It was probably pretty poor timing for Emory, though. Just this week the administration announced that they are cutting undergraduate and graduate programs in education, Spanish, Russian, visual arts, educational studies, and interdisciplinary liberal arts. Some of those will be restructured. Most are just gone. So, if you’re paying Emory about $60,000 to attend in-person to have your education choices constrained at the same time the university is throwing up its doors online, for free, you may feel slighted.
I suspect both decisions to have been so long in the making and by departments in different silos that the timing is just happenstance. That the juxtaposition of the two events in close temporal relationship points towards my argument that the departmental cuts reflect broader changes in the field of higher education is not exactly a happy coincidence.
This is the new normal.
But to that discussion of Coursera.
Coursera is one of many, many Massive Open Online Course environments (MOOCs). It’s free. Some others are a nominal charge. All have some “hook”. They bring you world class researchers free-of-charge! They will disrupt the liberal, stodgy, higher education elite! They give you badges and print-on-demand certificates! They see dead people and Jimmy Hoffa’s tomb!
They are nice.
I get it.
I just think that how excited you are about MOOCs depends on what questions in education interest you the most.
I worry a great deal about the hollowing out of the economic and social middle in this country. Widening inequality is effectively the national version of gutting your kitchen for remodels you can’t afford to finish: destined to leave a painful hole in the heart of our collective home.
I’m just simple enough to truly believe education is important to stemming the tide of such gutting. It won’t fix it. We are going to have to face the $60 trillion elephant in the room — the bad economy — at some point. But until it becomes bad enough for that to actually happen or our body politic channels its inner cowardly lion, we’re stuck with the tools we’ve got.
So when talk turns to disrupting higher education with online tools and technology, I get the appeal of that. I also get that its not answering the questions that most interest me; the questions that compel me to work 18 hour days; the questions that ultimately excite my imagination and creative energies.
As I’ve said here before, I don’t think giving privileged motivated self-learners more learning tools is exactly transformative. And the current iteration of MOOCs mostly promises more tools that need money, savvy and access not available to the many people I care about getting more access to educational content. That strikes me as a very limited and crass view of transformation.
If the people with the vision to create, shape, and lead the information revolution can only think of transformation in such small, tiny ways then I think we’re in trouble.
I’d like to be excited about transformation that connects universities with actual people in their actual communities. I’d like to see Emory U learning centers in Edgewood, Kirkwood, Downtown community centers. I’d like to see us producing the kind of community-minded educational leaders who will imagine a transformation of education that isn’t predicated on expensive tablets, high speed wireless access, or social capital.
I’d like to see us stop buying the transformation we’re being sold and sell the rest of the world on the transformation we think needs to happen.
And maybe structural reorganizing like that we’re seeing at campuses across the country are one way to get there. But I’m not sure it is.
Until someone proves otherwise I admit that I’m not all that excited by MOOCs. It’s not because they aren’t cool or fun or interesting. Rather, it is because they aren’t the kind of transformation I’m looking for.