Sunday, May 19, 2013

Thoughts on a Manifesto

Sean Michael Morris’ “Manifesto for Community Colleges, Lifelong Learning, and Autodidacts” is getting some traction, and it’s easy to see why.  Morris argues that we’re in the midst of a massive transformation of higher education, in which students are left much more to their own devices than they once were.  As Morris puts it,

The new culture of learning is one where learning takes place all the time, everywhere, and according to learners’ own preferences and motivations. Disappearing quickly are the rigor, expectations, and outcomes provided by the structures of a traditional education; and coming to the fore is an autonomous learner, who is her own authority on what’s relevant, germane, vital to her own education. Wide and resounding is the call: “The learner has changed! And so has learning changed!” And it follows that if they wish to survive, institutions of learning must change, too.

Backwards run the sentences until reels the mind.  

Although the argument is a bit slippery, Morris eventually settles on the claim that among the existing variations on colleges and universities in the U.S., community colleges are the best suited to work with the new learner.  Community colleges’ relatively clear focus on the needs of learners -- as opposed to the production of cutting-edge research, high-profile sports, or self-referential status competition -- allows them to respond more quickly and creatively to the changed environment than their more hidebound counterparts.  All they need is “bravery.”

As a piece of writing, it’s a bit of an inkblot test.  The “manifesto” conceit suggests a call to action, although it’s not entirely clear what the desired action is, or by whom it should be taken, other than that it should involve “bravery.”  Morris opens with his bona fides as a child of academe -- been there -- and includes both techno-skepticism and an acknowledgement of the obvious failings of the traditional lecture, so readers can find something that appeals to them.  The shout-out to community colleges is heartening, if a bit opaque.  MOOCs get a couple of paragraphs.  It has something for almost everyone.

As a community college administrator, my first thought was that his acknowledgement of the obstacles facing community colleges was far too glancing.  The “accountability” movement is based on “measurable results,” which means, among other things, raising the cost of experimentation.  The measures to which community colleges are increasingly being held are reductionist at best, and often so blunt as to create perverse incentives on the ground.  Worse, since many of the costs we face are effectively fixed, and state funding is much lower than it once was (after inflation, and sometimes even before), there’s far too little slack in the system to survive a failed large-scale experiment.  In this context, “bravery” can entail having the courage to be patient, instead of giving in to the temptation to fire before aiming.  Grants help tremendously, but by definition, they’re of limited length and purpose.

But that reaction, while true enough on its own terms, misses the larger argument.  Morris is taking the emergence of the autodidact as a fact of life, and asserting that colleges have to fundamentally remake themselves to address these empowered new high-flyers.

Color me wary.

It’s certainly true that new technologies offer new possibilities in terms of geographic location.  I don’t have to be in Cambridge to watch a Harvard lecture anymore.  And those of us who remember -- or even now endure -- the 300 person lecture hall can attest that its only reason to exist was institutional convenience.  It’s also true that some students come to college now having had access to the means of cultural production at a level that was simply unthinkable back in the paleolithic era when I was in high school.  There simply wasn’t a 1980’s equivalent of Jenna Marbles, even though her Rochester accent brings back memories.  The space did not exist for her shoulder-padded forerunner to capture an audience.

But even granting all of that, most students don’t arrive at community college having already produced ample portfolios of work, just looking for a credential to certify what they’ve already done.  Most show up unable to add fractions.  Many bring with them long histories of spotty academic performance, undiagnosed learning disabilities, and self-defeating habits that never got corrected.  These are not young Steve Jobs-es who are put upon by distribution requirements.  Most need help not only in building academic skills, but in navigating the institutions and culture of the professional world.  

And that’s where community colleges, as institutions, are part of the solution.

Community colleges, as with other eleemosynary institutions, exist to protect the weak against the strong.  That is their core purpose.  They provide academic skills and credentials that can give students an economic and cultural foothold in society, and do it on the cheap -- by design -- so that students don’t leave with terrible overhangs of debt.  They don’t screen out the students whose high schools didn’t prepare them well, and they don’t deliberately put gaps in financial aid offers to keep low-income students out.  They’re open-door, by design.  

It’s hard not to notice the comorbidity of the DIY and edupunk and MOOC enthusiasm with a continued assault on the welfare state.  “You’re on your own” has an obvious appeal for the powerful, for whom taxes are a felt burden and rules feel restrictive.  In public higher education, we’ve seen a decades long pattern of never quite recovering from the last recession’s cuts before the next one starts.  A pattern of two down, one up, two down again has had predictable consequences.  Now some of the folks who’ve driven the ideological assault on the public sector generally are leaping on technology as a fig leaf to abandon the weak to their own (electronic) devices.

I’d much rather see public higher education follow the lead of, say, Southern New Hampshire University, and experiment with ways to harness new technologies in the service of, rather than as an alternative to, a mission of access.  Use MOOCs and OER and whatever else to fulfill the existing mission more effectively.  That will involve some internal tensions, yes, and some room to move.  But it’s not about assuming that the student has changed.  It’s about doing what we do better.  

Students are still students, and they still need the support of institutions that, Coase teaches us, lower the transaction costs of bundling services.  To the extent that institutions can do a better job with students by harnessing technology, by all means, go for it.  (I’m currently supporting a systematic look at OER on my own campus.)  But let’s not pretend that tech can replace institutions.  Community colleges exist to empower the weak.  Replace them with youtube clips, and the weak will stay right where they are.