Republicans Declare War on College
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Are you crazy? The Internet will definitely ruin college!
That’s what my inbox has been telling me ever since my story two weeks ago about the inevitable invasion of MOOCs (massive open online courses) into higher education, “The Internet Will Not Ruin College. ” The negativity wasn’t unanimous, but it was definitely illuminating.
Information is not the same as knowledge! Online education might work for remedial algebra or the basics of computer programming, conceded several professors, but when the goal is to teach students to think and write critically about history or literature, the benefits of teaching thousands of students simultaneously via their iPads becomes much hazier. University administrators pushing MOOCs, they argued, are more interested in cutting costs or finding new sources of revenue than in delivering the best education possible. Most students who do register for MOOCs never finish them, they warned, and the available data suggests the kinds of students who need the most educational assistance tend to be the ones who benefit the least from online classes.
Oh yeah, and the whole thing is a right-wing plot to defund public education, screw the humanities, and help corporations profit off of students.
The critics of MOOCs make many good points. And yet, from the perspective of someone who has watched closely as Internet-enabled distribution turned the music and publishing industries upside down, a lot of the clamor initially sounded a little like passengers on a sinking ship in the middle of a typhoon complaining about bad weather. Yeah, it sucks, but storm’s a coming, people; it’s time to start swimming! The spread of quality, low-cost online education is going to shake things up. As one professor said to me via email, “The large lecture at a community college or a satellite state university is about to go the way of the passenger pigeon, and the mass extinction will be just about as fast.”
But what if MOOCs actually turned out to be part of a right-wing plot?
After some reflection, it’s become clear to me that there is a crucial difference in how the Internet’s remaking of higher education is qualitatively different than what we’ve seen with recorded music and newspapers. There’s a political context to the transformation. Higher education is in crisis because costs are rising at the same time that public funding support is falling. That decline in public support is no accident. Conservatives don’t like big government and they don’t like taxes, and increasingly, they don’t even like the entire way that the humanities are taught in the United States.
It’s absolutely no accident that in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, three of the most conservative governors in the country are leading the push to incorporate MOOCs in university curricula. And it seems well worth asking whether the apostles of disruption who have been warning academics that everything is about to change have paid enough attention to how the intersection of politics and MOOCs is affecting the speed and intensity of that change. Imagine if Napster had had the backing of the Heritage Foundation and House Republicans? It’s hard enough to survive chaotic disruption when it is a pure consequence of technological change. But when technological change suits the purposes of enemies looking to put a knife in your back, it’s almost impossible.
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Call them the three horsemen of the MOOC apocalypse. Florida’s Rick Scott, Texas’ Rick Perry and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker all see themselves as education reformers, and they are all seeking ways to lower the cost of college education while at the same time cutting state funding support. Their holy grail: the so-called 10K degree — a university education completed for just 10 grand.