Why Should We Preserve the Higher Education System?

Maria Bustillos has a thoughtful article in the Awl that uses an exchange between Clay Shirky and Aaron Bady as a jumping off point for discussing the broader societal implications of MOOCs. More than anything I’ve read, Bustillos’ piece illuminates the key areas where critics and proponents of radical higher education reform have fundamentally different visions of our social system.

The first area involves Shirky’s view (and my own) that technological change has created an enormous inefficiency in the structure of our higher education institutions. Universities were built around the fact that students had to be in the physical presence of professors in order to absorb information and develop their thoughts. Now that this is no longer the case, we should be working to spread those opportunities far and wide. Or as Shirky writes:

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.

I think the case for radical change goes beyond these arguments about democratization. Today’s universities are structured around a function — lectures — that is no longer necessary. If we ignore the need for physical classrooms and re-design universities around other important functions (professor-student meetings, cultural events, clubs and activities, leadership opportunities), we can build institutions that are more effective at serving those functions. Imagine there’s a travel agency that does two things — book your flight and prepare you for culture shock through mock social interactions. Then the internet comes along and allows you to book your flight online. Won’t the travel agency better serve its customers by abandoning the flight booking and focusing on the other service it offers?

What’s striking is that Bady essentially acknowledges the premise that universities were built around a prerequisite that’s no longer relevant, but he reaches a different conclusion. He believes that the major elements of a university can never be changed because it will put the entire system at risk.

Academic culture is a huge and diverse ecosystem. People who come along with grand plans about how everything is going to be transformed so often don’t have even a very shallow understanding of how that ecosystem works: You have all these Silicon Valley venture capitalists who are going to blow everything up and transform it; what you’re really talking about doing is killing all the green plants in the ecosystem and then expecting the deer to have something to eat; no; the deer are going to die. There’s this basic economic argument for the cheapness of online education that is always about requiring less labor; paying people less, replacing people with technology. And at the end of the day, what you’re going to have is a very stagnant intellectual culture.

Who writes the textbooks? Who writes the lectures? You tape the [MOOC] lecture once, but then what happens next year? You just keep recycling the same materials over and over again? It’s like a really bad ecological management system; you think you can remove something that is really crucial to the ecosystem, and nothing else will change?

Bady is essentially laying out a blanket attack on creative destruction, and I see no way of describing it as anything other unreasonable anti-change position. Would a carbon tax disrupt the ecosystem of energy prices, resource extraction, and household and business budgets? Of course. But that doesn’t mean it won’t benefit society in the long run. With every change there will be disruption and there will be losers. But change is only a bad idea if that disruption will be so great the long term costs outweigh the benefits. Bady doesn’t make that case convincingly. All he does is say there will be some vague unknowable cost.

Bady then goes on to unintentionally undermine his case when asked he’s asked why the classroom is so important:

I asked Aaron Bady: What happens in a real classroom that can’t happen in a MOOC?

As a student, when I was at Ohio State I took a class with Jennifer Cognard-Black, a graduate student. I had been reading George Orwell’s letters. I just went to her office hours and I was like, I’ve got these letters, aren’t they cool? And I had nothing to say! I was really just thrashing around, [it was] incoherent excitement. And she said, “So, what are you interested in, which part of it?” I don’t even remember what we said. It wasn’t that this was an intellectually transformative experience; it was that I was taken seriously as a thinker, and it validated the entire idea of being excited about George Orwell’s letters. It sounds like a small thing, but it wasn’t; it was huge.

When given the chance to explain why the classroom is so important Bady relates something that happend outside of the classroom! Does he know there’s nothing about MOOCs that prevents the kind of mentorship he values? Bady does go on to mention things that happened in class, but he seems to believe that because the standard college classroom experience has been held up as the pinnacle of learning for the last century then by definition it must be the pinnacle of learning. Bady certainly doesn’t believe that meaningful interaction between a group of students or between students and a professor can happen in a radically different higher education system. Even if Bady is right about the detrimental disruption caused by MOOCs — that they shake up the ecosystem so much that office hours as we know them cease to exist — if universities are providing valuable services society will find a way to ensure they are still provided. Furthermore, these new systems will provide them more effectively than before because they won’t be hemmed in by the need to have students in a physical classroom. But rather than face the uncertainty posed by creative destruction, Bady would preserve the current system, one in which an unconscionable number of low-income youth can’t get the education or credentials they need to move up in society.

The second difference in how Jarvis and Bady see the world is more nuanced, and it essentially comes down to a disagreement between idealism and realism. Bady is the idealist in the room. In his mind the growth of MOOCs renders a large group of students second class citizens and closes the door on their chance to get an elite education on a college campus.

Why have we stopped aspiring to provide the real thing for everyone? If we begin from the distinction between “elite” and “non-elite” institutions, it becomes easy to take for granted that “non-elite students” receiving cheap education is something other than giving up. It is important to note that when online education boosters talk about “access,” they explicitly do not mean access to “education of the best sort”; they mean that because an institution like Udacity provides teaching for free, you can’t complain about its mediocrity. It’s not an elite institution, and it’s not for elite students. It just needs to be cheap. […]

If you start by not letting education be anything more than what it’s possible to deliver via YouTube—and MOOCs are a little more complicated than that, but essentially all the arguments for the cheapness of MOOCs are based on that model, that it’s something you can digitize and then distribute very cheaply—then if that’s all you want, if you’re satisfied with that, then yeah, MOOCs are great, because they’re cheap. But you’ve already given up on almost everything that the entire academic enterprise has been creating for centuries.

I have real problem with this, particularly the question of “Why have we stopped aspiring to provide the real thing for everyone?” The fact is, in our current reality most young people aren’t even second class citizens. They’re third-class citizens. The college graduation rate among those receiving Pell Grants may be as low as 40%. This doesn’t even take into account the enormous swath of low-income high school graduates who don’t attempt to go to college because of the enormous financial commitment, nor does it take into account those who don’t even graduate high school because they don’t have the prospect of college to motivate them. Even among students who make it onto an elite campus, many simply go to lectures, get Bs, and collect their college diploma without the life changing experience that comes from repeated conversations with professors.

Bady can pretend that he’s fighting to preserve the potential of a top-notch education for all students, but that’s a delusion. He’s fighting to preserve one type of elite education for the most well-off students. Reiterating that such an education is still open to anybody doesn’t change the fact that from a practical standpoint it’s not. Without radical change to our entire K-16 education system — and the only thing Bady proposes is the unfeasible and ineffective call for “more funding” — “aspiring to provide the real thing” is a meaningless pipe dream. It’s an idealized version of higher education that doesn’t mesh with reality, and every second spent thinking about it is a second not spent actually fighting to bring opportunity to the students Bady is afraid MOOCs will freeze out. Vigorous hand waving about reduced expectations and lower standards doesn’t change that.

The place where Bady makes the most sense is his argument that Shirky’s paean to MOOCs lacks evidence:

While Shirky can see the future revolutionizing in front of us, he is thinking like a venture capitalist when he does, betting on optimism because he can afford to lose. He doesn’t know that he’s right; he just knows that he might not be wrong. And so, like all such educational futurologists, Shirky’s case for MOOCs is all essentially defensive: he argues against the arguments against MOOCs, taking shelter in the possibility of what isn’t, yet, but which may someday be.

This may be a matter of opinion, but I think we give the status quo in higher education a pass, as if a system the subjugates the majority of low-income people to the bottom rung of society is proven to be effective. By what measure has our higher education passed the burden of proof? That society has not fallen apart? That the upper crust continues to earn B.A.s and Ph.Ds year after year? Bady should not conflate problems with various MOOCs with a reason to preserve an inequitable system. Despite Bady’s concern trolling, before MOOCs and other higher education reforms gain a large foothold they will be subject to the scrutiny needed to ensure they don’t make things worse. For the last 15 years we’ve been hearing that radical untested changes will destroy the K-12 education system. Instead we’ve had slow but steady change and marginal but steady improvement in achievement. Changes to the higher education system will likely proceed at the same pace.

It’s worth mentioning that as somebody in academia, and specifically in the humanities, it’s in Bady’s best interest to look the other way when it comes to the exclusive nature of an elite campus. It’s human psychology. His contribution to society is changing the lives of young people through scholarship and mentorship, and like anybody else in the world, he’s going to be biased toward believing the types of contributions he makes are more widely applicable, more widespread, and more important than they actually are. None of this is to say that Bady’s arguments are driven by conscious self-interest, but his views seem to arise from a close-mindedness shaped by his life experiences and current position. Bady acknowledges that both he and Shirky have something at stake in the matter, but he doesn’t acknowledge the underlying, unconscious, and biased worldview that forms their opinions. The end result is Bady’s belief that any higher education system should push everybody toward having his idealized campus experience.

Unfortunately, not only is that idealism out of place place in a society still rife with poverty and inequality, it smacks of elitist close-mindedness – the idea being that the only way for students to reach the liberal arts ideal of a broad, informed, and open minded conception of world issues is through the traditional campus life. That view may been defensible 30 years ago, but in 2013 every person has a mountain of resources at their fingertips. The decreasing financial commitment that could result from educational technologies would give students the opportunity to get their feet wet in a wider range of areas than they could on a campus. Online communities allow for discussions and idea sharing with people across the world. Young people not enrolled in college can email professors and show up at their office hours. The college campus’ monopoly on intellectual stimulation is in tatters, and we should be working on better ways to aggregate and disseminate the knowledge that’s now widely available. The costs of fighting these large scale changes are immense because although the 10 person Shakespeare class is no longer as integral as it once was, a college degree is more integral than ever. Shirky writes:

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.

Ultimately, my disagreement with Bady comes down to the fact that his belief in the fragility of the campus ecosystem leads him to equate attacks on the university classroom with attacks on other things that enhance positive youth development. But in all likelihood the unbundling of educational components from these other developmental experiences will not destroy our higher education system, it will give it more room to expand. By building new institutions that aren’t dedicated to the classroom lecture, we could make it easier for young people to experience collaboration and mentorship. Bady’s idealism is a caricature of the ivory tower, and he should be more open-minded about rebuilding the ecosystem he is so adamant about protecting.

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