“A critic of technological development is no more ‘anti-technology’ than a movie critic is ‘anti-movie.'”
– David Noble, Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), p. xii.
As you may have noticed, I’ve been going through a David Noble phase lately. You see, last week I was writing an article for a publication that is very close to my heart (which you should be reading after the first of the year) and I thought I’d go back to David Noble’s famous “Digital Diploma Mills” articles for a little historical perspective. While I had glanced at them back in the day and looked at them again recently because they came up on Twitter in some context, it suddenly hit me that I had never read his entire book. Therefore, I ordered it ILL and started reading it as soon as it arrived.
It became apparent almost instantly that while David Noble may be dead, his ideas in that book are more relevant than ever. This part of the first paragraph in Chapter Four (p. 50) actually gave me chills:
“Promoters of instructional technology and ‘distance learning’ advanced with ideological bravado as well as institutional power, the momentum of human progress allegedly behind them. They had merely to proclaim ‘it’s the future’ to throw skeptics on the defensive and convince seasoned educators that they belonged in the dustbin of history. The monotonal mantras about our inevitable wired destiny, the prepackaged palaver of silicon snake-oil salesmen, echoed through the halls of academe, replete with sophomoric allusions to historical precedent (the invention of writing and the printing press) and sound bites about the imminent demise of the ‘sage on the stage’ and ‘bricks and mortar institutions.'”
My first thought? David Noble = Nostradamus. Seriously, before reading that I would have bet money that Cathy Davidson had coined the term “sage on the stage.” What was once old is new again.
But then I got to the last line of that paragraph:
“Only a year or two later, however, the wind was out of their sails, their momentum broken, their confidence shaken.”
We now know that that didn’t last. Online education is now a major part of higher education. It is also a permanent part of higher education. What David Noble failed to foresee is that online education when done right can be very, very good. Indeed, as I’ve learned over the course of my posts on that subject on this blog, wonderful things can be done online that simply can’t be done in the face-to-face classroom. The real problem is not the act of taking education online, it’s the force of austerity and corporatization that turn something that can be wonderful into fodder for digital diploma mills.
So where does that leave MOOCs? Can we suppose that MOOCs will improve over time, just as online education has, and turn into something worthwhile? The new argument from the MOOC Messiah Squad seems to be, “Well, maybe we won’t change the world overnight, but MOOCs will get better in the future and maybe the revolution will happen then.” That seems to be the thinking of this piece in Pando Daily (which I only saw because it linked here):
There has been a plethora of articles and commentaries suggesting that the MOOCs were all just a bad dream, and we can go back to the chalkboard with a sigh of relief.
Experienced observers of technology will recognize this as a familiar stage in a cycle. This cycle is so commonplace, it not only has a name, but its name has been trademarked by a bunch of voracious consultants who are asserting ownership of what is really a natural phenomenon in the ecology of disruptive socioeconomic change. Nonetheless, to be fair, and to avoid litigation, we will introduce it by its proper name: the Gartner Hype Cycle (TM).
The Hype Cycle is pretty straightforward. It suggests that each new technology goes through five phases: a) the Technology Trigger, b) the Peak of Inflated Expectations, c) the Trough of Disillusionment, d) the Slope of Enlightenment, and finally e) the Plateau of Productivity.
While that author was making fun of my suggestion that anti-MOOC is new black, this entire scaling down of expectations strikes me as very important. When MOOC advocates start citing the Gartner Hype Cycle as a good thing, I think we’ve reached a watershed because it means they’re already thinking post-MOOC. The question now becomes what is this thing we now call a MOOC going to look like once the bubble completely deflates? Will it look somewhat like an xMOOC? Will it look more like a cMOOC? Will any of it even be recognizable as a MOOC at all?
The online education example may be demonstrative. When administrations have given faculty members the freedom to innovate and teach how they see fit, great things have happened. Where that hasn’t happened, David Noble’s digital diploma mills persist. What separates that first scenario from the second scenario is power. If anybody wants to nominate George Siemens for “International MOOC Dictator,” I would second it. Yet even his fascinating experiments can lead to bad results if they fall victim to the same forces that Noble described so long ago now.
The economics and politics of both online education and MOOCs are intimately related. Unfortunately, from where I stand nearly everyone who’s caught up in the MOOC hype cycle spends far too much time on the first thing there and not nearly enough on the second. David Noble’s work serves as an excellent reminder that bad politics makes for bad pedagogy, no matter how enthusiastic its practitioners may be.