(Not) Controlling the Future

October 19th, 2012

Scott Jaschik, editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, gave a talk at the CUNY Grad Center yesterday. Titled “Today’s Big Higher Ed Debates (and CUNY),” it promised to treat such topics as “the 2012 elections, affirmative action, and the completion agenda.” (MOOCs and online ed figured prominently in the treatment of that last.) If this seems almost a miscellany, Jaschik’s conclusion stressed that these things did have a powerful common theme: higher ed is not in control of its future, and that is more powerfully true than ever before.

Regardless of who wins in the upcoming election, the underfunding of higher ed will continue — though probably be much worse under Romney and a Republican congress, while Obama will invest strategically, preserve some “entitlements” (like Pell), and maybe do even more if congress is constituted to allow that. Either way, we’ll need to do more with less, and that “more” will include more accountability (“Politicians love that,” quoth Jaschik) with less control over how we do the accounting and less in the way of rewards for hitting performance goals.

Affirmative action is pretty much a one-story issue, turning on a case currently before the Supreme Court. With Elena Kagan recusing herself, a prospective majority of the justices have a history of going against AA.  If UT loses, the opponents of AA stand ready to file hundreds of suits across the nation. The landscape could change pretty radically and pretty quickly, with schools forced to accept new determinations of whom they should admit.

Finally, there’s the completion agenda, which Jaschik says is mostly about cost, and about alternatives students can vote for with their feet. The prime catalysts for changes here are MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses offered by prestigious schools for free, if at no small cost for the schools offering them (Harvard and MIT put up $60 million for EdX). The attraction (or at least publicity) they have already exerted has been quite apparent over the past year. What’s new is the way big publics are bending that way, with UT’s sign-on to EdX as the recent dramatic example. The point here is that folks are not just jumping on a trend, but modifying it — creating consortia, ensuring credentialing, defining forms of payment, even granting credit. Things are moving fast on that front. Ditto the aggregation of Massive Open Online Courses into Massive OpenOnline  Curricula, or at least mix-and-match possibilities.

Pressed in the Q&A, Jaschik saw the long-term future as a two-tiered dystopia: with a de-diversified student population, even in the defunded publics, the most well-prepared (affluent) students will have all the advantages, while the rest, to avoid being shut out, will scramble for low-cost, DIY U ways of getting their higher ed.

My response? Having heard so many predictions and seen so few come true — the wait for the long-promised end of the world as we know it and my own personal rocket pack  will be a while yet — I think forecasters of social and technological change tend to focus on some things and not others in a world where everything is overdetermined (at least causally). The trends Jaschik outlines are clear, but so are countervailing ones: the plateauing of online ed (see what has been happening to the University of Phoenix and its parent Apollo Group lately), real if maddeningly slow progress toward equality (and legal assurances thereof), and my own personal favorite, institutional inertia (compare change in the world at large to change in the academic world over the last century).

This is not to say that Jaschik is wrong. He’s right about current trends, but no one can see well into the future. (Anyone who bet big on how Facebook had been trending before it went public knows this all too well.) If we don’t like what Jaschik sees ahead, and we should certainly resist the triumph of tiering, then resistance is in fact what is called for — steps in other, better directions. I should say what those might be, as well as why I’m not sure MOOCs are the answer (for one thing, in the ones this career pedagogue has taken, I’d fail myself), but that’s grist to the mill of another blog entry. Let’s just say, for the nonce, that if controlling the future is simply refusing to change, that’s not a real option.

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