When you see Count MOOCbot, scream and run away!

Daniel Luzer on Jeffrey J. Selingo’s College (Un)bound:  The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students, in a review entitled “Revolution for Thee, Not Me:”

[I]f we’re expanding access to college through alternative, technology-based systems, is this really expanding access to college or providing a different experience entirely? Perhaps the biggest flaw of this book is that while Selingo offers a very good take on what declining state funding and innovative technology could mean for both colleges and students, he fails to consider what this “revolution” in higher education might mean for American society as a whole.

“The college of the future will certainly be different than the one of today,” he explains, “but robots will not replace professors in the classroom anytime soon. Harvard will remain Harvard.” He estimates that 500 or so of America’s 4,000 colleges have large enough endowments to remain unchanged by this revolution. But isn’t that a problem? If Princeton and Williams will be unaffected by these trends, what’s really going on here?

It seems that the future won’t unbind higher education for everyone—just for the working and middle classes. That’s because rich people will always be able to afford traditional colleges. America’s affluent parents recognize that the actual point of college is only partially about earning four credits in microeconomics and more about drinking with your roommate and talking about philosophy until four a.m., working together with classmates on problem sets in the library, negotiating a new social scene, and falling in love. College students make friends, cultivate interests, and develop connections through which they eventually get jobs. Those experiences cannot be replicated through badges.

.       .       .       .       .

Given the current 90 percent dropout rate in most MOOCs, an 8-point gap in completion rates between traditional and online courses offered by community colleges, the 6.5 percent graduation rate even at the respected Western Governors University, and the ambiguity of many other higher education reform ideas, there’s good reason to think that an unbound future might not be so great.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again:  This tulip bulb is a bargain at only $8,000!  Dot.bomb!  Dow 36,000!  It makes perfect sense to take out a $450,000 mortgage on a $50,000 salary with balloon payment due in 2009!

Here’s another thing to consider:  these other speculative bubbles had nothing to do with democratizing access to anything.  In case you aren’t cynical enough already, just take a look at Irene Ogrizek on Daphne Koller’s dishonest TED talk, for example:

What we are seeing is a carefully calibrated infomercial, one that has been created specifically to push all the right buttons. Who is against helping the disadvantaged in Africa? Who would deny a young father with an ailing daughter a chance to improve both their lives? Who doesn’t want single mothers to succeed? Anyone who speaks against Coursera, Koller’s video seems to be saying, is likely an educated and condescending elitist who, owing to innate snobbery, is against helping the worthy and disadvantaged among us.

What kinds of idiots get taken in by this utterly empty showmanship?  Oh, yeah:  the kinds of idiots running American universities, I guess.  The more I read about the dishonest promises proffered by the Lords of MOOC creation, the more I see Count Olaf, the villain of the Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket.  As his representative Daniel Handler suggests below, when you see Count Olaf count to zero, then scream and run away!  Run, RUN run run run run run run, or die, DIE die die die die die die die die die!


17 thoughts on “When you see Count MOOCbot, scream and run away!

  1. And even these “500 or so” institutions that purportedly have “large enough endowments” to “remain unchanged by this revolution” won’t be able to provide enough “seats” (as the discharged airline executives who have been running American universities for a generation or longer like to describe them) to supply even the existing part of the society that already thinks of its offspring as requiring the diverse bourgeoisification experiences that the reviewer aptly describes as being coextensive with “college.” So the already-suicidal competition to secure those “seats” and avoid the mooc-pit will intensify to destructive levels. This is the kind of forseeable “outcome” that I think fits into the category of “…might mean for American society as a whole.” And that’s before you address all of the other dysfunctional elements embedded in this cynical cattle stampede.

    Take me, for example. I’m throwing half of what I own into a car later today and hitting the road to get back as close as I can to one of these “safe 500” places, in case my degree gets revoked and I have to write one of those “page 99 of your autobiography” essays so I can go back and get re-schooled. I’ll carry it in and hand-deliver it to an admissions officer with a plate of cookies and hope I don’t get relegated to “cohort 42,277” on some skunky URL somewhere. Now that’s panic!


  2. I’ve been pointing this shitte out for years. No fucken wai are the wealthy elites shilling all this fucken “innovative” crappe gonna subject their *own* children to it. Their kiddes are gonna attend elite universities and be taught in real classrooms by tenured faculty. This other crappe is strictly for the proles.


  3. Darn tootin” the proles. I keep thinking about the way every article and book and TEDtalk on these MOOCs talks about replacing, and I’ll quote from this week’s New Yorker her, “harried professors,” who apparently suck at their jobs, without ever talking to any of them directly. But of course a harried prof from a second or third tier college or university, or from a CC, has neither the time nor the connections to talk to any of these jerks who so willingly write them off as useless. And if they would talk to any of us, they’d find, I think, that we are less harried by our teaching responsibilities, which, in fact we ROCK not suck at, but rather by the increasing accreditation, assessment and other mounting service obligations that seem to never end. Come visit us in class and then tell us to our faces about how replaceable we all are. Somehow we manage to get the middle and working-class students degrees after some time with us. Ones that even cost less than the price of the average US wedding!


  4. Come visit us in class and then tell us to our faces about how replaceable we all are.

    Right on.

    Also, be sure to tell our students about MOOCworld’s big plans. A surprising number of students at my uni are the children of professors or staff, or are staff themselves–it’s the only way they can afford college, so they’ll be delighted to know that MOOCworld plans not just to fire all of the faculty, but most of the staff too. Big cities and small towns across the U.S. and Canada will need to brace for the disemployment of large numbers of their most highly educated citizens.


  5. Thanks for linking Irene Ogrizek’s piece — I saw Sebastian Thrun’s talk at the U of A and it used many of the same moves as that Coursera promo / TED talk: either you are for MOOCs or you HATE PUPPIES.

    I also hadn’t seen that Monbiot piece, which talks about another U of Alberta MOOC hyper. Must go read.

    The whole process of funnelling the people’s money that supports a system of public higher education — which was built, exactly, to give the sons and daughters of the people opportunities that were alike in kind (if never in degree — though places like Berkeley and Michigan and a few others came damn close) to those of kids going to the Ivies — into for-profit enterprises that cheerfully admit that Harvard will always be Harvard but Harvard isn’t for everybody after all!: ARGGGGGHHHHHHHH.


  6. That’s the amazing thing about this cool! shiny! revolution: They’re telling people to take correspondence courses and like it. That last is the new shiny part.

    My eye muscles are not strong enough to roll my eyes far enough.


  7. Another thing that irks me: it’s really all about cheap teaching. And the underlying justification is that since teachers are just pointyheaded pantywaists, they don’t deserve more than poverty anyway. The teachers know that correspondence schools don’t work the same way as face-to-face schools. But when we point that out, it’s all just a whine about losing our useless jobs.

    And there’s no way to get around that catch-22. Anything we say is a self-interested ploy to rip people off and maintain our buggy-whip obsolete jobs.

    How do we tell people that there’s two sides to education: teaching and learning. Teachers may not be needed in large numbers for the teaching part (although even that’s doubtful). But they’re critical for the learning part.


  8. Great article in the NEW YORKER about MOOCs. What is the main testing mode used in MOOCs? Good old multiple choice tests! Sign up now with 50,000 of your global village comrades to watch short snippets of a professor talking to the camera! As one pundit said, “the universities have discovered the megachurch.”


  9. I saw that megachurch comment and thought that it was actually pretty insulting–to megachurches! From what I understand, most of them do far, far more than offer ginormous services twice on Sundays–there are special Sunday school classes for every sex and age group, there are special interest meetings (AA, scouts), book & knitting clubs, etc. And of course, they organize and channel a great deal of charity & philanthropy. They offer on-site child care and coffee shops, and they aim to serve as a kind of town square for meeting people’s spiritual, emotional, and psychological needs.

    The ministers who lead these churches are no doubt charismatic, but it seems that effective and long-lasting megachurches actually form mini- and micro-communities within them that keep folks connected to each other & keep them coming back. Whereas MOOCs and MOOC students have been notoriously resistant to forming or participating in any mini- or micro-communities within them. (See A.J. Jacobs’s article on his experience with MOOCs, and Jonathan Rees’s experiences as a MOOC student as well at More or Less Bunk anytime since August 2012.)

    In my view, Jacobs is a soft grader for giving the “overall experience” a B. Given all of the problems he notes as a guy who already has an Ivy-league education, multiply them by 50, and that will be the experience of your average undergraduate MOOC target student. In the end, I think this is the most we can say about MOOCs, when Jacobs writes, “But MOOCs provided me with the thrill of relatively painless self-improvement and an easy introduction to heady topics. And just as important, they gave me relief from the guilt of watching ‘Swamp People.'”


  10. I know! Let’s freeze all knowledge right now!! Innovation, questioning, and knowledge-creation are for losers. Let’s just stop all that right now, record a small sample of academic thinking and enshrine it for all, and then continue teaching that for the foreseeable future! By 2050, more and more young people in the US will be absolutely current with the latest in 2013 thinking! That’ll show Finland and South Korea!


  11. There is so much sloppy thinking around MOOCs: about education and learning. One line of argument is (essentially) that since Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, and Steve Jobs didn’t ever finish college, innovation doesn’t require education. At the same time, we have these students who are smart enough to put together their own education (not). If students learn only what either they think they are interested in, or what they think they need to get a job, they won’t be educated. No one will have led them anywhere.

    Let alone the idea that the lectures don’t have to change.

    Maybe the question we need to ask is how does this integrate with what we know from the scholarship of teaching and learning?


  12. Pingback: Stephen Greenblatt will not take questions. | More or Less Bunk

  13. I read the New Yorker article too and was reminded of the early days of the Web. Harvard and other universities that host these MOOCs are now realizing that they are putting in lots of money for these and not getting any income because the courses are free. Now that they are planning to “monetize” (i.e. charge a fee) for these courses I bet the thousands who have flocked to them will evaporate.


  14. Oh my god. That article puts into words what I had been experiencing until now as just a set of bad feelings — about how tricky it is to engage in these discussions at all, even to argue, and how much the whole framing seduces academics because we see bad points being made, we *leap* in with our big smart brains to correct, answer back, etc. etc. and then we’re off to the races, participants in the “evaluative process” and the bastards have already won.


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