Thursday, December 05, 2013
Notes from NEASC
Yesterday I gave a brief discussion at the NEASC conference in Boston, thinking it would be about the potential impact of federal performance funding for community colleges. In passing, I made the point made here earlier this week that right now, we measure ‘performance’ using proxies, such as graduation or degree completion, but that using competencies offered the possibility of getting closer to measuring actual learning. I considered it peripheral to the main argument, if interesting in itself.
The q-and-a was devoted almost entirely to the question of competencies. When the audience grabs a side point and runs with it like that, there’s usually a reason. I expect to see a lot of movement in this direction, and soon.
Gratifyingly, I also got to meet a few longtime readers in person. I was especially heartened to meet one who read it for years before deciding to move into a deanship. Structures matter tremendously, of course, but it’s still helpful to get thoughtful people in the ranks.
A subsequent panel on social media as a set of teaching tools proved unexpectedly useful. I went in halfheartedly, expecting to hear about class twitter feeds. I’m happy to report that I was wrong. Apparently, the new line of thinking holds that Facebook and Twitter may not be the best ways to include students in discussions, since they perceive classes using those as a sort of intrusion on their properly social space. Instead, the new keywords are “backchannel” and “interoperability.”
Malcolm Brown, from Educause, focused on the uses of backchannels. Backchannel communications are appendages to the mainstream social media sites. I’m just old enough to think of them as MST3K applied to web 2.0. Chrystal Porter, from Endicott College, did a nice job of showing that social media can get around the “who am I writing this for?” problem. By giving her students a platform on which outsiders could -- and did -- discover them, social media made it easier for the students to buy in to the overall project. (Readers of a certain age and training will recall Althusser’s notion of “hailing” in this context.) Finally, Carrie Saarinen, from a whole bunch of places, identified “Learning Tools Interoperability” as the Next Big Thing. “Interoperability” refers to educational apps that work across platforms, so they can be accessed from a browser, a facebook page, an LMS, or wherever. Apparently the “digital divide” discussion is sooo 2010; according to the data they provided, nearly all students have a device with internet access, and the vast majority has two or more. At this point, the major challenge isn’t so much getting the students online as it is making sure that they can access instructional materials from whichever device or platform they’re using.
Before heading back West, I caught the keynote address by Tony Wagner. It was a pretty standard pep talk about entrepreneurialism, complete with rolled-up sleeves, wireless mic, and several uses of “the three keys to this…” and “the seven elements of that…” I’m starting to think of those speeches as a distinct genre. He even addressed the invention of sticky notes, which I’m pretty sure is required by the motivational speakers’ union.
The talk was entertaining in the way that these talks usually are. But in going over my notes (actual quote -- “Play, Passion, and Purpose!”), I was reminded of pep talks I used to hear twentysomething years ago about how employers truly value liberal arts grads. Back then, the talks consisted of warm-glow recollections by late-career CEO’s about times when the skills they learned at college helped them seize an opportunity. The genre lost steam as it slowly became clear that the CEO’s weren’t addressing those talks to their own HR departments, who hired in the ways that liberal arts grads feared they would.
The new version involves valorizing the heroic Harvard dropouts whose mercurial decisions and unacknowledged social capital enable them to bulldoze anything in their way. And in this version, as in the previous version, part of me wonders just how true it actually is.
Most new businesses are started by people who are neither highly privileged Ivy League dropouts, nor 22 years old. Some are, but much of the time, the folks who start something new do it after having spent years doing something established. They learn lessons, build networks, and figure out where the gaps are; then they strike. The skills and temperaments involved in that may not lend themselves as well to a rolled-sleeves speech, but they matter. In other cases, the real value that colleges can add -- and here I have to tip my cap to Tressie McMillan Cottom, who made this point at NACCE -- is in recruiting already-existing entrepreneurs from non-traditional settings and giving them the legal and social capital to take their businesses to the next level.
I don’t mean any of this as an attack on Wagner; he gave a spirited performance in an increasingly well-worn genre, and the audience seemed to enjoy it. It’s just to suggest that sometimes the best innovations come from someone like Chrystal Porter who is trying to solve a problem she has identified over years of traditional practice. Institutions can be anchors, but they can also be safe harbors or launch pads. The image of the dropout may have changed in the evolution from Timothy Leary to Mark Zuckerberg, but I don’t think either should be widely replicated. We’d hit diminishing returns almost before we started.
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
A new report on student loan debt from The Institute for College Access and Success is generating quite a bit of press with its statistics on student loan burdens. The headline claim is that “Seven in 10 college seniors who graduated in 2012 had student loan debt, with an average of $29,400 for those with loans. “
The report goes on to name (and shame) high debt colleges and high debt states, and to contrast them with the presumably more honorable low-debt colleges and states. It ends with a note on for-profit colleges, saying that too few of them report anything close to the amount of data needed for meaningful comparisons.
A few thoughts.
I only gave the report a quick read, but I didn’t see it define “average.” Is that the mean or the median? That matters, because if it’s a mean, it could be skewed by a few spectacular outliers. If Warren Buffett came by for dinner, the mean individual wealth in my house would skyrocket, but I wouldn’t be any richer.
And it’s a little odd, intuitively, to derive the average only from the 70 percent who took out loans. If you factor in the 30 percent who didn’t, the average would drop significantly. Just writing off that large a group may help goose your headline number, but it distorts the truth.
That becomes clear when you notice the next great distortion. It defines “college” graduates as bachelor’s degree graduates, and it looks only at bachelor’s-granting institutions. It assumes, implicitly, that students are first-time, full-time, degree-seeking, and probably traditional age. In other words, as with so much commentary, it generalizes from the top.
Over forty percent of American undergraduates attend community colleges, nearly all of which would fall into the “low debt” category. At HCC, for example, the median debt of a graduate is zero. Most don’t borrow. That’s because the tuition and fees for a year of full-time study is less than the maximum Pell grant, and has been for years. (What this suggests about the Bennett hypothesis -- that colleges will raise prices to capture all available aid -- I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader.) Students with money can pay cash on the barrel; students without get Pell. Yes, there are students in between, and some of them borrow. But even there, the borrowing for educational costs is quite low, because the costs are quite low.
Strikingly, the report makes no mention (at first blush, anyway) of community colleges or of transfer students. Savvy students and their parents have figured out that they can save significant money by starting at a community college and then transferring to a four-year college; they wind up with the same highest degree, but at far less cost. Given the implied agenda of the report -- getting the very real student loan issue under control -- I would have expected at least a glancing reference to a well-established alternative.
Looking at four-year colleges in isolation, with no consideration of the larger ecosystem of higher education or of state politics, can lead to some unhelpful conclusions. Many students now get caught between escalating tuition driven in part by “austerity” and a tight job market driven largely by that exact same austerity. Yes, some four-year colleges (and especially some for-profits) need to rethink what they’re doing. But let’s not let a focus on a headline number lead to a deficit of options. Options are out there; we just need to include them in the discussion.
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
What if Student Learning Counted in Performance Funding?
What if student learning counted as a metric in performance funding?
Okay, that’s wonky. To translate: right now, many states are either using or considering a formula to determine funding levels for public colleges that would tie funding to “performance” along some prescribed set of measures. I’ve seen relatively simple proposals, such as funding based simply on the number of graduates, and I’ve seen much more sophisticated and complex ones, such as the multivariate formula that Massachusetts applies now to community colleges. (It doesn’t apply performance funding to UMass, though. You may draw whatever conclusion about that you wish.)
Achieving the Dream, Complete College America, and a host of other foundation-funded actors have proposed a set of possible measures with the goal of encouraging colleges to focus on the moments that matter most for student success. For example, setting “milestones” at fifteen and thirty credits toward graduation can encourage colleges to focus on the crucial first year. It also softens the blow from students who choose to transfer to a four-year school after a single year.
Some of the more thoughtful formulae, such as the one in Massachusetts, also include “weighting” to avoid certain perverse incentives. For example, one easy way to goose your graduation numbers would be to casually exclude high-risk students. By giving extra credit for high-risk students who graduate, the formulas can push back against certain sorts of institutional gaming.
But every formula I’ve seen relies on proxies for learning, typically in the form of credit accumulation. They assume that retention and completion amount to evidence of learning. And in a perfect world, they would.
In this imperfect world, though, that’s a considerable leap of faith. Grade inflation can boost retention and graduation numbers in the short term, leading to a false conclusion that learning has improved. That can happen through conscious policy, subtle cultural pressure, or simply a collective decision to default to the path of least resistance.
Even in the absence of grade inflation, there’s a leap of faith in moving from mastery of individual course content or tasks to mastery of higher-level skills. The usual argument for the liberal arts -- one that I largely believe -- holds that the study of seemingly irrelevant topics is valuable for the broader skills and outlooks they can impart. That’s true whether the seemingly irrelevant topic is literary, historical, or even mathematical. The course I took on Tudor and Stuart England was a hoot, but I don’t draw many direct management lessons from Charles II. Whether I developed a subtler and more ineffable (less effable?) sense of how power works is harder to say.
If the purpose of education is learning -- as opposed to signalling, say -- then the relatively uncritical acceptance of such porous proxies for performance seems odd. (“Porous Proxies” would have been a great name for a 90’s indie band.) You’d think that if learning were the point, we’d measure that. But that’s hard to do, especially at the college level where study is far more specialized than in high school. To the extent that the lessons learned are “ineffable,” they’re tough to measure, by definition. And it’s hard to shake the suspicion that the real driver of “performance” funding is anxiety about jobs, which is ultimately a function of economic policy decisions made in other places. If it weren’t really about jobs, then flagship universities would be under the same scrutiny as community colleges. They aren’t.
The move to “competency-based” degrees is one way to address the issue of learning. In a competency-based college, students get credit when they show that they know something or can do something. The idea is to bypass the proxy measures altogether, and to measure the goal directly. I can see it working brilliantly in many applied fields, though I admit not being entirely sure how it would work for Tudor and Stuart England. There’s a danger -- largely theoretical at this point, but still -- that competencies could become Procrustean, cutting down curricula to things that lend themselves to checklists. Still, the concept is in the very early stages of execution, and I’m hopeful that it will get refined over time. Eventually, it could conceivably offer a way to base performance funding on actual learning. We’re not there yet, but we could be.
If performance funding were based on some sort of measures of student learning, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some pretty radical shifts in who gets what. At the end of the day, that may be the strongest practical argument against it. And that would be a shame.
Wise and worldly readers, what do you think would happen if we based performance funding on student learning?
Monday, December 02, 2013
I read once that anything older than you is natural, anything invented in your childhood is technology, and anything invented in your adulthood is magic. There’s a real emotional truth to that; the DVR that my kids think of as normal still strikes me as miraculous. The power of the observation is in pointing out that things that seem like they’ve always been there usually have histories.
That doesn’t make them any less real, of course. Buildings are constructions; anyone who doubts that they’re real is invited to jump off a tall one and let me know how it goes. Something can be real, even imposing, and still be both “constructed” and, in some important sense, fleeting. Buildings come and go. Technologies come and go.
My brother reminded me of this basic truth a few days ago. I mentioned my gnawing sense that the issue facing community colleges nationally is that they’re built to produce a middle class, but the country no longer wants one. Producing a middle class for a country that no longer wants one is a challenging enterprise on the best of days.
He called me on it. It’s not that we don’t want a middle class anymore, he said. It’s that we’ve forgotten that the middle class is a historical construction. It wasn’t inevitable, it doesn’t occur in nature, and it can go away. We’ve forgotten that it was the product of a set of choices and circumstances. It’s the building we’re neglecting because we think, incorrectly, that it will always be there.
It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. The country still “wants” a middle class, but it has forgotten -- or chosen to obscure -- how to create and support one. So the institutions founded in earlier times as part of the project of creating the middle class now seem out of time. The narratives in which they made sense have lost their resonance.
I noticed that at the last few League for Innovation conferences I attended. The elder statesmen of the group kept referring to “the community college movement.” I have never heard that term in any other context. I’m well into my forties, and community colleges were already well-established facts on the ground by the time I grew up. It would never have occurred to me to think of them as part of a “movement,” any more than post offices or supermarkets are part of a movement. They’re parts of the world. Some are progressive, some are stuck; some are well-run, some not so much; but the category was seemingly eternal. It wasn’t until I started seeing how the sausage is made that I realized just how precarious, and essential, they actually are. People of Terry O’Banion’s generation see community colleges as magic; people of my generation see them as natural.
We’re both wrong. They’re constructs that rely on a larger institutional and economic context to thrive. As that context changes, through a combination of impersonal forces and heedless political choices, they’re under attack. And the same can be said of the middle class itself.
This story on the challenges facing state colleges and universities in Pennsylvania struck me as a glimpse into an all-too-possible future. Huge structural changes have remade the political economy of the state, demographics are shifting quickly, and the best that some legislator can come up with is to eliminate sabbaticals. This is a sign of forgetting where things come from. It’s the knee-jerk response of someone who thinks that institutions fall from the sky, and that they can be eternally neglected without meaningful consequence. It’s a conservatism that knows not what it conserves.
Community colleges are under attack for a host of reasons. Some of it is class warfare masquerading as “fiscal conservatism.” Some of it is racism. Some of it is that old American habit of blaming the poor for, well, being. Some of it is anxiety about the economic payoff of degrees; if people can’t get jobs anyway, the argument goes, why bother educating them? Some of it is elite tunnel vision -- if you went to Harvard, it’s easy for you to judge colleges by the yardsticks Harvard prefers, whether that makes sense or not.
But oddly enough, I actually think some of it is misplaced confidence.
Despite decades of one-step-forward-two-steps-back funding, and despite some very unfriendly changes in the broader employment market, community colleges as a whole continue to produce terrific success stories. They keep generating cohorts of students who start from modest or spotty backgrounds and go on to achieve wonderful things. Colleges aren’t shy about telling those stories, either. And there’s absolutely no reason they should be shy. The work that happens on the ground is often amazing. I consider it a privilege to work here.
That kind of sustained success despite the odds can make it easy for people who aren’t paying attention to move community colleges into the “natural” category. They’ve always been there, they’ve always been underfunded, and they’ve always done good work anyway. Go ahead and make the cuts, some legislators assume -- the colleges will find a way. They always do.
Until they don’t. And rebuilding is much, much harder than maintaining.
America didn’t build a prosperous middle class through austerity. It built through a set of conscious choices to invest in the future. Yes, it had tailwinds -- it’s easier to dominate world markets in manufactured products when your main competitors are either rebuilding from land wars or imposing “scientific socialism” on peasant farmers. But we still have productivity growth, and we still have the largest economy in the world. We could choose to harness those advantages by nourishing the institutions that undergird what the rest of the world still recognizes as the American dream. Or we can take it for granted, assume that it’s a fact of nature, and retrench while the world passes us by.
We still want a middle class. We’ve just forgotten that we have to work for it.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Cultural Capital at Home
We’ve hit the age that every parent dreads: the age at which your kid’s math homework involves actually re-learning algebra.
I knew this day would come, but nothing really prepared me for it.
The Boy is smart, and wants to be an engineer when he grows up, so he’s in advanced math. And he’s mostly fine with it.
But this week he brought home...exponents.
So far, it isn’t too bad. Experience tells me, though, that it won’t be long before he gets to fractional and/or negative exponents, neither of which I really understood the last time I saw them, which was sometime during the Reagan administration.
They teach math differently now than they used to. Back in the day, I learned to “carry” and “borrow,” like God intended. Now, apparently, they “regroup.” It’s actually a smarter approach, once you figure out what the hell it is, but I admit being brought up short the first time I saw it. Still, though, arithmetic is arithmetic. Now we’re getting to the more abstract stuff.
My own history with math was odd. I cruised along quite comfortably until I hit geometry. I hit geometry in the same sense in which a watermelon dropped from a skyscraper hits the sidewalk. It wasn’t pretty. “Prove this is a rhombus.” I’m sorry, what? I’m hoping that proofs have gone the way of borrowing and carrying, but I suspect not.
I know, as a card-carrying college administrator, that I’m supposed to condemn math phobia wherever I see it. And there are fine and good reasons for that. I made it through my mandatory stats classes for poli sci in both undergrad and grad school, so it’s not like the sight of numbers gives me the vapors. But as a human being, rather than just a placeholder for an office, I have to admit a pretty glaring blind spot where “geometry” is supposed to be. I’m not proud of that, but it is what it is.
(On those 8th grade “vocational aptitude tests” they used to give, I always crashed and burned on “spatial reasoning.” I’ve long considered the ability to do complicated jigsaw puzzles a sort of magic. And let’s just say I give my phone’s GPS a pretty good workout.)
This is where the whole “first-generation” thing really hits home.
The Boy has parents who went through this stuff, and who can at least try to help him when he gets stuck. We can help him make the maddeningly difficult leap from “I know that” to “you mean, I use that here?” When he gets discouraged or confused, we’re there for him. I even took a crack, this week, at explaining that a period inside quotation marks at the end of a sentence does double duty. He was skeptical, but went with it. Nobody said English grammar makes sense.
This is how cultural capital gets transmitted. Well-meaning people, doing right by the people in their lives, reproduce privilege. The kids who don’t have parents at home who can help them through the rough patches in their homework are likelier to get lower grades and draw negative conclusions about what they’re doing. The kids who get help when they need it are likelier to make it through. Neither is a certainty, but the probabilities are real.
I don’t see withholding help as any sort of solution. Parents are supposed to help their kids. Wasting TB’s talent because others don’t have educated parents wouldn’t help anybody. That’s not the point. I didn’t go into education for a living only to withhold education from my own kids.
As he gets older, I’ll have to add some other lessons. Those will involve trying to figure out what happens when some people have the wind at their back, and others have the wind in their face. And what it means to try to live an ethical life in a stratified country.
We’ll give thanks this week for the very real blessings we have. As they get older, I’ll try to get them to ask just how those blessings got there in the first place.
Monday, November 25, 2013
Entrepreneurialism works differently in higher education.
In most professions, dissatisfied practitioners have the option of setting out on their own. They can hang the proverbial shingle, beat the bushes for business, and go their own way. Doctors can start medical practices, lawyers can start legal practices, and the like.
I don’t see many professors having that option.
Yes, high-powered researchers can take their labs with them from one university to another, or even to private industry, to some degree. But someone who decides that, say, the existing models of higher education don’t work the way they should would have a hell of a time setting up her own shop. At this point, the barriers to entry are largely prohibitive. Accreditation alone is a major one, but it’s far from the only one: the infrastructure of record-keeping, financial aid, student services, public safety, and compliance with all manner of regulations has to be present, in meaningful quantity, from the outset. The only obvious ways in are with investment capital -- which expects a return -- or with public funding, which is both scarce and increasingly controlling.
Sometimes I wonder if some of the morale issues on many campuses stem from a largely accurate sense that dissatisfied people have nowhere else to go. Research superstars are mobile, but a fiftyish English professor at a community college is unlikely to have that kind of pull on the market, or the capital to start a college of his own. The blogosphere is so focused on people trying to break into the full-time ranks -- and rightly so -- that it neglects the folks who are already there, but who wish they had other places to go.
It’s one of those background conditions that has been around for so long that we think it’s normal. But in most fields, it wouldn’t be.
In practice, most innovation has to occur in the context of institutions that already exist. It’s a different kind of challenge.
SNHU handled the challenge by forming a spinoff, complete with separate office space. That’s probably the cleanest way to do it, but it requires a level of operational autonomy that most publics simply don’t, and won’t, have. Instead, we need to foster internal entrepreneurialism.
That requires giving a great deal of conscious thought to the creation of the right internal climate. It requires a delicate blend of urgency, freedom, and patience. The urgency motivates. The freedom enables. And the patience enables the necessary tolerance for the inevitable bugs, failures, and obstacles.
Even then, success isn’t a given. But I like the chances a lot better. We may not have the option of hanging out shingles, but we do have the option of making a point of innovating from within.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
OER and Devices
I’m not above crowdsourcing solutions to very practical campus issues.
Wise and worldly readers, I’m having a hard time cracking the “devices” question for OER. I’m hoping someone out there has a reasonably elegant solution, or set of solutions.
Here’s the context, and some parameters of useful solutions:
- Textbook costs have become a real stumbling block for many students. Especially in the sciences and certain social sciences, it’s not unusual for an introductory textbook to run two hundred dollars or more. For a student taking four or five classes, that adds up quickly. Since many of our students are struggling with daily expenses, they often try to get through the class without buying the book. That strategy usually ends in tears.
- Over the past couple of years, several providers of Open Educational Resources have come along -- often with foundation support -- to make alternatives either free or very inexpensive. Even better, since most of those alternatives are electronic and specifically designed with access in mind, most of them are ADAA compliant right out of the gate. That’s often not true for certain large, very successful textbook publishers I could name.
- On campus, we’ve used some grant funding to establish a working group of both full-time and adjunct faculty who receive stipends to investigate the possibilities of OER alternatives to commercial textbooks in their respective classes. The idea is to get some early adopters to do the legwork, and then to rely on viral transmission among faculty for the concept to spread. Between colleagues saying “look what I found!” and students saying “I’m broke, and how come my friend’s books are free?”, I’m hoping to see adoption of OER spread quickly. We aren’t even getting hung up on the question of lost bookstore revenues; the college leadership has decided, correctly, that doing right by the students is the most important thing. Eventually, if OER adoption hits critical mass, we may have to move to some sort of nominal fee for it, but we’re not there yet.
Here’s the tricky part.
Because most of the OER materials are electronic, they have to be read on devices. We’re taking a principled position that we aren’t going to go with any vendor-specific platform -- cough Apple cough -- because it’s important that students have many device options, and that at least some of the choices are inexpensive enough that we aren’t defeating the purpose. And of course, at least some of those devices need to be compatible with ADAA requirements.
Getting from “this would be a good idea” to “here’s how it’ll work” is proving a challenge. Obviously, some students will bring devices of their own already, and for them, it’s easy. Others won’t have an issue with buying whatever they want. But for the students who don’t show up with a tablet or laptop, and for whom every dollar counts, we need to make sure that any device we pick is robust enough to meet their needs, cheap enough to be a net money saver, and tied to a specific course so it’ll be eligible for financial aid coverage, much like a lab kit would be.
Wise and worldly readers, any thoughts on how to thread that needle?
In my perfect world, there would be an accessible format that would work on nearly any device, and students then could choose anything from the highest-end, most recent ipad to a refurbished version of last year’s kindle, and it would all be fine. But it’s hard to claim a requirement as loose as that for financial aid purposes.
Has anyone out there figured out the device question?
Thursday, November 21, 2013
This piece in Slate does a nice job of capturing the moral dilemma in which some adjunct faculty find themselves when they apply for full-time jobs, especially outside of academia. The rest of the world doesn’t necessarily observe the academic calendar, so someone looking for a position in industry may well be asked in March to start in April. The cultural taboo against abandoning classes mid-semester is strong, and reasonable from a student perspective.
I ran into a variation on that when I taught at DeVry. Back then, it ran three four-month “trimesters” per year, based on the fiscal year. That meant that the trimesters ran July-October, November-February, and March- June. (The November-February one was particularly awkward with Christmas break falling at midterm.) One year I got an interview offer in late November for a position that started in January. I turned it down, believing that it would be wrong to leave my students in the lurch.
Things worked out, as it happened, but the dilemma is real. And it’s another case in which the high road becomes a toll road.
Overheard in meeting this week: “Justice is not blonde” Well, no…
Several years ago, The Onion did a piece about America longing for another bubble to invest in. It was one of those “funny because it’s true” moments that The Onion does when it’s at its best.
Paul Krugman has finally caught up to The Onion. Apparently, an intuition that many of us have had for years is only starting to occur to policy elites. If you factor out the tech bubble of the late 90’s and the real estate bubble of the mid-aughts, the last several decades have been an extended period of stagnation. Stagnation has become the new normal, with occasional boom-bust bubbles coming along to add some excitement.
I didn’t know that wasn’t obvious. It certainly seems obvious. And it suggests that the low-conflict strategy of “growing your way out” of austere periods may only work for intermittent, short spells. The rest of the time, we may have to expect more conflict.
A couple of weeks ago, I took The Girl to a jazz concert on campus. The Girl takes piano lessons locally and is getting pretty good. She loves jazz piano, so I thought it would be a nice experience for her.
We both enjoyed the concert, and afterwards, I introduced her to the professor who had taught one of TG’s teachers when that teacher was a student.
TG immediately called the professor her “grand-teacher.”
It’s too good a term not to get popular. From now on, I shall refer to my teachers’ teachers as my grandteachers. Thanks, TG.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Sebastian Thrun’s remarkable surrender on MOOCs for the masses has pretty much consumed the higher ed interwebs this week, and for good reason. He has gone from confidently asserting that he will bury us to shrugging and muttering “never mind” in just two years. (Characteristically, Tressie McMillan Cottom delivers a devastating analysis.) Apparently, students with complicated lives are just too much trouble; the MOOC works best with economically elite, academically prepared students, just like traditional higher education.
Some of us have been making that point for years. In 2010, Anya Kamenetz published DIY U, in which she celebrated the emergent alternatives to traditional colleges as potentially empowering to the masses. The “edupunks” who took control of their own education would blaze the way to the new, glistening future. I took issue:
The alternative to eleemosynary institutions isn't a sudden epidemic of autodidacticism; it's for-profits. That's the direction in which we're actually moving. The for-profits have their strengths and their weaknesses, but at least they recognize that you can't scale up without infrastructure. For all the mistakes they make, they grasp the fundamental importance of institutions. They just build (or sometimes buy) their own. To the extent that "society" redirects resources away from institutions and towards individuals, it plays directly into the for-profit model. Kamenetz correctly notes that for-profits rely heavily on Federal financial aid, but somehow never connects these dots.
Eleemosynary institutions have real and serious flaws, but they exist to empower the weak. They are necessary to empower the weak. If you rend them asunder, you will expose the weak to the predations of the strong. This is so fundamental that I'm surprised it even needs to be brought up. If it weren't scandalously unethical, I'd propose an experiment: take two sets of kids who barely got through a weak school district. Send one set to the local community college, and tell the other set it's free to educate itself under digital bridges. Come back in, say, ten years, and compare the results on any scale you want. Then talk to me about "edupunks."
Kamenetz' framework rests on a mostly unacknowledged, but remarkably deep, set of privileges. If you had a strong high school background, and you have money and leisure, and you have social connections to smart people who are willing to spend time with you, and you can afford all kinds of technology, then you may be able to do something with this. (Astute readers will recognize the young Bill Gates and the young Steve Jobs in those descriptions.) But if we're honest, we have to recognize that most of the people who download TED talks don't do it as an alternative to college; they've already been to college. If you have a well-developed set of skills, you can avail yourself of all kinds of things. But in the absence of those skills, it's just information. And those skills come from somewhere.
If you're serious about education for the non-elite, you need institutions. The institutions need to be accountable, and open to creativity, and efficient, and changed in a host of ways that I spend most of my waking hours obsessing over and probably more that I've never even thought of. But you need them. Every serious social movement of the past two centuries has understood this. The internet has changed a lot of things, but it hasn't changed that. The rich kids may experience unbundling as liberation, and to some degree, it can be. But for the vast majority, the issue isn't that their individuality is being squelched by The Man and his distribution requirements. It's that without effective educational institutions from preschool on up, they will never get the chance to develop their skills in the first place.
In 2013 I’d replace “download” with “stream,” but otherwise, I stand by it.
The great danger at this point, now that the MOOC backlash is kicking into gear, is missing the positive possibilities that MOOCs and other innovations offer. I understand the impulse to wipe a collective brow and sigh with relief -- or, let’s face it, crack snarky jokes -- at Thrun’s discovery of what we on campuses have long known. But leaving it at that would be a mistake.
At their best, colleges are bundles of resources knit together by a shared mission. MOOCs, OER, and other new technology offer new resources to incorporate into the bundle. As I argued in January, professors can use MOOCs now much as they have used BOOKs over the years. Like books, MOOCs can perform some of the raw explication outside of class that allows for higher-order discussion and application in class. Instead of replacing classes, they can make classes better. That’s no small thing.
So farewell, Sebastian Thrun. You overshot, and failed, but you left behind a nifty resource that we can use in ways you never seriously considered.