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What’s wrong with higher education?

Since I signed up as a MOOC student, I’m seeing MOOCs everywhere ;)

Clay Shirkey, always a provocative and often a prescient commentator has an interesting take on the state of higher education. His starting point is cost benefit. In the USA the cost of a basic bachelor’s degree rose 75% in the first ten years of this century while the income of graduates has dropped 15% (both figures adjusted to 2000 dollars). That’s hardly a powerful selling-point! In NZ a Statistics NZ report in 2007 found that already then “Debt [was] increasing proportionally faster than income”, this is not merely an American tale.

At this point, having established that bachelor’s degree study is under critical economic pressure Shirkey turns to MOOCs writing:

This is the background to the entire conversation around higher education: Things that can’t last don’t. This is why MOOCs matter. Not because distance learning is some big new thing or because online lectures are a solution to all our problems, but because they’ve come along at a time when students and parents are willing to ask themselves, “Isn’t there some other way to do this?”

MOOCs are a lightning strike on a rotten tree. Most stories have focused on the lightning, on MOOCs as the flashy new thing. I want to talk about the tree.

He points also to a changing student demographic, this may not yet be paralleled across NZ, but it is a familiar picture at institutions like Carey:

If you want to know what college is actually like in this country, forget Swarthmore, with 1500 students. Think Houston Community College, with 63,000. Think rolling admissions. Think commuter school. Think older. Think poorer. Think child-rearing, part-time, night class.

It is no wonder, given this context, that there is rising interest in MOOCs:

Though educational materials have been online for as long as there’s been an online, and though the term ‘MOOC’ was coined half a decade ago, it was only last year that they stopped being regarded as a curiosity, and started being thought of as a significant alternative to traditional college classes.

His conclusions run like this:

I’ve been thinking about the effects of the internet for a couple of decades now. I’ve watched industry after industry forced to renegotiate their methods and models, in the face of a medium that allows for perfect copying, global distribution, zero incremental cost, ridiculously easy group-forming: The music business. Newspapers. Travel agents. Publishers. Hotel owners. And while watching, I’ve always wondered what I’d do when my turn came.

And now here it is. And it turns out my job is to tell you not to trust us when we claim that there’s something sacred and irreplaceable about what we academics do. What we do is run institutions whose only rationale—whose only excuse for existing—is to make people smarter.

Sometimes we try to make ourselves smarter. We call that research. Sometimes we try to make our peers smarter. We call that publishing. Sometimes we try to make our students smarter. We call that teaching. And that’s it. That’s all there is. These are important jobs for sure, and they are hard jobs at times, but they’re not magic. And neither are we.

The competition from upstart organizations will make things worse for many of us. (I like the experiments we’ve got going at NYU, but I don’t fantasize that we’ll be unscathed.) After two decades of watching, though, I also know that that’s how these changes go. No industry has ever organized an orderly sharing of power with newcomers, no matter how interesting or valuable their ideas are, unless under mortal threat.

Instead, like every threatened profession, I see my peers arguing that we, uniquely, deserve a permanent bulwark against insurgents, that we must be left in charge of our destiny, or society will suffer the consequences. Even the record store clerks tried that argument, back in the day. In the academy, we have a lot of good ideas and a lot of practice at making people smarter, but it’s not obvious that we have the best ideas, and it is obvious that we don’t have all the ideas. For us to behave as if we have—or should have—a monopoly on educating adults is just ridiculous.

For background on the more cultural and less economic reasoning that led me to think similar but different thoughts see my:

Tim Bulkeley, “Back to the Future: Virtual Theologising as RecapitulationColloquium 37,2 2005, 115-130

What I did not quite factor into the discussion then was MOOCs. Now I must think about if or how they might change things…