“Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

30 07 2012

Usually I depend upon Thomas Frank for this sort of thing, but Howard Fineman has read the newest conservative bestseller so that the rest of us can ignore it. Here’s the part that speaks to the main subject of this blog:

Our superior culture of risk, [Ed Conard] says, is fostered by comparatively low personal taxes and light government regulation. And that, in turn, has yielded growth rates way above those of Europe and Japan. “The Internet is the key and they have produced NOTHING–no Facebook, Google, Amazon, YouTube, Apple, Microsoft–NOTHING.” Bottom line: leave the market alone.

Of course, for every Facebook, Google and Amazon this culture produces, there are several Pets.coms. Indeed, social media companies that once looked like the future are already tanking on Wall Street. Yet, as Historiann recently noted, successful, established universities are falling all over themselves to sign up with private companies so that these firms can host brand-extending MOOCs despite the fact that those firms currently have no revenue stream at all.

Where’s the money going to come from? There are no good answers.

When your typical venture capital fund comes in and buys a company, they monetize their investment by selling off the pieces, sometimes even when that company is already profitable. This is what’s led to all those ads with steelworkers explaining how Mitt Romney shipped their jobs off to China. Unfortunately, college professors aren’t particularly sympathetic figures. Therefore, tearful explanations of how Coursera left us unemployed won’t evoke any sympathy from anyone.

However, the second line of attack on the Mittster’s business career might be much more useful in our situation. Besides outsourcing American jobs, Bain Capital has made scads of money whether the companies they’ve taken over have been successful or not. Create the next Apple, the risk takers get rewarded. Act like this, they still get rewarded:

And on Thursday, the 800-pound gorilla of the group, Facebook Inc, reported tepid results that shaved some $10 billion off the company’s market cap. The stock has gone straight down since its botched May initial public offering and now trades over a third below its $38 IPO price.

“The VCs, the private equity guys at the early stages, already cashed out and made their fortunes,” said Peter Schiff, chief executive of Euro Pacific Capital. “Everybody else who ran to buy the stock at the IPO at a sky-high valuation ended up holding the bag.”

In the case of higher education, the VCs backing Coursera and Udacity are only part of the problem. What about the administrators who sign their universities up with these companies, or worse yet, spend tens of millions of dollars of other people’s money pursuing a homegrown version of the flavor of the month? They can point to their “record of innovation” then move on to greener pastures before the effects are felt.

Seriously, if you really want to disrupt higher education, don’t you think it would be a good idea to make sure that there are different people with different attitudes in charge when you’re done?


Online education doesn’t kill. People do.

9 05 2012

I hope Phil Hill eventually forgives me for this post as he was being incredibly nice to me on Google+ yesterday and all I’m going to do here is carp. He began with a discussion of Naomi Schaefer Riley. Here’s how he transitioned from her to me:

The higher education community is very effective at placing certain topics, or at least certain opinions, off azlimits. That is to the detriment of the community and to its reputation in our society.

Contrast this situation with ed tech or online education. In that case, there is a vigorous debate allowed and encouraged. There are many proponents of the increase in online education, but most of them listen to and engage opponents of online education. Likewise, read Jonathan Rees (@jhrees)- he is a vocal opponent of most of online education. But he attacks on the issues and explains his position.

Let me begin the carping with Naomi Schaefer Riley too (w/o links, as I’m sure most readers are bored of the subject by now). Naomi Schaefer Riley got fired from Brainstorm not because she’s a racist, but because she didn’t meet basic standards for academic discourse. If you’re going to suggest that an entire discipline deserves to be wiped off the map because of the quality of its scholarship, you should at least have the courtesy to read the scholarship. “Read the dissertations,” went the title of the first post. When the second post made it clear that she hadn’t, the Chronicle ultimately had no choice but to let her go.* In other words, Phil, she did the exact opposite of what you say I do regularly.

At least I try. It was about a year ago that I transitioned from poorly-read history and labor blogger to better-read edtech and labor blogger because I realized that most professors hadn’t the faintest idea what was happening to higher education right under their very noses. Therefore, I decided to get a hold of everything I could about education technology in general and online courses in particular and see if I could tease out the implications for what I do semester after semester.

I could definitely see why Phil would call me a “vocal opponent of most of online education,” but that’s not how I see myself. If Phil’s and my mutual online friend Kate has taught me anything it’s that my beef isn’t really with online education per se. It’s with the motivations of the people in the United States who have the power to implement it. To paraphrase the NRA badly, “Online education doesn’t kill. People do.”

Take Mitt Romney, for example. Just yesterday he told a crowd in Michigan (via Political Animal):

I will improve schools and universities and colleges with greater choice, greater accountability, and greater application of the technologies that have transformed so much of our economy.

Based on Mitt’s record at Bain Capital that sounds like an open door for online adjuncts in China. It also reminds me of the Republican Party’s plan for government in general. First they take it over. Then they run it into the ground (profiting handsomely along the way). Then they run again on a platform of more of the same because government doesn’t work.

I know from my extensive reading that an awful lot of people working on online education in this country have the purest of motives, but they aren’t the ones who control university budgets. Those people seem more interested in sabotage to me. Perhaps not sabotage of education in general, but certainly sabotaging the prerogatives of faculty.

* None of these thoughts are original to me, by the way. See, for example, this post by Zunguzungu in order to watch the entire train wreck unfold in 140-character bites.

Eve of destruction?

9 03 2012

Why do so many people these days get their jollies contemplating the destruction of my job? Take, this guy, for instance:

I think what you see happening now with the massive open courses is going to fundamentally change the business models. It’s going to put the notion of value front and center. Why would I want a credential from this university? Why would I want to pay tuition to this university?

I don’t know…perhaps because you want more than a vocational education. Because you think you’ll learn more in a class with fewer than 10,000 people in it. Because you want to move out of your parents’ house as soon as possible. Because you’re interested in the humanities. [As far as I know, it is still very difficult to study the cello online.]

Then there’s this guy:

The high school senior who stood up at Mitt Romney’s town hall meeting here today was worried about how he and his family would pay for college, and wanted to hear what the candidate would do about rising college costs if elected. He didn’t realize that Mr. Romney was about to use him to demonstrate his fiscal conservatism to the crowd.

The answer: nothing.

Mr. Romney was perfectly polite to the student. He didn’t talk about the dangers of liberal indoctrination on college campuses, as Rick Santorum might have. But his warning was clear: shop around and get a good price, because you’re on your own.

“It would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that,” he said, to sustained applause from the crowd at a high-tech metals assembly factory here. “Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And hopefully you’ll find that. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.”

Daniel Luzer explains why this answer is, as the English like to say, bollocks:

Since 1980, the cost of public universities, adjusted for inflation, has tripled. And so if the state doesn’t fund the public colleges very well, as the former governor of Massachusetts might understand, students just pay more for college. There’s no “shopping around” and “going to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education” that will fix that problem.

Sign everybody up for MOOCs and taxpayers won’t have to foot the bill for anyone’s higher education and higher education as we know it will be dead. Force students to pursue the ever-elusive excellence without money and the effect will be the same. It will just take a little longer.

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