We’re probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did
November 18, 2012 9:34 AM   Subscribe

In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as as songs came unbundled from CDs.
Napster, Udacity, and the Academy - about how online education startups are changing the notion and practice of higher education - by Clay Shirky (previously)
posted by davidjmcgee (61 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
The real trick will be getting employers to either stop requiring the degrees or start taking alternative credentials. I don't notice "job" or "employer" once in the article, and that is the narrative and the driving force behind it: "You need this degree to get a job that isn't 100% terrible."
posted by curious nu at 9:47 AM on November 18, 2012 [21 favorites]


creative destruction heads to the kernel of industrial capitalism, the research university AKA eating the seed corn because it costs too employ people to do basic research/teach.

what people don't realize is that basic science is almost entirely useless. there is no recognizable return on the investment. the university is built on the conceit that researchers will bring the latest knowledge to students, but it's just a conceit to get society AKA "rich people" to pay people to do basic research.

oh well, it was fun while it lasted.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:51 AM on November 18, 2012


I read it earlier in the week. I think Shirky's point that MOOCs won't be the death of the Ivy league and the leading research state universities, but rather the entry level of the educational spectrum, is probably on the money. This is a good thing if it gets rid of false-hope diploma mills like Phoenix, ITT tech, and other scummy places that siphon government loan money in exchange for useless degrees.

The problem comes in certification. You take a bunch of classes online for free, but there still has to be someone who will stamp some piece of paper that acknowledges that you did it. Isn't that what the scummy diploma mill places are anyway, an online class structure with a diploma dangled at the end of them?

Aside from that, as soon as you start getting rid of the Calamazoo University of Akron and small town community colleges you're closing off yet more avenues of employment for people with Master and PhD degrees. If you think things are ugly now with endless part time teaching grinds for anyone who isn't from hard science or engineering, just wait until you eliminate a substantial portion of the extant job market.

Higher education is (bluntly) fucked from stem to stern. The BA is more or less like the high school diploma was 30 years ago, and the rentier capitalism of student loan debt is creating a crisis of staggering proportions. MOOCs are only going to accelerate this. I don't think this country really wants to see what happens when you have a large population of young, unemployable students who are steadily growing more and more resentful and detached from the promise of a comfortable middle class life.
posted by codacorolla at 9:56 AM on November 18, 2012 [14 favorites]


The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system, in the same way phonographs expanded the audience for symphonies to people who couldn’t get to a concert hall, and PCs expanded the users of computing power to people who didn’t work in big companies.
I was tempted to write a point-by-point critique of all the muddy terminology, bad analogies, and cheap rhetoric this piece is shot through with, but I think I'll stick to one central point instead: The way Shirky uses words like "education" and "learning" and "knowledge" here is pure question-begging. He just assumes as a premise, rather than arguing, that lecture-publishing and teaching are the same thing.

And perhaps more importantly, he, not the people he's responding to, is the one who's acting like an "elitist" and importing snobbery where it doesn't belong — Shirky is the only one in the debate who seems unable to imagine that teaching at lower-tier institutions, and the "median college experience," also involve human contact and a credentialed expert's responsiveness to students' ideas, rather than just one-way lecturing. His portrait of what college education is like under the current structure of academia is just not a convincing one at all.

Honestly, this reads like a piece written by someone who spends all day reading delusional Chronicle of Higher Education op-eds and thinks that means he understands how universities work.
posted by RogerB at 9:57 AM on November 18, 2012 [25 favorites]


ennui.bz: what people don't realize is that basic science is almost entirely useless. there is no recognizable return on the investment. the university is built on the conceit that researchers will bring the latest knowledge to students, but it's just a conceit to get society AKA "rich people" to pay people to do basic research.

Basic science is only useless if you have no intention of doing any kind of advanced science. Specific research projects that lead to profitable or useful applications build upon a foundation of basic science; if you undercut that you cannot make any progress further on.

Also, in the sciences, science students benefit immensely from active science programs going on (so they can conduct undergraduate research), and you cannot train graduate students without them. So basic science programs really cannot go away, not without killing all progress in the sciences.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:58 AM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm still waiting for some of Clay Shirky's first predictions to come true. Will it happen in my lifetime or has the need for predictors' predictions actually needing to come true been disintermediated by the internet?
posted by srboisvert at 10:01 AM on November 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


The real trick will be getting employers to either stop requiring the degrees or start taking alternative credentials. I don't notice "job" or "employer" once in the article, and that is the narrative and the driving force behind it: "You need this degree to get a job that isn't 100% terrible."

Indeed. I have over a decade of experience in my field, I've shipped major products, etc., but I've still been denied jobs because 10 years ago I didn't sit in a classroom and get a degree (because I was breaking into my field!). Recruiters have outright told me they don't care what it's in, they just need to check that "has degree" box on their form.

I'd happily take a "this person is basically competent" certification, which is what they're using it for.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:02 AM on November 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


This seemed to me to be the money quote:
We ask students to read the best works we can find, whoever produced them and where, but we only ask them to listen to the best lecture a local employee can produce that morning. Sometimes you’re at a place where the best lecture your professor can give is the best in the world. But mostly not. And the only thing that kept this system from seeming strange was that we’ve never had a good way of publishing lectures.
That's a really nice way of thinking about part of this shift. It mirrors the khan academy argument that teachers are best in an interactive and conversational mode, not a content-transfer mode. If we have better systems for doing content-transfer, do that outside of class time and use our face-to-face, synchronous periods to promote discourse and dialog and help clear up confusion.

i've heard some sympathy to this point of view from faculty lately, too. It's a tremendous amount of work to prepare a lecture, and then the audience for that lecture is relatively limited. For professors who really invest in their lectures, it's also satisfying to think that a great lecture has a life beyond the classroom. Plus, there's a sort of fatalism from lecture faculty that they're always reinventing the wheel in their lecture prep and rarely teaching the topic that is their particular expertise.

That's all to say that I think this is a credible threat to the status quo. I don't think it will replace universities as institutions, but I do think it will change how classes are taught throughout the academy.
posted by heresiarch at 10:03 AM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I find it fascinating that so many of these services are set up by professors at elite institutions, because it creates the very sort of bias the article talks about: they imagine extremely motivated students who are capable of doing basic forms of research because they've been trained well by high schools. There are surely 23,000 of these the world over for any one subject - and more. However, that's not the students most people get. Many of them are willing, to be sure, but a whole chunk of them can't even, for example, find basic information online or work out what's a good source vs a bad one. A huge chunk of my time - and I teach at a pretty good, though not first tier, institution - is actually teaching people basic skills in writing, research, how to find things on the internet, etc. Maybe these students shouldn't be in college in the first place, but they're also not going to be served by a series of lectures, online or not, without any level of learning support.

In other words, MOOCs are not going to be the panacea that everyone imagines unless they actually put in some support. And library access (online or otherwise): to pretend that all research can be open source given what's available for free is seriously misleading. Especially not when you have legions of students who can't work out when even a Wikipedia entry is somewhat reliable vs being a pack of somewhat convincing half-truths that are worse than nothing. And all of that costs money which has to come from somewhere.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:03 AM on November 18, 2012 [14 favorites]


I'm not sure why people are making such a huge deal over this. Udacity primarily represents a shift from LMS (Blackboard, Moodle, etc) as a product to to LMS as a platform. These MOOC things are not really about changing pedagogy forever, it's about demonstrating your app can scale to the size of a flagship state university. I mean, this is why they're free: you're beta testing their platform. If they charged even five dollars, I doubt they'd get nearly as many enrollees. Presumably they know this as well.

They'll find their profits in trotting this tech out to all the state unis and putting in their system as an option at the next RFP. At that point you won't hear one lick about changing pedagogy; you're more likely to hear about how they can easily they can import blackboard and Common Cartridge format.
posted by pwnguin at 10:09 AM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


What a disappointing article--Shirky rehashes a lot of nonsense that has been out there since MIT launched their Open Course Ware project ten years ago.

There has always been a free, alternative route to getting an advanced education. They are called public libraries. You got to the library and there is all the knowledge that you would gain in a four-year degree program and then some, completely free. If you are not sure where to begin they have trained experts, librarians, to help you find a beginning algebra book and then an advanced one. You can even git a little piece of paper, a library card, and take the books home with you. They are in a portable format and you can add to your education at home, at breaks at work, on the bus, anywhere with natural or artificial light. Revolutionary!

So why didn't public libraries destroy the university a hundred years ago? A couple of reasons but the main one is this: Universities are not in the knowledge business, they are in the accreditation business. Young people don't come to the university to learn things. (I am a professor and can tell you that not a few of my students are hostile to the very idea.) People come to the university for a certificate, called a diploma, that certifies that they know some things. The entire structure of the university is set up to force students to actually learn some stuff, and to verify that they have, while many of them struggle mightly to trick that same system.

MOOCs, as of now, are not competing with universities, they are competing with public libraries. You cannot get a colege degree through MOOCs, or even any college credit (there are a few exceptions here, but very few). The very elite institutions pouring resources into developing MOOCs do not and will not offer credits from their institutions for completing the MOOCs.
Shirky doesn't even address this issue, which makes the whole piece disingenuous.

Maybe in the long run, in decades, MOOCs will have an impact on higher education. Maybe the public library will have an impact on higher education. I am not holding my breath.
posted by LarryC at 10:10 AM on November 18, 2012 [42 favorites]


The trouble that universities are in is much more like the trouble newspapers are in than the trouble the recording industry is in. The .mp3 provides more or less the exact same product that the record company did (putting aside whatever small proportion of people can tell the difference, or care about the difference, in audio qualiy.)

Universities have (at least) two missions; teaching and research. We pay for the latter by means of a) state support, constantly dwindling, and b) charging students for the former. As Shirky says, "The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled." When this happens, I don't see any remaining funding mechanism for mathematicians, historians, social scientists, biologists, management theorists, poets, chemists, etc. -- just as there does not seem to be a funding mechanism for reporting once advertising is taken away.

One take on this is that the US just shouldn't have a big basic research apparatus in these areas; we haven't always, and no physical or social law says we have to forever.
posted by escabeche at 10:11 AM on November 18, 2012


The story the recording industry used to tell us went something like this: “Hey kids, Alanis Morisette just recorded three kickin’ songs! You can have them, so long as you pay for the ten mediocrities she recorded at the same time.” Napster told us a different story. Napster said “You want just the three songs? Fine. Just ‘You Oughta Know’? No problem. Every cover of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ ever made? Help yourself. You’re in charge.”

Bollocks. The recording industry would have been entirely delighted to sell singles; heck, that had been the basic unit of their industry only a couple of decades earlier--plenty of the recording industry execs probably still felt as if the album was a "new" model. What drew people to Napster (and to its various descendents) was getting something of value without paying for it.

And that's where the utopian visions about online education fall apart. Because while the content of lectures can be disseminated essentially free to everyone in the world via the internet that is not what gives someone an undergraduate education. Heck, it was never a very expensive proposition to go to the library and read all the books written by the professors in a given department at Yale or Harvard, even in the days before the internet. But that, while conceivably a worthwhile thing to do, would not be the same thing as getting a degree in that subject from Harvard or Yale. "Content delivery" is the cheap part of any education. The slow, hard, grinding and expensive part is the actual teaching. You know, the reading papers and grading them; the sitting in office hours explaining what your lectures actually meant to students who didn't get it on the first pass; listening to students try to formulate their ideas in a seminar and guiding them towards a fuller and more convincing expression of those ideas etc. etc. There's no way to achieve economies of scale on that stuff simply by putting the process up online.
posted by yoink at 10:15 AM on November 18, 2012 [11 favorites]


as soon as you start getting rid of the Calamazoo University of Akron and small town community colleges you're closing off yet more avenues of employment for people with Master and PhD degrees. If you think things are ugly now with endless part time teaching grinds for anyone who isn't from hard science or engineering, just wait until you eliminate a substantial portion of the extant job market.

Yes, this is one of the most vitally important structural/economic points that Shirky seems to have totally missed — because it has little to do with the quest for the online Next Big Thing and absolutely nothing to do with the nonsensical Napster analogy. Academia as a system of institutions requires the viability of the academic career to be maintained, or else the pipeline of new talent that supplies the research and teaching will dry up. And this is already well on the way to destruction, again for structural reasons that have nothing to do with MOOCs but which bad use of MOOCs to replace faculty will accelerate. This will have direct intellectual consequences: in 10-20 years there will be many fewer good researchers, and those who remain will have far less time in aggregate to do their research. And then only 20-year-old recordings of what were once "the best lectures" will be around to teach undergraduates — and those recorded lecturers will have been the last Americans to make their living as scholars.

Shirky seems to have nothing at all to say about any of this — presumably because he doesn't want to admit that the point of turning to the "best" MOOC lectures over local "artisan" talent, for administrators, will be the replacement of tenure-track faculty positions with part-time adjunct/TA positions whose job is just to lead discussion sections about the online lectures. If we "unbundle" the "median" university until its undergrad side is a book club for recorded lecture consumers, then that will lead straight to the destruction of academia. But that will be about labor politics and the failure of public spending to maintain the public good, not techno-liberation.
posted by RogerB at 10:15 AM on November 18, 2012 [14 favorites]


Udacity et al are not so much like Napster as vinyl records. Once upon a time there were lots of jobbing musicians playing in every bar and lounge and restaurant, and home entertainment could mean people gathering round the piano while auntie X played and cousin Y sang.

But after vinyl people could easily and cheaply listen to the very best musicians anywhere, anytime, where before that had only been possible for the small elite that could get to a concert hall, and even for them, something of an occasion, not a ubiquitous part of life.

Education is not entirely like music though. But I can see teachers working face-to-face getting a role that is more like that of a TA, while the chalk-and-talk material, like textbooks in any given field, comes from a few stellar performers.
posted by philipy at 10:16 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've never quite understood techno-evangelists. Yes, you can now deliver education via the internet. This isn't going to change/disrupt/innovate anything. People aren't passing over Backwoods Alabama Community College to bang down the doors of the Ivy League because of the better knowledge they'll get; they're doing it because the latter has prestige the former will never match. With so many interchangeable mid- and low-tier universities these days, and so many jobs that don't really require a college degree to perform but nevertheless ask for one, I would think that coming up with one more way to deliver education without the coveted stamp of in-group-ness would be somewhat irrelevant. But hey, that's just me.
posted by Noms_Tiem at 10:16 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hah--I just tried to post a comment on Shirky's blog and got the message: "Your comment has been blocked because the blog owner has set their spam filter to not allow comments from users behind proxies. If you are a regular commenter or you feel that your comment should not have been blocked, please contact the blog owner and ask them to modify this setting."

Open access my ass.
posted by LarryC at 10:16 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


MOOCs, as of now, are not competing with universities, they are competing with public libraries. You cannot get a colege degree through MOOCs, or even any college credit

Yes, that's true, but the people who run MOOCs are very smart and cannot be blind to this. They know that up-to-date introductions to every subject on earth are already freely available to anyone with a mobile phone. It must be the plan to eventually build credentialing in. They are not trying to replace the university; they're trying to replace ETS, but on a larger scale. Either they'll charge students for the credential, or, more likely, they'll charge employers for access to their most highly-ranked students, while leaving the courses free in order to attract more students -- which is to say, more product.

I'm not necessarily saying this is bad!
posted by escabeche at 10:20 AM on November 18, 2012


Clay Shirky is the Thomas Friedman of technology and media.
posted by euphorb at 10:22 AM on November 18, 2012 [9 favorites]


Oof. That's pretty harsh. Can you help me understand more what you mean by that comparison?
posted by davidjmcgee at 10:30 AM on November 18, 2012


And library access (online or otherwise): to pretend that all research can be open source given what's available for free is seriously misleading. Especially not when you have legions of students who can't work out when even a Wikipedia entry is somewhat reliable vs being a pack of somewhat convincing half-truths that are worse than nothing. And all of that costs money which has to come from somewhere.

I wish I could re-post and favorite and skywrite this 5000+ times.
posted by blucevalo at 10:31 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think Shirky is less stupid than Friedman, but he has a similar problem of being so blinkered by the dazzling lights of any particular technology that he misses out on the important tangential issues of whatever great thing he's pimping out. A good example of this is in Here Comes Everybody where he uses the story of a wealthy technologically savvy person using their social network to badger a teenaged girl in to giving back a stolen cell phone, and then holds this up as an example of our magnificent techno-utopian future.
posted by codacorolla at 10:37 AM on November 18, 2012


The endstate here is that I end up grading papers written by students who listened to the best lecturer in the world on the topics I teach. They'll still have misunderstood most of it; I've been grading papers written by students who READ the greatest authors in the world, and that hasn't worked. How is listening going to help?

Until someone offers a convincing and evidence-based account of how learning-transfer happens through video lectures, I'll just be over here doing my thing. Every day I get questions that were answered on the first page of the assigned readings. If I put my lectures online, I'll just get questions that were answered in the first five minutes of the podcast, instead. I'm still tempted to do it, but more because then I won't have to repeat myself QUITE as often.

Accreditors tell us that we should have two hours of homework for every hour of lecture. So far as I can tell, learning is something you do to yourself, not something a great lecturer does to you. Even if there's a role for the professor beyond shepherding the learner, giving incentives and encouragement, at best learning is dialogical, a product of constant feedback. MOOCs pick the very worst part of the college experience and mass-produce it.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:44 AM on November 18, 2012 [8 favorites]


Look out Clay Shirky! Here comes everybody, and they'd like to talk to you about your championing of disruptive technology companies that seem to be driving a randian economy.
posted by The River Ivel at 10:44 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


And library access (online or otherwise): to pretend that all research can be open source given what's available for free is seriously misleading. Especially not when you have legions of students who can't work out when even a Wikipedia entry is somewhat reliable vs being a pack of somewhat convincing half-truths that are worse than nothing.

You do you understand that "open source" doesn't mean anarchy, and that a massive and increasing proportion of the billions of lines of code used to get this message from me to you is all open source?
posted by crayz at 10:46 AM on November 18, 2012


You do you understand that "open source" doesn't mean anarchy, and that a massive and increasing proportion of the billions of lines of code used to get this message from me to you is all open source?

That is not the way the term gets used by these services, though.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:51 AM on November 18, 2012


To put it another way, could you read many of the primary sources for a subject I teach online? Yes. Is there anything reliable online that would help you towards any sort of reasonable interpretation of the subject? Not really, though I've discovered a number of very popular online sources that will outright lie to you about the subject and that students believe even when I've pointed out that the primary source material shows they must be lying or presenting some sort of garbled half-truth. Even worse is their confident tone: nothing on these sites about this subject is ever problematic or unknown of unclear even if it occurred 2,000 years ago and our sources are fragmentary, biased and contradicted by physical evidence.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:57 AM on November 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


anotherpanacea: "They'll still have misunderstood most of it; I've been grading papers written by students who READ the greatest authors in the world, and that hasn't worked. How is listening going to help?"

We should examine what "greatest" means then. Probably not "easily understood by undergraduates."
posted by pwnguin at 10:58 AM on November 18, 2012


And library access (online or otherwise): to pretend that all research can be open source given what's available for free is seriously misleading. Especially not when you have legions of students who can't work out when even a Wikipedia entry is somewhat reliable vs being a pack of somewhat convincing half-truths that are worse than nothing.

Yeah, this. Open access materials are great but they represent a tiny fraction of the research materials in many subjects. And truth be told, very few professors are great at teaching how to research in the first place, or providing access to services that can. Again, it's a model that works well for many classes and subjects (languages, programming and other, at least for reading comprehension) but maybe not so well for others. In the future, perhaps more of the research kinks will be worked out through open access channels, but that time just isn't now.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:01 AM on November 18, 2012


You do you understand that "open source" doesn't mean anarchy, and that a massive and increasing proportion of the billions of lines of code used to get this message from me to you is all open source?

A major portion of most fields is getting published in a peer reviewed journal with a high impact factor (a sort-of meaningless number that gets assigned based on algorithmic calculations of who is citing who). This is one way that you demonstrate worth in order to get tenure. Open source journals are a nice idea, but are directly contrary to what many academics are trying to do, which is to publish in a closed journal in an effort to prove their worth.
posted by codacorolla at 11:02 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


MOOC are a really interesting thing happening right now in higher education, though they have been around in various forms for awhile (starting as connectivist courses, the first people I saw talking about them were Siemens, Wiley, and Downes), and online education isn't new. If you don't want massive drop/fail rates, then the instruction part of the online courses (and many times even student services part) needs to be well-planned and well-supported.

I am a little weary about what direction higher education is going in and given the amount of for-profits involved in the changes I'm not sure the goal is to bring down the cost of higher education.

Further articles on the topic:
MOOC debate
Making sense of MOOCs
Courseera strikes deal with Antioch
A MOOC on higher education
posted by ejaned8 at 11:04 AM on November 18, 2012


anotherpanacea: Until someone offers a convincing and evidence-based account of how learning-transfer happens through video lectures, I'll just be over here doing my thing.

How about a non-convincing anecdote instead? Way back when I had a non-zero amount of free time, earlier this year, I took one of the Udacity courses. The one making the rather ambitious claim of teaching people how to write the control software for a self-driving car. I didn't believe it at first, but I actually did learn approximately what was advertised. Maybe only about 60% of the material was new to me, plus the programming language used, but still I learned at least as much as in any single university course. Not that I was ever a particularly good student.

Criticising these courses on the premise that they're simply video lectures and nothing more would be wrong. In my one experience at least, there was as much discussion and help as you could possibly want going on in the forums set up for the purpose; any time of the day or night, pretty well, you could sign in and chat about the problems given, the concepts taught, and related ideas. Various students came up with interesting side projects to go along with the course. Links to interesting research papers were abundant.

escabeche: ... they'll charge employers for access to their most highly-ranked students, while leaving the courses free in order to attract more students -- which is to say, more product.

Yes, that was exactly the plan at Udacity as I recall. Hope it works out for them.
posted by sfenders at 11:07 AM on November 18, 2012


Last year, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, an online course from Stanford taught by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun, attracted 160,000 potential students, of whom 23,000 completed it, a scale that dwarfs anything possible on a physical campus.

This is a 86% drop rate. Online courses at universities have, generally, smaller class sizes and higher drip rates because students, especially beginning students, don't do all that well in them. Taking an online course requires a bunch of skills and aptitudes which are not all that common and take effort to develop. in a standard university setting, introductory courses, support systems, academic planning, learning communities, and a whole host of people are deployed to try and get the students prepared for more "heavy lifting" in later classes, both foundational concepts and developing a self-tailored system for each student to address their particular academic needs.* I do not see a lot about how these MOOCs will address this. I mean, it's reasonable to assume that the vast majority of the enrollees in that course had a fair interest in the topic, and yet 86% of them could not sustain that interest long enough to complete the work. Assuming they had to take a class that was not so compelling, I imagine that the drop rate would be even higher. Now, if it is 100% free, the only thing those 137, 000 students lost was some time. What if they'd paid $10 each?** You would have cleared nearly $1.4 million on the backs of people who had gotten nothing for their cash.

* I periodically wonder if "teaching" is even possible, and I tend to think of myself as "facilitating learning." Each student has to find and develop the particular mix of aptitudes, traits, and skills that they need to progress in their studies (eg time management, focus, owning agency, numeracy, memory)

** And, really, you know the end goal is getting money out of this, whether charging tuition or selling the student's eyes on the page. In either case, if there's value exchanged, the institution is going to have to increase that 14% pass rate by 4-5 times, and that shit is hard!
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:13 AM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


A major portion of most fields is getting published in a peer reviewed journal with a high impact factor (a sort-of meaningless number that gets assigned based on algorithmic calculations of who is citing who). This is one way that you demonstrate worth in order to get tenure. Open source journals are a nice idea, but are directly contrary to what many academics are trying to do, which is to publish in a closed journal in an effort to prove their worth.

This is not really true, and is making the rather common error of mixing up "green" vs "gold" open access. The green model is basically all about the access -- since the writing of the articles is free and the reviewing or the articles is free, it's time we leverage technology to remove the corporate middle that is responsible for the vast majority of the cost of journals. Gold OA, to my mind, is just a way to perpetuate the funding stream, and, indeed, to expand it by roping in as many academics as possible.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:19 AM on November 18, 2012


We should examine what "greatest" means then. Probably not "easily understood by undergraduates."

This is perhaps contentious, but in my view the goal of an education is not to memorize easily-understood nuggets of information, but rather to learn how to tackle difficult things. We shouldn't be aiming to churn out experts in the familiar and easy; we should aim to cultivate professionals who know how to start out confused and then transition to clarity. It's no surprise that those who think of education as a process of passive consumption learn very little at all.
What is “familiarly known” is not properly known, just for the reason that it is “familiar”. When engaged in the process of knowing, it is the commonest form of self-deception, and a deception of other people as well, to assume something to be familiar, and give assent to it on that very account. Knowledge of that sort, with all its talk, never gets from the spot, but has no idea that this is the case. Subject and object, and so on, God, nature, understanding, sensibility, etc., are uncritically presupposed as familiar and something valid, and become fixed points from which to start and to which to return. The process of knowing flits between these secure points, and in consequence goes on merely along the surface. Apprehending and proving consist similarly in seeing whether every one finds what is said corresponding to his idea too, whether it is familiar and seems to him so and so or not.
-GWF Hegel

Criticising these courses on the premise that they're simply video lectures and nothing more would be wrong. In my one experience at least, there was as much discussion and help as you could possibly want going on in the forums set up for the purpose; any time of the day or night, pretty well, you could sign in and chat about the problems given, the concepts taught, and related ideas. Various students came up with interesting side projects to go along with the course. Links to interesting research papers were abundant.

This, I find persuasive. If what a MOOC mostly does is gather a community of (often geographically-dispersed) learners, then I'm all for them. But notice that this isn't what Shirky is defending. On this model, Metafilter University could be a better education than most large research universities. I say yes to that.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:20 AM on November 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


One more thing before I run off for a bit -- I notice that the courses pushed are generally in STEM subjects where grading is relatively easy because you can fairly simply determine that a student has found the right answer and even (although this is more difficult) employed the correct method. In disciplines where grading is more time-consuming (anything that requires coherent essays), the evaluation becomes orders of magnitude more difficult (and, by extension, time- and money-intensive).
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:24 AM on November 18, 2012


... and yet 86% of them could not sustain that interest long enough to complete the work.

Free online courses are always going to have a high drop-out rate just because it's so easy to sign up for them. I signed up for a second one, but quickly dropped out for personal work-related reasons.
posted by sfenders at 11:25 AM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


As a current college student that has experienced all levels of California's public higher education system I can honestly say that the "median" educational experience is much better and more intimate than the "elite" university experience that Shirky talks about (though I have not been to a private university). My own personal experience was that UC ("elite") was incredibly impersonal and more of a degree mill, CC was decent and the best cost:education ratio, and CSU ("median") is where most people should end up (they actually try to educate you). I'm not sure how UVA is, but I'd guess it's probably closer to the elite side of things; and in this case, from his own personal experience, Shirky may be more correct than incorrect. The entire idea of university prestige messes up the educational system in my opinion; you pay for the brand name, not the quality.

It seems like there are a lot of professors/teachers in this thread but I haven't read any student voices. Personally, I've tried listening to iTunes U lectures and honestly they are not nearly as useful as the real deal - the level of personal interaction, research experience, and, honestly life experience that I got from attending a university is unparalleled. I have not taken a full MOOC but I seriously doubt it would give me the same quality of education as a "real" university, simply because you don't have that personal interaction with the professors and other students. Even if degrees didn't exist and I was given a choice between online education and real-life education, I would always choose the second (barring extreme cost requirements).
posted by o310362 at 11:29 AM on November 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Recruiters have outright told me they don't care what it's in, they just need to check that "has degree" box on their form.

I was recruited in my mid-30's by a company that said they badly wanted to hire me away from my then and current employer, but that I'd need to complete my degree to seal the deal. When I asked how four years sitting in classrooms learning things mostly unrelated to my job was more important than my twelve years of actual field experience doing my job, as they knew, better than most people in my field, the guy shrugged and said it was a corporate requirement.

I said then and maintain to this day that I don't want to work for any company that makes decisions so badly or arbitrarily. We parted on good terms and I still do work for them -- which my company bills them for.

Meanwhile they went through a selloff and acquisition cycle and in the course of belt-tightening they let some people off, with first criterion being education level. Their main IT guy (dual degrees in chemistry and physics) told me there was a maintenance guy with 30 years experience who'd made it his mission in life to learn how to rebuild every pump in the plant. And in many cases, due to previous layoffs, he was the only guy left who knew how to service those pumps. So of course they laid him off, and as a result the whole plant nearly went down because hey dumbasses it's a chemical plant and it don't work without pumps.
posted by localroger at 11:30 AM on November 18, 2012 [8 favorites]


When we talk about university education we mean at least three things; we mean access to education materials in the form of lectures, assignments, and feedback from experts, We mean a credential that communicates your ability to learn new things, display a certain amount of conscientiousness, and perform certain tasks, and we mean a structure that actually sets expectations and enables utilizing educational resources in a way that enables individuals to meet the expectations set by the credential. Online education is overwhelmingly concerned with the first of these. That seems a lot like looking for your missing car keys where the street light shines. It is emphasized because it is easiest.

I am willing to bet that a lot of people here have done something like dabble with code academy tutorials for a few hours but never really committed to it and learned something substantial. I am willing to be that a lot of readers have dicked around with the first 4 lessons of Japanese I Rosetta Stone and promptly forgotten how to say the girl is on the horse.

I think it is possible and desirable for technology to profoundly transform education, but it looks like we've defined technology narrowly as a computer technology while mostly ignoring the social and cultural technology necessary to facilitate meaningful change. I think the real trick to effective online education is to combine online lectures, assignments, and, ideally, things like sophisticated computer adaptive textbooks, with something like a life therapist/counselor/life coach/guidance counselor to help keep a student on track with their education goals, and a respected credentialing institution that would provide a quantitative assessment of a student's competency that is at least as useful as a diploma.

Effective support structures and credible and fraud proof credentialing don't have the same amazing ability to scale that online education resources do but without these online education will be either focused on flattering students into getting them to hand over money for meaningless credentials or focused on the relatively rare student who is willing and able to curate their entire education for the sake of learning for its own sake.
posted by I Foody at 11:35 AM on November 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


Shirky is also missing yet another tertiary bit of context: college is fun, and going to college is an experience (for better or for worse) that allows you to communicate in the cultural language of the middle class. This idea of college-as-amusement park tends to lead to a lot of really bad stuff (focusing heavily on athletics, spending money and donations on new undergrad leisure facilities, all at the expense of research, the binge drinking that marks so much of the American college experience), but it's there none-the-less, and I'm sure if you interviewed a sample of college students it would be a major factor in their decision to pursue higher education.

Aside from the bad parts there are also good parts. The friends you make in college tend to be the social network that will help you to get jobs, meet spouses, and expand your intellectual horizons. Getting kids out of nowhere towns and putting them in to a diverse population that challenges their preconceptions on life is a pretty useful thing for society as a whole. The ability to work with professionals in the field, make contacts through your professors, and have a stable of people who will write letters of recommendation for you is ABSOLUTELY necessary to distinguish yourself from the teeming mass of other people looking for jobs.

How does a MOOC replicate any of that? In an idealistic sense there's the concept of an academic community, where you put a bunch of scholarly people together and see what they can create. In a more realpolitik sense, you're not doing much of anything without the ability to network, and college gives you the starting point for that network. I think it's a pretty shitty reality, but it's a reality none-the-less.
posted by codacorolla at 11:57 AM on November 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


The FACT is that American Colleges, Universities, and Community Colleges are weighed down by massive administrative infrastructure that is completely unresponsive to cost. This sector is also "protected" by archaic 'Accrediting' institutions that competely overreach in favor of the status quo. Imagine UC insisting that a community college "prove" that the use of an open textbook or open courseware available from it's online program enables a student to "learn" as well and to the same standard as one imagines it happens at UC. Absurd.

There are, as we speak, ridiculous "studies" like this going on all over the place, because college administrators are too cowardly to slash fat, and too many college instructors don't give a damn about how much textbooks cost. That said, administrators have almost gutted the undergraduate teaching infrastructure, compared to what it used to be. Most new hires are underpaid "adjuncts" who struggle to survive. The system is broken and needs major fixing. Maybe MOOC's are not the answer, but the more disruption in this space, the better.

Whether you like Shirkey, or not, he pushes the envelope - something that most college and universities (and their administrative overlords) don't have a clue about.
posted by Vibrissae at 12:05 PM on November 18, 2012


One take on this is that the US just shouldn't have a big basic research apparatus in these areas; we haven't always, and no physical or social law says we have to forever.
posted by escabeche


On this, I'll beg to differ. Research is fundamental to the US continuing to grow the economy. I work for a privately held company which prides its self on its commitment to research; however, when the great recession hit in 2008, one of the big areas other companies needed to stifle in order to balance their books was research. We were relatively immune to that, because our profit margin wasn't held hostage by a board or shareholders hell bent on extracting out as much wealth as possible. As such, research continued.

The argument that then goes, is that research is for startups - something that personally is a great idea on paper, but works out horribly in practice. There is far less review and rigor to something that needs to be put to market in an effort keep the company afloat.

Likewise, privatizing research - well - what happens there is you also inscentivize the wrong type or research, or you bias your results to create a favorable result for your sponsor. Either way, every bit of research has to be examined to see if it succumbs to these errors.

Also, I'm ignoring the job killing aspects that defunding general research would bring on, but I'm sure that Republicans would want to make sure that we didn't kill any jobs, so they would be - defacto - against this.
posted by Nanukthedog at 12:16 PM on November 18, 2012


sfenders : Free online courses are always going to have a high drop-out rate just because it's so easy to sign up for them. I signed up for a second one, but quickly dropped out for personal work-related reasons.

Well, yes. So all you lost was some time. Now, imagine that they want $10. That is way cheap for course tuition, so you might try anyway and lose the $10. This particular model of "delivering" "education" is only going to grow if someone can get money out of it, after all....

Vibrissae: The FACT is that American Colleges, Universities, and Community Colleges are weighed down by massive administrative infrastructure that is completely unresponsive to cost. This sector is also "protected" by archaic 'Accrediting' institutions that competely overreach in favor of the status quo.

Hmmm. Well, colleges and universities have large infrastructures, that's true. Part of the reason, however, is that there is a lot to be done. Students need counseling. There are state and federal mandates that must be met (usually passed by legislators who do not consider the cost or, at the least, do not attach any funding to support their mandate). The larger the institution, the more people are needed to manage the grounds and the building and manage the groundskeepers and housekeepers. There are security requirements. There are plenty of laws about how student information must be handled, and that requires people to do the handling. As much as I would like a greater % of the payroll to go to faculty, it's not like administrators are unnecessary, even in the numbers that we decry. And, sadly, the institution has the choice to try and pay top salaries or get stuck in the position of being a training ground, engaging in not-inexpensive searches only to have the best candidates leave after 2-4 years for better paying jobs elsewhere.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:34 PM on November 18, 2012


MOOCs are great for technical subjects, and I am sure they will thrive in that environment. The model seems very efficient for getting people trained in what you want them trained in, more so than the Bachelors of Science in Something method.
posted by zscore at 12:49 PM on November 18, 2012


How does a MOOC replicate any of that? In an idealistic sense there's the concept of an academic community, where you put a bunch of scholarly people together and see what they can create. In a more realpolitik sense, you're not doing much of anything without the ability to network, and college gives you the starting point for that network. I think it's a pretty shitty reality, but it's a reality none-the-less.

They don't. But they also don't cost $250,000 per year.

So it sort of balances out, is his point.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:05 PM on November 18, 2012


MOOCs are great for technical subjects, and I am sure they will thrive in that environment. The model seems very efficient for getting people trained in what you want them trained in, more so than the Bachelors of Science in Something method.

I dunno, something every undergraduate degree is good for (well, if the student is at all self-aware) is that it helps students to learn how how they learn. The students who learn this the best become the best learners. So I am not sure a MOOC is good for that.

Where they may be very good, assuming the grandiose visions of the proponents can be reigned in to reality, is short programs in certifications. So you already have an MS in, say, Chemical Engineering. You could take a 3-course cycle in Green Production process, maybe, or Pharmaceutical-specific procedures, building, in a focused way, on what you already know and have learned how to learn.

One of my worries is that upper-level administrators and/or legislators will read things like this and get ideas. Because it's way easier to imagine that The Internet Will Shower Us with Money by Making Everything Free (or Nearly So) than deal with the reality that the funding mechanisms for higher education are, at best, wildly out of alignment and that serious steps need to be taken. Steps that will require governments to restore funding (a process that gets ever more expensive as infrastructure erodes), meaning higher tax burdens.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:41 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


GenjiandProust: I mean, it's reasonable to assume that the vast majority of the enrollees in that course [Introduction to Artificial Intelligence taught by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun] had a fair interest in the topic, and yet 86% of them could not sustain that interest long enough to complete the work

I can only speak from my personal experience, but I think the fact that the course was free and non-credit was a contributing factor to the high drop rate. I signed up for it, but it was always something interesting that I could do in my spare time, not something I felt any obligation to complete (though I did complete it). I'd often ignore it in favor of other things, and catch up later. Basically, I though of it more like a TV show than a traditional university course. I imagine I would have had a different attitude if it could have given me something that I needed.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 2:33 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


related TLP multi-parter

...Imagine a large corporate machine mobilized to get you to buy something you don't need at a tremendously inflated cost, complete with advertising, marketing, and branding that says you're not hip if you don't have one, but when you get one you discover it's of poor quality and obsolete in ten months. That's a BA....
posted by j_curiouser at 2:51 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


GenjiandProust: Where they may be very good, assuming the grandiose visions of the proponents can be reigned in to reality, is short programs in certifications. So you already have an MS in, say, Chemical Engineering. You could take a 3-course cycle in Green Production process, maybe, or Pharmaceutical-specific procedures, building, in a focused way, on what you already know and have learned how to learn.

It's worth noting that's not a new idea. Professional continuing education courses have been offered online for years. Though, I think they've been limited to areas with professional licensing bodies.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 2:53 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


MOOCs are great for technical subjects, and I am sure they will thrive in that environment. The model seems very efficient for getting people trained in what you want them trained in, more so than the Bachelors of Science in Something method.

That might well be true for some very narrow technical positions in some industries, I don't know. But my job could probably be described as "technical," and the same for everyone I work with, and the positions I hire for. All of them require not just a technical skillset (which probably could be taught in big online classes, at least for highly motivated students and with some caveats), but a whole host of "softer" skills like grant- and report-writing, presentations, things like that.

I'm not going to say that a traditional college and grad-school experience is the only way to get that range of skills (and certainly a lot of people graduate without actually acquiring much in the way of skills of any kind), but I'd want to see some evidence that this new approach works as well or better in generating people with those abilities before telling someone that this is a great approach to getting the skills needed for a job.
posted by Forktine at 3:06 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I tried taking online classes through an accredited university a few years ago (btw, freaking expensive experiment that was). I learned nothing. Nothing. Complete waste of money and time. What did I do? Give up for a year, and then work out going back to school full-time, in person.

Because I got sick of waiting tables.
posted by DoubleLune at 3:53 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Either they'll charge students for the credential, or, more likely, they'll charge employers for access to their most highly-ranked students, while leaving the courses free in order to attract more students --which is to say, more product.

This strikes me as an interesting gamble. Sure, there are some employers who need large quantities of semi-qualified bodies to fill not exactly ideal job situations...something like process engineering at Intel. These types of employers might find this useful. For the large majority of job opportunities, however, there a generally a multitude of qualified applicants. I could see this business model failing if companies decline to pay for access since they already get plenty of resumes and cvs.
posted by Existential Dread at 4:14 PM on November 18, 2012


Whoever ends up paying, I somehow doubt it will be employers.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 4:42 PM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Whoever ends up paying, I somehow doubt it will be employers.

In a lot of cases, it is the employers who are having to create or subsidize training programs, actually. This is just the latest of a gazillion articles about it that I've seen; fascinatingly (or horrifyingly), this is paralleling all the poor students racking up crazy debt.

Right now we have a system that works very, very well at the top end, but incredibly inefficiently everywhere below that; those inefficiencies are being heavily borne by individual students and companies, and in the end we all lose.
posted by Forktine at 7:39 PM on November 18, 2012


I tried taking online classes through an accredited university a few years ago (btw, freaking expensive experiment that was). I learned nothing. Nothing. Complete waste of money and time.

I took online classes through an accredited university from early 2008 through August of this year. I walked away with a master's degree and I absolutely believe I learned as much as I would have if I'd been on campus taking the same classes. I suspect this is one of those "YMMV" situations you hear tell about.
posted by town of cats at 10:53 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


anotherpanacea: "This is perhaps contentious, but in my view the goal of an education is not to memorize easily-understood nuggets of information, but rather to learn how to tackle difficult things. We shouldn't be aiming to churn out experts in the familiar and easy; we should aim to cultivate professionals who know how to start out confused and then transition to clarity."

My students regularly tackle difficult and unfamiliar engineering problems, but the impression I get from the humanities is that language used makes the concepts more difficult than necessary. Some of this is just a good old case of knowing your audience; writing for undergraduate learning is different than your professorial peers. This is why we have both textbooks and peer reviewed journals. But fundamentally, I think I misinterpreted your "greatest authors in the world" comment as "greatest writers" rather than "greatest thinkers."
posted by pwnguin at 11:41 PM on November 18, 2012


the impression I get from the humanities is that language used makes the concepts more difficult than necessary.

There is certainly some of this in the humanities, but I think it's hard to judge the work of another department.

People have been reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason for a while now. There are a few good commentaries that are easier to read than the original text while maintaining basic fidelity. But we still make our students slog through the original (though perforce translated) text.

Even engineering students will end up learning a lot of things they'll never need in their eventual jobs. Your students will do hundreds (if not thousands) of problems that are only loosely based on real-world situations, with many of the most important details abstracted away for the sake of learning a fundamental concept.

Let's say half of all the work we make our students do is unnecessary: the question is, which half?

Analysis of the Collegiate Learning Assessment suggests that the only classes that guarantee an increase in “critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and written communication” are classes that have at least forty pages of weekly reading, twenty pages of writing per semester, and high expectations from the professor. Relevance isn't relevant.

My undergraduate degree had almost no relevance to the job I took out of college, but within weeks I was able to get up to speed in that new job while the career law enforcement-types who surrounded me still struggled and had to ask for help.

Some of this is just a good old case of knowing your audience; writing for undergraduate learning is different than your professorial peers.

You really think I make my undergraduates read my journal articles? No wonder you think the humanities are doing it wrong.

I assign textbooks sometimes. They're literally books of texts, selected and excerpted like pre-chewed pablum. Bah. Usually the only reason to prefer them is price, but the publishers do everything in their power to extract maximum value from the students with outrageously-priced textbooks.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:46 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


zscore: MOOCs are great for technical subjects, and I am sure they will thrive in that environment. The model seems very efficient for getting people trained in what you want them trained in, more so than the Bachelors of Science in Something method.

No, they're not. You know what you can't do in a MOOC? A lab. Any kind of technical education must progress to the stage of doing labs. Maybe you could do computer labs over the internet, but not any kind of science or technical lab - you need specialized equipment for that.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:39 AM on November 19, 2012


We’re probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did

Reading the comments here, this prediction is likely to come true I guess.

I don't know what's going to happen, but I suspect it could be transformative. My sense of that is based on doing couple of these courses to see how they panned out. My experiences, outlined previously, were basically very positive and much better than I'd have expected.

If I was in the guessing business, I would guess the most interesting things might happen well away from the traditional college demographic though. There's a very wide range of people doing these courses, and so far the majority have a degree already, and a large fraction have a higher degree.
posted by philipy at 3:10 PM on November 19, 2012


Gates Foundation funds online university open access - $1m to support a community college in Boston with working out how to combine using edX materials alongside its normal teaching methods.
posted by philipy at 12:16 PM on November 20, 2012


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