Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Come the revolution . . . the university could disappear

Maybe Facebook should hire Thomas Friedman to do its ads. His ad for Coursera (h/t Indyanna's comment at Historiann's) column on online education pretty much explains why the 100,000-person online class and the flipped classroom, with local professors as glorified tutors, is the way to go. The comments are good, and they ask the same questions we've all been asking and come to some similar conclusions.

But does a university have any other functions besides teaching students a specific body of information?
  • The university is an economic system as well as an educational and social system. If there aren't any large lecture classes, those being the province of the 12 or so online superteachers left in the system once this revolution occurs, what pays for the smaller classes, including practicum classes in things like nursing?
  • The university funds innovation, or rather it provides a support system within which researchers can compete for grants and so on.  What will support that kind of research once the professors and the university that supports them are gone?
  • The university is also a place where diverse interpretations can be debated and creative thought can be encouraged. It's easy to say that this creativity and diversity of interpretation will be preserved, but simple economics says that if Harvard is promoting its brand via a course in 18th-century poetry for free, "free" will drive out "expensive" and there'll be pressure to adopt one course to the exclusion of others. 
  • What'll happen when this course drives others out of the marketplace?  I'm sure it would be a fantastic course, but wouldn't everyone then be trained in the same way, without being able to talk to or question the professors in person?
  • We all laugh at the "yellowing lecture notes" stereotype, but are the lectures that are produced and put in the can for these courses going to be updated every semester, as a professor's course would be? 
  • Will the badges and certificates (which--sorry-- I keep picturing as being on a shoulder-to-hip sash like the one I wore in Girl Scouts) be accepted by companies by Microsoft, Apple, and Google?
It's hard to be against something that promises education for the multitudes, especially since Andrew Ng, whose 100,000-student class is a prototype, is so earnest and excited about it. It sounds so revolutionary to say "free education for all" or "steal this book" or whatever. How could you possibly want to withhold education from people who want to learn?

But those who are cheerleading for this movement aren't answering those hard questions with anything like the serious approach that they use for other topics.  Do they put on Unicorn Dazzling Rainbow Goggles before they write those columns?

And for the record, I don't think that all universities will disappear. High-status universities will always remain for the Eloi. For us Morlocks?  What's your guess?


Historiann said...

The comment above is spam.

Undine, thanks for asking the hard questions. You are exactly right: what are the intellectual, social, and economic costs of diminishing the roles that universities play in our society and culture? They do much, much more than to teach survey courses to u/grads. But the educrat online enthusiasts don't want to recognize that fact.

I can see a (sadder and diminished) world in which CCs migrate to online courses only, and in which even bricks-and-mortar 4-year unis move much of their core/required classes online, further exacerbating the divide between adjunct and regular faculty labor. But I think this has much more to do with the desire for 100- or 300-person courses on the cheap, plus the degradation of faculty labor that we've experienced over the past 25 years, rather than the availability of the technology.

Let's face it: students in my survey courses aren't getting anything like a "premium" experience. If my uni were interested in that, they'd cap my survey courses at 40 or 50 rather than 123.

But elite unis aren't going to put for-credit courses online in my lifetime. No way. And if I were the student or a parent of a student at said elite university, I would go apeshit at paying $55,000 a year to have myself or my kid log onto an online class from her tony dorm. Ridiculous!

undine said...

I deleted the spam, and thanks, Historiann. I think that might be a push for CCs, which would completely destroy not only the CC model but also the important bridge between arts and technical expertise that they provide.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

This kind of class-differentiated education is what I'm most worried about, to the point where I actually rant at my first-gen college students about this, about what's being sold to them, and that they need to keep their eyes open and fight back.


Undine, re: your remark about the university supporting innovation... I've got a bit of a chip on my shoulder as I feel entirely abandoned by the Academy. In the past few years (since doffing the mask of "Articulate Dad", I've been able to support myself as an innovator from federal contracts for small business R&D (SBIR). Sadly, rather than embracing it, there is a strong and vocal contingent from universities that opposes any federal funding for innovation, or R&D that goes outside the university. On the other hand, there is a view that business innovation must be all but ready for the market to warrant public funds. Non-affiliated researchers and innovators like me are the rope in a tug-of-war, with basic research on the one side, later stage development on the other. Early applied or translational research is being dumped in favor of the two extremes. I believe the university could renew its relevance by serving the role of supporting innovation that you describe, a duty I believe it too often shirks.

Contingent Cassandra said...

There's a part of me that thinks that, if content delivery systems really had the power to revolutionize education, then it would already have happened with moveable type, or stereotyping, or perhaps the filmstrip/video. Or perhaps there were minor revolutions, each time, and we've just forgotten about them? There are also definitely other forces at work this time, forces that don't want to admit that watching canned lectures recorded several years ago by a Big Name isn't really all that different from reading a textbook (at least ostensibly) written a few years ago by a Big Name.

I actually think the idea of online lectures, and even MOOCs, is great, but as sources of personal enrichment, and/or a supplement to more traditional college classes, made available in the service of the common good by wealthy universities and well-paid professors. I also wouldn't mind if they replaced some of the really bad, overpriced "content" peddled by for-profit educational publishers. But are they a substitute for real college classes, including interaction -- online or off -- with a professor who actually designed the course and the assignments/assessments and tweaks them regularly? Of course not.

Ianqui said...

No one is thinking about the issue of who is going to pay for research, because the journalists who are writing those articles aren't thinking very deeply about what the faculty at (research) universities actually do. I don't mean to be too contentious here--there are a lot of different types of colleges and universities, and maybe someday MOOCs can replace some kinds of education (not that I'm advocating that, but let's be generous for a minute).

But without big research universities, a lot of the basic science, social science and humanities research will be lost because the undergrad tuition is ultimately what pays our salaries (if not our research itself, which may be funded by the government).

No one is talking about this, but eventually, they'll have to. And when they do, they'll probably figure out that online education can't be a panacea.

undine said...

Notorious, I agree--the class dimension of this is worrisome. This could push education in those two directions, elite ed and badges, that would eliminate the middle universities and the historical route to the middle class.

Jonathan/ArticulateDad--Welcome! It's good to see you in blogland again. It seems to me that the university's role should be to support research at all these stages, as you say.

undine said...

Contingent Cassandra, I think that's true, too. What about all those public access TV university courses that were going to bring the "great lecturers" to the masses 40-50 years ago?

Ianqui, it's losing that research component that's so scary. I wish that some of the journalists covering this--some of whom are supposed to be covering education--would raise a few questions like this.