Let’s All Go MOOC Ourselves: Some Suggestive Reflections on Technology and Education

I have found Walter Breau’s post, “Big Bang Disruption,” to be extremely thought-provoking. That said, neither I nor anyone else should hold him in any way responsible for anything that follows in this post (or, for that matter, anything that has preceded this paragraph in this post).

If one compares the life cycles of gadgets to the working lives of average Americans, it becomes clear that while we are increasingly dependent on technology, we are less and less dependent on any specific technology. This is a major but almost never addressed  reason why any attempt to create a technology-based alternative to conventional, on-site post-secondary education is doomed to be short-lived. It’s not just that conventional colleges and universities deliver something that technology can’t replicate. It’s that unless one keeps trying to compress the time that it takes to become educated, the technology itself cannot keep pace with the increasing rate of technological change. Moreover, at the front edge, that endless innovation is usually very expensive—or at least much more expensive than it is after each new iteration of the technology has been on the market long enough to start to seem dated (a window now measured typically not even by the year, but in weeks or months). So, for the online innovator, the up-front costs are inevitably recurring, if not constant, costs. On-campus buildings may not have the durability that they used to have, but compared to digital technology, they still have exponentially longer life cycles.

Information processing can be accelerated, but critical thinking skills accrete, and this is, paradoxically, all the more true in an increasingly complex world marked by ever-accelerating rates of change. One need look no further than the news headlines for ready illustrations. The very sophisticated computers used by the NSA can scan billions of communications almost in a blink and identify potential drone targets by patterns in their communications. But when we rely solely on that extraordinarily sophisticated technology to identify targets, there is a much greater risk of “collateral damage,” which is a euphemistic way of acknowledging that we’re dropping some missiles on family homes and killing kids.

A cellphone can be made more multipurpose much more easily and quickly than a comparable level of sophistication can be fostered in a human being, and yet no technology can yet come close to replicating sophisticated human thought. We are not the machines that we use. We are much more than those machines. Nonetheless, reductive efforts to substitute technology for education seem founded on the notion that we can be programmed with knowledge and then somehow make the leap to thinking much more complexly and critically. This notion seems just an extension of the belief in standardized testing, whose proponents try to assess learning by reducing it to quantifiable data. If that were possible—or, more to the point, if that were very desirable–then we’d be giving objective tests to doctoral candidates.

Cheaper alternatives are not equally good alternatives as long as a better alternative is available. So as long as there are not just elite universities but even conventional on-site universities, the degrees from online alternatives will be regarded as inferior. When the children of the “one-percent” start enrolling in large numbers in the University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, or Corinthian University—or, for that matter, in MOOCs—then someone can start making the case that those alternatives are just as good. Until then, it’s a delusion. It’s the equivalent of trying to make the case that driving a Kia is not all that much different than driving a Lexus. The only person who would make such an assertion is someone who drives a Kia and has never driven a Lexus, or someone who drives a Lexus and would not be caught dead in a Kia but doesn’t want to seem too condescending about someone’s being able to afford only a Kia.

Moreover, the ostensibly cheaper alternatives are actually very seldom even cheaper. Take, for instance, standardized testing. Corporations describing themselves as “educational providers” are making billions in profits from marketing those tests to school districts already sorely strapped for revenue. In effect, we’re taking money away from educating our children so that we can assess how much they are learning, and then the assessment shows that they are learning less—in part, because we are diverting these resources away from their actual education—and the poor tests scores are used as evidence that even more extensive and intensive—and more costly—assessments are needed. To extend the car analogy, it’s the equivalent of buying several cars in a row before you’ve completely paid them off, until you’re suddenly paying $600 to $700 a month for a Kia. (By the way, I have nothing against Kia’s. I am sure that they are very fine automobiles. They are simply a convenient analogy because they are now among the least expensive cars on the market.)

So, what is involved here is more than just somehow distinguishing the next “big thing” in technology from the multitude of other things that end up being exposed as false starts. What is required is that we remain steadfast in our insistence that while technology can certainly be used to enhance education in many truly innovative ways (for instance, all sorts of hybrid courses, including the “flipped classroom”), it cannot substitute for education. So, in this sense, being anti-faculty—chasing doggedly after every available alternative to faculty actively engaged with students—amounts to being anti-education.

I think that Socrates would have been absolutely fascinated by all of the gadgets that we now have available to us. But I am equally certain that he would have been appalled at any suggestion that Plato’s accounts of his dialogues with his students—never mind some digitized rendition of Plato’s written texts—could be as effective in reaching those students as the dialogues themselves were. The active engagement of the human mind and spirit may be a very idealized goal for any educator, but it is not really an abstraction, and anyone who does not appreciate its core and concrete importance in education is not really interested in educating.

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