Earlier this week, Georgia Tech and eleven other higher education institutions announced their participation in Coursera, a company that hosts online courses. Reactions have been predictably dramatic, as exemplified by Jordan Weissman's panegyric in the Atlantic, titled The Single Most Important Experiment in Higher Education.
I'll spare observations on the obvious problems with Weissman's article, like the witless claim that lectures as web video somehow "reinvent" the lecture. Or the fact that Weissman published an article two weeks ago titled Why the Internet Isn't Going to End College As We Know It. Take this excerpt instead:
The fundamental challenge for U.S. universities as they struggle to contain their costs is figuring out how to teach more students using fewer resources.
This is the biggest and most insidious misconception, the one that pervades every conversation about online education. The fundamental problem isn't one of cost containment, it's one of funding—of understanding why the cost containment solution appeared in the first place. We collectively "decided" not to fund education in America. Now we're living with the consequences. Lost on those who mount such defenses is the fact that running these online courses costs more rather than less money in the short term (Georgia Tech's Coursera faculty are taking on the task on top of their normal work), and doesn't produce any direct revenue for anyone, not even Coursera.
The more we buy into the efficiency argument, the more we cede ground to the technolibertarians who believe that a fusion of business and technology will solve all ills. But then again, I think that's what the proponents of MOOCs want anyway. The issue isn't online education per se, it's the logics and rationales that come along with certain implementations of it.
Is anyone who thinks about it very hard really under the delusion that Georgia Tech and the other dozen Coursera partners are pursuing this partnership out of some sort of carefully reasoned strategic implementation plan? The all-campus email we received from the Provost's office email made it clear that that's not the case:
Many members of our community express a desire to "try out" new techniques, to reach new Georgia Tech students and stakeholders, and to provide more flexible approaches to classroom instruction and course design. Coursera is just the first step in a strategy that will give us the freedom to investigate these new approaches and rapidly adopt the ones that have a positive impact on the Institute.
Institutions like mine are afraid of the present and the future yet drunk on the dream of being "elite" and willing to do anything to be seen in the right crowd making the hip choices. The provostial email also notes, "It also is significant that Georgia Tech is a founding member of this group." Group membership is a key obsession of university administration, and it's why they take systems like the US News rankings so seriously. Of course, all such structures are partly fictions we invent to structure our lives and society. The Ivy League isn't a natural law or a God-given lineage.
In this respect, Coursera's clearly got the upper hand among institutions that fancy themselves elite: once they get a critical mass on board, the rest don't want to appear left behind. Given the recent drama at the University of Virginia, whose president was fired partly for failing to blindly adopt online learning only to be re-hired after a PR-nightmare only weeks before UVA announced their participation in Coursera anyway, you can see how Presidents and Provosts across the land might be ready to sign on for defensive reasons alone.
It makes good headlines to claim that MOOCs and their ilk signal "the beginning of the end" for higher education. But that's mostly blustery rhetoric. As Siva Vaidhyanathan put it, "I wish pundits would stop declaring that MOOC's are revolutionary when they are merely interesting (not that there is anything wrong with that)." What's a more measured reaction to the MOOC trend, then?
Here's one: Coursera is marketing. Buying in associates an institution with a vague signal of futurism and reinvention, associates a purportedly "elite" institution with its elite brethren, and buys some time while the whole thing shakes out. Facebook page? Check. Twitter account? Check. Coursera courses? Check.
In cases like Caltech and University of Pennsylvania, who have together invested some $3.7 million in Coursera, they are buying a more explicit and long-term version of that advertising. Likewise, that's how MIT and Harvard see edX.
If MOOCs are marketing, the question we should be asking is: can they be more? Researchers and teachers at dozens of institutions have been pondering such questions for years, for decades. Of course, like all good research, progress comes slowly, in fits and starts, with as many failures as successes. Nobody wants to hear this though, because the age of technolibertarianism sees real value as the most rapidly produced and untamed value. If it's immediate attention we're after, then there's another way to get it, by doing something that's not just new and me-too but also thoughtful and different and right. It's much harder to do that work within the academy, because few have any time to think about it seriously (even at the level of provosts offices and centers that supposedly specialize in such work) because of the austerity measures producing the illusion of the need for efficiency in the first place. And so, we reap what we sow.