At the National Education Writers Association conference at Stanford last week, MOOCs were the topic of much speculation and debate. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan affirmed that the jury is still out on this new model of instruction, yet he could see the day when the best Algebra teacher in the country would be teaching high school students from around the country online. While it was good to hear that he does not think technology offers the magic bullet for education, some of his comments about MOOCs were concerning. Moreover, as he stressed that the administration’s higher education focus is on increasing access, affordability, and degree completion, he did not offer any new specifics on this front. I later had the opportunity to question him about the president’s college scorecard web site, and he put me in touch with someone to continue the conversation.
During a panel with Daphne Koller of Coursera, I argued that we need to think about the whole higher education system and how these new technological solutions do not deal with the major issues of funding, costs, quality, and academic labor. Koller insisted that people take MOOCs for many different reasons, and the ones who want to complete courses often attain their goal. In response to my concern that faculty are being motivated to sign away their intellectual property to Cousera or to their home institutions, she replied that the she is an advocate of individual freedom so professors should be able to do what they want. I argued that faculty have to think about how their actions affect other people, and in the context of our union contract, we have a collective agreement that some times limits total individual freedom.
The debate over individual freedom versus collective contacts was highlighted in Thomas Friedman’s presentation. He started off by arguing that companies like Google do not want employees with college degrees; rather, what they want is people who have a proven record of mastering certain skills or competencies. Using the analogy of moving from a defined benefit plan to a 401K plan, Friedman said that everything is going to be individualized, and people will cobble together their own degrees and credentials out of a list of available online courses. In this “total revolution,” professors will have to prove their value in a global market as consumers/students are able to learn “anything” from “anyone” at “any time.” This over-generalized rhetoric tends to dominate Freidman’s work and other high-tech evangelists.
A constant theme of this conference was the notion that higher ed institutions are slow to move, but we are in a period of rapid technological transformation. Meanwhile, digital news media outlets have to quickly report on recent events, and so they are more in synch with high-tech businesses that can make quick decisions, and this puts slow-moving deliberative bodies, like public universities, at a disadvantage. Just as newspapers have been transformed by the “Internet Revolution,” we are being told that traditional universities have to give up their attachment to shared governance, job security, and reasoned debate; in this brave new world of high-tech transformation, liberal and conservative power-brokers have seemed to bought into the same push to trade in all past forms of economic and institutional stability in favor of a jump into an unknown future of radical individualism and the privatization of public functions.