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Will MOOCs save universities, or destroy them?


As countless books, news articles, and editorials have declared, higher education is in crisis, especially in the US and Europe. Universities are growing increasingly expensive even as the usefulness of advanced degrees grows increasingly questionable. One free-market dogmatist—Kevin Carey of the neoconservative New America Foundation—thinks he’s found the solution to this dilemma: MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). In his recent book The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, Carey claims that replacing classroom-based study with online, “democratic” access to education is the key to making the university relevant again.

Thankfully, The Baffler is here to take the wind out of Carey’s overinflated sails. In a scathing review of The End of College at The Baffler’s website, Chris Rasmussen argues that Carey’s Silicon Valley approach to college undermines the entire purpose of higher education:

Carey rhapsodizes that the University of Everywhere will democratize education and make our increasingly unequal society more egalitarian. Everyone will be able to go to Stanford, MIT, and Harvard! Everyone will be taught by famous professors, not the schmoes who couldn’t land a job in the Ivy League. He scoffs at naysayers who suggest that online education will prove impersonal, even dehumanizing. Increasingly sophisticated algorithms, he writes, will tailor lessons to each student’s performance and needs, providing each student a personal “cognitive tutor,” just as Alexander the Great was taught by Aristotle! That’s right: algorithms and online classes that enroll hundreds of thousands of students will make education more individualized.

This chipper assurance, like so many forecasts of spontaneously flourishing digital democracy, has the problem precisely backwards. Rather than democratize education, MOOCs seem poised to ratchet up existing educational inequalities. Carey’s vaunted University of Everywhere would force hundreds of colleges and universities to close, leaving higher education in the hands of a few richly endowed brand-name universities and software companies. Sons and daughters of the affluent would continue to attend cathedrals of learning and be taught by professors. Everyone else will train themselves by pecking away at problem sets and quizzes on their laptops and praying to land a job that will enable them to move out of their parents’ house.

The promise of online learning, Carey writes, is not its ability to deliver information to students, but the oligarchic capacity of Big Data firms to compile information from them. The University of Everywhere will monitor “every log-in, keystroke, discussion, test, essay, and problem set” and create a vast database on millions of students that will unlock the “mysteries” of how human beings learn. Just as Facebook, Google, and Amazon have become behemoths of the digitized economy by amassing information about consumers’ preferences, the U of E will stockpile valuable demographic data about students’ knowledge and skills. Corporate interests will be the ultimate beneficiary of all this data-mining, since it will yield them detailed statistical portraits of job applicants’ skills and track records.

Hey, this transformed university landscape would prove a perfect training ground for an adult life consigned to similar data-mule duty in a cartelized Information Economy. But the whole point of education is to pursue a life of inquiry, organized around principles other than maximum return on investment. If only for four years or so.

Read the full review at The Baffler’s website.

Above image above: MIT. Photo by Andrews Hitchcock