Everybody remember the expectation that a smart, professorial President would hire an equally smart, skilled staff who would prove that a well-run government can be quickly responsive to the needs of the society, efficient in the execution of its duties, and not just services to the highest bidder?
Yeah, me neither. The current Administration seems determined to help us forget. Today the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report on massively online open courses (MOOCs) that not only reads as if it was written a year ago, but manages even in the frame of a year ago to take the most cravenly deferential and crudely instrumental posture available in that moment. It’s a love letter to the venture capitalists scrambling to gut open higher education, written at a time when the most thoughtful entrepreneurs and executives involved in organizing MOOCs have all but conceded that whatever their value might be, they’re not going to solve the problem of labor-intensivity in education nor are they going to serve as a primary vehicle for achieving equity of access to higher education for potential pupils.
There was a good deal of I-told-you-so-ing after Sebastian Thrun announced that Udacity would move towards offering MOOCs for something other than basic higher education, in part because Thrun had concluded that they simply couldn’t substitute for existing models of teaching. I don’t think anyone should have mocked Thrun for saying so, even though many of us did say that this is what was going to happen. Not the least because it has happened before, at each major milestone in the development of mass communication in modern societies: the new medium was eagerly held up as a chance to affordably massify education and extend its transformative potential, only to fall short. Largely because no matter what mass medium we’re talking about, this kind of education is essentially an assisted form of autodidacticism. It has worked and still works largely only for those who already know what they want to know, and who already know how to learn.
There are some people who deeply believe that new technological infrastructures can in and of themselves solve problems of cost, equity and efficacy, in higher education or anything else. But at least some of the people who were preaching the MOOC gospel a year ago, where the President’s Council just went in their time machine, did so hoping to draw a Golden Ticket in the “I Made an IPO and Broke Something Important” sweepstakes. Most of those folks seem to be moving on now. In the Silicon Valley game, you don’t have to make money, but you do need to show that you can displace and disrupt an existing service with some speed. That’s not going to happen in this case.
One of the reasons that so many faculty who are otherwise very friendly to digitally-mediated innovation and change were so annoyed with MOOCs is that the intense push by companies and investors to draw attention to MOOCs drew energy and resources away from existing projects that have been using information technology to enhance and enrich traditional modes of teaching, often called “blended learning”. Now that the craze for the MOOC is starting to fade, maybe the blended learning conversation can gain the public attention it deserves once again.
But also, maybe we can hold on to what we’ve learned about the genuinely interesting possibilities of MOOCs. So they’re not going to magically solve the economic problems of education or public goods, or for the more anti-intellectual backers, they’re not going to create a world where algorithms will replace truculent faculty. If we get lucky, they might put some of the sleazier for-profit online educators out of business. However, existing MOOCs are still a potentially terrific implementation of three possible objectives, all of which might even have market value.
1) MOOCs are a model form of new digital publication. If you read this blog, you’ve seen me say this before (and seen me say before, somewhat crossly, that I’ve been saying it for years.) But this is no longer just potential: it’s reality. Does anyone remember how many people bought “For Dummies” books? Or in recent years, how many institutions are paying for a lynda.com account? The MOOC is a BOOC: it’s an enhanced, interactive instructional guide where other readers and the authors are there to help you learn. An instructional book has never been confused for a face-to-face course in a university, but it’s also a concept that’s been in existence longer than the university itself.
2) MOOCs are learning communities. Again, this is a potential that’s been around since the WELL, but existing MOOCs are a good demonstration of mature technologies and practices that help dedicated groups learn and explore together at various levels of commitment and interest. They can’t teach calculus to a single student who is underprepared to learn calculus, but they can help a very big group of people who have diverse knowledge and a common interest in the future of higher education learn and discuss that topic together.
3) The mass response to MOOCs are evidentiary proof of the transformative potential of traditional higher education. They’ve been misused as vehicles for transforming higher education, but what they really document is that people who’ve had higher education want to have more learning experiences like that for the rest of their lives. It’s why I always feel so sad when I talk to a Swarthmore alum who just wants to talk about books and ideas and research again and who starts to think that this alone is a reason to go on to graduate school. It’s not a good reason to do that because that’s not what graduate school typically services. But look at who takes MOOCs: it’s a close overlap with people who take community college courses for enrichment, with people who join book clubs and go to lectures, with people who just want to know more and talk with people who also have that aspiration. What have MOOCs shown so far? That there are a lot of people like that. They’re busy people, so they often drop out. But I bet those people are to support for educational institutions as a public good, ready to believe in the potentialities of education for a democratic society. MOOCs might not entirely scratch the itch for lifelong learning that many people who’ve had a taste of education develop, but they’re one way to respond to that desire, and more potently, an affirmation that the desire exists.
If the White House wants to pay attention to something important, they might start there rather than embracing the hope that market forces will automagically deploy the MOOC to finally relieve the technocrats of the burden of maintaining and extending public goods.