Or, Stop Jawing About Clay Shirky’s Unicorn Already
I left video game research because it was full of a lot of hot air and handwaving. Except for Ian Bogost, Trebor Schulz, Kurt Squire, and a couple of others who I felt were genuinely moving the field forward in smart ways, the field when I left it in 2006 was using crude stone tools. Many researchers were asking simplistic questions*, using whatever research methods came to hand regardless of the questions being asked, and setting up straw men like the ludology vs. narratology debate to knock them down. The research side was less exciting than the actual development side, where interesting ideas were being tried out and improved upon.**
As with so many technological developments, the debate over MOOCs threatens to go the same way, dominated by simplistic is-this-good-or-bad arguments of the sort we’ve heard throughout history about comic books, video games, the Internet, movies, television, radio, and if you go far back enough, the blackboard in schools, written documents for legal purposes (see Clanchy’s work on the French invading England) and the alphabet, for crying out loud (Socrates complained that students would never remember anything anymore if they used written language).
The debate between Clay Shirky, Aaron Bady, and others about MOOCs has its moments where it smooths precariously out towards this simplicity. Shirky does not have a background in education, though he is serving as a professor. So if he has not done too much grappling with the purposes of education, or its outcomes, or what best practices look like in teaching and learning, perhaps we can forgive him. Bady doesn’t have an education background either, but he has taken an honest stab at dissecting the history of education as it relates to MOOCs.
Between the two of them, though, they didn’t reckon with a few essential functions of higher education. I see those gaps as the reason why their discussion is emptier than it should be. I’m new to the MOOC debate, so I may be missing other people saying these things elsewhere, but for my own purposes if not for anyone else’s I wanted to take a stab at addressing what’s missing.
One thing I haven’t seen considered is the historical relationship of higher education to the professions, and how the development of that relationship shaped universities as we know them today. Another is the certification function of higher education. (I’m sure there’s not a university administrator anywhere who is pondering MOOCs who has not thought of the latter, which is why it’s puzzling that it hasn’t come up much between Shirky and Bady.) More generally, the elephant in the room is assessment, as people have begun to point out. Finally, there’s a hole in Shirky’s offhand claim that alternatives to higher education have not been tried, and as a graduate of an alternative college, I want to briefly address that.
What we call “professional” work today was not always called that. Originally, in Western society, only three callings were labelled “professions:” law, religion, and medicine. Entry to these fields was controlled by colleges and universities, which, at the time, were de facto elite institutions; access to them was difficult to attain for most members of society.
It was in the 1800s through the early 1900s that we began to see other work specializing. Practitioners asserted that their fields also required the kind of training — and more importantly, limited access — that the three original professions commanded. This was a time of great sorting-out. Dentistry, veterinary medicine, engineering, and education, among others, became fields where one needed a degree to enter, that were now distinct from medicine and other scholarly fields. Journalism, advertising, nursing, and accounting were late to define themselves as needing degrees and professional associations, beginning to establish themselves in the early 1900s, but today they remain as degree programs in schools. This despite the fact that journalism, for one, initially only required no more than a high school diploma, if that, to become a cub reporter.
A number of other fields also made unsuccessful bids, in the 1800s, for their knowledge to be taught at the university level. Plumbing was one. To make their case, plumbers pointed to the fact that sanitation and the construction of aqueducts were cornerstones of modern civilization. Other fields’ practitioners fought to be included in larger fields, or to maintain their specialized knowledge in the face of increased monopoly by other professions. Midwives, for one, fought and lost a long battle against doctors’ insistence that their “scientific” knowledge was better for women and babies in the 1800s. I remember attending a fascinating talk at Caltech at one point about mesmerists, who agitated to be included in psychology; in the end, hypnotists won, they lost, and today most people don’t even know what mesmerism is.***
Professions stay what they are by maintaining a distinct, specialized field of knowledge and work. They control access to this field. This is where universities come in: they select students to participate in training which leads to a degree certifying they’re competent professionals, at some level; advertising students can pretty much be considered professionals in the field of advertising with a bachelor’s degree, while pre-med or pre-law students have a number of other certifications to gather before they can be trusted as full-fledged professionals.
So yes, this is part of the assessment problem: Part of what colleges and universities do is assess and certify students as competent professionals. I hear no plans from MOOC proponents for doing that yet. And of course, there are whole other systems of assessment which are supposedly the reasons why schools are worthy of our trust: the college where I work now is under review this year by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, a process through which we will be held to standards developed by our peers at other schools.
It would take some sort of votes of confidence from the professional world to ensure that fully MOOC-based education had a permanent, meaningful place in preparing people for the world beyond school. Even outside of professions, in less-formally-defined fields of office work, it seems unlikely that MOOC offerings will be considered acceptable training on their own anytime soon. Corporate culture will need to change to accept MOOC students, starting with the weird, arcane world of human resources departments. They’ll need to see that the product being put out (yes, I mean “educated” students, and “product” would not be my term, but theirs) is competent to perform in an office on a day-to-day basis. Will MOOC students outperform your average high school student on basic task management? Why and how? Where’s the added value required to validate the additional salary a college-educated person should command? What kind of MOOC degree will they be looking for — liberal arts? Accounting? Math?
Now, hold on a minute there — why are we even giving traditional-field names to the degrees a MOOC would issue, if MOOCs are supposed to break down the traditional shape of education? Or did we not mean for this to be a full-on revolution? Are we only expecting MOOCs to become part of the offerings of universities? If that’s the case, then universities (and their accrediting bodies) will need to decide what a good-quality MOOC consists of.
And from what I’m getting out of the Shirky/Bady debate and the Awl summary of it, the MOOC hype has little to no vision for how the actual content and shape of education ought to change to serve students, professions, employers, or democratic citizens better than what’s currently on offer. I’ve been unexcited by what’s on offer since I first heard of Khan.**** It’s simply traditional lecture-based teaching grafted onto something the size of World of Warcraft. And I’m not buying that your cat is a genetically viable unicorn just because you stuck a horn on its head, Clay Shirky. Stop waving your hands and screaming “I HAVE A UNICORN, HERE!”
(I’m sorry — the footnotes are leaking. That was a brief outburst from the part of me that’s been studying and engaging with the uses and shapes of education since my last year of high school. I think I meant to keep that part on a leash. Back to the more well-mannered social-researcher take on this:)
When Shirky says that institutions are invested in preserving themselves as they currently stand, yes, obviously, he’s pretty clearly right. That’s been reflected in the his debate and the wrap-up of it over at the Awl in the discussion of “elite” universities. Elite universities were historically the first-to-market in preparing doctors, lawyers, and clergy; they are sources of power and cachet. As Manuel Castells tells us, historical sources of power tend to carry their power and capital with them into subsequent generations. But it’s not just that universities want to maintain their own institutional integrity; their elite status and institutional integrity are tied to the maintenance of professions’ integrity, and to the elite networks of their alumns. Alumns attend their alumni clubs, donate to support their alma maters (and it’s matched by their corporate employers, who get brownie points for the donations), get buildings named after them, send their own children to be considered as legacy admissions candidates. Universities expect faculty to participate in professional organizations in order to serve students, and pay attention to the hiring rates for different professional degrees in order to determine what degrees to offer and how many students to accept to them.
It is worth teasing out what we mean when we say “elite” schools will continue to be available to “elite” populations. We’re not just talking about two groups, there. We’re talking about a network of universities, professional associations, faculty, and other professionals invested in maintaining each other. And no, not one of those institutions wants to change, or wants the other to change, in a way that would take away from their power. For Shirky to level the charge of intransigence only at universities is simplistic (and doesn’t indicate to me that Shirky genuinely wants to see institutions change*****). Changing universities alone will likely have little effect on this entire institutional network, and that’s what makes me feel that, while online education as a general concept clearly won’t go away, MOOC-shaped online education is just another of the numerous fads I’ve seen since I started researching technology in education. ******
Which brings me back to my digression about how educationally unexciting many existing MOOC models on offer are, and also back to video games. The hype being lavished on MOOCs has also in recent years been lavished on video games for educational purposes. Despite my frustration with the research on gaming, my professional******* evaluation of educational technology still ranks the potential of games over the potential of MOOC content if what you’re talking about is Khan videos. Expert systems which adapt to students’ pace, the ability to build and test hypotheses in game worlds, the rich systems modeling games can offer — all of these match with good pedagogy for robust, real-world-applicable learning.
To be quite honest, I’ve never seen why we should throw any baby out with the bathwater when it comes to educational technology. The technology should match the
What we should not do is fetishize one technology or another simply because it is new, or because we can imagine beautiful, wildly different futures arising from it. As a society, we keep making that same mistake over and over. We have been since at least ancient Greece. I’m among the first to say I wish any given educational system — any and all of them — could be nuked right to the ground and we could just start over. But that’s me speaking in frustration. Whatever reality is currently slouching towards Bethlehem to be born will not be so obvious; like the circumstances of the rise of the printing press, it will involve more than one technology, take a really long time, and will require a great deal of support and lobbying from people and institutions that are not schools at all.********
One more note about other options, which I believe I promised:
From his vantage as a Yale-educated NYU professor, Shirky claims that alternatives to stuffy traditional education have not been tried on a large scale. This is perhaps because those of us from alternative colleges have not spoken up for ourselves, or organized to make a case for the experimental work we have been doing since at least the 1920s. Certainly there are not too many examples of alternative education at the scale of a university rather than a college, but some programs exist within universities and university systems — Evergreen, in Washington; Santa Cruz, in California; Johnston at the University of Redlands; Eugene Lang; and a handful of places with the name “New School” or “New College.” And that’s not to mention smaller schools like Goddard, Bennington, Bard, Antioch, and St. John’s, which have been around for close to a century now. Here — check out this list compiled by the Alternative Education Resource Organization.
The more time I spend at traditional schools, the more I’m aware how much my alma mater and her sisters need to get out and talk to people more. (Not just in the US, either; a conversation I had with some British professors a year or so ago opened my eyes to how differently “alternative education” might be interpreted in a context where there is less emphasis on encouraging students to do what their hearts desire, and more on educating for sustainable communities.) It’s not just that we need to convince people that alternative education models are valuable (though that’s still an uphill battle). We’ve actually been experimenting for decades, and may have insight to offer into how (and how not) to scale valuable but cost-intensive methods like inquiry-driven learning, portfolio-based assessment, and legitimate peripheral participation.*********
** Albeit often with boobs attached. And I’m glad I didn’t stick around to get infuriated by gamification and monetization; Bogost took the bullet for the rest of us and tells that story.
******* ! (In other news, I am blatantly biting Nicola McEldowney’s footnoting style, and rocking it the exact same way.)
******** Or, y’know, revolution or societal collapse, bodies everywhere, dogs and cats living together, the aforementioned nuclear meltdown. Your pick. Neither of these assessments is likely to land me a job as a futurist. Not sexy enough.
********* Dear Jonathan Lash, I’ve been impressed from afar by your leadership of Hampshire. Don’t you think the college needs an education professor, to help develop the school’s strength and student interest in the topic? Maybe one who’s interested in developing ed tech? Here’s my vita. Aaron Berman and Will Ryan were on my Div III committee and can probably vouch for me, as can my Div II chair Len Glick if he’s still around the Pioneer Valley. Love, Gus Andrews (F95) p.s. You know by now that if you get a CSA share from the Farm Center they’re going to give you more kale than you can handle, right? Just FYI.