A MOOC Point

March 12th, 2013

the first of the cards from the Rorschach inkblot testI’m beginning to think that MOOCs, at least conceptually, are like Rorschach blots, good for getting commentators to divulge their fundamental premises about the means and ends of higher learning. Case in point: Thomas Friedman’s recent NY Times op-ed “The Professors’ Big Stage,” with its very title invoking the “sage on the stage” some of us thought higher learning had risen above. Like Friedman’s January piece “Revolution Hits the Universities,” it has generated a lot of anger among academics.

Richard Wolff, professor emeritus, says the revolution heralded in the earlier op-ed is about as revolutionary as the “transition from hamburger to ‘hamburger helper.'” “Thomas Friedman has as much credibility on education as I do on dunking a basketball,” writes John Warner, a visiting professor who gives his piece the frank (and, frankly, apt) title “An Ad Hominem Attack Against Thomas Friedman.” Carolyn Foster Segal, another emeritus, accuses Friedman of “contradictions, shallow thinking — and an error in basic arithmetic.” (Oddly, the error is in favor of Friedman’s argument: he mistakes a 60-90% improvement in the pass rate as improvement by 30% when the pass rate has actually improved 50%.) And Rebecca Schuman, another visiting prof, accuses Friedman of proposing an “über-oligarchy” where only “stars” have a shot at the “big stage.”

I could go on, but there’s a neat symmetry to this too-small sample, and it gives me enough to make a MOOC point. Wolff is right: Friedman is one of those “hyper promoters” of change, and it’s not hard to take him or the MOOCs he extols down a notch or three because of the hype factor. But the argument for change is never just an argument that a particular change is good; it’s also that what it represents a change from does in fact need improvement.

This is where the attacks on Friedman show their own vulnerability. MOOCs may not be all he cracks them up to be, but academia-as-we-know-it is no great shakes either. Take Schuman’s “über-oligarchy” remark: “What Friedman proposes is nothing less than the creation of an über-oligarchy that is even more exclusive than the current state of academe—which is already elitist enough, thank you very much.” Warner, the other visiting prof, goes after Friedman by tallying “the big, obvious wrongs on Friedman’s record” on other scores but doesn’t discount the potential of MOOCs, saying, “I think it’s inevitable that MOOCs have a role to play in making education accessible. I also embrace the potential of technology to provide access to a greater diversity of thinking and give voice to differing opinions.” That seems oddly deferential for an ad hominem attacker.

The emeriti, as you might expect, take the long view. Segal sees MOOCs — or the likelihood of falling, Friedman-like, under the spell — as a chronic academic fascination with change for its own sake: “Academicians often fall prey to magical thinking; at my former college, each time we hired a new provost (10 in my 16 years), we were certain that this was the one who would be our savior.” Wolff, who taught economics at U Mass Amherst for 35 years, makes the heart of his critique a still broader historical view, saying Friedman “wastes no time pondering all those past technological changes with the potential to free human beings from mind-numbing drudgery that have left us working longer and harder than ever.”

So, whether we’ve been down this road before, or we’re worried about being stuck on an access ramp, the road itself seems to be in pretty bad shape. Whatever else they present as, MOOCs seem to be assuming the status of a critique, not of what they can do, but of the way things are.




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