The National Education Writers Association conference will be held May 2-4 at Stanford University. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Thomas Freidman will headline, and I will be on a panel discussing MOOCs. My main point will be that the push to use for-profit companies to provide online education at public institutions can be best understood by looking at for-profit universities. Institutions like the University of Phoenix receive the vast majority of their funding from the federal government through student loans and Pell Grants, and yet these schools have very low retention rate as they saddle students with life-crippling debt. Not only do most of the students fail to earn a degree or find employment, but virtually all of the faculty work without tenure or any other form of job security or academic freedom. Moreover, these schools spend most of their money on marketing, administration, and technology.
As I argue in my forthcoming book, Why Public Higher Education Should be Free, the world is now faced with two central options: either we go down the road of for-profit education, or we find a way to make all public higher education free. My research shows that we could eliminate tuition by just using current resources in a more planned and rational way, and if we do not do this, we will end up creating a privatized system with high costs and low quality. Furthermore, the push for MOOCs and other forms of privatized online instruction are in reality just a distraction from the real problems facing higher education, which center around out-of-control student debt, state de-funding, the rise of the administrative class, and the casualization of the academic labor force.
As Evgeny Morozov argues in his book To Save Everything, Click Here, we are constantly being told that every social problem can be fixed through technology, and education is just one example of how high-tech solutionists have taken over the public and political imagination. Leading the way in this new form of capitalist utopianism is the Silicon Valley billionaires and millionaires who hope to get rich by appearing to do good. Instead of dealing with the complex and messy aspects of our social world, the techno-evangelists sell efficiency, transparency, certitude, and perfection. In the context of higher education in California, each week seems to bring another high-tech solution to our problems of access and affordability. However, as Morozov reminds us, cheap fixes prevent us from developing real, sustainable public policy.
Likewise, the push to base university funding on degree attainment rates applies a factory model of production to the complicated world of instruction. Instead of pushing for innovative creativity, we are re-imagining education as a technological machine that spits out graduates at a faster rate. Yet, students are not widgets, and faculty are not assembly line workers; instead, we need complex solutions to complex systems.