Proudly Public: Standing with California’s Faculty

This week, faculty senate leaders of all three public higher ed systems in California (the community colleges, state colleges, and University of California system) made the bold move jointly to express opposition to a plan that would encourage major growth in massive on-line courses, or MOOCs. The idea of the shift to on-line instruction, floated as a bill in the California state senate, is ostensibly to relieve serious overcrowding and budget shortfalls in the schools. No one would argue that those problems are not real and pressing. But faculty rightly detect a hasty and pedagogically insupportable scheme here.  As Ry Rivard reported in InsiderHigherEd‘s piece, “United Opposition,” their collectivity represents push-back of an unprecedented level.

And we thank them: Instructors in all fifty states, teaching at all levels, should be deeply appreciative of these raised voices. We should lend our voices in support.  And I include those of us who teach at financially secure, private institutions, too. And, yes, especially those of us with tenure.

The California instructors are, we must see, resisting the redefinition of higher education as something that exists to maximize economies of scale. To squeeze labor. To channel wealth to those who already possess the means to become wealthy.  Efforts to effect that redefinition have ebbed and flowed in the history of America’s community and state colleges in particular, always portending the greatest losses for students of lower socioeconomic standing who cannot afford the “artisanal” offerings of private higher education.  But the swift pivot towards MOOCs as exemplified in California is potentially a deeply regrettable trend for all teachers and learners.

For one thing, it is a “solution” that treats human instructors, student communities, and the provision of sufficient classroom space as the “problems.”  When such foundational pedagogical commitments are conceptualized as inherently wasteful, even tenured faculty should be afraid.

But more broadly, California’s embrace of MOOCs here entrenches socially conservative functions for schooling that have always devalued the learning (and intellectual potential) of those Americans with the least economic resources.  Such stratifications bring a set of rewards that are also dangerous for a democracy, often turning the nation’s privileged scholars and students away from criticality about the system and its differential impacts.  Under such conditions, the potential for a more fair and equitable nation shrinks with each step towards economically expedient education.

The proposed course providers in California right now include for-profit companies such as Coursera and Udacity.   During a discussion of on-line coursework with Cal State Monterey Bay faculty this week, Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of the latter company, said the firm was actually “proudly for profit.” That turn of phrase should stop all of us in our tracks. Whatever politicians and ed policy makers in California may be saying about their motivations for moving higher education on-line, Thrun’s pose here is triumphal: This is not privatization under emergency conditions; this is industrialization without regrets….for the industrialist and his patrons, at any rate.  Mine are forming already.


[With thanks to for rapid technical support.]

…And Repeat: “Access” ≠ “Equity”

In the pursuit of more affordable higher ed for more Americans the idea of “direct assessment” strikes many as promising, as Paul Fain reports in “Beyond the Credit Hour,” on InsideHigherEd. This is a move to use  competency tests, rather than numbers of credit hours taken by students, as the measure of degree-program efficacy.

The Dept. of Education has just now expressed support for this shift to “competency based” programming, allowing federal approval for programs that embrace the new system.  It is a system that strongly  favors on-line instruction… Some associate degree programs, Fain writes, have put aside not just credit hours but also courses and professors altogether in order to maximize  such instructional “flexibility.”

I won’t rehearse our debates regarding on-line instruction, except to say that at the very least this is a shift that is predicated on self-paced learning and by definition it will best serve those who are able to achieve mastery without a tremendous amount of guidance or who are uninterested in community and collaboration…Welcome, neo-liberal learners!

And “competency,” you say? I’ll try not to get started on the gap between “assessment” and “accountability” in American higher ed.  Instead, I’ll stress some of the rhetorical work being done here to hide deeply entrenched educational inequities.

First, we have a troubling use of the term “affordable.”  No professors or courses? Self-guided learning? Hmm….Prices for these credentials will drop, yes, but only because the value of these products to their makers has also been reduced.  We have long known that in education, when costs to consumers drop we rarely find value being added elsewhere by producers.  There are no bargains in education, only savings. So let’s not encourage “affordability” to  become the next “diversity”: A reassuring incantation that replaces systemic critique.

Then, there’s also that idea that educational “flexibility” is necessarily somehow empowering to students.  That premise proceeds in this case from  a highly selective logic about technology, a logic that once again finds democratic potential in the ostensibly dematerialized features of the Internet…that decentralized, customized, always-available-go-at-your-own-pace-technology-of-the-people.

But think about the population most desperately in need of more affordable higher education in the United States.  Even if inexpensive options for high-speed, reliable connectivity pervaded every community in America and lap-tops came free with every fill-up (equally absurd scenarios at this point),  we are still talking about millions of people trying to continue their education in the face of long work days, child- and elder-care responsibilities, worsening health care for themselves and family members, and in many cases, backgrounds in weaker public school systems…clearly an uphill battle for many.  The choice to discard credit hours in favor of some other metric of learning may loosen traditional notions of when, where, and how higher education takes place. But so what?  If this fabulous new strategy won’t even acknowledge, let alone correct those profound structural impediments to the meaningful expansion of educational participation, is it really changing anything at all?


Who’s Minding the MOOCs?…continued

In trying to understand how American high-tech education forecloses political criticality, I’ve been reading a 1982 article by Michael Ryan in Yale French Studies called “Deconstruction and Radical Teaching.” Ryan writes of emerging  justifications for the growing capitalist influence on “the social and cultural life of the U.S. and much of the world,” including as that influence was becoming an integral element of higher education. In so many ways this piece shows that the rhetorical work being done by claims of  industrial “innovation” in the Western university today—mapping an unassailable pursuit of collective social and economic uplift, bringing all good things to all good people—was performed by evocations of “integrity” a few years ago.

Proponents of corporate involvement in academia in the early eighties celebrated the university’s “disinterested” character,  bathing their own economic interests in the warming light of academic freedom. Here’s one of Ryan’s great summations:

By assigning ‘integrity’  to the university, conservatives define their own project as an effort to maintain or restore a spuriously natural condition of purity of wholeness. The postulation of a normative attribute like integrity permits any radical attempt at modification to be characterized as a disintegrative degradation, a falling off from nature. Restoration of ‘integrity’ will consist of curtailing that new development. (p. 48)

So much to think about here, including the American university’s now entrenched deployment of rationality, “reasonableness,” and all that Ryan says constitutes the  “benign face of power, coercion, and the everyday brutality of patriarchal capitalism in America.”

But for the moment, here’s a question: How can we keep our eyes open for the next rhetorical restyling of this conservative, anti-constructivist agenda? “Diversity” in many settings certainly continues  the constrained, “What’s not to like?” institutional form it took on in the 1980s.  What new higher-ed headliners, disguising established privilege as social good, should we watch for in 2013?  Are they with us already?   “Entrepreneurship,” maybe? Sure, but more of a parade float for capitalism than a Trojan Horse. “Lifelong Learning?”  Definitely, as Foucauldian observers have amply demonstrated.

Perhaps, though, if the most ostentatiously reasonable and democratic priorities of the university are those  we must approach most cautiously…what about “MOOCs”?  As Carolyn Foster Segal’s  thoughtful InsideHigherEd piece of the other day (contra Thomas Friedman’s celebration) makes clear, MOOCs propagate the morally unifying, disciplining effects of education, not the potentially critical and unpredictable experiences of pedagogy.  As Ryan might say, here’s collectivity of a very particular kind….