take-all economy being able to do the kinds of mundane things necessary to allow faculty to earn lofty status no longer matters.
When David Noble wrote “Digital Diploma Mills,” his idea that universities had begun to act like for-profit businesses was still somewhat shocking. That part of his argument shouldn’t be shocking to anyone anymore. Of course, if that weren’t true, MOOC Mania would not be happening. What American higher education needs now is a stronger industrial proletariat. Perhaps because I actually teach students for a living, when it comes to higher education I believe in the Labor Theory of Value. I wish that all the disruptors of the world who like to invoke Mao in the service of their cause actually believed the same thing.
* As I write this, it’s at the top of his “publications” tab on the left. By the way, this memo is just screaming for Aaron Bady to fisk it. I just don’t have the stomach for that.