Ken Eckert Essays

Am I That Useless?
The Problem With Massive Online Education Isn’t the Courses; It’s Their Advocates

By Ken Eckert

February 1, 2013

Admittedly, almost everyone probably feels that what they do for a living deserves more respect. I like being a professor but if I had my time back I would be an architect. People make fun of professors, lawyers, or engineers, and we have mixed feelings about physicians, but architects do sexy, creative things that still have a practical purpose. Scholar has never rhymed with dollar. Be an architect.

But as you read this I’m yet another English professor writing about my thoughts on higher education. Some critical theorists talk about the ’struggle’ of writing and use psychological terms of aggression to understand the process. I would like to think that writing is ideally a friendly conversation. But intrinsically— and maybe this is why comments on websites after blogposts can be so hostile— is writing maybe placing yourself above the reader in some way, presenting information that for the moment you know and the reader doesn’t? Even if the writing is intended to erase that difference, for the moment we aren’t equals. Perhaps teaching also has this inherent power differential; I am giving you something you don’t yet have.

Journalist Thomas Friedman often writes that no matter what country he goes to, people are always dissatisfied with their school systems and think another country’s is superior. More recently, in his NYT article Revolution Hits the Universities, he seems to find a digital solution to improving higher education by collapsing these physical borders entirely, moving it online. The article lavishly praises the recent growth of MOOCs, massive open online courses:

I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh — paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment. “There is a new world unfolding,” said Reif, “and everyone will have to adapt.”

There are innumerable problems with the MOOC model already pointed out, which I can only summarize. Much of the ’education’ of a degree is not in the classroom material, but in the socialization and life skills derived by spending time in a room interacting with real bodies in real time, some of them difficult people. You prepare for a career by learning to think and work with people with eyes and faces whom you’ve flirted with, drank with, argued with; you learn to deal with bad moods, flat tires, snow, and overhead projectors that crash using all five senses. We have bodies, we eat, and we are social animals. That tactile and personal engagement is not easy to replicate online, and correspondingly MOOCs have a horrific dropout rate.

Moreover, MOOCs only look at the front end of courses by replacing lectures with videos or texts and then augmenting them with online chats or meetings. But papers need grading, students need advising and encouragement, and presentations need to be watched and evaluated, something difficult in mega-online courses of thousands of students. The model might work well with an IT course but does not explain how a lab biology or language conversation class would function. Lots of jobs in the future will indeed be online. But we are also constantly told that communication and interpersonal skills will be crucial, and for careers where you need to dress professionally, arrive on time, talk with people, and get your hands dirty, MOOCs don’t seem a good preparation.

There are, of course, good things about MOOCs in that they broaden opportunities for education to the very isolated or very poor, in addition to bringing courses to developing nations lacking a university system. Many people I know have taken distance graduate degree programs online, or in a combination with part-time on-location coursework. In the long run such programs will likely form parts of or augment traditional classroom courses, ideally enlarging the higher education pie rather than replacing it. No one should begrudge anyone who wants to learn.

But what I am more worried about is not that universities will largely disappear from the world, but rather the feelings of the people who evidently want this to happen. Some of the rush to MOOC programs is of course rooted in simple greed: Don Tapscott’s The Week University (As We Know It) Ended reports for HuffPost, glowingly predicting the liberation of higher education from the monopoly of universities, led by Coursera, Udacity, and edX. Not coincidentally, Coursera, Udacity, and edX and a lot of rich backers at Davos stand to make a giant cha-ching of money from hawking such programs, and probably wouldn’t see a high-flown problem in enjoying their own quasi-monopoly over education were they to become the Microsoft and Apple of higher learning.

So we have corporate interests who want to make university coursework mass-produced and purely a consumer purchase whereby students choose from a dim sum of selections. The corporations at Davos, naturally, are not going to trumpet that their goal is to create cheapie and uniform McCourses for DIY degrees, but rather voice platitudes that ’information wants to be freely available but greedy, obsolete universities want to monopolize it.’ The freedom-liberation bromide, of course, doesn’t apply to copyright films, books, and other media. That information doesn’t want to be free, apparently. Another lament is that ’the university model is unsustainable.’ Unsustainable, of course, is code for unprofitable. By such a metric public water treatment is unsustainable.

Another group of foot-soldiers are the journalists and technophiles. As much as I like Friedman, he’s inevitably captivated by anything shiny and digital and global, and there’s nothing which can’t be reinvented by his everpresent fantasy of “whiz kids in Bangalore” who form a start-up. I shouldn’t be so upset by such journalism, but frankly, much of it is uninformed twaddle. The assumption is that because universities are a medieval institution, axiomatically it must be inferior to newer technological models, and that these are events somehow unresponsive to human control: everyone must adapt, and if the bed doesn’t fit we’ll just have to saw off a limb or two off the sleeper.

The third category of people who I believe actively want to see universities suffer comes from the anti-intellectualism which is so prominent in U.S. culture. We often smugly assume this movement is purely in the Bible Belt, which is not only an unfair caricature but ignores the wider hostility toward higher learning in American culture. I wrote earlier that blog comments online can be depressingly belligerent—they are particularly hostile toward universities and professors in the articles I’ve mentioned on MOOCs. The comments of course only represent the dissatisfied, but there are the mainstay criticisms of useless, boring lectures delivered by musty, overpaid ivory-tower profs who do irrelevant lib-left research, on overpriced campuses for impractical degrees.

Which is 20% true. There are valid criticisms of the present university system; many campuses are overweight with administrators or country-club facilities, and top salaries can be excessive. Though fewer professors actually have tenure anymore it is admittedly abused, and that’s a valid reason for discontent. Yet it’s one of my convictions that none of us are as rational as we think we are; what appears clear to me— granted, I’m less than objective on the topic— is that much of this movement stems not from specific objections but from a deeper and more visceral resentment of educators: those people who think they’re better than I am, and who told me what to do. There’s a sense of justice in nearly-free education, for that’s what it’s worth.

Viewed through this model, professors were one of the last occupations which couldn’t be outsourced or automated, and now there’s a path to do so. Why does the world need 5,000 history professors if we can hire a dozen from Harvard, tape their lectures, and have every student in the world watch them? The remaining people left would simply be graders and co-ordinators at clerical wages. The medieval relationship between professor and student would be commodified into that of service provider and customer, fitting nicely into the unquestionable post-Reagan creed that all worthwhile things must be run like a business and make a profit.

Moreover, another ideal goal of such a model is that the power differential of teacher and student is erased. The second sacred creed of the modern era is that no one can be better than anyone else; otherwise they are elitist. This concept has served America well in the past in challenging the British class system and in new innovation but is toxic if taken to the extreme position that all credentials are worthless and being able to ’relate’ to people as equals is better. I’m not joking; presidents have almost been elected that way. Do we want a braniac or someone we can have a beer with?

Again, I’m aware that the lecture model of university courses isn’t perfect and that many new fields require more interactive learning strategies. Yet I’m suspicious of the bromide, offered quite often by people who don’t know what they’re talking about, that the ’old model’ of professor as class leader and conveyer of knowledge is gone, and the future is the teacher as ’facilitator’ of independent or group learning. This both lets those uppity professors get theirs, and sounds warm and globally by positioning teachers as co-learners alongside their students “viewed less as fountains of knowledge and more as mentors,” as Tapscott intones, denying them any real superiority in expertise at all and helping to justify shrinking their numbers and role.

An interjection, though: I find it additionally strange of the MOOC companies that, for all the talk of universities as elitist, the product they peddle is courses digicamed only by the finest select Ivy-league profs (because, really... they’re just better people), assuming not only that one viewpoint on a humanities topic is possible but that such people’s interpretations are superior. Once the videos are uploaded, though, the all-star’s involvement is probably finished; at that point the customer is king and might dictate everything from readings to grades.

As for the rest of us who are professors, we can all go to hell. On websites we fondly remember toys and tools rendered obsolete by technology, remembering 8-track tapes and photostats, or regretting the necessity of occupations made redundant, such as travel agents and bank tellers. But there’s a positive glee about the idea of having ten universities left on the planet with all those profs ejected from their ivory towers, the few left put behind monitors for customer service or to input scores. I can only liken it to the schadenfreude many would feel if a special disease only afflicted lawyers. As the job prospects for academics went from bad to nothing, there would be no more academic PhD students. But so what: dissertations are also an obsolete medieval leftover, along with the worthless research that professors do for journals that no one reads.

Am I that useless? I get the idea that I am at times, that the role of teacher and professor as inspiring and serving as a personal role model, turning students on to new topics and programs, is viewed as sentimental rubbish. As we de-fund all remaining vestiges of professionalism from our society, replacing all interpersonal transactions as something we price out and buy, I sense we become extremely lonely. Maybe we would respect the lectures of a Randy Pausch or Stanley Fish teaching us online, but we would consume their product rather than knowing them as humans. MOOCs may fade and beneficial compromises may be found. But for now I’m puzzled that an educational movement meant to empower people really has very little regard for people and how they think and feel.

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