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In today’s New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes:
I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world.
The column, which seems to be more PR for Coursera than legitimate commentary on education, comes a day before a group of us professors will be attempting to explore the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that Friedman sees as the savior of higher education by actually taking a MOOC ourselves, Coursera’s “E-learning and Digital Cultures.” As experienced educators, we want to learn about MOOCs. We want to see if they do, indeed, offer something that can improve the education we are offering.
And they might. But they will not do what Friedman imagines. How do we know? Because the ideas behind the MOOC are not new. Go back 100 years in America (go back to Ben Franklin, actually), and you will see similar enthusiasm for structures to help the auto-didact. What happened to them? They provided neither the education nor the credentialing demanded by American society and institutions–even business institutions. Alone, the MOOCs will not provide these to the broader world, and for the same reasons.
Friedman likes the idea of students creating their own degrees. Well, they can do that now. At CUNY, we have a program called the “CUNY BA” allowing students to design unique curricula utilizing resources across the system. When I was an undergraduate 40 years ago, we could do much the same thing at Beloit, the small Midwestern college I attended. In both cases, the institutions had learned that it is not effective to simply allow the student to create his or her own degree: a great deal of guidance is needed. Very few 18-year-olds have the experience or breadth of knowledge to make the requisite decisions completely on their own.
Additionally, Friedman doesn’t really seem to know what constitutes “best” in education. What makes a professor the “best” often has nothing to do with how that professor may come across in an online environment. In most online instances, the professor is behind the scenes, setting up tasks and discussions. More important than “best,” which cannot be defined for MOOCs today, is “different.” If the MOOC is a substantially different means of learning, and an effective one, it could very well prove evolutionary (there’s not going to be a revolution through MOOCs, Friedman’s title, “Revolution Hits the Universities,” notwithstanding). But the “best” learning environment will continue to be reserved for elite students at highly selective elite universities. No MOOC is going to change that.
At the start of his piece, Friedman writes:
there is one big thing happening that leaves me incredibly hopeful about the future, and that is the budding revolution in global online higher education. Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have.
Like many a non-educator, Friedman believes that the process of education can alleviate poverty. This, as any experienced teacher knows, is simply not the case. Such naivete was lampooned fifty years ago by the science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick in his novel The Man in the High Castle:
Crouching before the screen, the youths of the village–and often the elders as well–saw words. Instructions. How to read, first. Then the rest…. Overhead, the American artificial moon wheeled, distributing the signal, carrying it everywhere. (150)
The belief that “we” in the metropole can “help” the people of the periphery is an old one (see the work of the Guyanese economist Walter Rodney). Five years ago, in my book Blogging America: The New Public Sphere, I wrote:
Today, there are still people who have such idealistic visions… such as Nicholas Negroponte, with his One Laptop Per Child project. They forget that it is not technology alone that drives cultural change or creates new worlds, but the interaction between the old and the new…. Like the old and the new, the machine and belief (culture) are inextricably linked.
Focusing on the machine (in this case, the MOOC) as the answer leads only to dead ends–as Negroponte, by this point, surely knows.
In my book, I go on to quote Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina, who discusses the wind-up radio, another bit of technology once extolled as an “answer:”
Trevor Baylis’s Freeplay Radios still exist. You will find them among new age fisherfolk in Oregon; neoblue collar sculptors working out of lofts in postindustrial cities; backtoearthers in Alberta; Social Forum activists and neoGrizzley Adams types everywhere. Angstridden victims, all. But the enthusiasts of the windup radio suffer not from poverty or lack of information but from wealth, vague guilt, and too much information. They are the only people who can find nobility in a product that communicates to its intended owner: you are fucked. (120-121)
The same could be said about the MOOC. It is not intended–as Friedman’s words show us–for the elite, but for the left-behind… for those who will stay left behind. At the same time, it is the elite, the well-to-do and already well-educated who will get the most out of the MOOCs. The real poor won’t.
That doesn’t mean there may not be value in the MOOC and the MOOC process. It is quite likely that MOOCs will provide an addition means of augmenting education, becoming another arrow in the educator’s quiver. They could fit in well with the system of education closest to my heart, Fred Keller’s old Personalized System of Instruction (PSI), one of the first Mastery processes of education. I would like it, if they could, for they could strengthen my argument for new experiments in PSI.
But, alone, MOOCs are not going to change education or revolutionize it. Any careful study of the history of education will show that.
Over the course of the five-week MOOC we are engaging upon, a number of us will be posting here on our experience. I look forward to it, but I am not going into this starry-eyed like Friedman. However, I do recognize that, though the MOOCs may be a fad, even in a fad there can be something of value.