Friday, February 8, 2013

Your Massively Open Offline College Is Broken

Clay Shirky article 

I wrote a thing last fall about massive open online courses (MOOCs, in the parlance), and the challenge that free or cheap online classes pose to business as usual in higher ed. In that piece, I compared the people running colleges today to music industry executives in the age of Napster [..]

[An opponent]'s answers seem to be that in the world of higher education, things are going fine, mostly, and that the parts that aren’t going fine can largely be fixed with tax dollars. (Because if there’s one group you'd pin your hopes for an American renaissance on, it would be state legislators.) I have a different answer: School is broken and everyone knows it.

That sentiment is the first sentence of Kio Stark’s forthcoming book, Don’t Go Back to School. It’s a guide for people taking the advice in the title; Stark interviewed almost hundred people who dropped out or took a pass on everything from high school to grad school, but still figured out how to learn what they needed to learn, in order to do what they wanted to do [..].

Forget private school. Tuition and fees at public four-year colleges went up 72% last decade, even as the market value of a bachelor's degree fell by 15%.

The value of that degree remains high in relative terms, but only because people with bachelor's degrees have seen their incomes shrink less over the last few years than people who don't have them. "Give us tens of thousands of dollars and years of your life so you can suffer less than your peers" isn't much of a proposition. More like a ransom note, really.

This is the background to the entire conversation around higher education: Things that can’t last don’t. This is why MOOCs matter. Not because distance learning is some big new thing or because online lectures are a solution to all our problems, but because they’ve come along at a time when students and parents are willing to ask themselves, "Isn’t there some other way to do this?"

MOOCs are a lightning strike on a rotten tree. Most stories have focused on the lightning, on MOOCs as the flashy new thing. I want to talk about the tree.

[..] If you want to know what college is actually like in this country, forget Swarthmore, with 1500 students. Think Houston Community College, with 63,000. Think rolling admissions. Think commuter school. Think older. Think poorer. Think child-rearing, part-time, night class. Think 50% dropout rates. Think two-year degree. (Except don’t call it that, because most graduates take longer than two years to complete it. If they complete it.)

If you want to know what college is actually like in this country, skip Google Images, and scroll through the (still heartbreaking) We Are The 99 Percent Tumblr, looking for the keywords "student loan." [..]

* * *

The end game is degrees that are little more than receipts for work done elsewhere. Empire State, Excelsior, Thomas Edison, all these institutions and more convert a loose set of credits into a diploma, without much of anything resembling a curriculum. A kid named Richard Linder just figured out how to get an Associates Degree by stitching together 60 credits from 8 separate institutions, not one credit of which was earned in a college classroom. (Fully a quarter were from various forms of FEMA certification.) Linder gets an A for moxie, but it doesn’t say much for the institutions nominally policing educational coherence.

This vitiation of the diploma is Goodhart’s Law in action, where a socially useful metric becomes increasingly worthless, because the incentives pushing towards adulteration are larger than those pushing towards purity. This is not some bad thing that was done to us in the academy. We did this to ourselves, under the rubric of ordinary accreditation, at nonprofits and state schools. Yet I've never once heard the professors fulminating about MOOCs also suggest shutting down Excelsior College. In the academy, we are terrible at combating threats from the current educational system, but we are terrific at combating threats to it [..]

The thing to understand about the current conversation is how bad things were, for how many students, long before organizations like University of the People ever launched. In the academy, we’ve been running a grey market in unsupervised internships and larger and larger lectures for a generation already. MOOCs threaten that market.

Bustillos worries that San Jose State and Udacity are charging $150 a course. But what’s the public college alternative? They could be going to California’s UC Online program, where a course costs $1400. The San Jose deal [to partner with Udacity and start looking at MOOC alternative] was brokered by Governor Brown in part because he was so disgusted with what his own institutions were up to.

In the academy, we're fine with anything that lowers the cost of education. We love those kinds of changes. But when someone threatens to lower the price, well, then we start behaving like Teamsters in tweed.

I’ve been thinking about the effects of the internet for a couple of decades now. I’ve watched industry after industry forced to renegotiate their methods and models, in the face of a medium that allows for perfect copying, global distribution, zero incremental cost, ridiculously easy group-forming: The music business. Newspapers. Travel agents. Publishers. Hotel owners. And while watching, I've always wondered what I’d do when my turn came.

And now here it is. And it turns out my job is to tell you not to trust us when we claim that there’s something sacred and irreplaceable about what we academics do  [..].

For all our good will, college in the U.S. has gotten worse for nearly everyone who relies on us. For some students—millions of them—the institutions in which they enroll are more reliable producers of debt than education. This has happened on our watch.

The competition from upstart organizations will make things worse for many of us. (I like the experiments we’ve got going at NYU, but I don’t fantasize that we'll be unscathed.) After two decades of watching, though, I also know that that’s how these changes go. No industry has ever organized an orderly sharing of power with newcomers, no matter how interesting or valuable their ideas are, unless under mortal threat.

Instead, like every threatened profession, I see my peers arguing that we, uniquely, deserve a permanent bulwark against insurgents, that we must be left in charge of our destiny, or society will suffer the consequences. Even the record store clerks tried that argument, back in the day. In the academy, we have a lot of good ideas and a lot of practice at making people smarter, but it’s not obvious that we have the best ideas, and it is obvious that we don’t have all the ideas. For us to behave as if we have—or should have—a monopoly on educating adults is just ridiculous.