In the last two posts, I broached the question of what long-term, structural effects online learning will have on higher education.  At Thanksgiving, I spoke a great deal with my two nieces, who are getting ready to go to college next year, and their parents, about the myriad dimensions of the process.  Like health care, college has become one of the most complicated, and most anxiety-inducing, pieces in the puzzle of modern life, not least because they are the sectors in which costs mock inflation.  Indeed, with the election over, I’d wager that families discussed these issues more than maybe any others.

As we’ve seen over the last decade, industries we considered staples of life in the modern industrialized world–music, journalism, and retail–were radically disrupted and transformed when the world became Flat.  This year, the New York Times has declared 2012 the Year of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), with 3 flagship online universities pioneering the new platform:

I want to follow up and throw into the mix two other perspectives I’ve come across in the meantime:

  • Robert Koons, a professor of philosophy at University of Texas at Austin.  Though Koons does not explicitly discuss online learning or MOOCs, his scathing, Closing-of-the-American-Mind-ish critique of the modern university–which he considers the most corrupt institution in modern society–casts light on spiritual, intellectual, moral, and economic weaknesses in the status quo that make the university vulnerable to the digital disruption.
  • Clay Shirky, NYU new media guru, one of the closest things we have to a public intellectual.  Essentially, Shirky seems willing to bet his tenure that early MOOC platforms like Udacity are tantamount to Napster, and that over the long haul online learning will indeed to to higher education something like what the mp3 did to music.

One of the chief worries about online learning is that it cannot replicate the experience of being in a classroom on a real college campus.  This is often taken to be more or less the same thing as saying that the quality of instruction is inferior.  Indeed, some of the early trials of MOOCs left much to be desired.  Sebastian Thrun, the hotshot Stanford computer science professor who helped launch Udacity, received pointed criticism for his MOOC on statistics.  But what stood out was the caveat the critic appended to the 10 Theses he nailed to the online forum:   “in theory, any of the problems that I’ve noted above could be revisited and fixed on future pass-throughs of the course. But will that happen at Udacity, or any other massive online academic program?”  As Shirky notes,

The very next day, Thrun answered that question. Conceding that Delta “points out a number of shortcomings that warrant improvements”, Thrun detailed how they were going to update the class. Delta, to his credit, then noted that Thrun had answered several of his criticisms, and went on to tell a depressing story of a fellow instructor at his own institution who had failed to define the mathematical terms he was using despite student requests.

He concludes:

Open systems are open. For people used to dealing with institutions that go out of their way to hide their flaws, this makes these systems look terrible at first. But anyone who has watched a piece of open source software improve, or remembers the Britannica people throwing tantrums about Wikipedia, has seen how blistering public criticism makes open systems better. And once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class, it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment.

When you pit this against the notoriously glacial pace of change in higher ed, you’ve got the classic case of the unstoppable force colliding with the immovable object.

On the face of it, crowd-sourcing seems like a much more effective mechanism for evaluating and improving the quality of instruction than the current tool:  student evaluations.  As Robert Koons points out, this is a symptom of a more general development in the culture and purpose of college:  edu-tainment.

In place of education, the modern university offers four to six years of much fun and entertainment, with increasingly luxurious dorms, four-star eateries, swimming pools and gymnasia that would be the envy of professional sports teams. Many classroom teachers have joined the ranks of this entertainment medium, a transformation propelled by increased reliance on student evaluation of teachers. The results are predictable: falling standards, accelerating grade inflation, ever lighter workloads. This means the abolition of the ancient hierarchy of teachers and students: teachers are now afraid of their students and are anxious to gratify their every desire.

Both Koons and Shirky make an insightful incision into the status quo of the discussion:  talk about higher-ed is often Ivy-centric–it can tend to ignore the drab realities of the average, run of the mill colleges which, of course, happen to be most colleges.  In this way, discussions at, say, the Chronicle of Higher Ed, at its worst, function like celebrity magazines such as UsWeekly:  they present a day in the lives of the pantheon of the Hollywood elect through which we can project ourselves into celebrities’ everyday lives (“Look, they pump their own gas!  They blow on their pizza, too!”), a false equivalence that obscures the radical gulf that separates the two worlds.  But life at the average American college is a far cry from the hallowed halls of Harvard:  it more nearly resembles what Koons, albeit hyperbolically, deems the “dark satanic mills of mass education.”  In this light, the notion of online education harming the quality of instruction seems to hold less water.

Both writers relieve a fact that can help jolt us out of the particularity, and peculiarity, of our historical moment and help us see the broader historical arc of higher education in America:  namely, that the nature and status of higher education in our society is a relatively recent development made possible by the convergence of world-historical forces, mainly two:  the GI Bill and the explosion of scientific research post-WWII.  When we see this, it becomes easier to imagine and understand how a new constellation of such forces might dramatically transform what we call higher education.

And the key, Shirky insists, will be a shift in the story we tell ourselves about higher education, a change in our social imaginary:  Just as the Democratization of higher ed in the wake of WWII replaced the more Aristocratic model, so too the Digitization of higher ed may well supplant the Democratized model.  Carole Cadwalladr, writing for the Guardian, provides a window into the British experience:

at’s intriguing is how this will translate into a British context. Because, of course, when it comes to revolutionising educational access, Britain has led the world. We’ve had the luxury of open access higher education for so long – more than 40 years now – that we’re blasé about it. When the Open University was launched in 1969, it was both radical and democratic. It came about because of improvements in technology – television – and it’s been at the forefront of educational innovation ever since. It has free content – on OpenLearn and iTunesU. But at its heart, it’s no longer radically democratic. From this year, fees are £5,000.

We can only hope that this revolution, in its effects, will be more democratic, not less.

Yet the most severe, infrastructural, landscape-changing consequences of the storm would probably have to do with the collapse of what we might call the Middle Class College.  Shirky:

In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as as songs came unbundled from CDs.

If this happens, Harvard will be fine. Yale will be fine, and Stanford, and Swarthmore, and Duke. But Bridgerland Applied Technology College? Maybe not fine. University of Arkansas at Little Rock? Maybe not fine. And Kaplan College, a more reliable producer of debt than education? Definitely not fine.

Think about it:  could there come a day when we talk about middle-brow colleges the same way we talk about rusting factories, industrial wastelands, all those “manufacturing jobs” that “aren’t coming back”?  Pretty all not fine.

And yet, Cadwalladr, relaying her experience experimenting with a Coursera course on evolutionary biology, sees a silver lining:

They’re just videos of lectures, really. There’s coursework to do, but I am a journalist. I am impervious to a deadline until the cold sweat of impending catastrophe is upon me. I ignore it. And it’s a week or so later when I go back and check out the class forum.

And that’s when I have my being-blown-away moment. The traffic is astonishing. There are thousands of people asking – and answering – questions about dominant mutations and recombination. And study groups had spontaneously grown up: a Colombian one, a Brazilian one, a Russian one. There’s one on Skype, and some even in real life too. And they’re so diligent! If you are a vaguely disillusioned teacher, or know one, send them to Coursera: these are people who just want to learn.

As I discussed in an earlier post, online education may present teachers with a slew of new professional opportunities that could be more creative and lucrative.  But by releasing the pent-up global demand of eager-beaver students who “just want to learn”, it may incentivize more smart people who otherwise wouldn’t teach to go into teaching, and more of those who are already teachers to focus on honing their craft, given that there are more students who actually care.  Bizarrely, a more innovation-based, free-market model of online education may displace the “transactional” model that dominates today, and offer a more enriching, rewarding, even intimate experience for teachers and students:  teachers who, released from the constraints of administrative oversight and near poverty, are free to unleash their creativity and teach to teach; and students who, released from the grips of absurd tuition, fees, and debt and thus no longer conditioned to see their education as a purchased commodity, can approach learning simultaneously as an end it itself and a means toward gaining targeted skills to help them find employment (and employment that no longer need result in a higher salary to service loan debt and, in the longer term, save for their children’s astronomically high tuition, fees, etc.).  In this sense, the next wave of online learning may not be the even further lurch toward the commodification of education it is sometimes touted to be.

Clearly, what we have here is a mixed bag.  Sorting out the good, the bad, and the ugly of the coming storm will not be an easy task–but it is an essential one.

In the next post, I will examine in more detail Koons’ disturbing claim that the university is the most morally corrupt institution in our society.

(Photo at photobank.kiev.ua/shutterstock)