Thursday, October 18, 2012

Friday Fragments

The $249 chromebook is the best idea I’ve heard all week.  It seems like the chromebook is finally moving from “proof of concept” to “something actual people would actually buy.”  Finally, decent size and specs at a community college price.  This could fulfill the promise that netbooks made, but crapped out on, back in 2009.


Minnesota is banning Coursera?  Say what you want about MOOCs, but this is catastrophically stupid.  1001 varieties of internet porn?  No problem!  But using the web for unauthorized learning?  Scandalous!  

For those who aren’t fans of MOOCs, the way to defeat them is to offer something better.  Relying on state-level protectionism is not going to cut it.  Anyone with a VPN can make a mockery of this, and rightly so.  Honestly, when I think about all of the things that people can, and will, do on the internet, following free academic classes is the least of my concerns.


It will surprise nobody that I plan to vote for President Obama, but I have to admit being annoyed at him.  During the second debate, he continued to use “community colleges” and “job training centers” interchangeably.  They aren’t.  Community colleges are important job training and workforce development sites, but they’re also -- and I use this word deliberately -- colleges.   For many students, taking the first two years of a four year degree at a community college is a viable way to get an education while keeping costs down.  Given that student loan burdens are a major issue, it would be nice for someone in public life to connect those dots.


The Girl is starting to decipher genre.  We’ve watched a few episodes of “Gilligan’s Island” over the last few weeks; it’s a gobsmacking nostalgia trip for me, and she enjoys the candy-colored slapstick.  As with the old “Star Trek” episodes, I have to do some serious deprogramming of the casual sexism, lest she get too much of it, but with enough parental counterpoint, it still seems worthwhile.

After a recent episode, she turned to me and said “I get it!  Gilligan is like SpongeBob, and the Skipper is like Squidward!”

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but she was basically right. What made it gratifying, though, was that she was able to recognize genre.  The goofy, carefree underling who flusters the voluble but basically harmless boss -- that could be Gilligan, or it could be SpongeBob.  

Pretty good for a third grader, I think.


This story made me smile, albeit wistfully.  Some public universities are going to their legislatures with a proposition: restore subsidies, and we’ll hold the line on tuition.  

In a more perfect world, legislatures would jump at the deal.  But I have no illusions that the current crop will.  

The great virtue of this strategy is that it connects cause and effect.  (More cynically, it provides a palatable excuse for a university to do what it was going to do anyway.)  I’m a fan of reality-based decisions, so I like the idea of pointing out explicitly that much of the recent spike in tuition increases is a function of cost-shifting, rather than a lack of discipline.  If you want to flatten the spike, stop cost-shifting.

Unfortunately, I can imagine a fairly smart argument from the other side: in the absence of a squeeze, higher education isn’t known for cost discipline.  So I’ll suggest a different idea:

Ask the legislatures to fund experiments.  Make money available, conditional on trying something different.  And I don’t mean yet another workforce program.  I mean something that addresses the underlying cost disease of higher education, something that gets at the credit hour and the various structural issues that push up costs at every institution, regardless of local quirks.  If you want a system fix, pony up resources for people to try some.  

Otherwise, we’ll be stuck in annual games of budgetary chicken, with diminishing returns.  The for-profits are already suffering; if we don’t change, we’ll be next.  And asking the legislature to keep Coursera out of town is not a serious answer.