For Whom Is College Being Reinvented? MOOCs and other Disruptive Innovations!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an essay by Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk, that takes a critical look at the higher education reforms that are being discussed particularly MOOCs and online education.  Their major thesis is that while higher education needs to examine itself and its inefficiencies, the idea that MOOCs and other technology-centric solutions are the answer, is short-sighted.  Furthermore, these approaches may very well create a two-tier system of colleges:  one for those people of means that will be full-time, small classes and socially-rich versus for those of less means that will be based on large section-size, electronic-delivery, and socially distant education.  For example:

“… the gap between the country’s rich and poor widened during the recession, choking off employment opportunities for many recent graduates. Education leading up to college is a mess: Public elementary and secondary systems have failed a major segment of society, and the recent focus on testing has had questionable results.

Part of the problem is that the two-tiered system .. is already here—a system based in part on the education and income of parents, says Robert Archibald, an economics professor at the College of William and Mary and an author of Why Does College Cost So Much?

“At most institutions, students are in mostly large classes, listening to second-rate lecturers, with very little meaningful faculty student interaction,” he says. “Students are getting a fairly distant education even in a face-to-face setting.”

If the future of MOOC’s as peddled by some were to take hold, it would probably exacerbate the distinction between “luxury” and “economy” college degrees, he says. Graduates leaving high school well prepared for college would get an even bigger payoff, finding a place in the top tier.

“The tougher road is going to be for the people who wake up after high school and say, I should get serious about learning,” Mr. Archibald says. “It’s going to be tougher for them to maneuver through the system, and it is already tough…

“Higher education does have real problems, and MOOC’s, badges—certificates of accomplishment—and other innovations have real potential to tackle some of them. They could enrich teaching, add rigor, encourage interdisciplinarity, reinforce education’s real-world applicability, and make learning more efficient—advances all sorely needed.

But the reinvention conversation has not produced the panacea that people seem to yearn for. “The whole MOOC thing is mass psychosis,” a case of people “just throwing spaghetti against the wall” to see what sticks, says Peter J. Stokes, executive director for postsecondary innovation at Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies…He believes that many of the new ideas, including MOOC’s, could bring improvements to higher education. But “innovation is not about gadgets,” says Mr. Stokes. “It’s not about eureka moments. … It’s about continuous evaluation.”

The article concludes by citing Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia and a frequent commentator on technology and education, who believes that some of the new tools and innovations could indeed enhance teaching and learning—but that doing so will take serious research and money.

“In any case, he says, the new kinds of distance learning cannot replace the vital role that bricks-and-mortar colleges have in many communities.

“To champion something as trivial as MOOC’s in place of established higher education is to ignore the day-care centers, the hospitals, the public health clinics, the teacher-training institutes, the athletic facilities, and all of the other ways that universities enhance communities, energize cities, spread wealth, and enlighten citizens,” he says. “Not only is it not about the classroom, it is certainly not just about the direct delivery of information into people’s lives. If that’s all universities did, then publishing and libraries would have crushed universities a long time ago.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Vaidhyanathan says, the discussion of college reinvention represents a watering down of higher education’s social contract—a process that has been in the works for decades. “What it is going to take to reinvigorate higher education in this country,” he says, “is a strong political movement to champion research, to champion low tuition costs as a policy goal, to stand up against the banks that have made so much money lending for student loans, and to reconnect public institutions to their sense of public mission.”

“That is going to be a long process,” he says. “It has taken 20 years to press universities down into this cowering pose, and it is going to take 20 assertive years to get back to the point where Americans view American higher education the way the rest of the world does.”




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