Jonathan Chait wrote an interesting article this afternoon, College Professors Are About to Get Really Mad at President Obama. It involves Obama’s new push to lower the cost of college by using more “massive open online courses” (MOOCs). As a result of this, Jonathan Rees wrote an article arguing that we need to push against this because “information” is not the same as “education.” Although I have major problems with what Rees wrote, Chait’s counterargument is even worse. So let me throw a few thoughts into this debate.
There is a larger issue here that Rees discusses and Chait dumps all over: what is going to happen to the professors? I think the idea that we can automate ourselves to prosperity is ridiculous. It could work if it were the case that productivity increases were widely shared. But that just isn’t the case. As I noted just yesterday, if the minimum wage had been increasing at the rate of productivity growth, it would now be over $17 per hour. Instead, we now live in a nation where $17 per hour is one of the better jobs a person can get. So this whole idea that we can somehow educate kids by the thousands with largely automated tools makes me question what exactly we are educating those kids for. After all, if we can automate education, what can’t we automate?
The main educational issue gets to the heart of what has long been a problem with colleges. Although I could have gone to Berkeley, I specifically did not because I didn’t want to take all of my lower division courses in classes that involved hundreds of students. Even in the Davis chemistry department (known for its personalized treatment of students), they bragged about having as few as 15 students in their upper division courses. And Davis is hardly considered an elite university.
What I think happens with elite universities is that their reputations allow them to draw the very best students. And as a result of having the very best students, the universities really don’t need to do any teaching at all. My experience is that teaching at the college level, across all disciplines, is ghastly. It was only when I began teaching that I saw it was possible to make a course better than just reading the text book. And it started by deciding to not teach the way that I had been “taught.” (For the record, I went to a small school and program and my experience was mostly quite good.)
The sad thing was that once I started looking, I found that there had been a lot of really smart people working on the problem of teaching physics. I’m sure the same thing in true in other fields. So there is a huge amount that colleges could do to improve their generally crummy product. But in general, I don’t think they are even aware of how crummy they are. And that’s how MOOCs have come to be seen as an effective form of education.
Look, the truth is that most people can combine a decent grammar school education and a public library into the best education in the world. But that is much like saying that a child born into poverty in Ethiopia can grow up to be a billionaire: true but hardly the basis for good policy. The truth is that if we want more access to better high education, the way to do it is to reduce student to teacher ratios. The higher this ratio, the more the teacher becomes nothing but an information conduit. And that kind of teacher is no more helpful than just reading the book. The Green brothers make excellent videos in their “Crash Course” series, but as entertaining as they are, they do not educate.
There is a whole other side of higher education, of course. And this is one that I wish I had more access to myself. Colleges are an intellectual community. They are conducive to learning. I don’t see how that is replicated in the disparate make up of an MOOC. I just don’t think knowing that you can instant message a question to a TA really cuts it. Nor does it facilitate the synergistic power of conversation that I found most helpful in college.
Finally, I think we have to figure out just what as a society we want from higher education. Too much of it has become more like job training than education. This focus is shortsighted. As I wrote before, “The point of college, as Professor Kingsfield might have said, is to train your mind.” But we have a business culture that regardless of how trained its workers might be still wants to treat them as though they were mere cogs in the machine. And this is perhaps the most frightening aspect of the focus on MOOCs: we treat students as cogs so they can go on to be adult cogs.
While I am not terribly sympathetic to Professor Rees’ concerns, at least he is trying to hold the fort against the assault from people like Obama who want to “improve” higher education out of existence. And let’s not forget: all the MOOCs are doing is creating a two tier college system. One is for the poor and it will be known as “college”—with the scare quotes. And one is for the rich and it will be know as real college—no scare quotes necessary. And think about that. What it means is that poorer students will still try to do everything they can to go to college instead of just logging into it. The MOOC solution is not a real solution—at least not in the long term.
If Rees really wants to push back against this trend, what he needs to do is push for reform of college teaching. The truth is that it would be an easy matter to create intellectual retreats where people who wanted to learn could come and commune with each other and their books. And I’m not sure there would be any less education going on there than there is at most college campuses—especially the elite ones.