Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Farewell, Sebastian

Sebastian Thrun’s remarkable surrender on MOOCs for the masses has pretty much consumed the higher ed interwebs this week, and for good reason.  He has gone from confidently asserting that he will bury us to shrugging and muttering “never mind” in just two years.  (Characteristically, Tressie McMillan Cottom delivers a devastating analysis.)  Apparently, students with complicated lives are just too much trouble; the MOOC works best with economically elite, academically prepared students, just like traditional higher education.  

Some of us have been making that point for years.  In 2010, Anya Kamenetz published DIY U, in which she celebrated the emergent alternatives to traditional colleges as potentially empowering to the masses.  The “edupunks” who took control of their own education would blaze the way to the new, glistening future.  I took issue:

The alternative to eleemosynary institutions isn't a sudden epidemic of autodidacticism; it's for-profits. That's the direction in which we're actually moving. The for-profits have their strengths and their weaknesses, but at least they recognize that you can't scale up without infrastructure. For all the mistakes they make, they grasp the fundamental importance of institutions. They just build (or sometimes buy) their own. To the extent that "society" redirects resources away from institutions and towards individuals, it plays directly into the for-profit model. Kamenetz correctly notes that for-profits rely heavily on Federal financial aid, but somehow never connects these dots.

Eleemosynary institutions have real and serious flaws, but they exist to empower the weak. They are necessary to empower the weak. If you rend them asunder, you will expose the weak to the predations of the strong. This is so fundamental that I'm surprised it even needs to be brought up. If it weren't scandalously unethical, I'd propose an experiment: take two sets of kids who barely got through a weak school district. Send one set to the local community college, and tell the other set it's free to educate itself under digital bridges. Come back in, say, ten years, and compare the results on any scale you want. Then talk to me about "edupunks."

Kamenetz' framework rests on a mostly unacknowledged, but remarkably deep, set of privileges. If you had a strong high school background, and you have money and leisure, and you have social connections to smart people who are willing to spend time with you, and you can afford all kinds of technology, then you may be able to do something with this. (Astute readers will recognize the young Bill Gates and the young Steve Jobs in those descriptions.) But if we're honest, we have to recognize that most of the people who download TED talks don't do it as an alternative to college; they've already been to college. If you have a well-developed set of skills, you can avail yourself of all kinds of things. But in the absence of those skills, it's just information. And those skills come from somewhere.

If you're serious about education for the non-elite, you need institutions. The institutions need to be accountable, and open to creativity, and efficient, and changed in a host of ways that I spend most of my waking hours obsessing over and probably more that I've never even thought of. But you need them. Every serious social movement of the past two centuries has understood this. The internet has changed a lot of things, but it hasn't changed that. The rich kids may experience unbundling as liberation, and to some degree, it can be. But for the vast majority, the issue isn't that their individuality is being squelched by The Man and his distribution requirements. It's that without effective educational institutions from preschool on up, they will never get the chance to develop their skills in the first place.

In 2013 I’d replace “download” with “stream,” but otherwise, I stand by it.  

The great danger at this point, now that the MOOC backlash is kicking into gear, is missing the positive possibilities that MOOCs and other innovations offer.  I understand the impulse to wipe a collective brow and sigh with relief -- or, let’s face it, crack snarky jokes -- at Thrun’s discovery of what we on campuses have long known.  But leaving it at that would be a mistake.  

At their best, colleges are bundles of resources knit together by a shared mission.  MOOCs, OER, and other new technology offer new resources to incorporate into the bundle.  As I argued in January, professors can use MOOCs now much as they have used BOOKs over the years.  Like books, MOOCs can perform some of the raw explication outside of class that allows for higher-order discussion and application in class.  Instead of replacing classes, they can make classes better.  That’s no small thing.

So farewell, Sebastian Thrun.  You overshot, and failed, but you left behind a nifty resource that we can use in ways you never seriously considered.