Rebuttal to Tom Friedman, MOOCs and the New Uber-Oligarchy!

Dear Commons Community,

Over the past several weeks, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has had two columns praising MOOCs and what they might do to democratize higher education.  There have been several rebuttals but I particularly like one by Rebecca Schuman, a visiting assistant professor of German at Ohio State University, that appears in today’s online version of The Chronicle of Higher Education. To set the stage, she reviews Friedman’s positions and recent rebukes:

“Thomas L. Friedman’s breathless New York Times column on the potential of massive open online courses envisioned remote villages in Egypt enthralled with lectures on Plato and nuclear physics, and thereby a large-scale democratization of what used to be the purview of the privileged few: higher education. Friedman did mention the online revolution’s potential disadvantages—“Yes,” he conceded, “only a small percentage complete all the work, and even they still tend to be from the middle and upper classes of their societies.” But the general tone of the piece betrayed giddy anticipation for the gleaming new delivery model of education that will arise from the rubble of the old Ivory Tower.

The blowback to Friedman’s piece in the professorsphere was considerable (and Richard Wolff’s rejoinder one of the best reads). And this has prompted Friedman to publish a second column in praise of the MOOC, one that doubles down on his earlier assertions with the added bonus of ad hominem insults to the professoriate.

The response to this newer column is even more heated (with John Warner at Inside Higher Ed quipping that “Thomas Friedman has as much credibility on education as I do on dunking a basketball”). And for good reason—the column is based on false premises, sure, but the worst thing about it is that it advocates for an academia that is even more oligarchic and stratified than it already is!”

Shulman then stakes out her own critique and does not hold back at all.  For example:

“Somehow, in the service of making higher education free and available for everyone, we must whittle the professoriate down to the likes of superstars such as the Harvard professor Michael Sandel, who is now so big in South Korea that he is apparently forced to wear special shoes all the time. Everyone who does not have triple-tenure and the stage presence of a mid-1990s Garth Brooks will be the deserved victim of outsourcing to a more deserving “online competitor.”

I am not even going to address Friedman’s premise that my colleagues and I are not trained. After all, it is true that the five years most of us spend in teaching assistantships or with our own courses—and, in my case, the graduate seminars on second-language acquisition and the pedagogy conferences—do not result in an Official Certificate of Professoring. I had been under the impression that was called a “Ph.D.,” but what do I know? I have never appeared on Chinese television, and thus am currently wearing an unimpressive pair of beat-up galoshes that cost $21.

No, my main issue with Friedman is that the brave new world of democratized education (never mind that most remote villages in Egypt do not have high-speed Internet) is anything but. What Friedman proposes is nothing less than the creation of an über-oligarchy that is even more exclusive than the current state of academe—which is already elitist enough, thank you very much.

Shulman is on target and it is amazing to see that the current MOOC movement is being led by faculty at elitist universities most of whom have had very little experience in mounting online programs or courses.  To the contrary, it has been the community colleges, the large public university systems, the more mainstream private colleges and the for-profit colleges that have the experience and expertise  and have been teaching online in many cases for fifteen or more years.



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