The Edtech Curmudgeon, a blogger who has a background at the university level teaching technology, wrote a post questioning the wisdom of Udacity’s model that appeared on Facebook today. The post brought to mind the questions raised when Amazon opened for business and hemorrhaged money with its model where it undercut book stores at seemingly ridiculous and unsustainable prices. Jeff Bezos, who opened the Amazon “book store” actually had a bigger goal: he wanted to be the EVERYTHING store and he sought long term market share over short term profits… We know how that has ended up!
It is possible Udacity is thinking the same way: it doesn’t care much about initial results in terms of student pass rates or making money in the short term… but it cares VERY much about being there first and learning from its mistakes to gain a corner on the MOOC market by being first to find a way to monetize MOOCs.
The Edtech Curmudgeon provides one of the most balanced overviews of MOOCs I’ve read, describing the qualities and deficiencies of the “product” as developed by Udacity and acknowledging that, on balance, it might not be a bad way to deliver content. One of his paragraphs near the end poses his ultimate skeptical question:
I actually like a lot of what Udacity is doing. It’s a legitimate alternative for many students to develop their IT skills. But disruptive to higher education? I don’t see it.
To which I responded in the comment section:
Here’s the disruption: if a set of Udacity’s bundled “verified certificates” is viewed by employers as the equivalent of or superior to a “degree” and it costs less than college, they have a sweet spot that will only get sweeter as college costs increase and more people with degrees join the unemployment lines. Just as an “Apple Certified” techie is more likely to get hired in a Mac environment than a generic Technology Major, a “Udacity Verified Technical Writer” might have an edge on a generic liberal arts major…. especially if they “command” a lower wage.
As I’ve written in earlier posts, the money in MOOCs is in assessment and certification… and the group that gets those elements right will capture market share and make money at the expense of colleges and universities and at the expense of the “well rounded” graduates who currently emerge from four years of life on campus. We’ve already made an implicit trade-off of privacy for inexpensive¹ internet… and I believe we need to avoid making another implicit trade-off with MOOCs: allowing students to pursue narrow coursework to gain specialized certificates that meet the need of employers in lieu of college degrees that provide a wider view of the world. Our current technology gurus— Bezos, Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg— failed to graduate from college yet feel compelled to tell those of us who did that today’s graduates need skills for employment in the global economy more than they need humanistic qualities that a liberal arts education cultivates…. and our politicians who rely on Silicon Valley’s support are only too happy to kowtow to them.
I like the potential equalizing force of MOOCs and tend to favor the notion of specific certifications over traditional diplomas. I only hope that someone develops a certificate for humanism… and that employers require all applicants to have it…
Two recent articles made me realize that there ARE limits to what technological and technocratic thinking can accomplish, and those limits are becoming evident as we see overreaching in public education.
One recent post from Diane Ravitch summarizes Peter Greene’s analysis of the Common Core. Greene, a pro-choice professor whose chair at the University of Arkansas is funded by the Walton Foundation. Greene concludes that technocratic universal solutions thinking like the Common Core cannot be applicable in public education. Indeed, he concludes that there are NO universally applicable fixes:
Whether your preferred policy solution is based on standards and accountability, parental choice, instructional reform, or something else, the better approach to reform is gradual and decentralized so that everyone can learn and adapt. Your reform strategy has to be consistent with the diverse, decentralized, and democratic country in which we live. You won’t fix everything for everyone right away, but you should avoid Great Leaps Forward. Seek partial victories because with the paradoxical logic of ed reform politics total victory ultimately leads to total defeat.
For proof of Greene’s last assertion, one has to look no further than the recently announced closure of InBloom, the Big Data enterprise underwritten to the tune of “$100 million in philanthropic support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.” In response to the decision to close, InBloom’s CEO lamented that “It is a shame that the progress of this important innovation has been stalled because of generalized public concerns about data misuse, even though inBloom has world-class security and privacy protections that have raised the bar for school districts and the industry as a whole.” Actually, Greene’s analysis is more cogent: InBloom’s attempt at a total victory resulted in a total defeat… and Gates’ impatience at getting schools on board with his data-centric vision led to the failure.
In my comment to Diane Ravitch’s blog post I observed that when technocrats make bundles of money using mathematical algorithms to “earn” money or develop computer codes and programs to corner the marketplace they believe they can use the same kind of thinking to solve social problems. Alas for them, what works in cyberspace seldom works on planet earth.