The Future That Is Already Here Isn’t Much of a Future

Here is the weekly newsletter from Education Dive, which focuses largely on digital innovations in higher education:

Education Dive 1

Education Dive 2

The first article somewhat blithely acknowledges that “instructor availability” is one of the major concerns of students enrolled in MOOCs, as if it is a problem that can be resolved with more “innovation,” rather than one of the most fundamental features of MOOCs. I suspect that the investors in MOOCs are simply hoping that if the concept stays around for long enough, students will simply get used to the idea and, thus, more “adaptable” to it.

This mindset explains the second news item, which in itself but especially in its juxtaposition with the first item, reflects a common practice among those touting “innovation.” Instead of looking at raw numbers, which would clearly indicate that MOOCs taken for credit and accepted as transfer credits are still relatively rare, the focus is on the trend line. In most instances, if there has been a percentage increase in double digits in the occurrence of anything, it simply means that that thing has been occurring very infrequently to begin with.

The third story about the University of Colorado president’s emphasis on the need for a business model in higher education is surprising only to the extent that it is presented as news. For decades, administrators have been advocating for the need for the kind of “efficiencies” that one finds in the corporate world. Paradoxically and ironically—and the irony is so deep here that it resists exaggeration—for all of the touting of the “savings” achieved through this administrative mindset, administrative costs—that is, administrative positions, administrative support staffing, and administrative compensation—continue to expand in good times and in bad, and the bulk of the “efficiencies” continue to be felt on the instructional side of the institutional ledger. “Administrative bloat” is becoming a catchphrase precisely because administrators keep “cutting” their way to larger administrative budgets.

News items like the fourth one on this list–on the time now being “ripe” for competency-based education”–amount to advertising to create a self-fulfilling demand. Almost all of the touting of this “innovation” is coming from those invested in the “industry,” from those knowingly or witlessly enlisted to do “cutting-edge” pedagogical research on the potential in this “innovation,” and from those wedded to relentlessly reducing instructional costs and the role and numbers of faculty. The only thing “new” about competency-based education is that people are now attempting to broaden it from a niche option into an educational model. Doing so requires, of course, that one ignore the many reasons why it has long been only a niche option.

The fifth story, on Coursera’s momentary focus on international markets is also becoming part of a trend among digital-education companies now that the domestic U.S. market has, for the moment, been very seriously damaged by the exposure of the practices of many of the online for-profit institutions. The “model” provided by the University of Phoenix has been replaced by the model available in the much more internationally focused Laureate—which was the topic of an investigative piece by Mina Kimes and Michael Smith that won AAUP’s Molotsky Award this year. The article is titled “Clinton Pitches KKR-Backed College Chain amid Controversy,” and it is available online at: The Clinton referred to is, by the way, Bill Clinton, who received hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for being the conglomerate’s “honorary chancellor,” though he has since cut his ties to it.

And the last story in this list shows how adaptable “innovation” has become. It used to be that the “innovators” tried to bulldoze objections; now they simply adapt the language of those expressing concerns, turn them into catchwords that end up meaning the opposite of what they originally meant, and create the economic “opportunities” that they then can exploit. Thus, if MOOCs are not now acceptable as “substitutes” for the core or general-education courses that are likely to have the largest enrollments—and, not coincidentally, to produce the largest revenues—then they will frame MOOCs as “complements” to more widely accepted methods of course delivery. It is simply another way to surround MOOCs with an air of legitimacy. So, we see, for instance, institutions offering “small-scale MOOCs” as if such courses are “pilots”—and as if the phrase is not intrinsically and inescapably a contradiction in terms.

Finally, every list of the “top trends shaping the future of higher education” should begin by highlighting that the “industry” will remain the target of endless profit-making schemes touted as “reforms.”  And any list that does not begin in that way is more a corporate or ideologically-driven “wish list” than any sort of objective prognostication.

2 thoughts on “The Future That Is Already Here Isn’t Much of a Future

  1. A number of years ago in the Cal State system advocates of “competency-based education,” which they understood as giving college credit for “real-life experience,” seriously proposed offering former taxi drivers credit for college-level courses in urban geography. Since then their arguments have become a bit slicker, but not all that much, I fear.

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