Race, Bureaucracy, Data, and MOOCs

Two things made this drive-by post happen. First, Eric Cantor is continuing a long tradition among many in the conservative Republican party by calling for the end of federal investment in social science research.

Second, a tweep asked me:

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Both got me thinking about how important data has been to black social movements. It may be true for other type of social movements but I am most intimately familiar with black folks on this one.

The case of Brown versus Board of Education is not only landmark legal precedent for the dismantling of public segregation. It is also often cited as one of the first major legal cases where social science research about racial inequality was important to the judicial decision.

The report in question, known commonly as the Coleman report for the sociologist who lead the research project, documented the ill effects of segregated schooling on black children. The report said a lot of other things that caused great debate. I won’t go there for now.

The point is that social science research, particularly that which focuses on inequality and stratification, has been important to some political achievements made by minority interest groups.

In Cantor’s vision of federal research, funding a Coleman report likely could not happen. I do not think Cantor and his peers are at all unaware of that fact. Social science research makes powerful people uneasy for many reasons, not the least of which is that it provides a means, no matter how small, for the less powerful to document the reality of their social existence.

That brings me to the question on Twitter.

I could not immediately think of any data on race and the proliferation of MOOCs and online education delivery platforms. Really, the bureaucratic processes that make such data collection possible are antithetical to the intent of many of these platforms. When they promise disruption, core to that disruption is upending bureaucratic processes and control.

The educator in me sees great value in that.

The social scientist in me can see how this disruption would impede research.

The black person in me is like, hold up and wait all the minutes.

Perhaps disrupting bureaucracy is another one of those privileges that people who do not need empirical evidence of their right to exist get to enjoy. This is a new thought. Five minutes old, tops. So, if it’s fuzzy, you will have to forgive me. But, in abolishing bureaucracy in higher education platforms like MOOCs are we also erasing evidence of race? Or gender? Or class?

The only report I did find about the current demographics of online college learners was done by a marketing firm. That’s another issue. That raw data is private. There’s no secondary analysis possible and it is commissioned to tell a very specific story. In effect, it is the exact opposite of what social science research is charged to be and do.

If online education platforms become the domain of private corporations who control data on their students AND the bureaucracy to which minorities could once appeal for something akin to parity and justice have been disrupted, what happens to our understanding of the reality of black folks in these education arrangements?

Could Brown v MOOCs happen? If so, with what data?

6 thoughts on “Race, Bureaucracy, Data, and MOOCs

    1. Greg, I was not aware of that data. Thank you for that. I realize it is early in the game for MOOCs to have massive data but I do still wonder if the organizational imperative doesn’t make the likelihood of such data, well, unlikely. It does seem as if we’d have more data on traditional online platforms by now. And I can’t believe I just used “traditional online platforms”.

      1. Hello, there is a whole school of data analysis now called “Learning Analytics” – but I don’t see much movement towards sharing it. We use them to decided to make mobile versions and so on and seeing demand and usage changes.

        I work for a public Uni in the UK though, but I can’t see MOOC data being shared as it is too useful for competitors?

  1. I really hadn’t thought of the MOOC explosion in this way. I’ve mostly been pondering how frustrating it’s gonna be for folks who work to educate themselves via this means but won’t have any “valid” or “acceptable” currency to show for it. [insert rant about possible program quality issues, etc.] I’ve also been thinking that the folks most likely to get caught up in such a situation are folks who look like us (computer & internet access issues aside). Sometimes it feels much like the whole for-profit institution drama all over again.

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Degrees of Gender

I’ve had a project on gender and for-profits for a few months now. This paper is currently under review in a later format. I will also be presenting some of the ideas set forth in this paper at SSS this year with preliminary data from my research with for-profit students. A few images: The IntroRead More “Degrees of Gender”