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Retrograde MOOCS and Other Points of Educational Agreement

So Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, graciously and thoughtfully responded in the thread to my post complaining about his disruptive understanding of education that reduced to the “traditional” college to some mixture of medievalism and animal-house decadence.  He admitted that his rhetorical flourishes left him vulnerable to my kind of criticism, and he went on to explain, often quite rightly, that there are many points on which we agree.  Here’s one of his paragraphs of agreement:

We do not use CBE to defend MOOCs. We also agree that “disruption” is an overused term and I tire of the insurgent rhetoric we often hear by the disruptors, one that is dismissive of the decades of really good and smart work by all of us who have had our professional lives in higher education. Actually I am not even sure I think disruption aptly describes MOOCs, at least yet. I think MOOCs are rather retrograde and I remain mostly a critic of them. They are mostly content, albeit high branded content, and the “talking head” quality of them feels like We do not use CBE to defend MOOCs. We also agree that “disruption” is an overused term and I tire of the insurgent rhetoric we often hear by the disruptors, one that is dismissive of the decades of really good and smart work by all of us who have had our professional lives in higher education. Actually I am not even sure I think disruption aptly describes MOOCs, at least yet. I think MOOCs are rather retrograde and I remain mostly a critic of them. They are mostly content, albeit high branded content, and the “talking head” quality of them feels like a very poor substitute for being in a genuine learning space and community. It is a time of enormous change in higher education and we are seeing an onslaught of new providers and models and I think what I was really trying to say is that accreditation is not well designed to assess and fend off the frauds and we need an accreditation path that holds the new models to a high standard of rigor and transparency. I don’t know if I sound any more like an “educated person” than I did last time, but I do know we actually agree on more than it seems.

We agree on having low opinions of MOOCS as ways of “delivering” higher education.  Our reasons might be different, though.

Paul’s calls the MOOC “retrograde” because it’s “mostly content,” and he’s less about education as content than about education as acquisition of skills—such as critical thinking.  His understanding of education is about getting working adults the competencies required to get on what he “the on-ramp to better earnings and improved circumstances for their families.” For the population he means to serve, there’s a lot to be said for this skills approach, although I’m still with E.D. Hirsch that a very important way of improving anyone’s chances in life—and critical thinking—is the expansion of vocabulary and conceptual sophistication that comes through carefully attending to content.

So I’m suspicious, to say the least, of all the efforts to abstract skills from content in education.  It could be that analytical skills come best as a result of the rigorous learning about the real world that comes from reading “real books”—as opposed to intentionally teaching those skills as such.  But I gladly admit that Paul’s adult learners are in a hurry, and short-cuts have to be taken and can readily be justified.

Everything Paul says about the need carefully to assess credit-by-examination educational innovations to separate his noble efforts from the frauds is change I can believe in.  And, as I said before, I’m for different accreditation tracks for “competency-based” and traditional colleges.  But Paul adds that he’s actually for transforming traditional accreditation too in the direction of assessable skills.  That’s where we disagree.  Those transformational or “disruptive” efforts in “general education,” for example, are inevitably at the expense of content, especially of the idea that there are certain things about the world and ourselves that every educated person should know.

So the competency-based movement has been at the expense of liberal education, when its standards are applied to “traditional” colleges known for their excellence.  Paul is perfectly right that it may be sad but it’s very true that not every American has—or even can be afforded—the leisurely luxury of liberal education.  But that doesn’t mean such education is not a human good that’s responsible for much of the genuine intellectual diversity and leading thought in our country.  Paul’s grads aren’t going to be intellectual leaders, at least in the overwhelming majority of cases.

My objection to the MOOC is to the method of delivery of content.  Why watch a MOOC when you can read a book?  Many Americans benefit from listening to “audio books” in their cars.  But surely nobody uses the audio version of the book in a college class.  MOOCS are usually kinds of audio books with the talking head attached.

Paul and I agree that the MOOC, especially in its present state of development, seems “like a very poor substitute for being in a genuine learning space and community.”  So does education online in general.  That doesn’t mean these innovations don’t have a place in giving people access to higher education who couldn’t get it otherwise.  But they ain’t making higher education better.  A genuinely disruptive thought would be let’s use them as little as possible by working on making “traditional” higher education more accessible and affordable.  Let’s work on those pointless amenities and bloated administration issues, as well as making sure college professors aren’t too indulgent on how much and what they teach.

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