Didn’t any of these people live through the dot-bomb of 2000?

But this time everything will be different!  Reader Indyanna points us to a New York Times article that’s even fuller of fatuousness.

The great thing about being middle-aged is that you’ve heard it all before, and you can’t believe the rubes are falling for it all over again.  Remember those heady days of 1998 and 1999, when everyone was sure that the internet changed everything, and that we were all internet millionaires-to-be or stupid suckers who didn’t clearly perceive the bright future just around the corner?  Remember when we were promised the wonders of ordering groceries online?  (Who ever did that more than once, anyway?)  When we were assured that bricks-and-mortar stores (as they were condescendingly referred to) were soon to become like the abandoned caverns of a lost Atlantis because we’d be buying all of our stuff online?

Most of the breathless excitement was rooted in the fact that most people chose to ignore the fact that the same exact infrastructure is required to buy your books, your yoga mats, and your nephew’s birthday present at Amazon as you need to schlep to a store yourself and pick something up:  petroleum, pavement, and trucks, not to mention a gazillion miles of warehouse space in repositories around North America to hold all of that not-yet-purchased stuff.  And guess what?  It turns out that you need bricks and mortar for those warehouses, too.  And it also turns out that driving, walking, or biking to a store to evaluate the merchandise, whether it’s a new bathing suit or a bunch of parsley, and make your purchasing decisions on the spot is usually less wasteful and more efficient than having UPS deliver everything to your door (and/or return your merchandise because it doesn’t fit, doesn’t work, or doesn’t look right.)

I don’t have an M.B.A., but I don’t see any reasonable return on investment and/or savings in instructional expense either in the big MOOCs like Coursera, or in the online classes that universities are so eager to offer.  The only way they could possibly save money is to offer an inferior product.  I can see Coursera surviving as an updated version of those “greatest lectures” series that used to be offered on cassette or VHS tapes–the kind of thing that’s of interest to Elderhostel devotees.  I just don’t see it as something that will replace a college education earned at a bricks-and-mortar university.

(The funny thing is that we skeptics are told that higher education in bricks-and-mortar institutions is the “bubble.”  I’ve seen bubbles.  I know from bubbles, and it’s the MOOCs that are the bubbles.  Depend on it.  Furthermore, ask yourself about the track record of our elites in the past decade or so.  The Iraq War was a bubble.  The housing boom and bust was a bubble.  The next time someone offers you a free war, or a free mortgage, or a free college education, watch your wallet.  Is it just a coincidence that some of the same shills for the Iraq war are now shilling online courses for the masses?  It would be comical if it weren’t such a sad comment on the state of the republic.)

Remember, kids:  if someone offers you something for nothing, it’s probably worth exactly that.

22 thoughts on “Didn’t any of these people live through the dot-bomb of 2000?

  1. The elites of our society are fucken degenerate imbeciles. They are the socioeconomicopolitical equivalent of parasitic organisms who have lost the biological functions required for living freely in complex difficult environments and have evolved into nothing more than mouths, intestines, and anuses.


  2. Right on. I too am amazed at how much of what is supposed to be “new” is just a slightly shinier version than the old thing. We didn’t have Amazon growing up, but we did have the Sears catalog, and the two things are more alike than they are different. The shills for MOOCs are acting like there’s never been a way for lectures to be widely available.

    Sadly, this type of thing won’t replace bricks and mortar education for the elite, but since state unis are facing big cutbacks and calls for “efficiency” and “accountability,” I can see the less affluent plebeian students being turned into the lab rats for this misbegotten experiment.


  3. “We didn’t have Amazon growing up, but we did have the Sears catalog, and the two things are more alike than they are different.” Exactly. That’s a comparison that I always thought was completely obvious, but we’re easily distracted by shiny! metal! objects!, aren’t we? (Like the dumbest cat around.)

    Maybe people who are so eager to get rid of professors and tenure should reconsider: do they really want to fire all of those facilities, food service, maintenance, IT, and staff people? Do they really get how important directional state unis are to the regions they serve as engines of employment and innovation?

    And that’s not even addressing the question of what universities are for, as opposed to community colleges and high schools/trade schools. Universities produce new knowledge. I’m not making this up. This isn’t how it worked in the eleventh century. Research expectations are in my contract. I’m not just a teacher, but the mooks pushing MOOCs don’t consider that.


  4. I can’t even read these stories anymore, they are so fatuous. There doesn’t seem much to tell between these and the “Great Courses” catalogs that arrive in my mailbox, so I can listen to lectures while driving to and from work…


  5. Yeah, Susan: just give up now, and pop in a tape when you get to class. Those lectures are soooooo much better and more relevant to your students than anything you might come up with!

    (I suppose you’ll have to get those lectures in podcasts now, but that will probably be easier than trying to find a cassette tape player for your class!)


  6. I hate to repeat myself here, but everyone reading this should go write their thoughts out about the MOOC “revolution” on their own blogs or their Twitter accounts or just politely but firmly inform their deans and provosts that this future is not acceptable.

    Coursera’s idea of “faculty involvement” is to call some business school proffies and start dreaming about future profits during power lunches together. The rest of us can’t make it that easy for them.


  7. Everything I said before, again.

    But as for the higher education “bubble,” there is certainly some modicum of truth to the idea that tuition has increased at a completely unsustainable rate, and in the long term it will either have to slow down, or demand for a university education will have to decrease. There are good and bad ways that this could happen (A bad way: follow neoclassical economic logica, eliminate public universities, and allow universities to charge enough such that an equilibrium between the number of applicants and accepted students is reached. A good way: increase state support for education/students so that it’s not so expensive.)

    Another bad way, of course, is to replace real classes with low-budget, low impact online classes, and force them on as many students as possible.

    The other half of the bubble is credential inflation. But the only reason that my local bagel store wants someone with a BA and 5 years experience is the vast over supply of workers. It’s a really awful and wasteful vicious cycle, based deeply in the structure of the American economy. For me, the right balance for university accessibility has always been, “everyone who wants to go to university should be able to, and those who do not want to shouldn’t have to.” I know a lot of people who have spent more than a hundred thousand dollars getting an education they didn’t really want, and didn’t care much about. While there very well might be some ancillary benefit to forcing everybody to read great novels and (of course) learn some good history, there’s got to be a better way to do that.


  8. and just to clarify: whatever higher education bubble there may be, has absolutely nothing to do with “bricks and mortar” vs online.

    Of course, for-profit online education might very well be a real bubble (though the difference in this case between a bubble and fraud seems pretty small). I feel like people are going to get tired of spending $500 per credit to get some meaningless degree.


  9. “I can see Coursera surviving as an updated version of those “greatest lectures” series that used to be offered on cassette or VHS tapes–the kind of thing that’s of interest to Elderhostel devotees. I just don’t see it as something that will replace a college education earned at a bricks-and-mortar university.”

    Agreed, absolutely. But many trustees and regents and administrators don’t get this–as this blog and its commentators have repeatedly pointed out. At my school there’s no threat, so far, to liberal arts education, carried out by professors who also do research. But when the university joined Coursera, it was administrators, not faculty, who picked the courses to go on line. Straws show how the wind blows . . .

    Thanks, all, for continuing to make this blog an island of sanity.


  10. After reading the post and the comments it seems to me that one notion is axiomatic here: online courses are evil. To me, this approach seems like a horrible mistake. For us to take that approach is to stand on the tracks waiting for the approaching train and hoping to stop it.

    The second point is whether there is anything new under the sun or Moses (substitute Muhammad or Jesus at will) and Socrates have done it all. In this instance the question happens to be is Amazon different than Sears catalog? Clearly, Amazon evolved from the paper catalog (Sears and others), but Amazon is at human stage in the evolution while the Sears catalog is the ape. Am I the only one here who delights in being human?


  11. you guys are funny.

    when i was in college, a dozen or so of my classes were purely based upon books that we were assigned to read (i’d say maybe 1/4 of my total workload), and another 1/4 were based upon projects that were done outside of class.

    for the former 1/4 (from above), i barely showed up and still made good A’s (everyone else did this too). for the latter, we’d rather have been working on our projects.

    if you can attend a major university, and your attendance doesn’t affect your grade, then the course is a joke, as are a lot of courses at major colleges.

    the current product being offered is pretty crappy. i don’t see how this is much worse.


  12. koshembos: I would say that the humanists here who are standing up for F2F classes and who are skeptics of MOOCs and other online courses are in fact standing up for human-scaled education. We’re for what works, but as even one of the mooks pushing MOOCs has said (per the linked NYT story yesterday): “But even Mr. Thrun, a master of MOOCs, cautioned that for all their promise, the courses are still experimental. ‘I think we are rushing this a little bit,” he said. “I haven’t seen a single study showing that online learning is as good as other learning.'”

    And as Tony Grafton points out, and as Jonathan Rees has repeatedly said, it’s not faculty who are pushing this. It’s administrators who (I’m just guessing here) are looking for a shiny! metal! object!-type program on which to stamp their names and then to move on to the next uni up the chain.

    I think Jonathon Booth outlines this “future” really accurately: lower quality (or no unis at all) for the hoi polloi who don’t have the background or connections to get into a prestigious private institution.


  13. I think Jonathon Booth outlines this “future” really accurately: lower quality (or no unis at all) for the hoi polloi who don’t have the background or connections to get into a prestigious private institution.

    It is important to recognize that this is the intended–and not accidental–outcome for many elite policy makers.


  14. Oh, hey, I’d love to report that I just heard from colleagues that UVa announced its recent partnership with Coursera! I guess all that protesting by the faculty really worked.

    All this reminds me of about a decade ago when everyone in higher ed starting pushing powerpoint, and every “teaching effectiveness” class emphasized its significance over and over and over again. And yet, has powerpoint radicalized knowledge? It has its uses, but it’s not some amazing wonder!learning!technology! AND the obsession with making it available to all students has led to the retrofitting of all classrooms with computers and projectors, at enormous cost to universities.

    @jas – come sit on one of my classes, or one of Historiann’s. I guarantee you that failure to attend will not garner you an “A”. If some classes at universities are a “joke” it’s not because the bricks-and-morter university is a failure, and we shouldn’t respond to the existing problems with even more contempt for students.


  15. Perpetua: nicely said. I remember attending a number of pointless meetings back in the late 1990s in which the agenda was 1) in PP on a screen, and 2) all of the slides were printed out in handouts for our convenience. Anyone with half a brain saw the pointlessness of this use of technology, not to mention the wasteful redundancy.

    And jas: it’s too bad you didn’t seek out more challenging classes. I agree that your uni may have failed you, but I also think that it’s up to students to try to figure out how they want their own educations to go. I’m sure that if you wanted more challenges, you could have found them or made them.

    (N.B.: I don’t disagree with your assessment that it was easy to skate through without too much work in some classes. This is why I require attendance, weekly short essays, and three formal essays in each upper-level 16-week, 3 credit course I teach. Teachers and professors must hold students accountable for the work we ask them to do, and that takes a great deal of effort on our part but IMHO it’s worth it.)


  16. I have been surprised by how much enthusiasm that I have encountered among my colleagues for MOOCs. I am not a particular Luddite, but the notion that such things could replace actual face-to-face interactions between students and with professors is just beyond my imagination.

    The Times articles also notes that this a “partnership” between private enterprise and universities which is not yet profitable. One can’t help but imagine that when it does start generating revenue the money will flow through that partnership in a lopsided manner.


  17. Pingback: Our colleagues, ourselves : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  18. This short article from Slate says pretty much what all the other articles say, except for one major thing–they admit at the end that Coursera courses are more like a replacement for a textbook than a replacement for a classroom–another supplement, not the whole course itself. It’s an interesting clarification to make–and one that the journalist can’t entirely avoid, as that seems to be what a lot of his (faculty) sources are telling him (it also mentions the UVa deal): http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2012/07/coursera_udacity_edx_will_free_online_ivy_league_courses_end_the_era_of_expensive_higher_ed_.html


  19. To clarify–by “interesting concession” I mean that it’s not something that a lot of the mainstream media reports on MOOCs are emphasizing, but this article does make (some) of the points that commenters on this thread are making–that online lectures maybe a supplement to some types of class material, at best–and at the most elite schools, they’re unlikely to be more than that. Too bad more reports on online ed don’t discuss the variety of schools out there.


  20. Pingback: Divide and conquer: MOOC edition. « More or Less Bunk

  21. Pingback: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” « More or Less Bunk

  22. Pingback: Our colleagues, ourselves | Historiann

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