I was reading yet another great Christopher Newfield post at Remaking the University last week when I came upon this startling survey result:
A solid majority of college presidents agree with 2/3rds of faculty that MOOCs are a negative force in higher ed, which is not something that I for one would have predicted even six months ago.
Me neither. So why then are we still spending any time discussing MOOCs at all? Can’t we just all agree that there are better subjects having to do with higher education to command our attention?
Certainly the MOOC Messiah Squad has played a big part in keeping this futile conversation going, but then there’s also a whole school of technological determinists who are convinced that just because something can be disrupted it should be disrupted. As Newfield notes, the king of disruption himself, Clayton Christensen (along with a co-author), dropped down into the pages of the Chronicle (subscription only) to explain how disruption in the face of disruptive innovation can be avoided:
There appears to be a good lesson here for colleges challenged by would-be disrupters: Take whatever technology and tools are available and use them to organize tightly around a job to be done, to forestall—or prevent—disruption. With the mind-set of focusing on a specific job, it doesn’t matter what new technologies emerge. If a technology can help a college do the job that it has chosen, then it should be able to make changes accordingly and seamlessly. If the technology is not useful to doing the job, then a college can ignore it.
I’ll take a page from Newfield and define the critical job of any university as “creative learning.” Compared to a 4-year residential campus experience, MOOCs are a lousy tool for that. So are commercial LMSs, e-textbooks and a lot of other technological gizmos that private interests have been pushing on universities for years now. Direct contact with professors, particularly well-paid happy professors, on the other hand, is a proven winner. If it wasn’t, people wouldn’t have been paying (or even bothering) to go to college for pretty much forever. So why exactly do so many professors and administrators alike run around like chickens with their heads cut off all the time these days?
I know this opinion isn’t hip, but here goes nothing: higher education isn’t broken. The funding system that pays for college is broken (on both the student and government aid ends). The economy that employs college graduates is broken. The system of shared governance that has helped higher education stay in balance for the last century is broken on most American campuses. But “fixing” higher education without fixing these other problems will only make things worse. Therefore, maybe we don’t need a technological revolution to make higher education operate better. What if evolution, not revolution, can do the trick? Let it be. Let the natural process of deliberation within the academy resolve the problems with higher education that higher education can solve.
Oddly enough, the current state of MOOCs offers a good example of how gradual constructive change can occur. Beaten back by the opposition of faculty (and university presidents it seems) we are already in the process of entering the post-MOOC world – one in which a terrible idea might evolve into something useful as long as it’s not used exclusively for cost cutting purposes. This is from an administrator at Washington State, who after my living through the “Year of the MOOC” sounds downright reasonable to me:
There are certainly innovations and advancement to be gleaned from all these ventures and experiments, even the failed ones. There are new tools we can use to enhance on-campus education through flipping and blending, opportunities for remedial education with adaptive learning, increased access to educational opportunities through interactive online learning, improved student retention with early alert systems. That said, I think the most important development of all of this experimentation is a re-awakening to the purpose and nature of a college education.
These new technologies should be used to enhance the positive—supporting engaged faculty mentoring connected students participating in an interchange of ideas–and not to exacerbate the negative by removing the content and educational expertise (the faculty) from the student experience. Place the highest value not on the newest technological options, but on the very oldest element of instruction: the give and take of ideas between faculty and students.
There it is again! Direct contact between faculty and students. Whether online or in person, the key to a successful college experience is right in front of everybody’s face. Maybe the future resembles something somewhat MOOCish, or maybe it doesn’t, but to be successful that future requires more faculty contact with students, not less.
The title of that piece calls for the MOOC conversation to be redirected, but perhaps instead it’s time to kill that conversation entirely. To quote Newfield again:
Last year the future was Massive Open Online Courses. This year the future is something else.
Maybe we can all choose a better future this time around. In fact, why don’t all of us academics and administrators just kick all the interlopers and profiteers away from the table and finish the future of higher education conversation just amongst ourselves? We’ll at least know then that everyone around the table presumably has our students’ best interests at heart, which is a lot more than we can say now.