Atrios asks, Does Anybody Remember MOOCs? For those who don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, MOOC is an acronym for “Massive Open Online Course.” It was one of the many “revolutionary” ideas that was going to save education in this country without, you know, the bother of actually spending any money or employing any teachers. Atrios noted that they had many problems. First, they didn’t scale the way people thought they would. Second, they were actually fairly expensive to provide after all. Third, just because Harvard was pushing them didn’t mean that anyone really thought that they were getting a Harvard education. And fourth, and most important, such courses might work better than teaching yourself with a book but they were never anything close to getting taught by a teacher.
Let’s just throw out one idea right away: a Harvard education isn’t as good as a Harvard education. Big name schools do such a great job “educating” students because of their names. They can demand the very best students with the very best preparation. The only way that getting educated at a big name school is helpful is that it provides for the “Chris Hughes Effect.” This is where you get to interact with a whole bunch of other smart and — more important — well connected people. So without doing anything of significance and without being of notable ability yourself — you too can have a half billion dollars, buy magazines, and run all over the world and be treated like you have half a clue about anything.
This is largely why learning from a book is not as good as going to college. It’s true that learning from books all by your lonesome is hard. As a result, people ought to be most impressed with the self-educated. Eric Hoffer ought to be a household name rather than William F Buckley Jr. But that isn’t the case because America is the most anti-meritocratic national that I can think of. The Harvard degree isn’t about what you know. It is more about who you know. The business community in the United States is interested in a Harvard degree the same way that a Hollywood casting director is interested in that episode of Break Bad an actor appeared in.
So the idea of the MOOC was always stupid. Let’s suppose you managed to give half the American people a Harvard level education. What then? All that would do would be to make a Harvard education useless. The society would have to find some other way to separate the impressive people from the unimpressive people. Because it isn’t about knowledge and it never has been. When the power elite talk about education, it is primarily for one reason: to claim that the poorer classes don’t have jobs and the ones who do are paid poorly because they lack education. It doesn’t matter that a dullard born rich like Bush the Younger is far better off than a genius born poor. Education is a good stick with which to beat the non-elite. And add to that an effort to destroy the one remaining middle class profession — teaching — and you have the whole thing. The power elite never need worry about anyone challenging its rule.
MOOCs are a thing of the past. But don’t worry! The power elite have an endless supply of ideas for how to “fix” education. There is always a new idea in the pipeline. As soon as they destroy all the teacher’s unions and reduce education to a $12 per hour job, they’ll have another idea that “This time!” will fix all the problems. And eventually they will come back to the MOOCs. There is no reason why a computer can’t teach our kids the only things that really matter: multiplication tables, circuit board assembly, and most of all, how to bow before their betters.