“It could not be worse than what we do face to face.”

18 04 2013

Yesterday, Mark Palko convinced me to read an Andrew Delbanco article from a few weeks ago that I had previously decided to skip. I’m glad I changed my mind as it is indeed one of the few even-handed pieces about MOOCs around. Nevertheless, like Palko, I still found it kind of annoying. If you check his post about that article, you’ll see that Palko’s problem with Delbanco involves Baumol’s Cost Disease. I suspect Palko’s right, but my brain is so fried here at the end of the semester that I can’t quite put my finger on why.

However, I remain sharp enough to get extremely peeved when Delbanco writes this:

“[S]omething does seem different—and it’s not just that the MOOC pioneers have an infectious excitement rarely found in a typical faculty meeting. They also have a striking public-spiritedness. Koller sees a future in which a math prodigy in a developing country might nurture his or her gifts online and then, having been identified by a leading university, enroll in person—on a scholarship, one might imagine, funded by income derived from Coursera…

Koller speaks with genuine passion about the universal human craving for learning and sees in Internet education a social good that reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s dream of geniuses being “raked from the rubbish”—by which he meant to affirm the existence of a “natural aristocracy” to be nurtured for the sake of humankind.”

While I’ve exchanged a couple of e-mails with Daphne Koller (for a purpose I hope to be able to explain to y’all soon), I don’t know her. She might actually be as noble as Delbanco believes. She might also be (to borrow the name of a new online friend of mine from across the political spectrum) a Capitalist Imperialist Pig. I cannot judge the character of someone who I only read about in the media. Heck, I was a John Edwards supporter at one point in the run up to the 2008 presidential election.

What I don’t understand though is why media outlets are so willing to run every MOOC provider’s press releases practically verbatim, while those faculty who question the sanity of our glorious nearly all-online future are treated like Teamsters in tweed. Through some extraordinary form of ideological jujitsu, all market-related entrepreneurship (inside higher ed and out) has become noble almost by definition, while any workers defending their own economic self-interest has become inherently suspect even though that’s what Adam Smith would have wanted us to do. Self-interest for me, but not for thee.

I think all faculty who quietly sulk down the road towards their own technological obsolescence deserve their fate. It’s not our fault that college is too expensive. If it were, 76% of us wouldn’t be working adjunct. Yet we’re going to let the same people who have set so many American universities on the brink of financial ruin decide what the future of higher education must be?

To make matters worse, an awful lot of these folks seem to know nothing about education either. Bob Samuels recently offered the most obvious example of this phenomenon that I have ever encountered:

It is rare that people in power actually say what they think, but the current President of San Jose State, Mohammad H. Qayoumi, recently exposed what many university leaders really believe. In response to a question concerning the questionable educational value of some of his institution’s new online classes, Qayoumi said the following: “It could not be worse than what we do face to face.” This shocking statement implies that the current modes of education at his own university are so bad that nothing could be worse.

As Eric Rauchway then noted on Twitter, “US universities consistently rank among [the] world’s best.”

What’s so noble about turning American higher education over entirely to people who don’t understand the strengths of the very system they administer? Nothing at all. Somebody has to stick around in order to explain when and why the people running our universities have no idea what they’re talking about.




3 responses

18 04 2013

Just stumbled upon your blog, and I share your concern for the future of higher education. My father is is a professor-turned-administrator, so I get the occasional glimpse of the mess being made of this truly essential institution.

I’m in the midst of a lot of research about the effects of digital communication on all knowledge and cultural production. It seems as though there will be an inevitable tradeoff, likely between accessibility and profit, as your source points out, and the various qualities and standards created by personal and meaningful exchanges.

Like any quick shift in technology and society, older generations have a harder time seeing the possibilities. This is not to say they are wrong, but that the jury isn’t out yet. We’ll need critics and thinkers to inform the remind and inform us going forward, but not at the expense of actively seeking out combinations of tradition and innovation. Technology and capitalism will move forward with or without us, so what do we do to make sure the values we share about traditional education, knowledge and social-equity are carried forward?

A quick thought: I’ve had some lackluster experiences with sub-par professors that really couldn’t have been made worse by adding a digital veil. Hell, they may even have been better.

19 04 2013
Cooking with Clio

Unfortunately, it seems that the experiences with the lackluster serve to define the overall experience of higher education…what one professor turned administrator at my institution calls “in your face” teaching. Like the “sage on the stage,” another silly and unproductive slogan that does nothing to improve anything. Yet, it is more difficult for some reason to defend what has and does work well in the face of the lure of the shiny new technology and of course of even cheaper higher ed.

22 04 2013
“They mean to win Wimbledon!” | More or Less Bunk

[…] cost saving that MOOCs might offer can offset the inevitable decline in quality. [Claiming there's no decline in quality is just a way to justify the unjustifiable.] Amherst students who have the qualifications and the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: