Why build a better mousetrap when you can kill the cat instead?

29 05 2013

I’ve had some trouble picking out technological books for my summer reading list. Jaron Lanier’s book sounded really good when I first heard him on To the Best of Our Knowledge. Then he uttered the word “micropayments,” and he lost me forever. Similarly, I felt kind of nervous about getting Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything Click Here because I read that he picks on some people whose work I really respect (most notably Nicholas Carr). But then Morozov showed up in an otherwise dull New Yorker story about political contributions from Silicon Valley with what may be the best quote I’ve ever seen in that storied publication:

“You might not be able to pay for healthcare or your insurance, but if you have an app on your phone that alerts you to the fact that you need to exercise more, or you aren’t eating healthily enough, they think they are solving the problem.”

“Here is a guy who understands my frustrations with technology,” I thought to myself. I bought the book posthaste, read it over Memorial Day weekend and am so glad I did.

If you’ve read the reviews, you know that Morozov’s main contribution to discussions about technology is the re-appropriation of the term “solutionism,” by which he basically means coming up with extremely simplistic technological solutions to problems that don’t (or just barely) exist. More importantly (and I think this is what every review that I’ve seen has missed and which is captured beautifully in that New Yorker quote), Morozov is particularly hard on Silicon Valley types for acting as if their technological solutions are apolitical when in fact they are political as Hell – mostly because they tend to accept the existing distribution of power as a given.

MOOCs, the usual subject of this blog these days, come up early in the book. This is from p. 8:

“The ballyhoo over the potential of new technologies to disrupt education – especially now that several start-ups offer online courses to hundreds of thousands of students, who grade each other’s work and get no face time with the instructors – is a case in point. Digital technologies might be a perfect solution to some problems, but those problems don’t include education – not if by education we mean the development of the skills to think critically about any given issue. Online resources might help students learn plenty of new facts (or “facts,” in case they don’t cross-check what they learn on Wikipedia), but such fact cramming is a far cry from what universities aspire to teach their students.”

Or at least we can only hope.

While MOOCs pretty much disappear from the narrative after that point, it was very difficult for me to forget them because the problems that Morozov spots with Silicon Valley in general apply particularly well to MOOC purveyors in particular. For example, here’s a useful quote from p. 314:

“Our geek kings do not realize that inefficiency is precisely what shelters us from the inhumanity of Taylorism and market fundamentalism. When inefficiency is the result of a deliberative commitment by a democratically run community, there is no need to eliminate it, even if the latest technologies can accomplish it in no time.”

Those two quotes actually go together very well. You can cut the inefficiencies of education down to nothing by putting videos of smiling superprofessors on the world’s computer screens, but then you won’t be teaching most people anything. Education is SUPPOSED to be inefficient because it is never (to use another word I picked up from reading Morozov) frictionless. If students can’t stop and ask questions, they won’t know if they really get the material. Worse yet, they might think they get it even if they don’t.

The other thing I kept wondering as I read Morozov discuss different aspects of solutionism is what problem does Coursera think it’s solving? The most obvious example would be the high cost of higher education, but watching videos isn’t education. That’s why we’ve never heard anyone from Coursera or Udacity actually admit that MOOCs are designed to be course replacements. They’re either supposed to help people in lesser-developed countries learn or help poor disadvantaged non-superprofessors get back to their roots and teach down in the trenches mano y mano. I find these arguments incredibly offensive because 1) People in lesser-developed countries deserve face-to-face educations of their own (steeped in the culture of their own nations) and 2) Most of us are teaching mano y mano already. [If I hate MOOCs, why do I have to defend 400-person lecture courses? Can’t I hate both?]

The other Silicon Valley tendency that Morozov covers in great detail is the widespread belief that tech alone can save the world. You know what he means already. It’s the same reason that Bill Gates is so much more dangerous now that he’s not working at Microsoft every day. Through a combination of hubris and already having too much money to know what to do with, everything must be disrupted for the good of humanity. No, humanity will not be consulted because, as that New Yorker quote suggests, the “Internet” isn’t really a democracy. It just feels like one if you have no idea how power is distributed or how it’s actually used.

Let’s go back to my favorite subject in order to make more sense of that argument. Suppose I want to improve higher education. I could build tools to help professors do their jobs better (like Zotero or Diigo or even WordPress) or I could get rid of professors altogether and hope for the best. Why build a better mousetrap when you can kill the cat instead? That way whatever sorry excuse for an education I create solely through technology (namely MOOCs) will look great in comparison to nothing.

People who want to disrupt higher education don’t care one whit about the quality of higher education. They want to disrupt higher education because that’s where the money is. While they will inevitably fail at making higher education better, recent history suggests that this inevitable failure will not prevent a few people from getting very rich at the expense of faculty and students worldwide.



12 responses

29 05 2013

This technology “solutionism” rather reminds me of the Abraham Maslow quotation: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”

29 05 2013
Clockwork Professor

I have thought the exact same thing!!

29 05 2013
Jonathan Rees

Morozov uses that precise quote, I think in the conclusion. I’d quote it, but the book’s in my office now and for obvious reasons I’m not.

29 05 2013
Clockwork Professor

Your post crystallized a couple of things that have been bothering me about MOOCs:
1. No student access to the living, breathing, presumably gifted professor–the problem here is that face-to-face interaction has now been devalued by the higher-ups, but most of our traditional and non-trad students WANT face-to-face time with their profs. EVERY student I have ever had who has taken both F2F and online coursework prefers the F2F. They take online because it fits a work schedule, not because they prefer it. They are coming out of an educational system that is based on F2F interaction, and to presume that most students would rather watch screens that be in a classroom is a drastic oversimplification that misses the fact that the students who want to watch screens in their dorm rooms are not the ones who want an education (which required engagement and hard work) in the first place. Those people want a piece of paper that *says* they got an education.

2. Students grading each other’s work–the problem here is that most students aren’t capable of “grading” each others’ work. My students HATE peer review (I teach composition). HATE. IT. Most feel that they don’t have the skills/expertise to accurately judge another’s work enough to be helpful (despite workshops and handouts and rubrics). How does getting a grade from fellow student help you learn anything? Everything we currently know (about the teaching of writing, but could probably be applied to other disciplines as well) says that meaningful feedback–written and verbal–is what helps students learn and apply concepts. How are they getting meaningful feedback from fellow students who know as much (or less than) they do themselves?

Also, thanks for the post on technology books. I had thought the same about Jaron Lanier, too–I am looking for a new book to use in my comp courses (leaning right now towards The Digital Divide, edited by Mark Bauerlein, but I am also loving Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock).

You are correct about the disruption being about the money. It is, and always will be, in a capitalist society. The “greater good” is a phrase those people use to excuse their own ambition (cf. Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).

29 05 2013
Contingent Cassandra

Amen. I especially like the idea of mutually consenting inefficiency. I’m pretty sure many students and their parents would sign on for that deal, too (though I’m not sure they’re wiling to pay for it, which may be the rub; “inefficient” but effective education has traditionally (well, at least since WWII), for the majority of the population, by governments, but elected officials seem to be one of the main targets for the “disruptors'” message).

30 05 2013

Right on, Jonathan! Did you see this local bit of MOOC news?


If CU is jumping on board, I’d say the bubble might be about to burst! (Or like the guy at Amherst said recently, if 2012 was the year of the MOOC, 2013 will be the year of buyer’s remorse.)

30 05 2013
Michael Carley

Two thoughts come up here. The first, slightly trivial one, is that computer programs are not even a good way of teaching computer programming: you learn to program well in much the same way as you learn to write well, by writing lots and having someone experienced critique your work.

The second is that efficiency and effectiveness have been (deliberately?) confused. Efficient learning is the memorization of a string of facts, which is an important thing to do, but is not all of learning. Effective learning is the absorption of principles, and the development of a framework, which structures the facts, and lets you generate new ones. Inefficiency is the price you pay for effectiveness.

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