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

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 website — the 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.