Strange Bedfellows

As Ryan has pointed out, it’s hard for us to not comment a lot about the state of higher education because we both have a vested interest in seeing it not completely destroy itself. It’s a topic that makes for strange bedfellows and challenges the political categories we all too easily apply to ourselves and others. For instance, Bob Samuels is the president of UC-AFT (the union that represents non-tenured faculty in the University of California system), while Alan Jacobs teaches at Baylor University and writes for The American Conservative. By conventional metrics, one is a progressive and one is a traditionalist Christian conservative, but both have written a lot about how the push toward eliminating small classes in favor of MOOCs is a terrible idea for students. Both Samuels and Jacobs are educational conservationists. These aren’t people opposed to making meaningful changes to the way universities are run (everyone but administrators admit that administrative bloat must be reversed), but rather people who want to conserve what higher education does best:  introducing students to new ideas and people through lectures, personal instruction, debates, and meaningful face-to-face social interaction. Having to share space with someone and their ideas is a really powerful thing. As anyone who reads internet comment boards knows, the web specializes in letting us (and training us to) talk past one another because the other person isn’t actually there to respond. This is one of the reasons why segregation, whether written into the law, de facto, by choice, or via technology is so awful: it prevents us from doing the messy work of having to argue with others, defend our own positions, and think on the fly. There is no lag-time in real life, and no substitute for having to look someone in the eye and treat him as a real, valid human being, even as he says things that challenge your sense of how the world works. That’s an education, and the kind that will benefit one in almost any career.

Similarly, the folks running down traditional educational models and/or pimping MOOCmania are also an eclectic bunch. From Ivy League-educated “libertarians,” to the virtuous conservative Bill Bennett, to the mostly Democratic mandarins of Silicon Valley, the crew trying to tell us how traditional models of education are outdated is hard to pin down politically. So, to borrow a term from one of our favorites here at TRG, Evgeny Morozov, these folks can best be understood as “solutionists.” They see a problem (and as Ryan and I have made clear, there are tons of problems in higher ed that have nothing to do with MOOCs), and their first instinct is to blow things up. They also love blaming professors, as if professors run universities (or even university systems) anymore. There are reformers who aren’t “solutionists,” like Vance Fried, and while I don’t agree with some of his ideas (consolidating all of the humanities into one major is dumb, and he seemingly thinks teaching 5 writing-intensive classes is the same as teaching 5 sections of algebra), I at least get the sense that he understands that education is about much more than the transmission of information. People of good faith can disagree about how to fix things, but they must sincerely be interested in fixing things in order for the conversations to be productive.

The latest smart take from the “hey, maybe we should be a bit more critical of MOOCs and the people who are pushing them” camp comes from Scott L. Newstok, a professor at Rhodes College. His basic thesis is so simple and obvious that I am amazed that it hadn’t occurred to me:

The corporate world recognizes the virtues of proximity in its own human resource management. Witness, for example, Yahoo’s recent decision to eliminate telecommuting and require employees to be present in the office. CEO Marissa Mayer’s memo reads as a mini-manifesto for close learning:

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

Why do boards of directors still go through the effort of convening in person? Why, in spite of all the fantasies about “working from anywhere,” are “creative classes” still concentrating in proximity to one another: the entertainment industry in LA, information technology in the Bay Area, financial capital in New York City? The powerful and the wealthy are well aware that computers can accelerate the exchange of information, and facilitate low-level “training.” But not the development of knowledge, much less wisdom.

Newstok’s entire piece is worth reading, as is Alan Jacobs’ response, wherein he reminds us to spend less time listening to the solutionists, and more time observing them:

If physical presence is as important in education as the technologists’s actions say it is, then perhaps their energies are misapplied. Instead of looking for ways to eliminate or bypass brick-and-mortar schools — and, not incidentally, making a hefty profit for themselves in doing so — maybe they should bend their considerable intellectual powers to the more challenging, less destructive, and far more meaningful challenge of making college education more affordable for everyone who can truly benefit from it.

And lest you think that conservationists are simply trying to prop up traditional learning models in order to line their own pockets, and are therefore no different from the Silicon Valley folks trying to tear these models down, keep this in mind: 75% of people teaching at American universities aren’t tenure-track, will never make salaries comparable to what people in the tech sector make at mid-career, and could actually probably make a lot more money by jumping on the MOOC train now.

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One thought on “Strange Bedfellows

  1. Pingback: The $10K Race to the Bottom | The General Reader

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