Boooo MOOCs

When a culture endlessly suggests to its children that the humanities are frivolous and effeminate, and when that culture looks the other way while institutions conceived in the Enlightenment ruthlessly downsize the support given to people who safeguard and pass along humanity’s intellectual traditions, you end up with an economy-strangling clusterfuck distinguished by “not only relatively fewer humanities majors but also a generation of students who get out of school and don’t know how to write well or express themselves clearly.”

Given how much TGR has covered the decay of American higher education (hey, it’s the sector we know best), this sounds like something Dan or I would say. But since it isn’t, the quote is probably from some idealistic niche publication, like n+1 or the New Yorker. Maybe even Slate. Yeah? The kind of outlet that gets links on Arts & Letters Daily.

But no. It’s Business Insider. Turns out that some corporate managers are terrified by the applications they’re getting from the current labor pool. Turns out they’re desperate for art-history romantics and inveterate readers.

If you are a liberal pro-marketeer like me, as opposed to someone in favor of anti-market corporate oligarchy, you’ve shivered while surveying the road map adopted by American university regents over the past few decades:

1. Cut funding for undergraduate education. In other words, spend less on giving your students (who pay more in tuition every year) access to classes that have been lovingly curated by experts who are intensely dedicated to the education of those students.

2. Build a gym or a stadium or something.

3. Cut funding for undergraduate education.

4. Stock up on administrators.

5. Cut more funding.

6. Keep cutting. Exploit or invent a crisis if you have to.

7. Realize that enough members of the public are slowly getting wise to the fact that this shitshow doesn’t actually teach kids to be rational, creative adults who can participate in a mature democracy. Schedule some press conferences, preferably with rich people who work in Silicon Valley/have given TED talks/are the governor of California.

8. Announce frantic, heavily funded effort to have private companies fix things because the public sector is so poor and dumb and inefficient. Emphasize gigantic online “classes.”

9. Hope that people, even those in a position to send their kids out to get four-year degrees, are too busy fighting to keep their health insurance to care about the solution not being a solution.

One of the grimmer ironies of the past decade is that the decay of American higher education, and in particular the decline of its commitment to humanism and the core sciences (i.e., the liberal arts), has moved a number of professors to write excellent books, articles, and blogs about said collapse. For example, there’s Chris Newfield’s  Unmaking the Public University; Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors; Cary Nelson’s No University Is an Island; Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works; Benjamin Ginsberg’s Fall of the Faculty; and Bob Samuels’s “Changing Universities” blog, which focuses on California and has for years tirelessly mapped the dangers of joining “the Republican desire to shrink big government and privatize public institutions . . . with the Democratic need to be associated with progress and private-public joint ventures.”

On that note, from The Awl back in January, here is Maria Bustillos with a fitting title: “Venture Capital’s Massive, Terrible Idea for the Future of College.” The depressing takeaway:

Now California state universities are set to begin enrolling students in MOOCs for credit. Earlier this month, the president of San Jose State University, Mo Qayoumi, announced that his institution will commence a pilot program: 300 students will receive course credit for online classes in remedial algebra, college algebra and statistics. Qayoumi was joined at the press conference by California Governor Jerry Brown and Sebastian Thrun, the controversial ex-Stanford prof and co-founder of Udacity, which will supply classes for the program at the cost of $150 per customer, er, student.

“This is the single cheapest way in the country to earn college credit,” Thrun “quipped.”

It’s not quite free, as early MOOC proponents began by promising. It is worth mentioning, too, that Udacity is a venture-funded startup, that classes will be supervised not by tenured profs but by Udacity employees, and that Thrun declined to tell the Times how much public money his company will be raking in for this pilot—or what more may have been promised should the pilot prove “successful.”

Okay, fine, but let’s get this straight: public money has been mercilessly hacked from California’s education budget for decades, so now we are to give public money, taxpayer money, to private, for-profit companies to take up the slack? Because that is exactly what is happening. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just fund education to the levels we had back when it was working?

A more recent post here on TGR deals with how this pilot program turned out.

And take funding back to prior levels? I feel like the cop in that scene from The Big Lebowski where the Dude goes to retrieve his car from the impound lot. Leads!


One thought on “Boooo MOOCs

  1. Pingback: Strange Bedfellows | The General Reader

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