06 Nov. 2013 | Comments (0)
One late afternoon last spring I received a visit from a former student and budding entrepreneur. I usually schedule these meetings at the end of the workday. It feels like a treat, witnessing aspiration and insight blend into leadership to create something new.
Luis (not his real name), however, had not come to see me for leadership advice. He had come to pitch his tech startup and ask for my involvement.
The venture, he explained, would contribute to the ongoing disruption and reinvention of business education and allow anyone anywhere — not just those as fortunate as himself — to have access to my teaching and insights online, for free.
While I would not be compensated, I’d have the opportunity to reach a broader audience and to be at the front — and on the right side — of the online revolution in education. I would become a better teacher, help democratize management learning, and secure my own and my school’s place among the survivors and beneficiaries of digital disruption.
I had heard all those arguments before. Reach. Scale. Efficiency. Democratization. This was my third such conversation in six months, including one with a pioneer of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), the first wave of a digital tsunami headed towards the shores of higher education.
Apparently I have the right profile for a MOOC professor. I’m young enough to be threatened, good enough to be useful, and tech savvy enough to be interested. (Perhaps also vain enough to be flattered). My fondness for the Internet as a public agorá is surely a sign that I want it to become my open classroom as well.
Actually, no. It isn’t. When it comes to joining this battle I declare myself a conscientious objector.
Mind you, I am not unsympathetic to the argument for MOOCs and their derivatives — that many people who need knowledge and skills don’t have the resources to acquire them in those expensive and inefficient bundles called “universities.” Nor am I blind to the problems facing business schools and higher education at large, or lacking in my enthusiasm for technology. I am not immune to flattery either.
I can easily concede that for many topics, the right numbers and platform may foster online learning and interactions as meaningful as those that take place in the average classroom or seminar room, specially for students and faculty accustomed to living part of their social lives online. And I believe that the conscious intent of MOOC proselytizers is altruistic.
However, as the Princeton sociologist who discontinued his popular MOOC illustrated, if you are a prominent faculty member at an elite university the idealistic prospect of spreading free knowledge to the masses may distract you from pondering your MOOC’s more troublesome potential social consequences.
MOOCs can be used as a cost-cutting measure in already depleted academic institutions and become another weapon against battered faculty bodies. They may worsen rather than eliminate inequality by providing credentials empty of the meaning and connections that make credentials valuable.
Worst of all, they may become a convenient excuse for giving up on the reforms needed to provide broad access to affordable higher education. The traditional kind, that is, which for all its problems still affords graduates higher chances of employment and long-term economic advantages.
Seen from this perspective, the techno-democratization of education looks like a cover story for its aristocratization. MOOCs aren’t digital keys to great classrooms’ doors. At best, they are infomercials for those classrooms. At worst, they are digital postcards from gated communities.
This is why I am a MOOC dissenter. More than a revolution, so far this movement reminds me of a different kind of disruption: colonialism.
Given the resources and players involved in producing and praising MOOCs, it’s hard to argue that this is a case of enterprising outsiders toppling a complacent establishment. (Do you see any “outsiders” in this galaxy of MOOC funders?) It is far more similar to colonialism, that is, disruption brought about by “the policy and practice of a power in extending control over weaker people or areas” and simultaneously increasing its cultural reach and control of resources.
All educational institutions have a dual social function: to develop individuals and to develop culture. Sometimes development involves affirmation. Sometimes it involves questioning and reform.
All education therefore involves both training and socialization. The knowledge one acquires is not just concepts and skills to become a good employee but also values and mores to become a good citizen — of a society or an enterprise.
This is as true of the liberal arts college as it is of the professional school, corporate university or online diploma factory.
Colonialism is a particular kind of socialization. It involves educating communities into the “superior” culture of a powerful but distant center by replacing local authorities or co-opting them as translators. A liberating education, on the other hand, makes students not just recipients of knowledge and culture but also owners, critics, and makers of it.
While they claim to get down to business and focus on training only, MOOCs do their fair share to affirm and promulgate broader cultural trends, like the rise of trust in celebrities’ authority, the cult of technology as a surrogate for leadership, and the exchange of digital convenience for personal privacy.
The idea that we should have access to anything wherever and however we want it for free, in exchange for the provider’s opportunity to use and sell our online footprint to advertisers or employers is the essence of digital consumerism. This is the culture that MOOCs are borne of and reinforce in turn.
Even the fabled personalization that digital learning affords is really a form of mass customization. There is no personal relationship. It is a market of knowledge where no one is known and care is limited to the provision of choices.
Whether its crusaders are venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, academics, or students, the colonizer is a transactional view of education, centered on knowledge as a commodity, which displaces a relational view of education, centered on developing through relationships. This in turn becomes, like all precious resources of colonial territories, no longer a common good but a leisurely privilege.
Luis nodded pensively when I pointed out that his venture could turn a job like mine and an education like his into even more of a privilege. So I asked him what he thought may happen when companies like his finished disrupting my profession.
Ultimately a teacher is a sophisticated search and social technology, he explained, in a crescendo of techno-utopianism. What we do is making judgments as to what knowledge is interesting and useful and ordering it in ways that make it accessible. We also broker connections through admissions and recruitment. There is no reason why an algorithm could not do all that someday.
I envisioned myself walking to a digital guillotine in tattered academic garb, whispering, “Let them eat MOOCs.” Luis laughed. I asked one last question.
Why would I want to help him make my job irrelevant? Because of legacy, he answered excitedly. I’d be proud that I was one of the people who taught the algorithm to think.
I’d rather keep going with humans.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 10/09/2013.
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