At least Clayton Christensen is honest about his intentions.

So I finally listened to the podcast with Daphne Koller that Audrey Watters described as 17 minutes of “Gah!”  It was indeed painful.  However, masochist that I am, I listened to it more than once in order to do some transcribing for you.

The most amazing part came at the very end. The designated pro-tech Slate reporter interviewing her, Marvin Ammori, told Koller:

“I do want to say, though, that I think Christine [Rosen, the designated technoskpetic Slate reporter, who also interviewed Koller] and I agree on one thing: that neither of us believe you when you say you’re not going to destroy mid-tier and lower-tier schools.  That we believe firmly that even though…you can’t quite say it, but I don’t think either of us believe you when you say you’re not going to eventually just radically change the way education is done in America and I think that’s a great thing. I can’t wait to get rid of a lot of the excess fat in the education system and I think that Christine thinks that it’s not a great thing and you can deny it all you want but neither of us believe you.”

Koller’s response to this?  Silence.  Yes, the podcast ended right afterwards, but if Koller actually wanted to deny any of that statement she certainly could have done so. They never would have cut her off in mid-response.

Of course, Koller did say exactly the opposite in more than one place earlier in the podcast.  For example. she declared at one point:

“I think higher education is expanding in the sense that the audience that we’re reaching is considerably larger than what has traditionally been viewed as the target audience of higher education. There is an enormous number of people out there that can benefit from access to higher education for whom traditional avenues such as going back to college for two years for residential experience to get a masters degree are just not a feasible alternative because they’re working adults. And so effectively we’re opening a brand new market.”

Later, she proclaimed:

“I don’t think we’ve ever argued that this should be a substitute for the kind of intimate, face-to-face education where people really bounce ideas off each other and there’s a real dialogue.  What I expect will happen to these colleges is that the professors will rather move up the value chain so instead of standing there and delivering content they will use that material much as one uses a textbook today as the starting point for a discussion.”

What this means then is that Marvin Ammori essentially called Koller a dirty liar to her face (or at least over the telephone).  If somebody called me a dirty liar to my face, I’d object.  Wouldn’t you?  But Koller didn’t.

I think that’s because Coursera has always tried to stand on both sides of this street simultaneously. They want to have their cake and eat it too by simultaneously appealing to the disrupt education crowd and looking like the corporate equivalent of Albert Schweitzer by bringing higher education to refugee camps.

For that game to work, their audience has to completely ignore the way that power is distributed across academia and across American politics in general.  Consider the really terrifying story (also in Slate) about a new conservative plan to destroy the “college cartel.” MOOCs got a mention:

“Under state accreditation, higher education could become as diverse and nimble as the job-creating industries looking to hire,” Lee (or his ghostwriter) explains. “Authorized businesses could accredit courses and programs to teach precisely the skills they need for their employees. Apple or Google could accredit computer courses. Dow could accredit a chemistry program, and Boeing could craft its own aerospace engineering ‘major.’ ” In other words, relax regulations, and let a thousand flowers bloom.

Even if conservatives have been the most eager about rethinking accreditation, there are plenty of moderates and liberals who are keen on the idea as well. President Obama himself has embraced the concept: In 2013, he called on Congress either to tweak the current accreditation setup or establish “a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal aid based on performance and results.” Theoretically, that would give online programs a path to federal recognition. In left-wing think-tank land, meanwhile, David Bergeron of the Center for American Progress has advocated for creating an accreditor that could award students course credit for those free MOOCs.”

Now that’s not an additional market – it’s the heart of the student body for those lower- and mid-tier schools that Marvin Ammori is so keen to disrupt. More importantly, it’s where all the tuition dollars are, which is why Ammori is willing to call Koller a liar for acting as if she’s not interested in that same market.

The role of college professors in all of this is to serve as gatekeepers for defining what higher education is. Is it just a piece of paper which says that you’ve been exposed to a certain amount of content or is it a process that reflects deeper learning? Koller acts like it’s the second but every material interest of her company suggests that they’d prefer it to be the first. This explains why Coursera wants to lead professors on with promises of spending more time doing the kind of teaching that we really love like lambs to the slaughter. Hopefully, we faculty are smart enough to see through this tactic. Marvin Ammori certainly is, which explains his response right at the end of 17 minutes of “Gah!”

At least Clayton Christensen is honest about his intentions.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. jwr12

    I guess one question is whether people will trust degrees issued by Apple through the purchase of Apple products (programs), etc. One myth, it seems to me, in the techno-libertarian vision is the idea that colleges somehow dictate, through accreditation, the value of college degrees. If it wasn’t for all that bureaucratic muckety-muck about the value of BA’s, the implications is, we could just let people buy their competency certificates without those geeky professors and have done with it. Yet would it actually work that way? I doubt it. I guess we’ll have a test case soon, since it seems hard to believe that all the tech money lusting after market capture, along with edureform zeal, won’t get its way on the accreditation front. Yet will the Apple College (TM) competency certificate buyer who ‘value added’ with a course in Logical Thinking from Microsoft Knowledgespace (TM) get the job, or will the BA from, you know, a real college? That’s not something colleges dictate, the market will dictate it, although there will be a lot of painful disruption and blood in the water for institutions and students along the way. And one thinks at the end of the day they will have been fooled again by the new boss, though employers won’t.

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