How not to write against MOOCs and education reform

The Boston Review published an article that wants to criticize both MOOCs and some aspects of educational reform.  I appreciate its spirit and admire the author’s championing of the American midwest, an area we neglect all too often in education discussions.  Unfortunately “Predatory Learning” makes a series of mistakes which vitiate its cause.  I’d like to address them here, because I see these rhetorical moves elsewhere, and hope to convince people to avoid them.

mooc_umlautTo begin with, it’s depressing to see thoughtful, serious articles in mid-2013 that claim to analyze MOOCs making elementary mistakes about technology.  “Predatory” proceeds energetically without realizing cMOOCs exist.  That cMOOCs were the first out of the gate, and represent an alternative to xMOOCs which authors might actually appreciate (please check Wikipedia if you’re unsure of the difference).  Gecan also deems xMOOCs to be so “incredibly complex and technical” as to be comparable with the most advanced financial products which helped cause the 2008 financial crisis.  xMOOCs are many things, but they are not that complex.  Indeed, some charge them with being un-innovative in an era of actual technological innovation.

Here’s a different type of technological mistake, from a positive description of pre-MOOC-era education:

They [midwestern small colleges, high schools, and community colleges] were all profoundly pragmatic, integrating work as a part of the curriculum in the case of the first wave of small colleges, responding in part to the region’s need for workers in the case of the high school movement, both reacting to the demand for qualified labor and increasing the capacity of young and adult learners in the cases of community and vocational schools.

And yet preparing learners for jobs is exactly what the author will criticize MOOCs and some form of school reform of doing.   Indeed, many critics, like Andrew Delbanco, will passionately defend academia as a space of not being pragmatic or job-oriented, but instead offering a zone for the free exploration of mind.  Elsewhere the article offers an interesting vision of American higher education as focused on “[w]ork, pragmatism, usefulness—the values that formed the foundation of many of the most remarkable educational institutions in the nation”.  Depending on what schools we number among those remarkable ones, that description doesn’t describe a big chunk of higher education, such as research universities devoted to investigation and liberal arts institutions creating a safe space for undergraduate self-exploration.  The article ends up in the strange position of seeing higher education as not practical enough, and online learning as too impractical.

Another type of error involves misunderstanding the present based on an extrapolation from the past. For example, listen to this sense of the American economy: “While the security and hospitality industries do provide job opportunities, the wages and benefits offered by the manufacturing sector are significantly higher.” That was true, back in the mid-20th century, when such jobs were statistically significant.  But as we all know American manufacturing jobs have been dwindling for two generations, hence the swath of Rust Belt sprawling across the midwestern America so central to this article.  During the same period of exporting manufacturing jobs service jobs grew, and are likely to grow even further.  What would Michael Gecan have schools do, spend more time preparing more students for jobs that are disappearing?  He does attempt an answer, while I’ll address later on.

“Predatory” also misses other aspects of recent history.  The pieces finds that “many of the institutions created during the three waves of expansion [small colleges, high schools, community and vocational institutions] also have a clear sense of a social mission. Most modern schools have neither”, which is generally true.  But that transformation predates the villains of the piece, both Waiting for Superman and the World Wide Web.  For example, the shift in student attitudes away from Baby Boomer-era quest-for-meaning towards a focus on jobs and earnings dates back to the early 1980s.  Wanting college to yield economic goods is a desire sharpened by the current recession, especially given the spike in youth unemployment (which Gecan does not address) and fears of student debt (which, to his credit, he does). A decline in religious institutions is probably a feature of twentieth-century America. If recent developments build upon or accelerate those trends, it’s better to acknowledge them and paint a more realistic picture.

Similarly, Gecan takes pains to avoid criticizing presumably atechnological teachers.  He writes that “information can be transferred more efficiently by an online presentation than by a teacher in a classroom”, betraying a lack of understanding of what actually goes on in online learning (assessments, readings, exercises, discussion, social media, etc).  But he also avoids mentioning the fact that some teachers just aren’t very good at teaching, and that everyone can recall appalling classroom experiences.  American education is a broad, diverse beast, especially when one combines K-12 with colleges and universities.  It’s simply wrong to assign splendid quality uniformly to that uneven complexity.

We can see an example of this when Gecan contasts “one celebrity professor performing for the online masses [a]s more effective than one hundred capable professors in front of one hundred gatherings of students”.  I’m not sure he means all of those capable profs are tenure-track; he mentions adjuncts later on.  But notice the “capable” tag, a subtle preference for better instructors over the rest.  Does he mean to compare the best of offline education with typical MOOC instruction?  If so, that’s a different argument from focusing on normative instructors.  In his discussion of Finnish teachers Gecan seems to imply that American K-12 teachers are not of good quality, but neither comes out to call for their improvement, nor to defend their innate pedagogical powers.

Critics of higher education often change institutions with administrative bloat.  While it is true that non-faculty staffing have increased over the past generation, it’s important to accurately understand its causes.  “Predatory” describes this trend in very odd terms, as  “hordes of staff—servants really, fetching books for students in an open library, renting cars for student volunteers for the ride to a nearby soup kitchen”.  The reality is far different.  First, we’ve seen the expansion of information services over the past generation, primarily for IT staff fulfilling needs which were scarcely on the institutional radar when Gecan was at Yale.  Second, there has been significant growth in often unfunded governmental regulations, requiring new staff.  Third, colleges and universities simply grew in size as they welcomed more students, requiring more staff hours for preexisting services.  We could add the growth in mental health services, charges of upper administrations building empires, and boards paying C-suite executives ever-increasing salaries.  Gecan hints at the latter towards the end of his article, which a swipe at “the elites at the top of the current educational heap—who advanced their careers while the educational culture declined”.  Yet he doesn’t connect that to the cost problem, nor address other reasons for the growth in non-instructional staff.

Critics of new technologies in schools often describe their advance as overpowered, driven by forces that blow past resistance and skepticism.  Yet it’s easy to overstate the case.  For example, Becan describes an ongoing threat to academic executives:

existing university presidents, such as the University of Virginia’s Teresa Sullivan, risk immediate, public, and humiliating dismissal if they do not embrace this glittering technology quickly and passionately enough…

In all seriousness, has this happened at any other institution?  How many presidents have lost their jobs in the roughly 4,400 American colleges and universities? We’ve seen rising tensions between faculty and presidents, but that’s the opposite of what happened to Sullivan, who was apparently driven out by a faction of that institution’s governing board.  Yes, presidents have fallen over the past year, but usually for more familiar causes: declining enrollment, gaffes, etc.

Ultimately Gecan calls not just for academic reform, but for something far more ambitious, a social overhaul of the United States: “All nations need building—or rebuilding—including ours.”  Which suggests that the social and economic costs of redesigning education are far larger than could be solved by, say, increasing state appropriations to public institutions.  Indeed, this is where many critics of education reform and MOOCs fall down: the difficult economics of education.  We can ask for many things – reformed education programs, higher pay for K-12 teachers, expanded funding for universities, a rebirth of tenure track positions, decreases in class size – but often without describing how to pay for any of them. Cutting the salaries of some highly-paid presidents won’t do the trick.  Meanwhile, the pressure to cut tuition and other costs is enormous.  Appealing to a romantic past might offer an emotional response, but doesn’t teach us how to address huge problems in a very real present.  I admire the sweep of Gecan’s final call, but wish what preceded supported it,.

As a counterexample, Robert Reich tackles these issues squarely, outlining changes to schools from funding to testing, all in terms of the realities of “the new economy”, at least as he sees them.  Reich is hardly a friend to big business, and manages to offer systemic solutions.  We can disagree about the likelihood of implementing such changes, but agree as to their audacity and ambition.  If we’re going to oppose MOOCs, this is the scale of thinking we ultimately need to attain.

Moreover, if we want to criticize technology-based education reform, it’s vital to get the technology right, and to approach the present economic situation with our eyes open.  Otherwise our prescriptions will fall flat, and we’ll ultimately fail to sway audiences.

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3 Responses to How not to write against MOOCs and education reform

  1. Pingback: How not to write against MOOCs and education reform « GHBrett's General Store

  2. Pingback: Weekend Reading: New Frontiers Edition - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

  3. Pingback: Yet another miscellaneous MOOC link round-up |

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