I have a lot to learn. I’m not an expert, and maybe never will be; I’m sure my views will change. But right now, I don’t like what’s happening to teaching and learning in higher education.
In the past couple of years, Coursera and edX and Udacity have partnered with wealthy institutions and begun to develop MOOCs (massive open online courses), which they are now licensing to less wealthy institutions as cheap replacements for homegrown courses. The end-game: lower instructional costs at public universities, fewer tenured professors, higher percentages of contingent faculty.
Like many other academics, I see this kind of corporatization as a threat to college classrooms. Students without the resources to attend a private school should be able to take courses designed specifically for them – courses conceived and delivered by full-time, on-site researchers and instructors.
As the San Jose State Philosophy Department put it in their righteous open letter to “superprofessor” Michael Sandel and edX, “… we fear that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.”
In response, Sandel and several other MOOC superprofessors effectively shrugged and said, “Whatever, dude.”
Sandel: “I know very little about the arrangements edX made with San Jose State University.” Robert Ghrist, University of Pennsylvania: “I have long ago dealt with the issue of: What if something I create is put to bad use? And I have found out that, throughout history, the benefit of building good things outweighed the hazards.” Mohamed A. Noor, Duke University: “I don’t see it as particularly my business how people use the stuff once I put it out there.”
Let’s call these statements what they are: socially irresponsible and intellectually vacuous.
Against the corporate vision of higher education – dispersed, impersonal, hierarchical – I propose what I’m calling “an ethics of the seminar table.” Around the seminar table, students and professors gather as fellow seekers. Everyone is a teacher, everyone a learner. The seminar table is a symbol of community, of knowledge sharing, of physical co-presence, of intellectual equality and accountability.
But it is not a utopia. The seminar table can also be a site of conflict, a “contact zone.” Sometimes students discover that they have fundamentally different ways of thinking about the world, and find it difficult even to sustain a debate. Sometimes they don’t like each other. Sometimes there is a struggle between the institutional authority of the teacher and the burgeoning scholarly authority of the learner. And sometimes – okay, often – sitting at the seminar table is boring.
Nevertheless, as we adjust to the digital economy/academy, I hope we retain the ideals of the seminar table, if only symbolically. Whether undergraduates get educated on campus or online, whether they come from money or not, they should have the opportunity to form small, close-knit communities within their academic courses. They should come to know their classmates’ names, minds, and points of view. Above all, they should have access to a curriculum designed by a teacher who is familiar with their needs and ambitions, who takes a coherent approach to setting expectations and conducting assessments, and who can, if necessary, adjust the syllabus midway through the term.
At the risk of sounding naïve, I think we can deliver this kind of educational experience to a majority of students at public and private universities. But if we can’t, let’s figure out why, and not pretend that MOOCs and other corporate “innovations” will magically allow us to spend less and educate better.
To be clear, I am not against online learning. The web has the potential to refine the techniques and democratize the institutions of higher education. But I fear that if students and teachers don’t take charge of the new digital tools, corporations will. And as much as Coursera and edX and Udacity squawk about empowerment and open access, they are impelled by capital, and capital seeks hierarchy. Capital views students as consumers: those who pay less must necessarily receive a lower quality product. Some get the premium whole-bean blend. Others get used grounds.
Some get the seminar table, others get an embedded video of the seminar table.
I believe that the goal of higher learning is social justice; Coursera, edX, and Udacity adopt the rhetoric of social justice to build their brands and to extract profit from the hopes that people attach to education.
So the basic stance of this blog will be one of resistance – a stance that I hope will emerge organically from my search for good teaching methods. And I will be careful not to defend the status quo, not to denounce digitization as such, but instead to oppose digital feudalism, and above all to promote the techniques, the experiences, the ethics of the seminar table.
I still have hope for higher education. And the practices of the seminar table are, for me, the practices of hope.