Sunday, April 21, 2013

Not Content

Recent articles and incisive blog posts about MOOCs, alongside few more recent news articles that present different ideas about the purpose of higher education in this country have vividly illustrated the shift to thinking about education as content and students as users. I don't have a lot to add to Historiann's fantastic close reading of the decision of Amherst faculty to turn down the opportunity to partner with EdX; however, it's notable that this story hit Inside Higher Ed just a few days before A. J. Jacobs review of MOOCs and Frank Bruni's column on the purpose of higher education both appeared in the NYT.

Bruni writes about the debates at the UT flagship campus in Austin: Is college intended to provide job training, or something else? This is an open question, as lawmakers and educators in Texas, Virginia, Oregon, and many other states are increasingly interested in providing job placement statistics and salary figures for graduates with different majors. But, as some high-profile educators have pointed out, judging the worthiness of a college education by immediate post-college graduate earnings is far too narrow a metric. A liberal arts education does more than train someone for a job; it gives young people the skills to envision and invent the jobs they want, and it helps them become better global citizens and community members. But this view can certainly seem like a luxury, given the high numbers of unemployment for people under 25 and ballooning student debt.

I don't think anyone working in higher education today is unaware--at least to some degree--of the many stresses on both private and public higher ed in this country, and the difficult choices they are going to force.* And I certainly think instructional technology can provide pedagogically exciting opportunities to meet some of these challenges and to democratize education. The Jacobs piece, however, exposes some of the major issues that MOOCs present: attrition, isolation, and the idea that education is the same as content-delivery. If that's the case, then why not just do away with MOOCs entirely, and just skip to Wikipedia and YouTube? This is a slight exaggeration, but I do think that, at its core, this idea of education seems to be based around a "content-provider" platform. Professors provide the content, which EdX, Udacity, etc. then provide to the user. Content is static, not dynamic (the lectures, once written, recorded, and produced once, can be essentially "syndicated" and repeated every year or two). The other tacit assumption that this model rests on is that teaching and learning are scalable. This, it seems to me, is what the Amherst faculty found most at odds with their mission to provide education "through close colloquy." The scalability of education that MOOCs promise is also part of the "content-provider" model: I can watch content on my tv, my computer, my tablet, and my phone, anywhere I go (Jacobs addresses this explicitly). Education through "close colloquy" between students and faculty isn't scalable, and it's not portable. How long before we see EdX or Coursera partnering with Comcast or Time-Warner? Has that already happened?
*Indeed, I recently talked to someone who'd been at a large meeting with the president of an extremely wealthy, extremely prestigious private university. When asked by an attendee what the president was optimistic or excited about w/r/t the future of higher education, the president chuckled bleakly.


Historiann said...

Love the comment about why not just skip Coursera et. al. and go directly to YouTube and Wikipedia. This is a point that some historians (me included) have been making all along: why didn't the public library put colleges out of business? Why didn't correspondence courses, phonographs, radio, TV, cable, and AOL make universities irrelevant & turn us all into self-educators? (All of these things were hyped in their day as offering exciting, democratizing access to the best educators in the world! Who wouldn't take advantage of the power of technology to make us better people?

Except, all of these technologies are clearly preferred by humans as sources of entertainment, and they've proved to be much more monetizeable as entertainment than as education (public libraries, radio, and TV excepted, of course.)

My prediction? Online ed will go the way of those canned audio and video lectures offered for sale in the back pages of The Nation and The New Republic. Maybe they'll also get some traffic from retirees who want to learn a new language or a new field--dabblers, like A.J. Jacobs. That is, presuming that the economy turns around & former students can find jobs & start paying down their staggering debt. If the current austerity & unemployment regime remains for the next decade without relief, then I fear that I'll be among the last of the regular faculty at non-elite, non-flagship institutions like mine.

E. R. Truitt said...

Thanks, Historiann. I've read your posts, and others', about the similarities to correspondence courses, AOL, etc, but hadn't put it together so specifically with the content-provider nature of MOOCs.

You may be right about MOOCs going the way of Teaching Company (or whatever it's called). I keep thinking about the proliferation of proprietary medical schools in the 19th century, and wondering if we'll see more higher ed that looks like that: pay some $$$, get some "information," and a qualification to get a job (especially if politicians, trustees, etc. persist in seeing a college degree as a professional qualification for something specific).