“There is a change coming. There has to be a change coming. The four-year undergraduate residential experience is the gold standard — small classes, lots of intimate contact. How do we create as close to that ideal as we can, while reducing cost?”That’s John Hennessy, the president of Stanford University, appearing in the documentary Ivory Tower (dir. Andrew Rossi, 2014). In this film and elsewhere, Hennessy is a voice of inevitability: disruption and all that. But there’s nothing inevitable about diminished access to real college, by which I mean not dorm life but a community of teaching and learning, with professors and students present to one another. Diminished access is the result of institutional choices: fewer professors, more online courses, more administrative bureaucracy, extravagant construction projects, and ever-increasing costs to students. MOOC developers Sebastian Thrun and John Owens follow Hennessy’s turn in Ivory Tower. Thrun likens online coursework to videogames and says that such coursework “empowers” students. Owens says that online work puts the focus “back on the student,” then blithely speaks of the MOOC professor as a “rock star,” one professor doing the work once done by 500. So who, exactly, is in the spotlight?
An often-repeated claim among those who insist on educational disruption is that the efficiencies of teaching — one teacher, one room — have stayed the same for too long. But then the efficiencies of, say, cutting hair — one barber, one head — haven’t changed much either. Perhaps there are good reasons why. The great irony for me in the rhetoric of disruption: those who speak it will no doubt seek for their own children what Hennessy calls “the gold standard.” There will always be real college for the few. For everyone else, it may be another story.
But perhaps change is indeed inevitable. Before Ivory Tower was released, Thrun pronounced his company’s courses “a lousy product.” His new venture: nanodegrees. And just two weeks after the film’s release, Hennessy voiced his disappointment with MOOCs. Haircut, anyone?
A few related posts
The Adjunct Project : College debt : Colleges and bakeries : “A fully-realized adult person” : The New Yorker on MOOCs : Offline, real-presence education : What parents need to know about college faculty