Tuesday, November 26, 2013

MOOCs and the Manufactured Crisis of Higher Education

Over at Slate, authors Christian and Calvin Exoo argue that MOOCs represent the entry of large, dominant corporations into the Education space. They paint Coursera, edX and Udacity as emerging giants - controlling education as Big Pharma and Big Oil now dominate their industries. 

The big MOOC firms claim to be responding to the problem of restricted access to higher education. But, the authors claim, the U.S. has no such problem - the MOOC firms are 'manufacturing' the problem through their press releases to blind us from reality. A huge percentage of kids, the authors counter, gain access to some form of higher education. The real problem, the authors state, lies in retention: kids drop out because they are unprepared for college and can't afford tuition. The solution they propose is adding lots of remedial services and extra financial aid around the margins for disadvantaged kids. These two steps could get a huge percentage through college. MOOCs provide neither financial aid or remediation, and hence offer nothing for the "real" crisis. 

Leaving beside edX's non-profit status and its decisive move to open source, and Udacity's apparent exit from the education market to concentrate on corporate training - which leaves only Coursera still standing as a large corporate entity in the MOOC education space, this analysis still seems wrong-headed.  

My response is that it is the authors, and not the MOOC firms, who are manufacturing a crisis.

The real crisis is not that too many kids fail to complete college - but rather that too many kids get forced into college because no other pathways to dignified work exist in our society. If we didn't make college a more or less compulsory job qualification - even for jobs that make no use of college related knowledge or skills - we wouldn't need to push these kids through college in the first place. Then they would not need all of these extra-ordinary measures to graduate.

Suppose we do get these kids through college. They will still be facing both a poor and contracting job market - especially for that fragment that needed even more remedial services and extra tuition help. And those kids would also still be burdened with huge debts, which will cripple them financially for life. These are the real crises, and the authors' solutions completely ignore them.

The real challenge is to envision and implement alternative pathways to the workplace. The promise of MOOCs lies in their providing one element in the educational mix aligned with these new pathways. The authors propose to push these kids through a college education. But the kids and their families only seek college education because it has been made into a compulsory qualification. The kids and their families, however, are being sold a bill of goods. There will be no college-level jobs waiting at the end of the compulsory college education. And the kids will end up deep in debt.

The alternative I envision gets these young people more rapidly into workplaces - as apprentices, interns, or small entrepreneurs - and provides the educational backup they need to progress in their work paths without taking on debt. In such arrangements, MOOCs will find one of their most important educational roles

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