by Tom Abel
Goodbye faculty, hello neoliberal MOOCs. I read a NY Times article last week and was clued into a recent ‘innovation’ in education which may soon be sweeping the globe. Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs are being produced and promoted by some of the most prestigious universities in the world, such as a just announced MIT-Harvard ‘nonprofit’ partnership, and another with Stanford, Princeton, UPenn, and Michigan. MOOC courses include video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback and student-paced learning, and most so far have been produced in the areas of engineering, computers, software, etc, but courses in all fields are clearly coming. Most of the article is techy and upbeat, but they let this quote slip in. George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer ominously said, “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.” Get it? This is the end of universities as we know them. A few top universities produce coursework for the world and there’s no need for any of the rest of you out there. Still, the reporter tries to keep it positive and ends with this quote, “What’s still missing is an online platform that gives faculty the capacity to customize the content of their own highly interactive courses.” That’s right, we’ll still need you to ‘customize’ the MOOC course for your classrooms.
So I started to search for articles on MOOCs. It’s all tech hype and whiz-bang. I could find nary a discouraging word. And I certainly could not find what I was really looking for, which is the corporate strategy behind all of this. Why are the big boys interested? I have some of my own ideas that I will try to relate and that refer particularly to issues of peak and descent.
Education has a remarkably inelastic demand curve and even in a contracting economy people will spend their last dollars to educate their children. Along with healthcare, high-tech weaponry, food, water, drugs, and internal ‘security’, Americans will pay almost any price for education, which is why the Right has furiously worked to privatize it and as well the rest of these. In a time when economies around the globe are stagnating (due to flattening or declining net emergies) they are the last growth industries of the capitalist growth economy. Furthermore, higher education is one of the few commodities that the US produces that is wanted by anyone else in the world. So not surprising, the men with the money say, do more of this! Do what it takes to expand this sector and cut costs! There is only one problem, there will be resistance. Those damn entrenched academics!
So to go out on a limb, I want to make some predictions. I haven’t the time to detail this or smooth it out, so I’ll leave it in bullet form. First, I predict that investors, corporations and universities have a multi-step plan:
Step 1 (all of this is underway)
- It’s Free! Anyone can take the courses!
- But the big boys are investing millions – huh, how can they give it away? You’ll see…
- Promise academics that it will not replace them.
- Introduce MOOC courses as a separate sphere.
- Traditional students are not allowed to take them.
- Build knowledge and acceptance.
- Give graduates(?) degrees – credentials!
- Invest in public relations campaigns to promote and sooth – spend millions here.
- Sell all this as cheaper (free!), do-it-yourself education.
- Classes are self-design, self-organize, no higher level requirements, content, purpose – just learn stuff!
- Gradually shift and integrate into traditional student curriculum.
- Sold to teachers as teacher’s aid – it’s to your benefit(!), you can use it to ‘customize the content of your own highly interactive courses!’ – sure
- But administrators can now make classes (massively) bigger.
- So overall fewer teachers are needed.
- The administrators that promised that MOOCs would not replace faculty are now gone, and well sorry, things change.
- Deskill, deskill, deskill – faculty become (part-time, contract) technicians for playing course material.
- No more academic teachers.
- Courses are all electronic media.
- Every course imaginable is already in the can.
- Only class technicians are required.
- Charge the same or more(!) tuition dollars! – Inelastic demand curve of education!
Seeing Education Through a Macroscope
The information in education, and its production and maintenance in universities, looks different when seen from the next larger scale
A History of the World
- European and US growth was fueled by “storages” of resources (metals, topsoil, fossil fuels, timber), much under foot, but a good portion extracted from the colonial world and later by overseas corporations working with (undemocratic) governments
- By the consumption of these storages in real work processes, the US and EU built new stores of information (techniques for finance, banking, engineering, medicine, and drugs), to become the information centers of the world
- By its stores of information, the US and Europe can continue to command the resources and labor of the world for some time, trading information for labor and goods from around the world for the benefit of their corporations and elites
The Arc of Oil Growth
- Education has followed the arc of fossil fuel growth
- On the wave of oil growth we chose to expand the availability of advanced education (with the GI Bill) to nearly everyone (of the right gender)
- Cheap public universities rode that wave of oil-led growth through the 50s-60s
- Now as real growth has slowed and peaked we have gradually abandoned publicly funded education (healthcare, social security, and unemployment insurance)
- The neoliberal economists say, for the majority of you, society can no longer afford to educate your children beyond the 12th grade
- Public funds, shared contributions (taxes) from all adults, will no longer be available for higher education because we need your (shrinking) tax dollars to buy high-tech weaponry to maintain control of resource flows and in general to project power in a world that is growing ever more rebellious
- But this creates another problem
- The US/EU economies need specialized workers with skills to support especially the health and information industries
- We can get them over there!
Why is labor cheaper over there?
Why is labor cheaper in the developing world? Because the production of their workforce has been heavily subsidized by free inputs from nature
- This cheap labor is tapped throughout a surge of economic growth, re: Japan’s cheap labor in the 60s and Taiwan’s in the 80s, and now China/India
- Today’s factory workers in China and India were raised on farms(!), and their parents are still living there very cheaply and self-sufficiently, and so they do not require as much money to live
- Our companies can either entice the cheaply minted workforces to immigrate to the US/EU or employ them via outsourcing (using overseas call centers and software design centers) or foreign-owned international subsidiaries
- But this cannot and will not last
- As workers in the new cities have children of their own, they must raise those children at higher cost – China is beginning to face this problem now just as did Taiwan and Japan
- If there is a next China/India coming, I do not see it
- But the bigger point is that this strategy has no real future
- As the world shrinks and international flows of resources and people dry up, nations will need to rely on their own – their own food, their own renewable resources, and their own workforce
- It is worse than short-sighted for the US to miss the chance to educate its own population while there are still some resources to do so and while there is a large public university system still in place
The Mission of the University in Society
- “Conservation of information…through teaching and archiving is the first mission of universities” H.T. Odum 1999
- Universities have several functions
- Educate future professionals for the workplace
- Train the next generation of faculty
- Employ professors
- For research
- For the maintenance of highly specialized knowledges
- For their teaching and mentoring skills
- Both information cycles use (durable) paper publications dispersed widely as their intermediate carriers
- Written publications are stored in libraries around the world
- “The long range memory of society… is the library”
The deskilling of academia
- The overriding goal of the plan is to reduce overhead to universities and increase profits:
- Cutting overhead? – Cut faculty
- Increase profits? – Add students massively
- Academic professionals are expensive, full-time employees are expensive, with required benefits, workplaces, etc
- The point as always is cut costs, mechanize, cut labor, deskill
- The result is a fully commoditized, Fordist education product
Research goes where?
- Maintain a few locations of academic research – ‘flagship’ universities with corporate partners – or simply disconnect research from universities entirely
Diluted, diminished, devalued education content
- In MOOCs, lectures and content is self-selected, self-designed
- While students are unaware of this fact, much of course knowledge and content in any course (half?) is in the structure of a course
- The education value of a course is the sustained and repeated and progressively assembled content that can only be delivered over many lessons in a structured course
- Furthermore, at most universities, courses are assembled into programs that are structured, and which also convey a great deal of information
- Course and program structures are the products of a long history of refinement, and are continuously evolving under the perceptive attention of faculty
- The self-design of a MOOC program trades the great value of this feature of higher education for the marketability of education in bite-sized chunks, sold under the quintessential neoliberal slogan of ‘freedom’ of choice
The poor teacher
- Who needs them?!
- What do they add anyway, the knowledge is in the material!
- MOOCs also depend heavily on this misunderstanding of the education process
- Teaching is communication, and regular speech operates on many simultaneous channels – voice, intonation, facial expression, gesture, and body language in addition to content
- Teaching is interaction, which includes give and take
- Teachers respond to student interest, involvement, they ad lib, they expand, they digress, etc, etc.
- The techs think they can emulate some of this, do you believe them?
- I was on an Amsterdam canal tour 30 years ago and again last year
- This year’s tour was painful, boring, slow, with big gaps between recorded speaking bits triggered by the driver-technician
- The older tours with a guide were exciting, fun, interesting, filled with questions and historical-political-whatever digressions, all triggered by questions from the audience, or spontaneously produced by the guide seeking to fill awkward silences or perceived needs – in all, extremely educational
- Try making even a smart interactive program do that!
Muzzling social criticism
- No more pesky, critical, party-crashing liberal arts and social science majors!!
- Liberal, critical academia is gone – classes are self-selected – no required classes, no general education in first two years, so for most students there will be no liberal education.
- Developing countries do not require universities, just networks
- The US becomes the source for all exported education – like an export crop
- Diversity and descent are eliminated – knowledge is what the US says it is
Privilege for the rich
- Of course(!) a few traditional universities will be maintained for elites (Yale, Harvard) with faculty, small classes, lectures, etc
Academia in a Descending World
- Should some of this be expected?
- Odum said that in descent there would not be energy for continued expansion of higher education into new research fields
- Instead, we would need to aggregate and preserve the many general principles that were produced in the time of growth
- So to be fair we should ask, ‘Can capitalist production (even in the extreme forms of MOOCs) nudge things in the right direction?’
- It may be that this step of producing electronic course materials is valuable for synthesizing bodies of knowledge, as in these MOOC courses, and also in producing textbooks, and the many academic ‘encyclopedias’ that seem to be appearing everywhere (at great cost to libraries)
- Can the result be good in the long run?
- The global internet is fragile!
- If it fails, which it could in many scenarios, then the Third World and many more of us are SOL
- Related to that, Odum frequently characterized the internet as “short-term memory” of the many ideas discussed in a society, and thus not a viable repository of long-term storage
- The problem is that the carriers within electronic “information cycles” are indeed fragile, prone to Second Law depreciation
- Paper copies, stored in libraries, and dispersed around the world are far more durable stores of the information produced by cultures
- A more general principle of descent is that with less energy the world will become again more local, less global
- Education production should become decentralized, like everything else – not concentrated into single global centers
- Producing electronic course materials may be valuable, but only if it is then dispersed to the smaller-scale centers
- Materials need to be maintained in paper which is a far more durable carrier, and many copies should be made and dispersed
- Maintain local internet for local knowledge transfer
- Broad Education
- In descent, the world can support fewer highly trained people
- In a descending world we will need generalists with a broad education in a diversity of subjects, including the social sciences and liberal arts!
Education in a Different World
As growth capitalism falters it is feverishly dismantling a system of information production that worked well in the growth years. Besides producing information, it produced hope across societies for the end of past inequalities. Growth periods instill optimism, hope for social justice in state societies that are perhaps intrinsically unjust. As the growth era ends, must we accept a return of the old injustices? Today we understand these historical processes for maybe the first time in history. Today we live in democracies, in name at least. We thus have tools in information and organization that are also new to the world, tools that give us some control over our future if we use them. But we need to understand most fundamentally, that the growth years of fossil fuels are at an end. And we need to understand that an economic system that demands growth by its nature is an ill fit to the world, at the very least. It is time for new principles of economics to arise, principles that assure fair trade, that recognize the (unpaid) contributions of nature to production, that recognize nature’s limits, and that do not demand growth. Education in that different world should be broad to encompass the great advancements in all fields that followed and nourished the growth years of fossil fuel. We do not know what types of knowledge will be of greatest value in the years ahead. We should then prepare our children (all of them) with a flexible grasp of core principles in many fields and with an understanding of the connections that join them all. So armed, they will be most ready to find their ways through the ups and downs of the years ahead.