The New Yorker writer George Packer (who served in Peace Corps in Togo just a few years before I did–more on that in a minute) wrote a piece for The New York Times today. Entitled “Celebrating Inequality,” it blasts our new culture based around a new elite of celebrity and, of course, money. In it, Packer writes:
This new kind of celebrity is the ultimate costume ball, far more exclusive and decadent than even the most potent magnates of Hollywood’s studio era could have dreamed up.
That made me think of MOOCs, their origin and their supporters.
The MOOCs are centered around supposed “superteachers” from the most elite universities. It’s no accident that Harvard, MIT and Stanford are among those schools most often mentioned in discussions of MOOCs. These provide, supposedly, the “best” education in the world. Why not take advantage of technology to spread that wealth around?
First of all, it is the student who makes the education; no teacher or school “gives” it. It’s not that Harvard professors are elite educators, but that Harvard students are elite students. This is what makes the school so successful. Put a Harvard professor in front of most community-college classrooms and that professor will, most likely, fail. The name “Harvard” dresses up the professors, but it does not make them master teachers.
The best teachers are those who can help the worst students improve… while also assisting the best. You cannot do this if you have never tried to teach the worst… and the worst never darken the doors of Harvard lecture halls.
Which brings us to another point: The MOOCs center upon lectures and technological presentations that leave students, for long periods, passive. They make the teacher and the technology the center, and not the student. The ensuing focus on the teacher fits right in with the pattern Packer describes of an elite masquerading as expert–of everything emanating from a center and out to the periphery. That’s not how education works best, however. It is not a gift from those at the top but the result of work by the learners themselves.
I went to graduate school because I wanted to become a better reader and assumed (correctly) that I could find professors there who could direct my reading. I did not want them to tell me, but to aid me–and they did. MOOCs, no matter how they are dressed up, are a means of telling, not aiding.
Though I don’t know how much Packer’s Peace Corps experience formed his attitudes (he wrote about them in The Village of Waiting), but he must have seen, as I did, the tourists and occasional reporter as they whizzed by in their air-conditioned, chauffeured cars, windows tightly closed, hampers of carefully prepared food and bottled water at their sides–members of the elite taking a look at the poor and deciding, all too often, what is good for them. The Togolese were (and are) often told what’s good for them by people from far away, people who have more money and greater international prestige. People, however, who have absolutely no clue what life is like for the average Togolese.
What we are seeing with MOOCs is pretty much the same thing… people deciding for others (whose lives they know nothing about) what is good for them. The only way they could actually be in a position to know and to help is by stopping the car, getting out, and sharing local food, drink, and conversation with the people where they actually live and work. And by staying for a while, working with the people. Few from the elite ever do that. In teaching, this means getting away from the elite institutions and coming into substantive contact with students who do not themselves come from elite families or who were not the stars of their high schools. Few from the elite ever do that.
Like the Togolese, these other students can learn–can do it just as well as the elite. But they cannot, if all they are offered is the vision of development or education without the real contact that makes it possible for them to take charge of it themselves. They have not gained enough of a foundation to make use of technological marvels or MOOCs on their own… as anyone who actually works with them knows. Without that foundation, their development or their education is little more than a facade.
Just as sustainable development starts with local communities, sustainable education starts where the students are–not in the vision of a professor at Harvard, MIT or Stanford. Given the obvious nature of this, I can only conclude that what we are seeing with MOOCs is not a mindset of understanding of students, but of worship of the elite. If it’s from a Harvard “superprofessor,” it must be good.
As we have learned from over half-a-century of third-world development, such a mindset rarely improves much of anything. All it does is allow the elite to admire themselves, to preen in front of their mirrors in their costumes as experts.