Or, more precisely, a university designed by libertarians.
Over the last number of months, I’ve featured a fair bit of apocalyptic MOOC Disruptionism in my regular Around the Web posts. Recently, the libertarian think tank, The Cato Institute (Wikipedia) via their Cato Unbound site, has put online a series of essays discussing just how the traditional academic system can be radically reworked and rethought via a highly commercialized online academy. It’s interesting because they’ve also included some responses questioning their assumptions and the overall MOOC triumphalism that’s floating around the net these days.
I think it’s worth taking a close look at both sets of essays as they very clearly lay out some of the options and possibilities as well as a cautionary, jaundiced eye on the hype.
The second item in the list below, the Tabarrok essay, is the lead essay. The next bunch are response essays, bouncing off the lead. Then, starting with the second Tabarrok essay are items that continue the conversation.
- Introduction by The Editors
The Internet has already remade journalism in ways too numerous to count. By comparison, many educational institutions stand relatively unchanged: Students attend in-person lectures from professors at fixed times; they study, do homework, take tests, and receive grades, all more or less as they did before the advent of the digital revolution.
There is no clear reason why this should be…
- Why Online Education Works by Alex Tabarrok
Teaching today is like a stage play. A play can be seen by at most a few hundred people at a single sitting and it takes as much labor to produce the 100th viewing as it does to produce the first. As a result, plays are expensive. Online education makes teaching more like a movie. Movies can be seen by millions and the cost per viewer declines with more viewers. Now consider quality. The average movie actor is a better actor than the average stage actor. If you were making a movie with a potential audience in the millions wouldn’t you hire the best actors? With more viewers it also makes sense to substitute capital for labor, adding special effects, scenery, music and other quality improvements resulting in a movie experience unlike any that can be created on stage. Is there something ineffably great about a live performance? Occasionally, but the greatest stage performances are seen by only a handful of people.
- Some Skepticism about Online Education by Alan Ryan
A third is that we shall exacerbate the tendencies of contemporary higher education to turn into a two-tier, or multi-tier, system in which the well-off and well-endowed academically and socially, receive personalized and individual attention, while everyone else gets a mass-produced and uniform product tailored to what the better-off and better-endowed believe are their needs. One recent MOOC involved the broadcasting of a course from the University of Pennsylvania in which you can see the twenty-odd students on the course in the room with their professor, interacting in the usual human fashion, while the unnumbered audience watches. I am not at all immune to the thought that the crumbs from the rich man’s table are better than simple starvation, but it would be nice to think that our technical ingenuity could be devoted to spreading the real intellectual riches of our civilization more equally than we have hitherto contrived to do.
- A New Era of Unfounded Hyperbole by Siva Vaidhyanathan
…Tabarrok conflates being a student with being a consumer. He writes “In the online world, consumers need not each consume at the same time, and suppliers need not produce at the moment of consumption.”
Higher education is a complex process through which one is merely guided. It’s a series of experiments that test one’s capacities, assess one’s talents, focus one’s interests, and enable the acculturation into the educated middle class. Along the way there are licensing procedures, awards, successes, failures, heartbreaks, and hangovers. There is, of course, a tangle of productions, consumptions, and commercial transactions embedded within higher education. But there is no single act of production or consumption that captures either the purpose or value of higher education.
- The Radical Implications of Online Education by Kevin Carey
Tabarrok may be too sanguine about the fate of traditional universities. He predicts that “many institutions will be able to raise the quality and breadth of the classes that they offer.” Perhaps—if they can afford to stay in business. The rise of Udacity, Coursera, edX, Saylor.org and others mean that, from this point forward, high-quality, impeccably branded online courses will be available to anyone in the world, anytime, anywhere, for free, forever. We will take this for granted in the same way that we simply assume free search and social networking as birthrights of the modern age.
The introduction of “$0” into a market characterized by rapidly increasing prices is sure to matter in important ways. How and when, exactly, is not yet clear. But it seems unlikely that traditional universities will be able to keep charging students thousands of dollars for ill-designed commodity courses in basic subjects when much better courses can be found online for free. And it is these high profit-margin courses that subsidize the cost of smaller, professor-dependent specialty courses in the upper divisions. Take away those revenues and university budgets—already stressed by shrinking public subsidies and the declining possibilities of revenue enhancing price discrimination—will struggle to remain solvent. Ryan calls this “sinister.” I think it’s just an honest appraisal of what is sure to come.
- A Response to Participants by Alex Tabarrok
I’d also like to see more comparisons and more empirical evidence. Here’s a question. How large does the typical classroom have to be before an online classroom is superior? Five students? Thirty? One hundred? My answers are that a philosophy seminar with five students is going to be better face-to-face. In a class of thirty, I’d take a good online class over a typical offline class. In a class of one hundred I’d take online every time. What do others say? Where is the dividing line and why?
- The Accent Is on the “Massive.” Should It Be? by Siva Vaidhyanathan
That most courses in America are taught by struggling adjuncts for absurdly low remuneration is a problem to be solved by increasing their status, pay, and benefits. It’s not a reason to double down on the star system and dream that MOOCs can render those hard-working adjuncts redundant. As someone who has hired, fired, and assessed dozens of adjunct and full-time instructors, I can attest that there is no correlation between one’s status and one’s teaching skills.
The core of the libertarian side of the argument is all very triumphalist and inevitable. Not surprisingly, I’m not so sure myself. On the other hand, the traditionalist side is a bit too long on the nostalgia and short on the data. Is the debate settled? Far from it. And more interestingly, if this discussion would guide us on how we would build a new university today, from the ground up, from first principles, how would we build a new academic library today, from the ground up, from first principles. I don’t know, but I’m definitely thinking about it. And will be posting about it too, over the next week or so.
I’m interested to hear what my readers think about the possibilities and perils of the Libertarian University and especially where research, student experience and the library collide.
Have at it!
(The conversation continues at the Cato Unbound site so I probably don’t have all the articles yet. When the next issue is published, the conversation will be archived here. I may update this post as new items are added over there.)