tressiemc

some of us are brave

A Bechdel-ish Test for Higher Ed “Disruption”

It’s not that I am unsympathetic to higher education’s many issues — particularly inequality, rising tuition, and corporatization — but the higher education disruption narrative has pushed me to the edge.

You likely haven’t even noticed that narrative. I am keenly aware that I live in a bubble with a few hundred other people on twitter and a small section at academic conferences.

While I applaud the sudden interest in higher education, I am less enthused with the mostly uncritical coverage of the many challenges facing our country. That coverage considers anybody with a TED talk or an angel investor an expert in higher education. There are some genuine private sector initiatives to improve technology, for instance, in higher ed bureaucracies that have been slow to embrace digital technologies and pedagogies. But, for every sincere corporate interest in higher education there are a dozen others who are screencapping strategic dynamism from McKinsey-Bain to get a piece of the higher education “market” and subsequent cash streams.

Thoughtful critiques of this short-term profiteering have been published. Most have been largely ignored by booking agents at CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. Online media has done slightly better but BuzzSlatePo, Inc. are not exactly driving home a counter message to the economic disruption narrative. That disruption narrative is doing a fairly good job of blaming the ills of our economic weaknesses on “ineffectual” higher education.

I have an entire thought piece on economic interventions that could provide the real competition required to drive down tuition costs. That’s real competition as opposed to the pipe dream of MOOC badges to flood the “market” with low cost alternatives that will upend traditional higher education profit models as we’ve known them for over 50 years. Those policies require real guts and vision. They include increasing competition for labor so that prospective students can choose between gainful employment and furthering their education. It means providing adequate, low cost child care so that single mothers can make a college choice without the specter of her desperate immediate circumstances restricting her to high cost, for-profit options.

No one wants to hear that narrative. That’s their right, I suppose. However, I also reserve the right to ignore and/or mock, as the situation appeals to me, any new higher education story or “innovation” that fails my version of a Bechdel test. Let’s call it the…Tressie test.

The Tressie test refutes all implicit assumptions that higher education credentials can cure all that ails us: unemployment, depressed wages, decline of good jobs, expansion of low-wage, insecure, service work. The Tressie test says that I will no longer take seriously any higher education news blip that does not:

1. Acknowledge our crappy economy.

2. Display knowledge of the peculiar prestige currency that marks higher education as different from other markets, even prestige luxury brands like fine clothing and yachts.

3. Does not address inequality be that racial, class, language, gender, or height inequality. If you want to disrupt higher education but you do not understand the social construction of differential returns to skills or constrained choices, you may as well be selling me snake oil that will dissolve unwanted belly fat while I sleep with a twinkie in my throat.

4. Deliver an explication of its many prognostications. Everything from MOOCs and badges to learning management systems and privatization promise to disrupt, innovate, and cagebust. They are going to lower costs, decouple knowledge from institutions, help America beat China, and make everyone a scientist for tomorrow’s jobs that are always coming tomorrow and not today. The only promise I’ve not seen from a disruptor is forty acres and a mule although, to be fair, a MOOC could be forthcoming. Yet none of these plans actually explicate their promises from feel good missives to practical implementation. It’s all magic beans in a financial prospectus.

5. Call on the private sector to address its criminal unwillingness to expand hiring or pay wages to attract skilled labor or to invest in the skills training of the labor they do have.

6. Insert quotes around any unfortunate use of “higher education bubble”. Stop it. Just stop it.

Basically, what I’m saying is what I’ve said before: the problems with higher education are problems with the greater economy and labor market. Proposing to “disrupt” one without the other is either dangerous naivete or willful predatory profit taking. Either way, elevating these stories and proposals from press release to news only fuels the legitimacy of their schemes.

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This entry was posted on August 3, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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