Won’t Get Fooled Again

One of the strangest facts of U.S. academic culture is that it seems to have no sense of its own immediate or long-term history. As the cliché goes, those that are unaware of history are doomed to repeat it, first as tragedy, then as farce. Too much of the current debate over online education in general and MOOC’s in particular, seems to be skipping the tragedy and going right for the farce. The problem is the obsessive concern with markets.

Education, in the market view, is a commodity, students are consumers, the product has become too expensive (that is why there is so much debt) and we can use the internet to fix it. This model has never worked in higher education any more than in any other public service. Just the opposite; as in the economy at large, the market model is now being called on to fix the mess it created. The market model has a big problem: education cannot be fully measured.

The big problem is measurement and accountability: How do you prove that these far-flung students are actually learning anything of value? William G. Bowen, founder of a nonprofit that studies high tech in higher education, sounded a cautionary note when he told the New York Times earlier this year, ”There’s great promise here, great potential, but we need more careful research, and there has not been sufficient attention to that.”

The $7,000 Computer Science Degree — and the Future of Higher Education” Martha C. White

This isn’t really a problem created by online education; it has always been the dilemma of education in a capitalist economy. If you cannot measure success (quality, consumer experiences, etc.) you cannot price the product. Online education, though, seems to offer administrators a chance to start over from scratch and solve the problem once and for all. It sounds great– we’ll finally know the value of an education– but it’s a Trojan horse.

What do you have to do to achieve this goal of a cheap and measurable (commodity) education? Walmart has shown the way. The first thing you do is that you drive down labor costs. Or, rather, you drive down labor costs at the bottom of the hierarchy. At the top (Deans and Provosts and up) it turns out that you have to pay well or you won’t be competitive. The “education product” you deliver is then trimmed down to the “measurable.”

“Computer science problems have a right or wrong answer and lend themselves to objective, rather than subjective, assessment and evaluation,” the program’s FAQ section explains.” The result? “We believe this program can establish corporate acceptance of high-quality and 100 percent online degrees as being on par with degrees received in traditional on-campus setting.” It’s an education system that is far more corporate than democratic.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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