Not ready to make nice.

There’s an utterly reasonable comment on my last Arizona State/edX Global Fresman Academy post that deserves a response, so I figured I’d make it a post of its own.  Here’s how that comment starts:

“Do you really think it will work, though? I think this is actually great, because it’s going to go down in flames while everyone watches (I’ll also be pointing and laughing). The “disruptive innovation” model might say “hey we’ll provide cheap shoddy rebar” and eat everybody’s lunch. The thing is, as cheap and shoddy as that rebar might be, it’s still rebar”

Yeah, I’ve been there. Indeed this blog (like its predecessor) has become one long history of me going back and forth over whether MOOCs will fall down and never get up or whether those MOOCs will kill us all.

Some of the follow-up to this ASU story certainly suggests that the cheap rebar is going to collapse sooner rather than later.  For example, there’s the fact that students who enter the Global Freshman Academy won’t be eligible for financial aid.  Matt Reed noted the ridiculous price difference between ASU’s “All MOOC freshman year” and the same at the local community college.  Then there’s this absolutely amazing piece of trickery, publicized by John Warner:

The giveaway is in ASU’s intention to not distinguish between face-to-face, traditional online, or MOOC credits on their transcripts. This is a way to, in the words of a commenter on the IHE report, “launder” the MOOC credit, cleansing it with the ASU brand name.

To me this is a sign that the people offering an all-MOOC Freshmen year know it’s inferior. So why don’t we just sit back and let this MOOC thing die it’s own death in the marketplace?

I’m not ready to make nice because even a dying swan can destroy an entire ecosystem if it’s equipped with a sub-machine gun.  So many universities are in precarious positions right now that I’m worried that they couldn’t take another shock to their systems.  Whether that shock is the death blow or whether they deserve that shock doesn’t matter. Any disturbance from any direction could be fatal.

Look at LSU, for example.  Despite massive cuts already, it’s not as if they’re failing at their mission.  The whole public university system there is on the verge of declaring financial exigency because the Republican legislators in that state WANT it to fail.  I can easily imagine a scenario where the State of Louisiana says “Let Them Eat MOOCs,” then the MOOC Global Freshman Academy fails too.  Then both students AND faculty will be left holding the bag.

Ultimately, though, the most important reason that faculty can’t sit back and act as if the Global Freshman Academy is fine and dandy while awaiting its death by natural causes is that even a short-lived all-MOOC education still harbors the potential to redefine what education is.

In a shocking development, I’m actually most of the way through Kevin Carey’s The End of College right now.  It’s actually better than getting a root canal, but that’s about the nicest thing I’m willing to say about the book.  Countless others have reviewed it better than I could, so what I want to do instead is to point out the re-definition of higher education in action.  This is from page 116:

“The Internet had a profound and immediate impact on the contact of university research, allowing scholars to share data and knowledge instantaneously.  But education is more than that, too.  It involves sustained, organized interaction with the educational designs of experts, either in person or as represented in words and computer codes.”

[The first emphasis is Carey’s.  The second is mine.]

In other words, sustained interaction with a computer now constitutes higher education.

The problems with that possibility are manifold.  The first one that pops into my head is the utter inability of anybody taught this way to think outside the box.  Yet this still strikes me as the perfect kind of education for working in an Asshole Factory, which makes me wonder whether the whole all-MOOC education thing is a lot more viable than any of us faculty really recognize.

That’s why I am not going to back off and just let this whole thing play itself out.  The stakes are to high for the employment prospects of professors everywhere, not to mention the economic future of the next several generations.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Doug Holton

    Isn’t it, as usual, about the money? They want to charge for something you can get for free, and charge more than they do for better alternatives (regular, smaller-sized courses).

    It’s like a spammer/scammer – if even a tiny percentage of people fall for it, it’s a success in that it brings in sufficient extra money, at near zero cost for the university.

    They should sell ads that are placed in the MOOCs they create. That at least wouldn’t financially rip-off students as bad.

    To be fair though, we should think about other more “traditional” ways universities sometimes “rip off” students – admitting and charging tuition to at-risk or underprepared students without providing them the support needed to succeed. Maybe more universities could do what Uri Treisman and the Dana Center to help do the best we can to help students succeed. Shifting the emphasis from admissions to retention/completion. ASU’s “New American University” aims for this, too, I think, but their actions aren’t always in sync with their rhetoric, apparently.

  2. Uncle Bruno

    I’ll take MOOCs seriously when Mike Crow tries that crap at Columbia and not Arizona State. It’s not about the technology. We just had our final faculty meeting of the year. Here’s what I learned from our Prez and Provost:

    1. They’re phasing out tenure.
    2. No raises.
    3. Get ready for some cuts.

    I reckon that’s a familiar refrain. Fuck you if you can’t afford a good education, and be grateful for whatever job you have. Now, what are you going to do about it?

Leave a Reply