Thursday, May 9, 2013

"The Task Before Us"

For the past couple years the world of higher education has been grappling with the latest innovation that promises to transform the classroom: the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. If a movement could be undone by the phonetic quality of its own acronym, MOOCs would die a swift death. Just saying the word out loud brings to mind some kind of ill-conceived alien character from the Star Wars universe that was best left on the cutting room floor... like Mooc, Chewbacca's lovable half-wit wookie buddy.

Instead the word is starting to make regular appearances in the rotation of newspaper columns, as public intellectuals take turns predicting the overturning of the old university order. At the New York Times Tom Friedman has described the explosion of online courses as a revolution. Twice. He confirmed this assessment in a column in March, noting that a revolution must be underway because his buddy from Harvard, professor Michael Sandel, has so many fans of his online course in Korea that some of them gave him new sneakers. Proof positive for Friedman. Coursera, EdX, Udacity... these are the Oxfords and Cambridges of the future. Friedman related this vision of the future he gleaned from talking with Rafael Reif, president of MIT:
Many universities will offer online courses to students anywhere in the world, in which they will earn “credentials” — certificates that testify that they have done the work and passed all the exams. The process of developing credible credentials that verify that the student has adequately mastered the subject — and did not cheat — and can be counted on by employers is still being perfected by all the MOOCs. But once it is, this phenomenon will really scale.
"Scale" is an ugly word when it comes to education. Maybe not "MOOC" ugly, but ugly enough. Anytime the language of corporatism is applied to academia, misapprehension is certain to follow. Sure enough, just when you really need David Brooks to come through with a topically nonsensical column, he does just that. Let it be said that Brooks always strikes, and misses, when the iron is hot. Borrowing (and drastically oversimplifying) a distinction from 20th century conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, Brooks says that online education will force traditional universities away from teaching technical knowledge and towards emphasizing practical knowledge. Technical knowledge, says Brooks, "is like the recipes in a cookbook. It is formulas telling you roughly what is to be done." This is the stuff that the internet can teach. He likens practical knowledge to the skills described in Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In:
...the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.
Represented here is the problem, a deeply limited conception of higher education's purpose as the imparting of modern trade skills. College as corporate pre-season. Education in this paradigm is about information transmission and board-room etiquette. On this spectrum, traditional thinkers will end up on Wall St. while creative thinkers will end up in Silicon Valley, but everyone's doing big business.

It has taken some time, but resistance to the MOOC phenomenon is finally starting to take shape. Few people in education with experience and wisdom are decrying the internet as another important tool for pedagogues. Even skeptics understand the allure of democratizing education. But the manner in which Friedman and Brooks talk about education and the MOOC "revolution" is ridiculous, as readers have pointed out. Responses to Friedman noted the incredibly poor completion rates and the illusion of access for the poor when, in fact, mostly members of the upper-middle class take advantage of online courses (until they drop out). This is a particularly worthwhile criticism since, as Ross Douthat recently pointed out, maintaining class divisions is what elite colleges and universities do best despite their egalitarian aspirations. Meanwhile professors from different colleges and universities criticized Brooks for his narrow interpretation of higher education. Loren Byrne at Roger Williams University wrote:
Thus, an essential, if not primary, answer to Mr. Brooks’s question, “What is a university for?,” should be promoting knowledge and understanding for their own sake — beyond any relevance to a job — and educating thoughtful, caring citizens who have the skills and motivation for helping advance the well-being and flourishing of individuals and communities.
And, as sharp as he is concise, William Pritchard of Amherst College responded:
David Brooks suggests that universities are places where students acquire two kinds of knowledge, “technical” and “practical.” I see little difference between these kinds, but I see a large difference between them and “liberal knowledge.”

What used to be called a liberal education was one that aspired, through the study of literature, philosophy, history and science, to intellectual excellence. For many students and some teachers, such liberal knowledge appears not to count for much.
Yes... and for some pundits too. Pritchard, I would imagine, was one of the 70 faculty at Amherst that just voted against the school joining EdX. (Full disclosure: as an alumnus of Amherst, I am proud of them for doing so.) As The Chronicle of Higher Education observed, the vote was not close (70-36, with 5 abstentions). Other universities have followed suit.

I have no idea what will happen with MOOCs, but I doubt very much a revolution is in the works. Which is not to say a revolution might not be welcome, but if that is the case I suggest that instead of looking online, we reaffirm what John Dewey wrote in his 1939 essay "Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us":
For what is the faith of democracy in the role of consultation, of conference, of  persuasion, of discussion, in formation of public opinion, which in the long run is self-corrective, except faith in the capacity of the intelligence of the common man to respond with commonsense to the free play of facts and ideas which are secured by effective guarantees of free inquiry, free assembly and free communication?
Really, I don't know how you teach that in an online course.

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