Wednesday, August 28, 2013

MOOCs and the Two Cultures of Educational Reform

Stanley Fish writes in the New York Times of the "Two Cultures of Educational Reform." Citing Derek Bok,
former Harvard president, Fish identifies these as follows: 
The first “is an evidence-based approach to education … rooted in the belief that one can best advance teaching and learning by measuring student progress and testing experimental efforts to increase it.” The second “rests on a conviction that effective teaching is an art which one can improve over time through personal experience and intuition without any need for data-driven reforms imposed from above.”
Fish correctly notes that in the current conversation about educational reform the quantitative side of this debate is winning. And he associates the emergence of MOOCs with this trend. Certainly the pronouncements of edX's Agarwal and Udacity's Thrun support this association - they claim - with unmeasured arrogance - to be searching for - and even finding - the "magic formula" for education. Fish replies that no one really knows how to measure the educational values inherent in higher education - and thus that the quantitative side of this divide rests for now entirely on empty promises.

Fish closes with this meditation:
Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, argues . . . that with the help of the digital media, “we can release ourselves from the shackles that we have gotten used to in the context of in-class teaching.” This turns out to mean that we can be released from the distracting bother of interacting with actual people. 
What does all of this have to do with MOOCs?

Not very much. The allure of MOOCs does not derive from their demonstrably superior pedagogies - and their problems don't stem from their demonstrable pedagogical limits. Thus all of the discussion of what is gained and lost by learning from MOOCs as opposed to live teachers in largely irrelevant.

The problem that has brought MOOCs to the forefront is two-fold: (1) the use of the college degree as a job filter regardless of the actual knowledge and skill requirements of the job, and (2) college tuition outstripping middle class ability to pay.

The ultimate promise of MOOCs is a free equivalent to a college diploma. This will not require high quality education. And significantly, it will not even require credits and degrees for MOOCs. It requires no more than employers accepting aggregations of MOOC certificates - among other achievements -  in lieu of the diploma. 

The reason the diploma has been used as a filter is that it is a very cheap way for employers to reduce their transaction costs (search and assessment) in hiring. As we move in the direction of universal higher education the diploma is failing as a filter. As a simple matter of logic, as more students graduate from college the diploma becomes less differentiating. Employers will need new, more discriminating filters.

This brings us to the current situation. The new global network occupational system is gravitating from full time jobs with benefits to contingent work for even professional knowledge workers. These "free lance nation" types can get in there, do the job efficiently, and leave - without encumbering employers with benefit packages. Thus employers are more focused on finding specific capabilities than the general levels of knowledge associated with diplomas.

And with new search capabilities, they can find what they are looking for. Meanwhile, job candidates can develop searchable digital portfolios, demonstrate their capabilities, and be found through online search. MOOC certificates will fine tune their educational credentials for employers, and thus reduce employer transaction costs more than diplomas.

These are the emerging dynamics of the market for post-secondary education. The other strands in the MOOC conversation, about "poetry," "teaching as an art," "magic formulas," "measurable learning objectives" and Daphne Koller's Brave New World, are side shows.  

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