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Higher Education

For the uncertain future ahead institutions of postsecondary education have to consider with great care all resources, enhance and secure them for a very difficult journey. In the knowledge economy, human capital is one of the most important assets for institutions, economies and societies. For universities, values such as trust, collegiality, tolerance, empathy, compassion, civic responsibility, commitment for the unhindered and courageous search of truth stay as pillars of stability for considerable tests and challenges ahead.

Read more in my article on the Insights blog: Human capital, academic values and sustainable governance in higher education.

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Higher education is at a point where many universities need to activate their immune system to fight against “affluenza”. To understand what is “affluenza” we can look at a recent story published by Time about a drunk teenager who got behind the wheel of his car killing four people on a road in Texas and seriously injuring two of his passengers. What makes this story remarkable is that this teenager will not go to prison as he was affected by “affluenza” – the condition of having rich parents and a cultivated sense of entitlement with a withering sense of responsibility. An expert was called by the attorney to explain how difficult is to grow up in a wealthy family (who knew how lucky I was to have the opposite?). The judge sentenced him to 10 years of probation for the fatal accident. His father “has agreed to pay the $450,000 bill for his rehabilitation program“. If criminal acts are judged with outrageous double standards and a convenient price tag is a solution for any crime and tragedy, it may be a time to look seriously at what is “affluenza” and what other parts of our lives and society it may affect.  

When Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for US Presidency, famously said during his election campaign that “corporations are people, my friend!” he just reasserted an idea placed at the core beliefs guiding now most financial and political systems of the world: corporate capitalism and market arrangements are the only system able to bring progress and human benefit. This ideology survives and becomes more aggressive despite a global financial crisis and numerous examples where major corporations are embroiled in public scandals. These stories reveal that fraud, corruption and criminal behaviours so vile that make Nigerian scams look like innocent pranks were taken as common practice. Major banks reached in 2013 multi-million-dollar settlements with victims of their fraudulent acts, but – unlike “people”, who go to prison for inside trading, fraud and corruption – corporations prove that even if their criminal acts are investigated a cut of profits is enough as a penalty. For example, Johnson & Johnson recently reached a settlement of over 2 billion dollars for civil and criminal allegations such as bribing doctors and pharmacies to prescribe some of their drugs to elderly, children and the disabled, despite health risks or no scientific data to prove their benefits. This is not an isolated case, but a “trend” in what media called “the latest in a string of legal actions against drug companies that allegedly put profits ahead of patients“. 

That corporations and people have very different standards of responsibility seems quite clear for an objective observer. A long list of facts and stories published by international media show that corporate capitalism places important market players above the law. (Iceland is so far the only notable exception from the rule of ignoring illegal acts committed by corporate executives – see Iceland jails former Kaupthing bank bosses). Market capitalism turns today into para-religious forms, with a philosophy built on rather simplistic binary opposites, where accumulation of capital and profits promise a heaven that will trickle down on the rest of society and Satan speaks about the common good and social equity. It should be no surprise then that ideas sold by corporate ventures are defended with righteous fundamentalism, as the history shows that any religious-like system is building a proper inquisition, with zealot followers. 

Higher education was ineluctably caught into this logic and adopted what was called “the new public management”. The university turned into a large institution like any other, managed just like a corporation. In a decade since World Trade Organisation formally included education in the list of commodities that can be part of trade negotiations, many universities were left open to the virus of “affluenza”. Greed and lack of social responsibility are too often displayed as achievements in what became “the global marketplace of higher education”: from total disregard for academic freedom, opening branches in countries with a very poor record on human rights, to a proudly displayed move to impoverish academic workforce and constantly increase casualisation. Social engagement, civic responsibility or responsibility for students’ future is in many cases just part of a narrative used to sell a contract, just as any shrewd salesmen is using luring stories to sell the product to any potential victim. Criteria of efficiency, profitability and market dominance became de facto the only priority for many universities. However, getting confused to the point where it seems plausible that this is sustainable for higher education and society is just a side effect of ‘affluenza’. 

Narratives and dangerous imagination

In 2012 Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, explained in an interview with Chronicle of Higher Education why college costs so much money: “…it costs so much because it can!” The long term effect of this logic is hard to evaluate, but a recent analysis published in December 2013 by The Guardian reveals that “The class of 2012 has the highest student loan burden of any graduating college class in history, continuing a five-year trend of rising debt loads on millennials just coming out of school.” (see Student loan debt hits a new high as millennials take ‘poverty-wage’ jobs ). Even in a time when the goal of higher education is deceivingly reduced to employment, we see that graduate underemployment and unemployment remain at the best just a marginal topic for research and public discussion. Responsibility for students’ future, for what they really learn in higher education is left in the shadow of profits.

“The class of 2012 has the highest student loan burden of any graduating college class in history, continuing a five-year trend of rising debt loads on millennials just coming out of school.”

College Stats presents in ‘Dollars and Sense: A Global Look at Student Debt‘ a sobering picture for a system that seems to be focussed more on immediate profits than into a sustainable model for higher education and society. Data leads to the conclusion that we have a system closer in ideology to Wall Street and neoliberal fantasies than any serious concern for sustainable progress, civic responsibility, democratic citizenship or the long term role of higher learning. The fact is that the system is absolutely comfortable with rising inequality: a new study by Dr. John Jerrim at the Institute of Education at the University of London reveals that access to high-status universities in UK, the United States and Australia is de facto reserved to students from wealthy families. This seems to be another symptom of “affluenza” with effects well beyond the walls of academia, as it is already documented (e.g. OECD published a comprehensive report on inequality and its effects Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising and the US Center for American Progress just released The Impact of Inequality on Growth - an excellent analysis on this topic). 

The wealth of evidence may seem sufficient to clarify that inequality and widening wealth gap come with serious dangerous for society and economy. However, the narrative built as a confusing bricolage with bits of social Darwinism, Ayn Rand fantasies and trickle-down economic theories still engages minds and imaginations.

A recent example of this ideology was provided recently by Boris Johnson, the conservative Mayor of London, often presented as the possible next prime minister of Britain. In a speech at the conservative Centre for Policy Studies in London – titled What Would Maggie do Today? - the mayor of London revealed among other things that he finds Gordon Gekko, the corrupt fictional character in the 1987 film Wall Street, a great source of inspiration for economic growth and market ethics. He encouraged the ‘Gordon Gekkos of London’ to be greedy – as “greed is a valuable motivator for economic progress - and continued:

“No one can ignore the harshness of [free market] competition, or the inequality that it inevitably accentuates; and I am afraid that violent economic centrifuge is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth.

Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.

And for one reason or another – boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and god-given talent of boardroom inhabitants – the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever. I stress: I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.”

David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, reacted to this speech on BBC Radio 4:

“It’s extraordinary for a mayor, who should be for all of London, to think it’s all right to glorify greed – a greed that has brought a banking collapse and caused misery and hardship to many Londoners, particularly to young people who can’t get on the housing ladder.”

We should note that it is also absolutely remarkable to find that an influential European politician echoes social solutions dangerously close to what remains in the history of the continent as a colossal tragedy. Of course, education was also part of his speech, as a natural extension of this strange vision about IQs and social stratification. It seems that for those who think alike, the most irritating mistake made by the British politician was to openly admit what other neoliberal politicians around the world talk behind closed doors (i.e. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney 47% comment).

The primacy of market efficiency and immediate profits involve a serious cost on a long term for universities, and many are still comfortable to embrace denial and mediocrity. This can be fatal in a future marked by uncertainties.

A Neoliberal Dystopian Fantasy: The Wal-Mart Model for Higher Education

Evaluating the impact of current arrangements on higher education on the long-term – especially when current paradigms and managerial models stay unchanged thanks to a remarkably common ruthless pressure from decision makers – deserves more serious attention. Higher education systems based on neoliberal policies and models of governance stay now around the world as examples of explosive student debt.

The first reason is that ‘customers’ are disenchanted, youth may be less tempted to get massive debt to pay universities that have profits and exploitation as the most visible values. A recent opinion poll released by Wells Fargo reveals – among other worrying trends for a new generation able to see the effects of new public management in higher education – that “Paying off student loan debt is the top concern of millennials [...] About a third of millennials (31%) feel they would have been better off working, instead of going to college and paying tuition“. Arguably, this is already a significant percentage of graduates thinking that their investment was a mistake. We can just hope that they will not spread the word…

Paying off student loan debt is the top concern of millennials [...] About a third of millennials (31%) feel they would have been better off working, instead of going to college and paying tuition

In the US we see a staggering 1 trillion dollars in student debt, with ever-increasing numbers of graduates incapable to pay back their debt. In UK, the National Audit Office released last month a report showing that outstanding loan debt is already reaching £46 billion and will rise to £200bn in the next 30 years. It is also estimated that half of graduates will not earn enough to repay all their study loan.

It becomes clear that masters of efficiency, accountability and profits fail to deliver on their promises. However, governing universities as any other institution that can flourish only under an ‘efficient’ corporate management is still the ubiquitous model in place. There are some things that are worrying about current arrangements and their results, but what can go really wrong?

We can start with the impact on the most important capital for universities: academics. Policies on human resources adopted by colleges and universities under neoliberal models of governance already come with devastating effects for higher education. In search of increasing profits and control, entire systems have moved to massive casualisation, the reallocation of academic work from full-time, permanent employees to part-time (or “casual”) employees. Casual employees are cheaper, more “flexible” (translation: they have very limited rights and can be fired fast), are not paid leave entitlements, and are hired on an hour-to-hour, week-to-week, year-to-year basis at low rates. Short term contracts are another measure of “efficiency”. The last decade in higher education has been marked by a meteoric rise of “casualisation”, which today has reached unprecedented levels. In Australia, an open letter signed in 2012 by 68 senior staff at the University of Sydney said that “higher education is already the country’s second-most casualised industry, after catering”. In the US, the American Association of University Professors announced that the tenure system has “all but collapsed” and casuals make a stunning 75% of academic staff. In the UK, the pressure on academic staff created a national “anti-casualisation committee”.

The contingent and precarious academic staff in various positions represent now the absolute majority of academic workforce for many universities. The tragic fate of an adjunct professor of French who was teaching for 25 years in higher education is relevant for the extent of the problem. A local newspaper tells the story:

“…she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity – a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself [...] For a proud professional like Margaret Mary, this was the last straw; she was mortified. She begged me to call Adult Protective Services and tell them to leave her alone, that she could take care of herself and did not need their help. I agreed to. Sadly, a couple of hours later, she was found on her front lawn, unconscious from a heart attack. She never regained consciousness.”

Times Higher Education recently reported  that in the US “some academics have had to go ‘bin diving’ because of lack of money”. The ideal model for too many managers in higher education is not any corporation, but a corporation like Wal-Mart (in a remarkably similar and relevant story, a Wal-Mart store in the US was asking customers “To Donate Food To Its Needy Employees“)

As many other sectors, higher education is seduced by the American model and casualisation is the solution followed by many systems and universities. How universities will be able to attract and retain the best and the brightest? Job insecurity and low wages may soon become much more important than the passion for academia, learning teaching and research. How it is possible to lead an organisation to success based on pillars such as insecurity, fear and impoverishment of human capital?

Affluenza and antidotes

An article in Washington Post describes how the verdict was reached in the surreal story about a teenager with “affluenza” and parents rich enough to buy – literally – all they wish:

Prosecutors had asked that the boy be sentenced to 20 years in prison, but Gary Miller, the psychologist who testified in his behalf, recommended counseling. Miller said that the boy had an unhealthy relationship with his wealthy parents, who used him as a tool and a hostage to extract concessions from each other.
Meanwhile, they neglected to teach Miller that dangerous behavior could have serious consequences

It seems that this condition can be treated if the unhealthy relationship with the wealthy parents is questioned and challenged. This may be a very important step for some universities. Denial is very dangerous and leads to tragedies. Counselling may be required for severe cases, with immune systems too weak to fight against it. The most important thing is that it is the time to realise the range of implications and consequences of dangerous behaviour for universities, institutions that are now crucially important to defend human and democratic values. There are still sane examples that can be used as models to save entire systems.

©popenici2013

In the current debate about the future of education a radical position is increasingly popular: teachers and teaching are obsolete, a part of a decrepit model of education. According to this, the teacher organising learning – and any representative of what George Steiner called “the aristocracy of intellect” – is an old model that must be replaced with a revolutionary no-teacher model. It is implied – or directly expressed – that only students have the inherent power to organise learning and teaching better. “Youth” must be left to lead the revolution where learning and teaching are ‘flipped’ to fall in their hands. Technological innovation is always used – along with other valid arguments leading to same wrong conclusions – as a clear body of proof that teachers are not needed anymore and students, from primary school to higher education, need just to be left alone to organise their own learning.

The narrative of this ideological position states that teachers need to have just a decorative  minor role by helping youth with content, resources and facilitate entertainment, following their needs and lead. The first problem is that this is not revolutionary, nor new. The second problem is that there is too often a problematic common point linking the teacher-centered and teacher-less approach to education: an underlying contempt for students. From this perspective there is very little difference between a position designing education where students are obedient and impersonal subjects and that where students are customers, impersonal entities seeking comfort, entertainment and customer satisfaction. These positions invariably fail to accept the student role in education as individuals in search of exploratory journeys where learning experiences are capable to push their limits out of the comfort zones for knowledge, new ideas and discovery.

It is inherently wrong to adopt the position that students need just to be left alone, find comfort and feel empowered in easy and entertaining tasks. One reason is that this approach is causing a decline of standards and expectations through a constant effort to secure ‘positive’ feelings from student-customers (as a superficial form of ‘feedback”). Another equally important reason is that this seems is one of the most hurtful and deceiving forms of contempt for students’ potential and intellectual capacities, for their life and future.

The End of the Teacher

The “end of the teacher” trend – especially popular across Western education – is fuelled by a variety of factors. Commercialisation of education brings to the table the twisted view of students as customers.  A good part of the right oriented political establishment translates into policies (and budget cuts) a general distaste for science and their aggressive anti-intellectual beliefs. Pseudo-experts in education bring a significant contribution to this fad with their very superficial understanding of learning, teaching and pedagogy (manifested otherwise in a proudly exposed distaste for reading, which is seasoned with shock-jock/arrogant remarks about all possible issues in education). Regardless of source and ideological support, these sources build together a dangerous trend for the future of our students. A decline in rigour and quality of education is rarely documented – as this is one of the no-go zones for educational research – and when it is, the unusual passion and energy spent to dismiss it and deny this possibility is a significant indicator.  

The general acceptance of some myths surrounding teaching and learning explain why it is not surprising anymore to find influential and generally respected academics sharing and promoting, with no critical review, articles revolving around this narrative. An example is a recent  piece of writing published by the Huffington Post, ‘It’s Time to Get Rid of Teaching and Learning‘ We can find there a first ideological source of a model stating that education is best when students are guiding alone their own learning. According to this perspective, youth is better at organising learning and teaching is good when is left in students’ hands. Teachers here have a marginal role, as employees in charge with students’ safety, comfort and entertainment. Unsurprisingly, the argumentative structure is childishly simplistic and uninformed. To take just one of the many errors we can look at this argument used as a proof against teaching:

“It could look a lot like something we’re all familiar with – learning to walk. When an infant learns to walk, the fact that its parents (authority figures) are already world-class walkers does not help them.”

In fact, it helps! The author is obviously ignoring entire libraries of research about the importance of social interaction for learning. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, research and theoretical literature on cognition, motivation, and human development offer the evidence that this is a simply a wrong opinion based on a personal guess.

We have to observe that one of the main problems of this ideological position resides in the evident overlook of the history of education. Here can be found that the “Democratic schooling” movement is over a century old and stay as an ongoing radical experiment in education. There are numerous examples of failings of this current, but some institutions still exist and can teach important lessons about the test of time on this solution. For example, one of the oldest democratic schools is Summerhill, a co-educational boarding school in Suffolk, England, founded in 1921 by the British educator A.S. Neill. This movement had plenty of time to test its ideas and limits. Therefore,  it may be very good to have a look at what we already have before we start testing ideas that are just presented as new and revolutionary.

No Teachers Needed, Students Do This Better

New pedagogies, imaginative teaching and a variety of options for educational pathways are crucial for student engagement and success.

In France, an “innovative school” is proposing now “A Different Way To Learn“, which is detailed in the title of a recent article: “A School With No Teachers, Where Students Teach Themselves“. The title speaks on itself about the solution proposed to solve a crisis of creativity, employment and in general the future of France.  

In Schools of 2030: no grades, no exams, no teachers? the future is also imagined in line with the same utopian narrative where students are breaking the shackles of teachers’ presence, organising learning in engaging and meaningful forms. This article starts with a great idea: “Imagine a school without examinations, age based grades, and a single teacher… “. Unfortunately, it fails to explain the role of that single teacher for an entire school.

Imagining seems to be a constant weak point of our times, and the call for action is truly commendable. The problem here is that imagination is good only when there is good quality fuel to make it work. The fuel of imagination is the information we have. The engine of our imagination is our educated mind, the well built intellect, which is also capable to discern between illusions or dangerous scenarios and positive and plausible solutions. 

There is no doubt that diversity and a variety of options for educational pathways is crucial for student engagement and success. However, this is very different from presenting an old idea as new and revolutionary. In the current end-of-teaching movement there are many who push much further than A.S. Neil and pedagogues aligned with old democratic schools ideas. The role of the teacher – finding solutions in new pedagogies, connectedness and a collaborative mindset – will remain crucial for the quality of educational outcomes. 

The role of the teacher – finding solutions in new pedagogies, connectedness and a collaborative mindset – will remain crucial for the quality of educational outcomes.

When we talk about the demise of the teacher and the need to abolish the influence of any Teacher/Mentor model in education it may be useful to consider also where these positions find an equivalent in the past. Results of past experiments are important when plans for the future are presented so enthusiastically, with little evidence that they actually work.

One massive social experiment was applied in China from 1966 to late ’70s. In a different utopia, Mao Zedong decided that the best way to renew fossilised institutions is to remove all old ideas, old customs, old culture and old teachers for a new prosperous, enlightened and classless society. The Cultural Revolution found that youth is better at organising learning, knowledge and the new society. The reasons and solutions differ, but the idea was surprisingly similar: representations and representatives of teachings of the past had to leave the scene. In Mao’s thinking youth was not yet corrupted and all scholars, teachers, writers, poets and intellectuals were announced as propagandists for the corrupt past. After 10 miserable and long years with millions of victims, The Cultural Revolution reached a predictable end.

The disastrous consequences of this utopia were vast and reached every aspect of Chinese society. Among these terrible effects was that China had to rebuild with a generation that was left for a decade with no education, as all teachers were killed or sent in “re-education camps”, the cynical title used for killing fields or forced labour. Youth was not better without teachers and society paid an enormous price for what seemed to be at that time a reachable solution. One possible lesson is that Utopia is a very dangerous space for education and solutions must be carefully considered, no matter how seductive they are at a certain point in our evolution. 

On the history of the future of learning and teaching

A Cultural revolution 2.0. is possible if we take utopian narratives and luring ideas as realistic and informed solutions for our future. There is no doubt that a symbolic elimination of the teacher is superior to Mao’s solution (or other similar examples throughout the history), but effects can be still devastating. Millions of new victims can leave schools poorly educated in a time when machines eliminate workers with basic skills at an accelerated pace. We can just imagine what can happen when millions of graduates with very little knowledge and skills, but high expectations built in years of comfortable play mislabeled as education, will find that there are no jobs for them. We have the responsibility to shape the future of our students and this cannot be taken lightly, as a field of careless experimentation of various fantasies or fanciful solutions. 

We can just imagine what can happen if millions of graduates with very little knowledge and skills, but high expectations built in years of comfortable play mislabeled as education, will find that there are no jobs for them.

This is why the past and the long history of education needs to be seriously considered when we think about disrupting the pedagogical model that came with the industrial revolution and stifled our imagination. The past is not offering only a source of lessons about the impact of some ideas that look new, but are already tried. It is a fertile ground for new ideas for our future. Myths and studies in cultural archetypes were an invaluable source for George Lucas when he created the story of Star Wars. There are numerous similar examples and new pedagogies can learn from these industries and seek some new solutions on these old narratives. Myths and cultural archetypes are able to describe what is embedded in the human nature when we engage in learning in formal and informal contexts.  

To take just one example from one of the few immortal stories for humanity we can see Homer’s Odyssey. In this epic poem we find the highly symbolic character of Mentor, a friend of Ulysses (Odysseus). When Ulysses is leaving for the Trojan War, in a journey that took him 20 years, his son Telemachus is placed under Mentor’s guidance and protection. The story of Mentor is not about what we currently understand as education, but about enlightened guidance towards knowledge and shaping character. Mentor was not simply a self-appointed controller of knowledge and learning, but a wise figure who was there to help Telemachus to think courageously and independently, encouraging him to ask questions and challenge assumptions. It is a complex story about education based on trust, for wisdom and responsibility. This narrative – based on the complex educational ideal of paideia – was not the source of a Cultural revolution, but a flourishing and seminal culture that was able to give the world the ideal of democracy. 

The future may see a rise of the Teacher, in a new paradigm – and education today and tomorrow cannot be based on schooling models imagined in line with the industrial revolution, in 1920′s and 1950′s

This may be a source for imagining education of the future, where technological advance not only replace many jobs, but make critical for individual’s success to leave schools a strong set of new skills. There is nothing new in the call to nurture in our students the capacity to imagine, critically explore new ideas and solutions, operate in line with ethical values in a responsible manner. However, the teacher is forced to teach to the test, to be an accountant of results rather than a helper in a journey to discovery and experience. The change in the future may be a rise of the Teacher rather than a demise. If it will become clear that we all need good education, with rigour and respect, for the teacher and student.

There are many uncomfortable realities of education that are generally avoided today; among them is that good education takes time and effort, personalised guidance, trust and work. An educated mind is built with imagination and work, and comfort is rarely associated with significant results. In this complex endeavour, technology will help the student to explore knowledge and ideas in collaboration with peers and guidance from a wise teacher.

For those who love literature is clear that the Great Gatsby was wrong: you cannot repeat the past. We also know that in this beautiful novel Gatsby’s story shows that the future depends on how you imagine it. We are at the right time to think with courage and clarity about some lessons from the past and imagine a sustainable and positive future.

©Popenici2013

The American writer H. L. Mencken once said that there is always a well-known solution to every human problem: neat, plausible, and wrong. MOOCs look neat, are plausible and… too many get it wrong! MOOCs captured the imagination of venture capitalists, academics and university administrators and this is a rare thing for higher education. Enthusiasm and a bit of passion in this field is always a welcome change. The problem is that – despite exuberant enthusiasm surrounding them - MOOCs remain marked by many unanswered questions and still fail to clarify how they will deal with many crucial pedagogical and managerial aspects. Again, we do not talk about online education here, but MOOCs!

Most probably major changes lie ahead for MOOCs, as these course platforms will change even more than universities that were supposed to be replaced by these online solutions. In very simple words, we can say that it becomes clear that MOOCs are simply not enough to change higher education and stay just as one small bit of the complex set of social, economic, cultural and even technological issues impacting higher education.

The Economist and The New York Times, academics and various experts in education proclaimed “the year of the MOOC” and that the end of the campus as we know it is certain. The excitement around MOOCs became so extreme that anyone asking for the old kind of evidence-based arguments was pinpointed as an outdated conservative fighting against the Enlightenment. Groupthink is was shaping for a good time policies for higher education, making the new virtual silver-bullet a solution for most important problems confronting the future of colleges and universities across the world: MOOCs promised to solve inequity and barriers to access, increasing costs and explosive student debt, quality assurance, sustainability, critical thinking, creativity and innovation. The magic of clicks and “innovation” was evident to all who identified with the ‘progressive’ pack.

When Anant Agarwal, the President of edX (the MOOC consortium launched by Harvard and MIT) went to The Colbert Report to discuss about his initiative, Stephen Colbert used again his subversive humour to ask some questions that went unobserved by many university presidents and managers:

“I don’t understand – Colbert said – You’re in the knowledge business in a university… Let’s say I had a shoe store, ok, and then I hired you to work at my shoe store. And you said, <Hey, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s give the shoes away for free>… I would fire you and then probably throw shoes at your head.”

Obviously, the business model proposed by MOOC need to make sense for all those venture capital investors. Some already say that this is why most probably MOOCs will serve the universities and change after their needs and models. This means that the MOOC idea is disrupted much more than the “old university” will be ever disrupted by the MOOC movement.

Fortunately, this story had the typical fate of all fads: it went from irrational enthusiasm to a more balanced view, where many evaluate the positive role of MOOCs, advantages and limits, proper uses and possibilities to enhance their role for teaching and learning in line with students and universities’ interests. Some went from disbelief to depression and stubborn refusal to accept a change in the general tone of the conversation, but very few went to the extremes. Questions remain unanswered, but the overall discussion provides in the current context a more nuanced analysis and possible solutions.

What are the indisputable advantages of MOOCs? How it is possible to explain that so many respectable academics actually believed so many promises often against the most evident examples working against them (e.g. an unclear business model, overwhelmingly low completion rates etc)? What MOOCs will change in higher education?

From MOOCs to MOOC$ – and next steps

In some recent discussion it became evident that MOOCs were considered by some as synonymous to online education. This is why it is important to have a succinct look at the meaning of this acronym: a recent paper published by the European University Association gives us a useful summary of what is a MOOC:

MOOCs stands for Massive Open Online Courses. So far, MOOCs can be characterised as follows:

  • they are online courses
  • with no formal entry requirement
  • no participation limit
  • are free of charge
  • and do not earn credits.”

Developing since 2008, MOOCs offered the seductive promise of limitless possibilities to offer access to university courses “free of charge” for all. The key stands in “so far”… the free nature of MOOCs is raising a series of serious problems. “Free” has played a major role in the rise of massively open online courses, engaging the imagination of all thinking about a time when higher education will be opened to all (probably including workers in shifts of 12 hours per day, making computers for those who have the luxury to access Internet and find time for online courses).

In my recent book I mentioned the overused comparison between higher education and music industry. Not only that higher education is very different from any other industry, but even this comparison is twisted to the extent that an important lesson is hidden by constant misinterpretation:

“We can imagine what would have happened if the music industry’s reaction to the MP3 and Napster would not have been iTunes, iPods or Amazon music, but a move to offer free music to all. In this scenario Massive Online Open Music (MOOM) would have been funded by the music industry confident in the promise presented by players on the stock market that somehow “money would follow”. There is no doubt that a MOOM is a noble solution, as many find music an indispensable part of their lives and getting it for free or for a symbolic price would make the world a better place. It could even be argued that this would be humanitarian, as many use music for therapeutic purposes. At this point we can easily imagine that this solution just would spell the end of the music industry.”

This partially explains why MOOCs have a serious identity crisis: current models try to leave the crucial “open=free” aside and ask “minimal” fees to give credits. MOOCs promise of “making education available to all” sounds great for educators, but is nuanced differently by various start-ups and venture capitalists who invested in the new big thing in Silicon Valley. The “open and free higher education for all” is discreetly replaced by “low costs”. An example is offered by Georgia Institute of Technology that will “soon begin offering an online master’s degree in computer science at an unusually low cost“. This “MOOC-like course” will cost around 7000$.

We immediately observe that ‘low cost’ is very far from free and open to all. The 7000$ that can “open the door to higher education” for people around the world, including millions in the US, are simply just unaffordable for a very large number of people.

Some may argue that cost is associated only with the credit and the course is still open to all. This was already the source of major surprises for some providers: a (pricey) effort to build credit MOOCs got zero takers when the university charged as little as $89 for credit courses that cost in campus over $1,000. When you pay the time for staff to write the course, the infrastructure capable to accommodate hundreds of thousands of students, resources etc… the ‘zero takers’ surprise can be truly devastating. 

It became clear that MOOCs can be perceived by many students (and employers) as a form of entrainment with an academic flavour,  a kind of TED talks for nerds. This legitimate challenge makes harder to justify spending “massive” resources to pay for “massive” course design, IT infrastructure, administration, video production etc. The value of a MOOC requires now a bit more work and in-depth thinking, to align this effort with a wider strategy for every institution. 

There seems to be a promise to open already opened doors

Moreover, a detail ignored for a while became clearer: we already have the solution of freely available courses with videos and pdf files, web-links and books on Amazon through websites and platforms such as iTunes U (or various Learning Management Systems used by universities) for a long time. Open Universities across the world have an already long tradition of offering free (access) courses or non-credit courses with a small fee. The simple addition of forums and discussion groups cannot be seriously taken as the most important innovation that can dramatically change higher education. If we claim this, then we have to accept that we all reached a point of very little imagination and depth for our solutions.

So, if a MOOC is ‘open’, but not free, what is it?

The enthusiasm for the silver bullet went too often too far. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, recently underlined something that should be clear to any university administrator:

I’m not a person who thinks that people will be able to just go online and get a complete education without the guidance of the teacher. That sort of simplistic model shouldn’t be our framework.”

The simplistic way of thinking about organising learning and teaching in higher education is simply not sustainable on a long term. Adherence to a fad may work for a personal agenda, but comes with serious risks and costs for institutions and systems. Some will learn again a very painful lesson. The reality is that online solutions are still underused by higher education, but we are left to wait for genuine innovation that is capable to provide alternatives in line with academic rigour, quality assurance and student needs in higher education. Students cannot be engaged by simple conversions of boring lectures into online videos that are even more boring, affected by clunky and poorly designed technological solutions and rigid platforms for discussions and “forums”.

Universities need to use online technology where it really works - Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia

Presumed Authority and Crumbling Credibility

To understand why so many academics and administrators adopted with no hesitation the snake oil merchant promises we need to think about what Tom Whitby notes:

“I am tired of educators who espouse technology for everyone else, but fail to employ it for themselves and their profession [...] We should look at everyone’s digital footprint including administrators. What is their educational philosophy as it is stated in the digital world? What does their Professional Learning Network include? What is it they have collaborated on in the Social media world? How effective are they in the very collaboration skills that they claim to have? How reflective are they based on their public blog? Do they hold to their principles in their public reflections?”
Find the online profile of the expert on the online solutions and innovations: see their LinkedIn profile and network, read their blog and find the ideas they put online to represent their thinking on an open platform

A healthy exercise for all is to look online as soon as you hear any advocate of online solutions and check the consistency of discourse with reality. Too often we hear academics speak about “social media” in higher education when it is painfully clear that the same person never used Twitter, barely grasps the function of “like” on Facebook and still (secretly) thinks that LinkedIn is just a silly hobby. An academic journal is very rarely an open platform, so don’t let yourself intimidated by a long list of academic publications: the walled gardens of academic publishing do not follow the logic of MOOCs and Internet openness.

Public disclosure: I just applied this exercise to a list of speakers in a conference on “innovation and teaching” (what else?). The result was truly remarkable (or simply depressive). The good part is that it became clear that this can save a lot of money and time wasted in sterile acts of self-admiration and opinion-production packaged in the form of pseudo-academic work.

The value of MOOC

In the run to increase profits and “market shares” many universities lost their way, leaving aside their values, adopting a mix of compulsory mediocrity and quasi-managerial jargon. The effect is not only that many institutions of higher education are stuck into a management model close to what was common in 1930′s than what is now adopted by smart and flexible corporations. The effect is that students start to question (and most probably refuse to enrol in the future) in lectures with 500+ students crowded in various halls and large amphitheatres. MOOC-like provision is an easy replacement for this bizarre form of academic model of making profits.

In the same time, MOOCs start already to evolve much less against the “brick and mortar” university and much more in line with the needs of students and institutions of higher education. The main reason is that the only way these platforms can make profit in the future is to work in consonance with credit providers that are accepted and (still) trusted by employers.

Universities based on strong academic values and academic freedom most probably will build MOOCs that show their strength and focus on quality learning and teaching, and genuine innovation. But most probably, MOOCs are also already responsible for the acceleration of a crisis for universities that forgot their core values. If profit is all what they stand for in reality, then this will impact directly their evolution and future for the long term. Many will slowly dissolve, others will move to the periphery where many will struggle in a though competition to find customers for cheap and low value credentials.

The MOOC hype also revealed a worrying appetite of a surprising number of academics and politicians to get enthused by simplistic solutions for higher education, by silver bullets and vague promises. This reflects many things, but most of all it shows how widespread is the belief – within and outside academia – that learning and teaching is a matter of common expertise. Everyone seems to share the opinion that – since most of us go through various forms of education - pedagogy and extensive knowledge in learning and teaching is a simple, familiar and common field of expertise to all. There is no other field where you can step in and say: I am an expert and I can tell you how to do things properly as education became. The butcher, the baker, the sailor and the candle stick maker all take the position of qualified experts in education. This trend is responsible for the collapse of many school systems and no one can argue that universities are immune to the same causes. The impact on the future quality of what many like to call “human capital” can be more significant than what we can imagine at this point. 

It is evident that mastering critical thinking, collaboration, presentation skills and genuine empathy require human connection, interaction and practice, and are best acquired in person, not only online. This is why we like to drink our coffee with friends – whenever possible – on a coffee shop, not on Skype, with a cheaper cup brewed at home. It is also evident that online medium offers the possibility of connectivity, exploration and the use of well built imaginative capabilities. The balanced use of online and on campus solutions stay as a key for the future of higher education.

There is significant value in all forms of learning, online and on campus. Education must answer fast the challenge to nurture students’ imagination, creativity and build their skills for innovation for a future marked by uncertainty and serious challenges 

Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, recently said that “In the global economy, creativity is essential. Today’s workers need more than just skills and knowledge to be productive and innovative participants in the workforce. […] To succeed today and in the future, America’s children will need to be inventive, resourceful, and imaginative.”

Software, MOOCs, apps, learning management systems and other online solutions are just tools that can be used to answer these challenges. They are important tools, but not solutions on itself to achieve the difficult task of building inventive, educated, resourceful, and imaginative new generations.

©Popenici

Australian universities received last night the official confirmation that the last 6 months bring a colossal cut of $3.8 billion dollars to their funding. In a time of tremendous changes and the certainty about a very uncertain future, universities across the world should look at this story and see if there are not some important lessons to be learned.

The Perfect Storm for Universities – an article about the type of problems that may affect universities in a near future, which I published last December – was followed by condescending or visceral reactions “at home”. Most of these were aiming to fix my ignorance and help me learn that Australian universities are stable, affluent and looking to solve only problems associated with a continuous growth. I learned among other things that Australian universities are “growing rapidly due to the changed funding arrangements” and the future is bright because “all student numbers do continue to rise“. The perspective of a time when universities compete for students and ideas was deemed as absurd. The hypothesis that higher education needs to look beyond fads, local cliques and petty interests to find imaginative and sustainable models to secure their own future seemed eccentric and marginal. It turns out that that time was closer than even I imagined few months ago.

The last weeks are marked by a very different tone and news about “the changed funding arrangements”: it is possible now to hear some voices warning that “cutbacks place the entire (Australian) university sector at risk”. There are now advertisements on national television with – what else? – brief dull lectures about the risk of massive funding cuts for higher education and (missed) benefits of investments in universities. Despite some sporadic and – unfortunately – poorly designed efforts, the public seems to be as moved by this narrative as it is by a media story about a new recipe for chicken wings. Few students protested (for instance, in Sydney around 30 students gathered to protest about internal problems that “coincided” to a day of protests announced by the national union of tertiary education), while others had a lunch break to “protest”. Most left this event unnoticed. Analyzing the new budget presented last night by the Australian Government, mass media was also blatantly ignoring cuts to higher education, focusing on other “winners” and “losers” of the new budget and on a shocking deficit.

The Gillard Government’s decision to cut billions of dollars in funding for universities is not really big news in Australia. As previously noted, for the last 6 months it was clear that serious cuts are under way for higher education. Universities and students were informed that this is coming and they will pay the price. No reaction! A first cloud came almost unnoticed in the form of a report including the story of Australian student debt, higher than expected. It became clear that we have an official estimate for 6.5 billion dollars in student loans that will not be repaid (which translates into “a significant number of graduates will have terrible jobs and incomes so low that they’ll not be able to pay back loans”). Mostly unobserved was also the release of statistics revealing a slight drop in international student enrolments in Australia. Moreover, an official announcement shocked some executives when it was revealed that 1 billion dollars in funding research will not be available anymore.

Universities Australia’s Chief Executive, Belinda Robinson recently warned:

Off the back of $3.8 billion in cuts inflicted on universities and students over the past six months, the Australian community is becoming increasingly concerned that a high quality university system is being sacrificed to fund school reforms – when both are part of the recipe for national success

There are literally no signs that this warning was heard. There is no doubt that on a medium and long term these last 6 months will greatly impact on the status and importance of Australian higher education. More importantly, it will impact on innovation and research and local capacity to focus on alternative ideas and solutions for challenges ahead.

Nevertheless, public and academics looked at this unfolding story with remarkable nonchalance. The apathy, indifference or denial partially explain the ubiquitous silence. If some within academia live a pleasant dream feed by ignorance and denial that billions of dollars vanishing from higher education translate in just few small changes in their budgets, they are certainly wrong. They may think that this massive cut is leaving mostly unchanged their familiar landscape, but this is just impossible. When reality will hit those in denial it will be too late. Unfortunately, we have to admit that foundations of many systems of higher education are weakened now by a stunning lack of vision within the walled gardens of academia.

In few words, the lack of public reaction to devastating blows to universities is a first important lesson.

The political political dimension is relevant to understand why. It is clear now that politicians from both Australian political poles understand that cutting funds from universities to give these money to schools translates into more votes. Just before elections, a rare implicit consensus on something of major importance (when it seems that local politicians try as hard as they can to reenact the The Tower of Babel) shows that universities are not close to the hearts of voters. Taking from universities to give to schools doesn’t make any sense for public policies and a sustainable future, but in political terms this move is seen in line with voters’ preferences.

The fact is that the Australian public proved now that it is mostly indifferent about what is happening with local universities. This must be a source of great concern for academics and administrators. They have the urgent call to reconnect de facto their institutions with communities. The simple rhetoric about “sustainability”, “community involvement” and civic responsibility may work within some institutions – although low morale and staff disengagement usually reflect very clear the complete failure of this type of discourses – but proves to be completely ignored by those communities which are served just in discourse and not in real life. Seduced by their imagined realities and the sound of their own voices, academics and university administrators lost contact with the world around them. That world remains now indifferent to their fate and obvious arrogance. To ignore this when there is no doubt that the future holds many turns and tests can be a fatal mistake.

In Why Australia hates thinkers Alecia Simmonds explores how it is possible to show so blatantly that higher education is not seen as an investment in the future by the government and political establishment. Answers to this puzzle are more important than it seems, even if we consider just the fact that Australia is a country where universities are the third-largest export industry. The author’s explanation revolves simply around the effects of an ingrained anti-intellectualism:

There’s no doubt that Australia is a vast, sunny, intellectual gulag. The question is why [...] Perhaps there’s a link between the myth of Australian egalitarianism and anti-intellectualism. Australian history is popularly told as a story of democracy, equality and classlessness that broke from England’s stuffy, poncy, aristocratic elitism. We’re a place where hard yakka, not birth, will earn you success and by hard yakka we don’t mean intellectual labour. Although, of course, equality is a great goal, we’ve interpreted it to mean cultural conformity rather than a redistribution of wealth and power. The lowest common denominator exerts a tyrannical sway and tall poppies are lopped with blood-soaked scythes. Children learn from an early age that being clever is a source of shame. Ignorance is cool.

There’s also no room for cleverness in our models of masculinity or femininity. For women, intelligence equates with a dangerous independence that doesn’t sit well with your role as a docile adoring fan to the boys at the pub. It’s equated with sexual unattractiveness. And for men, carrying a book and using words longer than one syllable is a form of gender treason. It’s as good as wearing bumless chaps to a suburban barbecue. Real blokes have practical wisdom expressed through grunts and murmurs. Real Aussie chicks just giggle.”

The limit of this explanation is that anti-intellectualism is not an Australian invention, nor monopoly. A simple look at public (and political) life in the US reveals why it was possible to see a politician like Sarah Palin taken seriously for such a long time. Public displays of anti-intellectualism, anti-science and glorified ignorance are quite popular across North America, but we still find there some of the best universities in the world. Moreover,  we see a culture of public support for universities. Mass media is constantly reflecting problems and changes in universities and very often Nobel laureates and globally influential public figures publish first-page editorials about the fate of students and American universities. Any change in funding, social and economic context of universities is vastly reflected and discussed by media, think tanks, politicians and public figures.

It is something else about the Australian story and the key may be within the walls of universities…

To gain civic support, help from the public and see students building barricades to defend their universities (1968 style or less confrontational, but still very efficient), universities must be seen again as hubs of knowledge, civilization and progress for society. These institutions make sense if they stay as islands of free thinking where important challenges for society are approached with an open mind and expert insights. Citizens cannot be accused if the importance of an institutions is hidden behind an oblivious existence focused on bureaucratic hierarchies with glorified mediocrity, where obedience is the condition for survival. TV ads reminding the public that universities are beneficial just miss the point.

If a university is reduced to a profit-oriented assembly line built to deliver credentials (diplomas) and a set of skills to customers, then we have no reason to complain that the outside world relates to their stories in the same way they do when a local fast-food restaurant is a risk to be closed down.

Now it is time not only to encourage academics to speak truth to power, but the “power” itself must realize that this is a key for success and, ultimately, survival of their own positions. Everyone is responsible and the change can start immediately: a simple honest look can show if there are different opinions in the same faculty – and if these different opinions are publicly discussed or just whispered (the current fascination of academia with ‘whispers’ is a very interesting cultural detail…). If not, it is the time to start the change.

Lack of vision, “forbidden knowledge”, avoiding inconvenient truths, encouraging mediocrity and denial bring tremendous costs and risks for universities. Why? Because if we leave the future of this important institution to be decided by politicians running for votes, then we have no future! Most importantly, because we have to realize that we already live the first days of a global revolution of higher education. Those failing to see this will greatly regret that today they did not change.

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