Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Starving Children in Africa Argument

Several days ago I tweeted that I was filled with rage at reading the Christensen Institute white paper on hybrid innovation.  I was a little surprised when, later that day, I noticed that someone had responded that they found the report heartening.  If the conversation had stopped there, I think I would have just assumed this was one of those "costs of playing on social media" moments.  Unfortunately, this person then suggested that I don't have any understanding of the state of education in Third World countries (I do, actually); attacked me for being elitist; and told me to come out of my ivory tower.  I was deeply offended and angry, as much because anyone who actually knows me know how unfair such accusations are.  At the same time, it started me thinking about something that I think is important: what is my responsibility as a professor at the University of Texas, Austin but also as a global citizen?  Where do my own priorities lie?

I've heard variations of the argument that MOOCs do and will dramatically increase accessibility to education, in the US (in places like California) as well as in Third World countries.  I have issues with this argument.  Certainly, inaccessibility is a real thing.  Still, I'm not sure that it's a good thing to make accessible something that, so far as we know, does nothing to actually improve learning on any kind of large scale.  I fear that, in fact, MOOCs might make the situation worse because it will *seem* like there is learning to be had when there isn't, really.  I'd also argue that it is a kind of bait and switch game: tell people that education is the game-changer, that they live in a meritocracy.  But then, even armed with significant learning, they find out that it's really about networks, connections, and other intangibles.  In some ways, this moment reminds me of evolution of graduate education.  It used to be that it was largely inaccessible to all but the most well-connected and wealthy.  Then it became much more accessible.  Suddenly the job market became impossible and the myth of academia as a meritocracy has been pretty soundly battered.  All to say, I'm not at all convinced that making learning more accessible is going to do a whole lot except raise the bar and put those invisible networks even more firmly in play for those who can afford to pay for access to real, live professors and a residential college education.

But back to my priorities....  I am tremendously concerned about the state of access to education around the country and world.  But, most of all, I am concerned about these issues in my own backyard of Texas.  MOOCs are wonderful for outreach and continuing education; their value as any kind of enhancement to a college education are far from clear.  I am deeply concerned that, in the name of outreach and continuing education (not to mention, making superstars of some of their faculty), "the best universities" will continue to produce MOOCs that threaten my own students' access to a high quality, meaningful education.  Accessibility is important, but so is maintaining the high quality of the education our public university students are receiving.  If we do not protect that, if we slide too far down the slope, we will find that degrees from our institutions are utterly unable to compete with degrees from any private institution.  That's already something of a concern.  With the hype around MOOCs, their recent incursion into several public universities, and other kinds of "scaled up" teaching experiments going on, it's a real possibility that we will permanently damage our "brand." 

It makes me terribly sad that children in Africa are starving for learning; but, for now, my responsibility is to fight for the interests of my students--current and future--in Texas.

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