Thursday, January 31st, 2013

Venture Capital's Massive, Terrible Idea For The Future Of College

Can you go to college on your computer? Some say yes, and others respond with a resounding no. But one thing is for sure: there is a boatload of public money to be vacuumed off an overcrowded, underfunded educational establishment desperate for at least the appearance of a quick fix.

Enter Udacity, the foremost provider of Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Does what's above look like college to you? Or rather, is this how college should look now?

They've been described as "a relentless force that will not be denied," revolutionary, "the single most important experiment in higher education." Also MOOCs are getting a drubbing from academics and others who believe there's more to higher education than can be provided via "distance learning."

Now California state universities are set to begin enrolling students in MOOCs for credit. Earlier this month, the president of San Jose State University, Mo Qayoumi, announced that his institution will commence a pilot program: 300 students will receive course credit for online classes in remedial algebra, college algebra and statistics. Qayoumi was joined at the press conference by California Governor Jerry Brown and Sebastian Thrun, the controversial ex-Stanford prof and co-founder of Udacity, which will supply classes for the program at the cost of $150 per customer, er, student.

"This is the single cheapest way in the country to earn college credit," Thrun "quipped."

It's not quite free, as early MOOC proponents began by promising. It is worth mentioning, too, that Udacity is a venture-funded startup, that classes will be supervised not by tenured profs but by Udacity employees, and that Thrun declined to tell the Times how much public money his company will be raking in for this pilot—or what more may have been promised should the pilot prove "successful."

Okay, fine, but let's get this straight: public money has been mercilessly hacked from California's education budget for decades, so now we are to give public money, taxpayer money, to private, for-profit companies to take up the slack? Because that is exactly what is happening. Wouldn't it make more sense to just fund education to the levels we had back when it was working?


Aaron Bady and Clay Shirky had an exchange recently on Inside Higher Ed that sheds light on the current thinking regarding MOOCs among academics.

The two represent a certain polarity within the academy. Bady, known on Twitter and in the blogosphere as zunguzungu, is a Ph.D. student in African literature at UC Berkeley, where he teaches; he's also a well-known writer on politics and culture. For all the edginess of his style and his high profile on social media, Bady is a newly-minted prof in the classic mold: a scholar largely concerned with learning (and teaching) from the past. Shirky, though he has taught at NYU for over a decade, is a hypermodern public intellectual and author, a mandarin of the Internet, focused on the future.

In November of last year, Shirky wrote a blog post ("Napster, Udacity and the Academy"), in which he suggested that the fat is already in the fire with respect to higher education online. Traditional universities must adapt, and pronto, lest they "screw this up as badly as the music people did." Otherwise the real universities will risk losing out to virtual ones, just as the music industry failed to adapt to Napster and so wound up losing the download industry, largely to Apple's iTunes. Here, Shirky characterized Udacity as "our Napster."

The most widely told story about college focuses obsessively on elite schools and answers a crazy mix of questions: How will we teach complex thinking and skills? How will we turn adolescents into well-rounded members of the middle class? Who will certify that education is taking place? How will we instill reverence for Virgil? [...]

The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system, in the same way phonographs expanded the audience for symphonies to people who couldn’t get to a concert hall.

Bady responded in Inside Higher Ed:

Why have we stopped aspiring to provide the real thing for everyone? If we begin from the distinction between "elite" and "non-elite" institutions, it becomes easy to take for granted that "non-elite students" receiving cheap education is something other than giving up. It is important to note that when online education boosters talk about "access," they explicitly do not mean access to "education of the best sort"; they mean that because an institution like Udacity provides teaching for free, you can’t complain about its mediocrity. It’s not an elite institution, and it’s not for elite students. It just needs to be cheap.

When I asked him how he came to write the post, Bady said: "It's not so much about Clay Shirky himself as the way the entire conversation is framed: how an intelligent and reasonable person like him can come to conclusions that are completely bizarre to me. Everything in his argument flows from a very problematic analogy between teaching and music, that teaching is essentially—that everything universities do is like recorded music, so that you can use the same kind of economic models and measures, and economizing practices, to produce education commodities at a lower price.

"If you start with that analogy, then you've already given the entire game away. If you start by not letting education be anything more than what it's possible to deliver via YouTube—and MOOCs are a little more complicated than that, but essentially all the arguments for the cheapness of MOOCs are based on that model, that it's something you can digitize and then distribute very cheaply—then if that's all you want, if you're satisfied with that, then yeah, MOOCs are great, because they’re cheap. But you've already given up on almost everything that the entire academic enterprise has been creating for centuries. So it's that framing of the conversation, much more than Shirky's particular argument, that drives me up the wall."

Clay Shirky posted a long, thoughtful response in the comments to Bady's piece. He granted that the venture-funded Udacity, a for-profit company whose primary responsibility is necessarily to its investors, rather than to its students, was not the best proxy for the coming revolution in online education, but added:

If you remember what it was like when the people at Britannica kept whining about Wikipedia being like a public toilet, while doing nothing to be able to take user contributions for things like, say, the Indian Ocean tsunami, you can at least see what I believe [is happening.]


In the course of talking these things over with Bady and Shirky, I found as much agreement as disagreement between them. "Aaron and I agree about most of the diagnosis; we disagree about the prognosis," Shirky told me. "He thinks these trends are reversible, and I don't; Udacity could go away next year and the damage is already done. Because there's now a group of people willing to tell themselves a story about higher education that doesn't use the same stockkeeping units as the University of Michigan. And if that becomes a wide general conversation, then we're in for a period not of reengineering, but of reinvention."

Shirky sees Bady as taking the conservative, traditionalist side of the argument, but it appears that Bady sees himself as the revolutionary, positioning himself against a tide of intolerable technological "progress" that Shirky, a technological establishmentarian (for lack of a better way of putting it) considers inevitable. When asked about this, Bady responded: "One side has tons of Silicon Valley startup money, Federal research dollars, and the California governor in [its] pocket; the other side is fighting to keep health insurance. Which side is the revolution, and which is the status quo?"


In sharp contrast to those, like Governor Brown, who see MOOCs as a potential means of addressing the problems of cash-strapped state universities (a service the government is already paying for), the earliest proponents of MOOCs began by hyping a techno-utopian ideal of free knowledge for everyone. As of this moment, the Udacity website's headline is: "Advance Your Education With Free College Courses Online."

This vision owes much of its popularity to the success of Khan Academy, the free K-12 education site touted (and funded) by the likes of Bill Gates, who has called founder Salman Khan "my favorite educator."

Everybody loves the idea of lowering the barriers of entry to education; it's the easiest sell in the world, and Khan Academy, a nonprofit, pushes all the right buttons. Khan's success thus paved the way for MOOC providers to employ a rhetoric of inclusiveness, simplicity, low cost, and metrics, metrics, metrics: the same reasoning that today drives everything from "philanthrocapitalist" foundation spending to high-stakes standardized testing.

But the shortcomings of the Khan approach will be evident to anyone who cares to have a go at "US History Overview 1: Jamestown to the Civil War," the 18:28 minute video-with-voiceover class I chose at random from the Khan website. Within the first two minutes Khan has disposed of over a century, blowing past Jamestown ("a kind of commercial settlement") and Plymouth Rock ("we always learned this in school, you know, the Pilgrims on the Mayflower sailing the oceans blue and all the rest") and "fast-forwarding" to 1754. It's not even a flashcard approach; it's a series of lacunae, startlingly free of insight or context, mentioning not one single book or author, and only one political or religious figure (George Washington) in the nine minutes I watched. I've seen more informative cereal boxes.

Might this wham-bam method work reasonably well with math, where rewindable drills could help in passing a test? Valerie Strauss's education column The Answer Sheet, which runs in the Washington Post, published critical views of Khan's math offerings as well, from a variety of educators—notably a "Mystery Science Theater"-style video critique of Khan's take on multiplying and dividing negative numbers that led to the removal of the offending lesson.

All too similar complaints have been lodged against the quality of MOOC offerings. A CUNY professor and blogger by the name of "Delta" recently test-drove a Udacity statistics course, handing down a verdict of "amazingly, shockingly awful":

It is poorly structured; it evidences an almost complete lack of planning for the lectures; it routinely fails to properly define or use standard terms or notation; it necessitates occasional massive gaps where “magic” happens; and it results in nonstandard computations that would not be accepted in normal statistical work. In surveying the course, some nights I personally got seriously depressed at the notion that this might be standard fare for the college lectures encountered by most students during their academic careers.

Thrun promptly posted a response on the Udacity websitethe following day, in fact, according to a subsequent post from Delta. "These are the early days of online education, and sometimes our experimentation gets in the way of a coherent class," Thrun wrote. The alacrity with which the bad PR was addressed, as against the lack of alacrity with which defects in this Udacity course were corrected, suggests a great deal about the company's priorities—to say nothing of the blithe assumption that students are willing guinea pigs in Udacity's bold "experimentation".

A number of Udacity supporters replied to this dust-up, well, a professional educator would obviously feel threatened by Udacity! Hardly addressing the question that remains: who but a professional educator, an expert in statistics, would be in a position to evaluate such a course, pro or con? More to the point, are we willing to jeopardize the education of young people (at the cost of millions or billions in public funds) on a bet like that?


The recent humiliation of Michelle Rhee, the former DC superintendent of schools, is also instructive with respect to the risks involved. Rhee is the nation's best-known proponent of high-stakes testing for K-12 students; despite her own inexperience as a teacher, she was given enormous power to weaken unions, fire veteran teachers and reduce the management of public schools to a single metric: standardized test scores. A rash of cheating scandals—smoking guns indicating that teachers had amended their students' test cards in order to enhance their own apparent performance (and paychecks)—emerged in the wake of Rhee's tenure; still worse, there are signs that Rhee failed to adequately investigate clear evidence of cheating. The facts suggest that Rhee may have deliberately avoided taking steps that would have revealed the shortcomings of her own performance, as reported in a recent exposé on "Frontline" (viewable online, and well worth watching.)

It's not so big a jump from Rhee's style of rhetoric to that of MOOC proponents. Their arguments boil down to the need for efficiency and standardization; the mechanical, the measurable, the "scientific", that can be delivered cheaply and en masse. For these champions of innovation, education is a commodity, like a substance almost, that can be delivered to students by the dollop (and then the "outputs" measured—when you've got ten thousand students to evaluate in an online class, it is pretty clear that the evaluation will be coming via Scantron.)


I asked Aaron Bady: What happens in a real classroom that can't happen in a MOOC?

As a student, when I was at Ohio State I took a class with Jennifer Cognard-Black, a graduate student. I had been reading George Orwell's letters. I just went to her office hours and I was like, I've got these letters, aren't they cool? And I had nothing to say! I was really just thrashing around, [it was] incoherent excitement. And she said, “So, what are you interested in, which part of it?” I don't even remember what we said. It wasn't that this was an intellectually transformative experience; it was that I was taken seriously as a thinker, and it validated the entire idea of being excited about George Orwell's letters. It sounds like a small thing, but it wasn’t; it was huge.

I'm lucky that my classes are rarely more than 20 people; I guide and lead the discussion, but the students talk more than I do. You can only have a conversation of that type if you have a small enough number of people sitting in a room together they can actually challenge each other. That's the kind of trust you can build up over the course of a semester, face to face. [...]

What I try to do most of all is sit with a group of people and not only share with them what I know and take them along with me as we go on a tour of seven African novels, but also model a kind of intellectual engagement, and give them the space to practice it. [...]

The thing is, when you frame this as, “what does this give them for the rest of their lives?” one never really knows, and I think that's the point; there is something, but it’s something we’re all discovering together. When we reduce education to job training; when we reduce it to, “we need X skills, so let's do whatever causes X skill to come out,” you really close down all the possibilities.

What literary studies does better than anything else is to put you in the brain of another person for ten hours, or however long it takes you to read that book. It does so much to broaden people's horizons to expose them to new stuff, but also it's so important that you keep students in the driver's seat for that… keep them moving forward, but don't try to determine where they go. It's really counterproductive to tell them what to find in the book: because then you're just like, you're doing the MOOC thing of just delivering the information into a student's brain.


In the memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! the Nobel-prizewinning physicist describes his experience teaching a group of physics students in Brazil about polarized light; he had them conduct an experiment with strips of polaroid.

But then I asked them how one could tell the absolute direction of polarization, from a single piece of polaroid.

They hadn't any idea.

I knew this took a certain amount of ingenuity, so I gave them a hint: "Look at the light reflected from the bay outside."

Nobody said anything.

Then I said, "Have you ever heard of Brewster's Angle?"

"Yes, sir! Brewster's Angle is the angle at which light reflected from a medium with an index of refraction is completely polarized."

"And which way is the light polarized when it's reflected?"

"The light is polarized perpendicular to the plane of reflection, sir." Even now, I have to think about it; they knew it cold! They even knew the tangent of the angle equals the index!

I said, "Well?"

Still nothing. They had just told me that the light reflected from a medium with an index, such as the bay outside, was polarized; they had even told me which way it was polarized.

I said, "Look at the bay outside, through the polaroid. Now turn the polaroid."

"Ooh, it's polarized!" they said.

After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn't know what anything meant. When they heard "light that is reflected from a medium with an index," they didn't know that it meant a material such as water. [...] Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words.

This is the kind of education that the Michelle Rhees and Arne Duncans of the world, the Udacitys and the Khans, are seeking to install in American classrooms. A recent phrase of Cory Doctorow's comes to mind: "just because something has value doesn't mean it has a price." In this case, something such as the ability to converse, to reason, to think for oneself, to conduct an exchange.

From the point of view of adult stewardship of our culture, it seems we may be looking at the issue of education from the wrong perspective. How can we best address our responsibility to the young people in our care?


Shirky's November blog post drew attention to Robert Archibald and David Feldman’s "Why Does College Cost So Much", which invokes Baumol's Cost Disease to explain the steeply-rising cost of education:

The classic example is the string quartet; performing a 15-minute quartet took a cumulative hour of musician time in 1850, and takes that same hour today. This is not true of the production of food, or clothing, or transportation, all of which have seen massive increases in value created per hour of labor. Unfortunately, the obvious ways to make production more efficient—fewer musicians playing faster—wouldn’t work as well for the production of music as for the production of cars. This explains how costs that can't be broken down will keep rising. That conversations about everything must revolve around cost is par for the course, in education debates as well as "entitlements", government budgets and everything else, even as corporate profits are at record levels.

More recent scholarship has focused on a different metric: the ratio of administrators to tenured faculty. Laments of the decline of universities into corporations clogged with clueless managers are nothing new; the late Bill Readings's The University In Ruins (1996) was eloquent on this point, as was the 2003 anthology, Steal This University. In 2011, Benjamin Ginsberg published an incendiary polemic on the subject, Fall of the Faculty. But a paper by Robert E. Martin and R. Carter Hill published at the Social Science Research Network late last year uses the techniques of the Organization Men against them; "Measuring Baumol and Bowen Effects in Public Research Universities" balances prevailing administrative theories to arrive at the ideal ratio of tenured professors to administrators: three profs to each administrator. News that will cause your pointy-heads to ROTFL; as Martin and Hill point out, the current average is around two administrators to one professor. This is where we close the circle, for the metricists of higher education are administrators and government representatives, not educators. I asked Aaron Bady about this trend.

"It's not quite so simple as taking money that you could spend on education and instead getting a new vice provost who needs a secretarial staff and all this other stuff, so they can go on retreats—it isn't just that you're taking money from the actual process of educating students—it's that the more administrators you have, the more power they have to shape the priorities of the institution, and administrators have different priorities than faculty.

"The universities used to be run by the faculty, and so their priorities were doing the things that faculty valued: education and research. Now universities are run by administrators who are not academics, who are not faculty, who are not teachers."

Later in our conversation, Bady explained the exact nature of the dangers in these "revolutionary" approaches to remodeling higher education.

"Academic culture is a huge and diverse ecosystem. People who come along with grand plans about how everything is going to be transformed so often don't have even a very shallow understanding of how that ecosystem works: You have all these Silicon Valley venture capitalists who are going to blow everything up and transform it; what you're really talking about doing is killing all the green plants in the ecosystem and then expecting the deer to have something to eat; no; the deer are going to die. There's this basic economic argument for the cheapness of online education that is always about requiring less labor; paying people less, replacing people with technology. And at the end of the day, what you're going to have is a very stagnant intellectual culture.

"Who writes the textbooks? Who writes the lectures? You tape the [MOOC] lecture once, but then what happens next year? You just keep recycling the same materials over and over again? It's like a really bad ecological management system; you think you can remove something that is really crucial to the ecosystem, and nothing else will change?"

When I told Clay Shirky that Bady believes that the rise of administrators is related to the idea of a university education as job training, he replied: "That's exactly right." Characteristically, he went on to take a macro view.

"One of the reasons this is hard to talk about in the US is that we don't like to admit we have an n-tiered system, pick however many levels you want, but the institutions at the bottom of the system—I don't mean Kaplan and Phoenix, those guys are just scam artists—I mean the community college, and so forth. We still call it college, and we still use the same stockkeeping units of credit hours and diplomas and all the rest of it—but it isn't the same experience, and it doesn't mean the same thing. Part of what MOOCs maybe hold out is a world where we just stop trying to use the stockkeeping unit of the diploma.

Maria: Let me disagree some about community colleges: one reality is that it's so hard to get a teaching job now that even community college jobs are being staffed by freaking geniuses. And another: a couple of years ago I took a French class with my daughter at Santa Monica Community College. I was really shocked: this was one of the best introductory French classes I've ever taken, and I studied French at Berkeley for a while. Plus, admit it, you do get it phoned in sometimes, even at the most exclusive school.

Clay: Oh sure; sure. And it's interesting that the supply side has been improved by the glut of Ph.D.s. But the question is the demand side. This is the complicated question: the students who are going to these colleges: are they able to a find those great experiences, and are they making a difference? The graduation rate figures are dismal, if you look at existing state colleges, at the 2- and 4-year level.

Maria: I've always wondered whether they aren't counting people like me, who just take a class every once in a while just for fun.

Clay: Certainly anybody who would go to a community college class just for the love of it is probably living in an educational cornucopia, in this country, but something is driving the financial side of this. The old college premium, which used to be a benefit, is now a hostage situation. Even a job that didn't require a diploma fifteen years ago requires one now.


MOOCs are an essentially authoritarian structure; a one-way process in which the student is a passive recipient required to do nothing except "learn." What he "learns" is only useful if it results in direct, measurable economic production. (Hence, for example, a degree in literature has an economic value of zero.) As a convenient by-product, the purveyors of this "education" can be "incentivized" by the profit motive. The invisible hand at work once again.

Or we can look at education as an interactive process whereby the job of the teacher is to encourage the student to think, thereby introducing him to an adult world in which he may devise a contributon of his own making.

In this light, the following quote from Sebastian Thrun’s personal website seems somewhat ironic. Doubly ironic when you consider the URL, Triply ironic when you examine this educator’s spelling (recently corrected). And quadruply ironic when you consider that this whole enterprise is funded by venture capital, which could not exist without the inventiveness that is the product of an education system which respects individual freedom rather than uniformity:

Let's put ourselves in the undergraduate student's position. Someone eighteen years old, embarking on an academic career, might well ask: Will this world welcome me, welcome my potential abilities? Or am I being trained for a life on a hamster wheel? Is my value simply the value of a hamster that can run, a bioform for the Matrix to plug into and extract my essence for the benefit of a larger machine? Is this world full of possibilities, is it asking me to contribute, welcoming my contribution, valuing me for the things known and unknown that I may one day be able to contribute? Or am I being wronged from the start, treated as a "customer," which all too often means, alas, someone to fleece?

Is the world full of smart and welcoming adults who are interested in what I have to say, encouraging me to work hard and learn and try things, or is it full of thieves and charlatans who are out to rip me off and saddle me with debt and enslave me before I even get a chance to start my adult life??

Let's consider this from the educator's point of view, as well. Doesn't the quality of a culture rely in part on a deep, dynamic interaction between those who are adults now, and those who will be soon? Isn't that worth sacrificing ourselves for, perhaps even restoring higher tax rates so we can pay for it?

Let me suggest that it's not the young workers who are being trained wrong. It's the bosses.

Related: The Evil Economics Of Judging Teachers

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.

83 Comments / Post A Comment

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

MOOCs are getting a drubbing from academics and others who believe there's more to higher education than can be provided via "distance learning."

Because at some point the bong would have to get prohibitively large.

deepomega (#1,720)

@SidAndFinancy What we need is an angel investor for my OOPS program (one one-hitter per student).

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

@deepomega: I worry about the students in the joint degree programs, though.

This might be the only thoughtful, well-researched piece ever written about MOOCs.

hershmire (#233,671)

Nothing beats a good book and a professor you can talk to about it. So I hear.

/State school
//Wasted degree

MissMushkila (#42,100)

@hershmire As I read this, I just kept thinking "how wonderful for those of you at Small Private Liberal Arts Colleges!"

I don't know if I ever sat in a room with just 20 people. The only time I went to visit a professor during officer hours, I waited outside while he complained to his wife that some student was waiting for him, so he couldn't leave yet.

My lectures and exams could probably have all been delivered via the internet, and I don't think they would have lost much for it…And this was at a well-ranked "top" public university!

barnhouse (#1,326)

Aaron Bady teaches at a state school (Cal) and also attended one (Ohio State). We could totally make it our first priority to give that opportunity to every kid who can take advantage of it.

baked bean (#235,363)

@MissMushkila Hmmm well I attend a smaller state school (~11,000 people), and all but two of my classes in 4 years have been less than 30 people. So I guess my advice for someone who can't afford a liberal arts school but wants a smaller, more personal experience, is to look away from the big names and check out those smaller schools in your state.

MissMushkila (#42,100)

@barnhouse Sure we could, and we should! We haven't made that a public priority in recent history though. I guess I'm a little jaded as to whether that will change.

And I know I could have gone to smaller state school, but those schools in my state had less-respected programs and less name recognition. I know in some states it is different – but saying "well you can go to a less prestigious school with small classes or a larger, more regarded program at a large university" is not a choice talented students should have to face, when they qualify for more competitive institutions.

I'm just basically the pessimist in the room who thinks the ENTIRE system is broken. I'll be sitting over here by myself, mumbling about student loans and grade inflation.

MissMushkila (#42,100)

@barnhouse I guess my problem with these critiques is that they are so far from my own experience. Many of my lectures had so many students, you had to sit on the floor if you didn't get there 10 minutes early. The learning I did was mostly independent – reading and writing and thinking about what I was reading and writing – and my professors never really interacted with that process.

Lectures took attendance with clickers/having you hand in quizzes at the front of the class because that was the only way to get students to attend. The lectures were mainly outlines of what we had been assigned to read. I was in the honors program, which generally meant I wrote 12 page papers when my classmates wrote 10 page papers. That was my professors idea of differentiation!

To me, it is an argument to save something I have never known. (I am 24 years old) Maybe my school was an anomaly, but I know a lot of people with similar stories.

I work as a high school teacher now, and I definitely DO know and acknowledge that personal exchanges and interaction over learning are hugely important. I see it with my students every day! And I knew that myself in high school. College though? Was not a wise use of my time and money in the sense of learning anything. (it has helped me get the job I have, so I guess job training?)

Werner Hedgehog (#11,170)

"The universities used to be run by the faculty, and so their priorities were doing the things that faculty valued: education and research. Now universities are run by administrators who are not academics, who are not faculty, who are not teachers."

The administrators think of the students as customers and, in order to serve them better, focus on bringing more non-education services to campus. Athletic facilities, more options for on-campus dining, etc. This costs a lot of money, and the cost goes right into tuition bills.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Werner Hedgehog That's a common misconception. One that Archibald and Feldman (among others) have done a good job of debunking:

"The major causal forces for affordability problems over the last decade are shortfalls in state funding of higher education and rising income inequality in the United States, not frivolous amenity competitions among universities or wasteful faculty research. In this light, as policymakers consider their options, I would suggest that we adopt a higher education version of the Hippocratic Oath. First, do no harm."

Werner Hedgehog (#11,170)

@barnhouse In the linked article, the Authors never actually get around to debunking my point, though they claim to.

SkinnyNerd (#224,784)

@barnhouse Archibald and Feldman may be right (will read the article later) on cost, but they cannot debunk the fact that administrators who are brought in as managers instead of educators see the students as customers. So Werner's point still holds.

Unfortunately this trend has expanded beyond institutions of higher learning. Public broadcasting, for example, aims to attract donors by airing popular programs, where it once aired programs that would not see the light of day on commercial television. Do not get me started on charities.

deepomega (#1,720)

@SkinnyNerd Is this a good place to shout "FUCK YOU CAR TALK" from the rooftop?

deepomega (#1,720)

I'm a bit weirded out by the implication that there's no economic value to "students who know how to think." This is a problem that comes from a lot of places – underemployment leading to degree inflation, grade inflation meaning that a degree isn't "proof of being a good thinker," proliferation of humanities degrees – but I think the market would LIKE to be able to find the people who are good at thinking. We just aren't really providing the tools to do that right now.

scrooge (#2,697)

@deepomega I got my first job with a firm that just administered its own IQ and writing tests. They didn't care if you had a degree, they just wanted to know you could think and write. If every company did this, we could save a lot of money on education.

Sunny Schomaker (#4,021)

@deepomega Well, the assumption of that is that active participants in the market (business owners, for example) actually know what critical thinking skills or writing ability looks like.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Sunny Schomaker Much like the assumption of universities is that good researchers make good teachers. Ha ha ho hee ho. *wheezes, collapses*

Sunny Schomaker (#4,021)

@deepomega Hey, I resemble that remark!

@deepomega What exactly is wrong with a humanities degree?

deepomega (#1,720)

@happymisanthrope There's too many people who have them. Next question!

barnhouse (#1,326)

That's an entirely arbitrary statement; also possible is the fact that the culture is not making good use of its own capital. That is to say, a humanities degree provides pragmatically useful skills; whether those are valued by an ignorant, wasteful, inarticulate culture that has forgotten how to conduct debates, has forgotten the value of dialectic, and is in the process of trashing its own heritage is another matter.

deepomega (#1,720)

@barnhouse Certainly true – as I said downthread, I think the problem lies in a lot of places, not just with our education system. Although I also think that higher education up till the last decade was overly focused on creating more higher education employees, rather than on the utility of an education. And I don't mean "we should only teach people to repair cars," I mean that the academy simply did not care what you could do with a lit degree when you graduated, other than "teach lit."

All this is to say: The problem with a humanities degree is that nobody wants to give you a job if you have one. Which is a pretty serious problem, when we (we being people under the age of 30) were told that going to college would get you a job!

barnhouse (#1,326)

Right, this is exactly what I'm saying!! The real problem is, it's (certain of) the grownups who need schoolin'.

@deepomega I agree that it's cultural, especially now that colleges have started creating degrees with such specificity which makes a degree in literature like a waste of money! Let's not even talk about masters programs that cost more than a starting salary in the desired industry. It only feeds into the idea of college as training rather than college as education, and that a degree such a literature would mean that graduates could only "teach lit" because there are many other practical applications out there.

blergh (#177,628)

@happymisanthrope Don't get me started on things like museum studies or non-profit administration degrees. If only starting salaries at a museum approached annual tuition of those MA programs.

Unrelatedly: a long time ago I decided I'd start donating to my undergrad college once my annual salary exceeds its current annual tuition. Still hasn't happened, and as someone in the arts who hasn't gotten a raise in years, that's looking increasingly unlikely.

davidwatts (#72)

MOOCs are what happen when TED Talks come to life.

synchronia (#3,755)

My comment keeps disappearing – here it is again:
I like Confessions of a Community College Dean's take on a lot of these issues. He makes a case for "using MOOCs like books" – that is, having "flipped classrooms" where students watch MOOC content on their own and then meet with professors for Q&A.

He also says actually the number of high-level administrators has generally decreased in higher ed – what's increased is IT staff, financial aid stuff, and students with disabilities staff. There's a link to the study and more debate about it in the comments, but the basic point is that we can't ignore the role of needing to comply with federal and state regulations.

deepomega (#1,720)

@synchronia I'm not sure I understand. Regulations are always wonderful and never have downsides!

notfromvenus (#232,002)

@synchronia I do like that idea. I actually had a class kind of like that last year, where the teacher made a bunch of videos demonstrating the software we were working with for us to watch, and we met 2 hours a week to have discussion and do supervised exercises in class. It worked pretty well.

scrooge (#2,697)

So I suppose Dr Thrun is an honorary member of the Dan Quayle Club?

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

Education wants to be free…

In the future, professors will be like today's indie musicians, they won't make any money on lectures because they can be downloaded off the Internet for free from the likes of PirateBay. So how will the professor types support themselves…OFFICE HOURS! TOURING OFFICE HOURS! Get in the van and drive from town to town and hold actual in-person office hours. Sure they will be a long ways away from the elbow patched , pipe smoking days of yesteryear, but if they tour enough they might be able to live as well as Grizzly Bear.

SkinnyNerd (#224,784)

@Lockheed Ventura Maybe if our priority as a nation was not war but education, the billions of dollars we spend on supporting the war industry could go towards supporting knowledge and hopefully free thought. Education should not be considered a commodity, rather an essential prerequisite to living in a healthy democracy.

deepomega (#1,720)

@SkinnyNerd That's fine, but how exactly would throwing more money at universities make them cheaper? Short of nationalizing them and forcing their tuitions to stay locked down, that is. The problem is cultural, not legislative: For some reason, people are willing to pay a hundred thousand dollars for a useless degree.

blergh (#177,628)

@Lockheed Ventura I know you're joking, but this more or less already exists with the adjunctification of higher ed. They're not touring the entire country, but plenty of adjuncts cobble together a living by teaching one or two classes at a bunch of different colleges and are basically zipping from one university to the next in hopes of making $10,000 or so a semester, without benefits and sometimes without even an office. I know one person who held her office hours at one school in a food court.

Squishycat (#241,322)

@blergh As a student, I've had this situation pose problems for me, as well. Adjunct professors who have office hours, yes – but office hours at one of the other schools that they teach at, which would require driving (which I don't) to get there, and considerable extra time. Most of these instructors are happy to answer questions by email, but often you need a face-to-face discussion or demonstration. Sometimes you can grab a few minutes after class, but everyone else is trying to do the same. It's detrimental to the students as well as the instructors.

Sunny Schomaker (#4,021)

I could go on about the problems I see with MOOCs, but I'll mention the only one that makes me angry:

Many people in this country (even young people!) don't have access to technology, either because they don't have it or because they don't know how to use it. When I worked at a community college, the computer labs were the only places some people had to use a computer. I also spent a disproportionate amount of time teaching students how to create a document, how to attach a file to an email, even how to write an email.

So yeah, tell me how MOOCs are going to help more people have access to education.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

@Sunny Schomaker You know what else many people in this country (even young people!) don't have access to….. FORTY FUCKING THOUSAND DOLLARS a year for college tuition. The current model is broken, we need to explore ways to make education more affordable.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Sunny Schomaker Yeah I'm not sure how the solution to students without technology is "tens of thousands of dollars of debt."

Sunny Schomaker (#4,021)

@Lockheed Ventura Look, I'm not saying that nothing needs to be fixed, but the idea that putting lectures (for example) online is going to increase access is crazy.

Plus, when I've worked with students taking online courses, they need more in-person instruction, not less.

Gerald_ (#241,266)

@Sunny Schomaker

"More than 80% of Americans now have a computer in their homes, and of those, almost 92% have internet access, according to a detailed study on home internet access from The Nielsen Company, which reports that this number is up from 77.9%� one year earlier."

That's obviously not everyone, but it's still a hell of a lot more people than currently have the opportunity to go to college. I'd also guess that a huge chunk of the less-than-20% who don't have a computer are old enough that going to college is not a major priority.

notfromvenus (#232,002)

@Sunny Schomaker Yeah, some people don't have access to technology but might have access to a university. They'd be better served by the university.

But some people do have access to technology, but don't have access to a university education, because of money or time or location or other barriers. MOOCs have the potentiol to help them.

r&rkd (#1,719)

Higher education serves one of three purposes:
1. Elite signaling: going to Yale doesn't make you smart, but employers know that Yale generally only admits smart people who accept directions to work hard.
2. Citizenship development: if everyone is going to be able to vote, everyone should be able to understand policy debates.
3. Job training.

MOOCs can't serve any of these purposes, except perhaps partly the last one.

Abe Burnett (#241,524)

@r&rkd Really? Citizenship development? Are you sure that most graduates understand–much less care about–policy debates? And "elite signaling?" What about the vast majority of graduates (the 99%) who go to *other* colleges and don't benefit from the "elite" signal? Sure it's better than nothing. But the signal is just that you managed to finish something which took a concerted multi-year effort. It says little else to employers.

Job training? Really? When I interviewed for a Risk Analyst position at a bank (a position I was hired for) the hiring manager told me that employers don't expect students to come out of college "trained." They use college as a signal of interest, acumen, and ability to persist in the face of BS. Little job training occurs on campuses across America.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

I thought the single most important experiment in higher education was the beer bong?

lorabora (#240,239)

@stuffisthings The multistorey beer bong, actually.

ubu (#232,549)

That Feynman anecdote is heartbreaking.

Pushing aside a myriad of other factors related to economic and social class, it seems like there's a visible split between the value of a university degree and the value of– I don't know what to call it– a technical trade certification. Increasingly, what people get, that's called a degree, is actually the latter.

Might not both groups (those who want the full academy experience and those who want to learn PowerPoint and business accounting to advance in their job) be better served by drawing that distinction explicitly?

@ubu I found the Feynman quote very interesting. I'm taking a MOOC through Coursera right now, taught by Tim Roughgarden, and the weekly problem sets are a highlight of the course. His questions are simply excellent.

Re: the Feynman story, a relevant video of MIT grads struggling to build a simple battery-wire-lightbulb circuit.

lorabora (#240,239)

@John McGarry@facebook But unless they're electrical engineering majors, I don't really see the problem.

scrooge (#2,697)

@lorabora Anybody who applies to MIT ought to have enough physics to figure out how to hook up a light bulb and a battery. I don't think you really need to be an electrical engineer.

Poubelle (#214,283)

@lorabora I learned how to light a lightbulb with a battery and wire in fourth grade, and understood how it worked. It's not that difficult, and the electrical knowledge involved is "how to complete a circuit." I really, really hope electrical engineering majors go beyond that. I wasn't exactly a super-precocious kid.

(Full disclosure: I definitely would've been thrown for a bit by having just one wire–I learned with two–but I figured it out before the video showed anyone getting it right.)

This is so good and I have SO MANY THOUGHTS, but tomorrow's class ain't gonna prep itself.

Ralph Haygood (#13,154)

"Wouldn't it make more sense to just fund education to the levels we had back when it was working?" Of course, if the goal were to foster a broadly thoughtful and prosperous populace. But that isn't a goal of most of the people who've dominated American politics for the past 30 years or so, let alone of most of the brave new private education industry.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Ralph Haygood This attitude denies a lot of things. There are far more people in college, there are far more people expecting college to provide them amenities, and schools don't really have a good reason to give students bad grades. Money will make these problems worse.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@deepomega Responsible people know how to spend money wisely. This line–"throwing money at the problem"–is a right-wing canard for abdicating our responsibility to future generations.

mcx (#108,125)

@deepomega Funding (by the state) at higher levels directed toward education would mean that colleges are freer to avoid persistent tuition increases that are often fund amenities used to attract students. If schools are less dependent on tuition as a percentage of operating funds they're also less dependent on keeping the "customer" happy. In Australia & New Zealand it works. Not perfectly, but better than in the US.

Abe Burnett (#241,524)

@Ralph Haygood The goal for most people in college at the undergraduate level is to earn their degree and get a good job. Most don't care very much about being "thoughtful." Which is to say that if we separated coursework into a guaranteed-to-get-you-a-good-job category and a will-make-you-a-thoughtful-well-rounded-person category and charged equal amounts for both, very few people would pursue the thoughtful/well-rounded coursework.

Ralph Haygood (#13,154)

@Abe Burnett: There's nothing you could tell me about undergraduate careerism that I don't already know. On the way to my master's and doctoral degrees, I spent years teaching undergrads in three departments on two campuses of the University of California. However, you presume the careerism is something we should just accept, rather than living and encouraging any alternative. Little as I loved my teaching experiences, I'd be cynically dishonest if I didn't acknowledge that some of my students, including some initially pretty unreceptive ones, got genuinely interested in the material and stopped just wanting to know "Will this be on the exam?" Moreover, the careerism is substantially a product of those same people who've dominated American politics for the past 30 years or so, with their idiotic every-man-for-himself-ist rhetoric, their relentless attacks on organized labor, and more generally their vigorous promotion of a society in which most people who attend college nonetheless spend much of their lives in dread of destitution. (By the way, before you scoff – as I suspect you will – at mention of organized labor in this context, a personal anecdote: I spent two years as a guest at the Swedish Institute of Computer Science, a research-and-development shop staffed mostly by Ph.D.s. And, like my colleagues, I was a union member. It's the norm in Sweden, even for highly educated workers, and strangely enough, it hasn't prevented Sweden, a country with fewer people than North Carolina, from being a formidable scientific and technological power.) There's no good reason at all for academics to just accept this state of affairs. Finally, the dichotomy you assert is simply false. There's no necessary divide between material that teaches you to think well and material that helps you get a job. Even English courses, the go-to example of impracticality for people who express the kind of attitude you've expressed, can be practical. Smart employers of college graduates know they need people who read and write well, who can explain things clearly, concisely, and persuasively. (Another personal anecdote: my domestic partner is a research scientist at a big agbiotech company. She spends most of her time in meetings, writing things, or reading things other employees write. It isn't really what she had in mind – she likes lab work – but it's typical for modern professionals.)

Gerald_ (#241,266)

Here's what I hate about this article: the implication that there is a magical, indefinable "something" about college that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Almost every human experience has a magical, indefinable something that cannot be replicated anywhere else. You could go traveling for a year, or a read some books, or have a lot of sex, and probably each of these things have their own magic something. (I wouldn't know, I've never tried any of these.) This isn't meant to attack college or those who have it, just to call out this weird bit of emotional logic. It's like when a bunch of white male managers sit around and say "I don't know, she just lacks a certain spark" or some bullshit about a potential woman hire. They would never think of themselves as being biased BECAUSE THEY ARE BIASED.

Let me put this another way: When composing this article, did Maria Bustillos sit in a small discussion circle with her interview subjects? Or did she, perhaps, do some research on her own, at home, on a computer, phone Bady and Shirky at different times, and then e-mail the article to her editor, who engaged with her in some rewrites and fine-tuning before finally publishing? Does The Awl require its writers to come in for one-on-one personal discussion with editors during office hours? Or does it manage to find some reasonable compromise between human interaction and automation? Assuming Bustillos wrote part of this article using the internet, should we assume that, like Feynman's students, she has memorized everything, but doesn't know what anything means? Or should we perhaps infer that the ability to think critically about a topic is something that most people can achieve with the right materials, motivation and opportunity? Should we not take Bustillos' writing seriously until she has had (and forgotten) an entire conversation with an advisor about George Orwell's letters?

theGonch (#241,321)

@Gerald_ Err, your comment actually proves the point of the article, in the questions you ask.

The article is not saying the internet / online publishing / technological communications are bad, but that education cannot be equated to a material consumerist product / production line and transformed as such. Education isn't a magically indefinable mystery, but it IS a set of complex human interactions that have evolved over thousands of years. Bustillos is not saying it's magic, but she IS saying it's more complex than the ITunes Store.

Or, to answer you questions:
"Assuming Bustillos wrote part of this article using the internet, should we assume that, like Feynman's students, she has memorized everything, but doesn't know what anything means?"

Err, no because she doesn't say that. She says simplifying and standardising education means people forget what things mean because it becomes race to the bottom to get the best score. MOOC's are not liberating, but constraining. Also, your question says "part of the article" yet a MOOC would equate with "all of the article".

"Or should we perhaps infer that the ability to think critically about a topic is something that most people can achieve with the right materials, motivation and opportunity?"

Bustillos wold agree with you, but point out MOOC's are NOT the right materials or motivation or opportunity.

Gerald_ (#241,266)

@theGonch The fact that udacity, today, is not the right materials or opportunity does not mean that MOOCs in general will never be.

theGonch (#241,321)

@Gerald_ Nor does it mean MOOC's will ever be suitable, but the examples used here (and to some extent Clay Shirky) are proposing that anyone who resists is a luddite.

But, I have to agree with Bustillos "what happened to music will happen to education" is a TERRIBLE justification for MOOC's.

For one, my music doesn't sound as good as when I just had CD's, ;)

Gerald_ (#241,266)

@theGonch Is it your position that no access to college at all is preferable to cheap, incomplete college? Creating MOOCs (and gradually improving them) does not mean that we abolish existing colleges for those who want and can afford to spend $120k to sit in a room and talk about Orwell's letters.

notfromvenus (#232,002)

This is pertinent to me, since I'm currently taking a Udacity programming course. I agree whole-heartedly that it's not the same or as good as taking a course in person, for many of the reasons mentioned in this article. I don't think the format of it would work for a more advanced-level class, or really much outside of math/tech fields.

However, that being said, it's leaps and bounds ahead of any online course I've ever taken from an accredited college.

I took another programming class last semester online from Local State University, and I spent $600 to buy a textbook and do exercises out of it that were graded by some adjunct professor I never met. There was no instruction, no audio/visual or interactive portion of the class, and no feedback on my work other than "A – Good job!".

So far, the Udacity course has been much more engaging and interactive. And free, which is nice.

Abe Burnett (#241,524)

@notfromvenus I suppose it may partly depend on learning styles, but I've actually had three interesting and contrasting experiences: a Master's in Computer Science program in-person, a Master's in Computer Science online, and classes from Udacity. Maybe it's just me, but all of the in-person programming classes I've taken have been a total waste of time. The Udacity classes are far better. Way more engaging and interesting than the classes I've taken in person. And they're free. Unbelievable. Even the online MS in Computer Science program I'm enrolled in is better than the in-person MS. And it's cheaper, and I don't have to drive to class just to put in an appearance.

I don't know which Udacity classes you've taken. But the ones I've taken have been very engaging and very well produced. They're something I would pay for, to be honest, because they provide real value.

Poubelle (#214,283)

I don't understand how MOOCs are the future when so many fields/subject simply can't be taught that way. How do you teach/learn science with no hands-on lab experience? How does any field that involves working with people–medicine, psychology, social work, education,* etc–get taught online? I get that the performing arts are "useless," but how do you teach music except in person? (I guess you could do voice lessons over Skype, maybe.) How would acting even work? I get that it's not exactly a lucrative field but the world would be a lot more boring without any actors.

And I'm really skeptical of how many doors we're opening when the new method of education seems geared to serve only the highly self-motivated. (Seriously, the rates of completion for MOOCs are ridiculous.)

*you know, if we still have some physical classrooms around for the really young, really special-needs, or really rich

Great article, great discussion below. My only beef is the idea that this is an either or issue. It seems to me the creation of a curriculum that made smart use of MOOCS as part of a degree program could deliver a better education less expensively. And I'll second those in the comments who question the sort of Dead Poets Society vision of college presented here. I too remember packed lecture halls with professors who may as well have been on YouTube.

Abe Burnett (#241,524)

@Michele L Kilpatrick@facebook Absolutely. The way she talks about college doesn't reflect the reality of the experience I had at a very typical state school. As you said, big lecture halls and vapid teaching and content. If I'd been paying a lot less than I was, I wouldn't be so bitter about it.

"MOOCs are an essentially authoritarian structure; a one-way process in which the student is a passive recipient required to do nothing except "learn." "

I'm constantly surprised by how many criticisms of MOOCs are really criticisms of bad teaching of ~any sort, like this howler. Maria, have you read any of the forums for online courses?

There are valid criticisms of the MOOC /model/ – as Maria alluded to, automated marking doesn't lend itself well to marking essay questions that require insight and thought, and many of the comments have raised others – but cherrypicking examples of bad online courses and other criticisms that apply equally to the old model obscure a clear view of what MOOC's limitations actually are.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Devin Carless@facebook Ahoy! Maria here. Actually yeah I have been checking out more classes from different providers, and looking at the forums. The thing is, there's often no requirement for "class participation" of any particular kind.

I ought to have made this clearer in the piece maybe, but my real beef is that this "revolution" is causing many to take their eye off the ball with respect to the absolute need for providing a quality education, free, for every single kid who can take advantage of that. We were so much closer forty years ago than we are now. And there is nothing whatsoever stopping us from achieving this (nothing except Republicans, I mean.)

@barnhouse ive read yr piece a few times and this addendum puts it in a much better context for me! I guess im coming from a place of cynicism (and being burnt by the traditional collegiate institution) that i dont think in our capitalist society that we'll see a massive change in how college works to make it more affordable/accessible?

barnhouse (#1,326)

Ironies multiply: last weekend saw MOOC provider Coursera's cancellation of an online class in how to prepare MOOCs (amid reports of absolute chaos.)

Abe Burnett (#241,524)

As a recent graduate of a typical state university, I find your arguments quite weak. It's this high-minded mentality which is completely disconnected from reality that has put higher-education in its present position, ripe to be revolutionized. Let's be blunt. We students *are* customers. We pay a lot of money for a product which doesn't deliver. It only delivers if you consider that college graduates are marginally more employed than those without college degrees. That isn't success. Not by any measure. And there's no amount of funding that will keep up with a college administrator's ability to spend money as fast as legislators can dispense it.

The truth is that college costs a lot more than its worth. And we're finally reaching the point that people are waking up and realizing that they're really not getting adequate value from what they're paying. Because, while we might like some of the more amorphous interesting concepts we learned about in college, what most of us care about is our ability to find a job. Finding a job requires that we are able to demonstrate measurable value to an employer. And that is something that college does poorly at. It's designed for academics by academics.

If college were designed by the customers who are indeed interested in turning their college degree into a decent livelihood, then yes, they might look a lot like Udacity.

You are quite snarky in your treatment of Udacity, and totally off-base. Udacity offers a much more engaging, much more riveting learning experience than I had in college. I speak from recent experience. And I was a motivated, curious, intellectually-driven student.

If I had a choice between Udacity and the college I went to, I'd choose Udacity in a heartbeat. I'd even pay them what I paid my college over the four years (including some Summers) I spent there becoming "educated."

I think it's time that Academics like this author stop fighting the future and figure out how to make the best of it. Because the choice is clear: either you get left behind when the world moves on without you, or you adapt. The sooner you come to grips with reality the better off you'll be.

It's still early yet. There's still time to get on-board and help shape the emerging movement, rather than just whining that we should "restore funding" to the old, broken way of doing things.

Abe Burnett (#241,524)

Also, she said, "Or am I being wronged from the start, treated as a "customer," which all too often means, alas, someone to fleece?"

Uh. Even in the current system, we students ARE the customer. And yes, all too often we are being "fleeced" by the high-minded institutions you defend so vigorously. It's a "fleecing" when we're paying a lot more than something is worth.

The question I asked myself while reading this is, "What is the ultimate goal for venture backed startups providing MOOC-like solutions?".

If it is to completely replace the offline classroom experience that Bady describes, then the ecosystem Bustillos refers to is indeed under threat.

If, however, MOOCs are meant to add an alternative to high-priced college education, and increase access for millions, then the threat is being largely overblown. There will always be strong research institutions, small classrooms, and centers of thought and excellence to keep the ecosystem vibrant and healthy.

I agree that the examples of shoddy quality on Udacity and Khan Academy are deeply concerning. Expecting MOOC students to be satisfied with poorly constructed educational experiences is risking a grim future as these students enter the workforce. However, as an employee of an education startup myself, I can speak to the investments being made toward producing educational experiences that have a sustainable level of quality.

Lush Acres (#245,074)

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