Clay Shirky observed at the Awl last week that he and I disagree over whether the trend toward MOOCs in higher education is reversible—he says no, and he says that I say yes—and I suppose he’s right, so far as that goes. But I don’t think that goes very far.
So I want to shift the debate a bit. Shirky thinks in terms of “disruption” and what can come of it, in theory. I think in terms of what the “disruption” of the University of California system looks like in practice, as a complex of politicians, financiers, and career administrators move in lock-step to transform it into a self-sufficient corporate entity, and to enrich private industry in the bargain. I see a group of decision-makers who quite manifestly do not know what they are talking about and who barely try to disguise it, for whom “online” is code word for privatization. If I am against MOOC’s, I am against the way “MOOC” is being experienced in California, in practice: as an excuse to cheapen education and free the state budget from its responsibility to educate its citizenry.
Shirky’s optimism isn’t totally unfounded, of course; a good MOOC is a good thing. The problem is that it isn’t what it threatens to replace. And Shirky’s optimism effectively obscures the deep and profound fatalism that drives his argument: the future is here, so bend over and think of England; the future is coming and it isn’t all bad; the future may be worse in crucial ways, but it could also be cheaper too, so yay. Michael Sacasas calls this a Borg complex, and that seems at least partly apt.
Again, a MOOC that is truly open and free—and high quality—is a wonderful addition to the public sphere, a boon to students who are poorly served by the present system. And polemics like Shirky’s get traction because his complaints about the status quo are grounded in real problems (albeit problems created by the same financiers and politicians who now propose to solve them). But if we blow up the status quo, the fact that the future could potentially be better doesn’t mean it couldn’t also be much worse. That the glass is half-empty is not an argument for dumping it out. Do we know where the new water is going to come from? Making grand predictions about what MOOC’s could be—while merrily destroying the actually-existing thing it might potentially replace—is a recipe for disaster.
The central figure in Shirky’s article is the assertion that “MOOCs are a lightning strike on a rotten tree” and he goes on to argue that while most people focus on the lightning (“on MOOCs as the flashy new thing”), he wants to talk about the tree. That’s fine. I want to raise the stakes: let’s talk about the forest he’s missing when he focuses on that tree. The rhetorical function of “MOOC” is this bait and switch: MOOC is a fantasy of potential, a stand-in for what could be, whose possibility makes it unnecessary to produce evidence for its plausibility. This is also why Shirky doesn’t talk about the lightning that’s destroying the rotten tree. He doesn’t talk about what will replace “College” once MOOC’s have destroyed it, or defend the proposition that a world with MOOC’s instead of colleges is a good thing. He just talks about how terrible actually existing college is. The aftermath can take care of itself; the futurologist places his faith in it, but he does not subject it to all that much scrutiny.
I'm not sure the tree is dead, much less rotten. But even if it is, a good forester knows that rotten trees are useful things.
Are we talking about forests or universities? Both. Long before Silicon Valley discovered that overcrowded lecture classes were something they could rhetorically leverage into investment opportunities, faculty have been fighting to keep their classes small, and slowly losing. They’ve been losing because the administrative class—and the investment bankers that sit on university boards of regents—have wanted to spread academic labor as far as possible, to make it as cheap as possible to teach as many students as possible. Today, that teacher to student ratio has become—perversely—an excuse for exponentially increasing it: students who have too little contact with faculty will now get even less. Will we call that victory?
Put differently: what makes us think that “green shoots” will replace the tree once it has been lightninged to death? And is “lightning” the best forestry metaphor for education? I prefer the metaphor I put forward in the first piece—and which Shirky was riffing on, I think—which is a landscape of plants and also the animals that feed on them:
"Academic culture is a huge and diverse ecosystem. People who come along with grand plans about how everything is going to be transformed so often don't have even a very shallow understanding of how that ecosystem works: You have all these Silicon Valley venture capitalists who are going to blow everything up and transform it; what you're really talking about doing is killing all the green plants in the ecosystem and then expecting the deer to have something to eat; no; the deer are going to die.
We’ve all heard the story about how forest fires are actually, counter-intuitively, good for forest ecologies. Shirky’s metaphor presumes, I think, that you know that this is the case. But forest fires are only beneficial to complex and biodiverse systems if the burn is selective, and especially if it’s controlled: the big trees must survive, because the undergrowth can quickly restore itself. But what if all the trees are destroyed? That’s not a beneficial burn; that’s clear-cutting.
MOOC’s are a word for forgetting that universities have never grown without being planted, for trusting that just as students can teach themselves, universities will magically grow themselves, too. Because of technology, and the market, and also technology. It allows us to forget that the deer will get hungry once all the good stuff is gone—once the last vestiges of state supported higher education has been burned to the ground—and that they will have no choice but to queue up for whatever slop the market deigns to provide them. They might not even know what they’re missing. And it’s a word for forgetting that the people who make MOOC’s will have a profit motive, a monopoly, and private ownership of a delivery infrastructure that tax-payers will have paid for.
It’s the kind of word that makes you understand why tree sitters would chain themselves to old growth forests.
Part of the problem is that Shirky organizes his narrative according a strict unilinear chronology—using graphs in which the question of the future’s inevitability can beg itself—but I’m interested in thinking in terms of budgets, of where the money goes and why. Here, for example, Bob Samuels does the numbers to demonstrate that the amount of money it would cost to make all public universities free is not only much lower than we might expect, but much closer to the amount of money our state and federal governments already spend. Samuels’ short working paper is not the end of the discussion, of course, nor is Mike Konczal’s “Could Dismantling the Submerged State Surrounding Student Debt Pay for Free Colleges?” necessarily the final word. But this kind of work shows us a different future, in which a different set of choices and priorities suddenly transforms the world we so comfortably imagined ourselves to live in. Another world is not only possible, it’s plausible: when I got my BA at Ohio State, I paid $6k a year and never had a class in my major with more than 30 people in it, and almost always headed by a tenured professor. That’s not some fairyland utopia. That was 2001.
“MOOC” is a narrative, in other words, a way of thinking about and describing how education can occur online in the most optimistic terms. It’s a way of taking a thing as non-specific and formless as “disruption” and giving it a shape and a form. But it’s also a way of taking a thing as specific as the fact that San Jose State is shedding labor costs by putting their classes online, and making it sound like what they’re doing is “increasing access.” This is the narrative trick that allowed Shirky to write a column that describes how higher education as we know it will be and must be destroyed and then have it be titled “How to Save College.”
When regents and administrators and edu-preneurs talk about MOOC’s, after all, they mean outsourcing classes at San Jose State to a for-profit corporation. That’s literally the privatization of a public resource. It is not a coincidence that San Jose State is a place where a lot of low-income, non-white students get their college degrees: it isn’t the children of the upper-middle class that go to Berkeley or UCLA who will be the canaries in this coal mine. And it’s also not a coincidence that SJSU’s press release uses the narrative of MOOC to describe a set of courses which are not free, and thus, not really “Open.”
In this way, the (misapplied) word MOOC becomes a license to privatize. When a public institution outsources its classes to a for-profit corporation, that’s not necessarily a bad thing—nor is it all that new—but that’s what it is: shifting the burden to educate the state’s citizens to a corporation who can make money from doing so. And yet, by using the magic word “MOOC,” the privatization disappears in a puff of euphemism. We are instead “expanding access.”
To think around this euphemism, then, we need to be clearer about what we are talking about when we talk about MOOCS. Those classes at SJSU are not MOOCS, by the definition that’s meaningful to me. They’re massive and online, but they are not open, and they’re barely courses. Moreover, if what Coursera and Udacity do is a “MOOC,” then isn’t the internet itself a kind of giant MOOC? If we think of “it” as a big and messy library, that is accessible to any and all who have access to it, it’s certainly a classroom for the self-motivated, and a rich one at that. But the things that are called MOOC’s, aren’t they just one version of the way the internet freely and massively circulates information?
If we think of MOOC’s and college classes in terms of student experience, there’s a spectrum of experience which extends from the rigidly conventional classroom at one extreme—directed by the heavy head of an instructor, who sets readings and directs the process—to the library of the world, in which the learner directs herself without any externally imposed guidance at all. On the one hand, the classroom as pedogogical despotism, enlightened or otherwise; on the other, the platonic ideal of the university consisting of a library and a bed, where nothing stands between you and the fount of knowledge. Go forth!
Most actual classes lie somewhere between these two extremes; some classes are rigid and tightly directed while others are basically a group of people in a room having a conversation, loosely coordinated by a person whose role may be closer to facilitator than director. Actually-existing MOOC’s are much closer to the “library and a bed” model of education: there is much less teacher to get in the way of your learning. And this is always going to be the case with classes in which “online” is a license to be the massive. When a lecture class has 400 students, MOOC boosters talk about how terrible it is; when a MOOC has 4000 students, though, the addition of “online” has performed some strange alchemy, turning a digital lecture class into pedagogical gold. And this is the entire structural logic of the MOOC as a concept: with great technology, comes great student to teacher ratios. There is no MOOC without this imperative to shed pedagogical labor.
Out of this imperative comes the core of the MOOC as a concept: the students are on their own. If the teacher to student ratio is 1 to 1000, or 1 to 200,000 (rather than 1-18 or 1-30), the students are free to learn or to avoid learning, as they see fit. Some structure is still provided, of course—there are peer discussions, and reading lists, and suggested exercises, anything that can be cheaply reproduced and distributed—but without the presence of a teacher who sees you, without the surveillance of grading, and without the social pressure of a classroom environment, students can easily get by without doing nearly as much, if they want. No one will notice. No one will care. They are free. Is this a good thing?
If you are a self-directed learner, you may thrive in a system which gives you some (optional) structure and (optional) guidance. But since the entire model is built on a massive reduction of pedagogical labor, you damn well better be that kind of learner. And if you are that kind of learner—if all you need is slightly more than a bed and a library—then you don’t really need a “class” at all, do you? Nor would you be getting one: you would be getting a special kind of online text, one which is slightly more interactive than a web-site, but basically not distinct from a well-organized blog. Such things can be a wonderful addition to the universe. But calling them “classes” is begging the question that a class is no more than that, and I am consistently amazed that anyone would make that mistake.
Nor do I think a self-reliant college student is necessarily a good thing. In a well-run seminar, students must disagree with each other respectfully, must try to persuade, argue using facts rather than polemic, and face the people with whom they disagree. They have to find points of agreement within their disagreements—or I strive to find it for them, anyway—and it’s by finding ways to explain to each other what they disagree about that the class makes progress. And this is what distinguishes the classes I count a success from the classes where I feel like I failed: while a bad class remains split between active teacher and passive/reactive teach-ees, a good class is one in which the group develops its own vocabulary, its own history, its own personality, when unresolved discussions in week one and two structure the kinds of unresolved discussions we have in week three and four, and so forth. You only understand your own position, I think, if you understand why others don’t share it (and why they believe what they do).
In short, my story of a good class is not a narrative of conformity and control: it’s a narrative of socialized disagreement, of a group of people that can respect and work productively through and around and about everything that divides them. I find it easy to picture doing this in a classroom space. I find it hard to imagine doing this in chat-rooms, discussion boards, comment threads, and emails.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. Years in a classroom as an educator have given me strong opinions about why my classes fail and why my classes succeed. The sooner you learn your students’ names—and the sooner they get comfortable with using each others’ names—the more successfully they will engage with each other as people, rather than as props for their own monologues and performance. Managing time is an art, but it’s an art that depends on reacting to sub-verbal cues: knowing that you can sustain a discussion on character for only about 40 minutes before they get bored, for example, and how to mix discussion with in-class writing to keep a two hour class from going stale, and knowing when and where you need to drop the discussion you’d planned to teach in favor of the discussion they clearly walked into the classroom wanting to have… all of these decisions must pivot on something as small as the look on a student’s face, the character of a silence, and the reactions of students whose intellectual personalities you’ve come to know intimately. Try to do that on a discussion board. Seriously, try it.
Moreover, there are always a handful of hyper-eloquent students who need to be persuaded—sometimes nudged, or even pushed—to step back, and to listen to other voices in the room. There are also, always, at least a handful of students that will not talk at all, unless you cultivate them with more skill than I sometimes have. It’s only by reading a student’s face that you can ascertain that she has an unexpressed idea burning in her brain, that all you have to do is ask her to speak up, and she will. And that then she’ll speak up again. And again. But this only happens when you’ve established a relationship of trust; when students are comfortable with you and with their classmates, you can see their minds working even when their mouths are closed. When they are not, you can’t; they come to class with a mask on, and they speak as they think they are expected to, performing a pose of what they think intellectual engagement is supposed to look like, the artifice rather than the substance.
I could be wrong; I only know what I know from a decade of experience as a teamster in tweed. But I do know something. I know that when I have occasional reading quizzes, my students do more of the reading. When I do not, they do less of it. And students who do the reading tend to find the classroom an enriching and even enjoyable place to be. Students who don’t do the reading, do not, and go through the motions. The former learn something; the latter get a grade. Which is the kind of student you want college students to pay to become?
I think there’s a great deal of enthusiasm and desire, among the MOOC crowd, for students who can be essentially self-motivated and individually oriented, and there’s so much enthusiasm for it that they start to believe that a classroom that essentially teaches itself is a good thing, even the best thing. Why have a paid instructor reading and grading student work when the students themselves can read and grade each other’s work? It is, after all, cheaper. Well, here’s one reason why. But another reason is that autodidacts who live in their own brains are not really in great demand. Even if we reduce the purpose of education down to job training—and this is a huge reduction—education is a process of socialization. Most of the actual knowledge you learn in the course of your education will be forgotten, unused. But the social skills and social knowledge you acquire in the classroom and outside of it is an important part of what makes you the person you are, for better or for worse. If we take a process of socialization and make it a process of anti-socialization—if to be “at” college, you must be alone in front of a computer—we take the dynamic that creates the legendary poisonous atmosphere of “the comment thread” and use it to create adults. To my mind, it is impossible to argue for this proposition.
Someone like Malcolm Harris is basically opposed to education, as such, exactly because the classroom represents this kind of subject-making discipline, because the classroom and the prison—as he sees it—have too much in common for the former to be embraced as a nurturing place to send kids, essentially by force. What one might call discipline and guidance and structure, Malcolm might call “violence.” Of course, he’s also against capitalism, the state, and patriarchal oppression of women, so to be clear: he’s a wild and crazy anarchist radical communist, and so his opinions can safely be ignored. He probably thinks Occupy was a totally good thing, too.
Malcolm’s position, however, is consistent. If you agree with him that the kind of discipline which pedagogues impose on their students—or the kind of power which is represented by giving a student a grade—is a form of violence, or coercion, or illegitimate control, then you are likely to see free-range children as a much better alternative to forcing them to go to school and submit to that kind of authority. I don’t agree with him, but I understand why he believes what he believes, and I respect his opinion, even if I don’t share it. He’s not wrong that at least some kinds of pedagogical control are little more than social violence, enacted on the bodies and minds of adults who we call “children” and deny the agency of choice. And I’ve learned a lot by thinking through why I don’t agree with him, a process that has caused me to take up the force of some of his critiques.
Shirky’s position—and that of most MOOC-boosters—does not seem consistent or coherent to me. There is a pulsing drumbeat of desire for a world in which self-directed learners direct their own learning, in which young people volunteer to learn whatever it is that they are supposed to learn, and in which the pedagogical labor of directing, encouraging, structuring, and disciplining the learning process is totally unnecessary, and need not be paid for. It is a fantasy. If you eliminate teachers and the broader structures of pedagogical authority that they make up, you have gotten rid of “education.” You can say that this is a good thing, if you like. Malcolm might think it is. But you cannot pretend you are saving a thing by replacing it with something that is utterly different. Sometimes destruction is creative. Sometimes it is simply destructive.