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The prediction was that MOOCs will completely change the game in higher education. Enthusiasm was general – and groupthink so tempting – that many universities across the world adopted them as a panacea for “21st century learning” (and all other problems) without hesitation or critical reflection. Those reluctant to adopt MOOCs discovered that a “philosophical difference of opinion” with the governing boards on MOOCs involves a serious personal and professional cost.

MOOCs were described in the last years in strong metaphors, suitable to express the amplitude of the change that they bring to higher education. Since 2012 we find Massive Open Online Courses often associated with natural disasters: from “tsunami” to “an avalanche” or an earthquake,  MOOCs promised to completely reshape the landscape. MOOCs are – commentators said - a tsunami of change that “is coming, you like it or not“.

The year of 2012 was marked by the firm prediction of a “historic transformation through the MOOC”, promoted with evangelical passion as the solution for all problems faced by higher education. Poor of the world will enrol in Harvard and MIT courses, students of all nations will freely access higher education and gates of knowledge will finally stay unguarded for the first time in history. The New York Times published at the end of 2012 an article creatively titled The Year of the MOOC, David Brooks and Thomas Friedman wrote enthusiastic op-eds about the MOOC “revolution”, the “tsunami” that will undoubtedly transform higher education. The Economist – along with other financial publications that discovered overnight their in-depth expertise in pedagogy and higher education – followed the same line with an article titled Free education. Learning new lessons, which offers a perfect sample of the type of thinking fuelling that general excitement:

“MOOCs are more than good university lectures available online. The real innovation comes from integrating academics talking with interactive coursework, such as automated tests, quizzes and even games. Real-life lectures have no pause, rewind (or fast-forward) buttons [...] MOOCs enrich education for rich-world students, especially the cash-strapped, and those dissatisfied with what their own colleges are offering. But for others, especially in poor countries, online education opens the door to yearned-for opportunities.”

The solution to deliver good quality higher learning to all enlightened the imagination of many. The narrative was fantastic: the door to what Time called “High-End Learning on the Cheap” was discovered and new startups and venture capitalists were there to fight to open it for the benefit of the poor around the world. Thomas Friedman argued in 2012 that “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty” than Silicon Valley solutions and MOOCs will “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems“.

There is no doubt that rising inequality is a huge problem for the world. This is why is important to remember here that Silicon Valley makes San Francisco one of the most unequal cities in the US. The fact is that the Silicon Valley solution is not working at home, and American politicians make public calls to find answers. A set of important questions should be raised about any set of solutions coming from the same place where education for all or homelessness stay unaddressed and are on the rise (The Guardian reports that in Palo Alto, in California’s Silicon Valley “92% of homeless people lack shelter of any kind“).

Another luring promise of that time was that “The Internet Revolution” comes with a silver bullet for budgets in higher education. Universities were happy to see a new solution for their financial pressures. In Changing the Economics of Education The Wall Street Journal presented MOOCs as a possible solution for universities to make “numbers add up”. Another financial journal states with the unabated confidence that “Free online courses will change universities” and this is why “top universities worldwide rush to put free courses online, setting up so-called massive open online courses or MOOCs”. From Silicon Valley the perspective was – not surprisingly – very similar: “Massive Open Online Courses Revolutionizing Higher Education. MOOCs Provide Something for Everyone“.

The call for evidence was rare at that time, which is quite unusual in an industry obsessed with evidence-based everything. The good news is that recent research starts to fill the gap. The first problem is that evidence debunk most those great promises. With a bit of a hangover after all the hype and inebriating enthusiasm, universities have to draw the line and look at the evidence, accept reality, evaluate benefits and risks and redesign their solutions.

MOOCs undoubtedly bring important benefits. The power to use technology to link academic life with the public debate or the possibility to offer the chance to access great courses is undoubtedly of great benefit to many. The important part that was left unexplored is relevant for the future of universities: what is the cost of this and what are the main risks. The empty enthusiasm and blind adoption may cost more than many imagined and it is important to consider two possible risks that seem to be overlooked by many administrators of colleges and universities.

Naive assumptions about the target audience and the importance of MOOCs for marketing

There is already excellent research on MOOCs. A recent example is coming from The University of Pennsylvania, where a survey on over 400,000 active students in courses offered by the university through Coursera — the most significant MOOC provider — recorded 35,000 responses. Results are not far from other research in this field and reveal that a stunning 83 percent of MOOC students already have a two- or four-year diploma or degree. The chance to have them enrolled in new degrees is called into question even more, as results show that 69 percent of them are already employed. This set of data support those who say that spending important resources (pay for course design, research time, teaching time, course administration and IT infrastructure) for free courses with the hope of having new students is just a naive and costly mistake. 

As a tool for marketing, the investment into a MOOC may be a disproportionate effort when we look at real numbers of students enrolling into a course (or university) just because of a MOOC. Moreover, smaller universities already know that only most prestigious and renowned players attract big crowds to MOOCs. This is how many institutions see that their investments failed so far to show any quantifiable benefit.

This set of new research and data is causing now a shift in attitudes within higher education regarding MOOCs. Another recent study, which polled chief academic officers at 2,831 colleges and universities about online education, reported that 39 percent say they do not believe that MOOCs are sustainable models for their schools — from 26 percent in 2012.

This draws attention to another widespread confusion between MOOCs and online education. While online education represent an important pedagogical solution embraced by most universities for decades for their enrolled students, MOOCs are a specific platform designed to offer “open” courses for prospective students. There are many other differences, but the most important aspect here is that many administrators in higher education start to realise that “charity starts at home”: quality of online education for your own students is a hard enough task to deal with. Spending money and time for those who are already educated, employed and rarely interested to pay fees for new courses is just an unaffordable luxury.

From clicks to bricks

Another widespread prediction was that in the “avalanche that is coming”  those Doric columns on the campuses are good to be sold to real estate investors. Technology – was said – is making the university campus obsolete. “The end of university campus life” is just another article where this was predicted with certainty. The author is saying: “MOOCs merely confirm what we’ve known for years—that the most basic currency of universities, information, is now more or less valueless, so universities might as well give it away [....] Universities are no longer the only, or even the best, aggregators of information anymore. That role was usurped by the internet years ago”.  

“Information” is not learning and data is not knowledge, but this is a different discussion. The problem is that thinking that the campus is useless was undoubtedly a massive mistake that will surely bring unpleasant surprises for those embracing the fad. In fact, those who were used as an example to support the advice to forget the campus are now building their own brick and mortar campuses. The irony was soon evident this time…

In “Online students can’t help being sociable”, an article recently published by the BBC News, we read:

Instead of demolishing the dusty old classrooms, the online university revolution is responsible for opening some new ones. Coursera, a major California-based provider of online courses, is creating an international network of “learning hubs”, where students can follow these virtual courses in real-life, bricks and mortar settings.”

It is undoubtedly sad and surprising to see that many experts and managers in higher education missed that “it seems there is an irresistible social side to learning“. This detail – relevant for the specific type of endeavours involved in higher education – was now discovered by investors in Silicon Valley. This may change the attitude of those advocating the end of the campus  - or not!

In any case, it becomes clear that new technologies enhance the value of the physical campus. Universities have to find new ways to use their spaces to enhance learning and nurture creativity and innovation.

It is also important to explore if MOOCs do not involve a shift of focus and resources from online education and learning management systems managed by universities for their “traditional” courses. In other words, MOOCs may be interesting and exciting for all those interested to use them, but from the point of view of universities – placed under significant financial pressures and funding cuts – it is vital to see if these efforts do not affect funding and investments required to make their online education engaging and aligned to other technological solutions widely used by their students.

Some universities will soon realise that their outdated learning management systems work most probably as a much more efficient marketing tool against them than all possible benefits associated with some of the most popular MOOCs. Training for academic staff in the use of new technologies to facilitate and enhance learning is another important area for investment. Some universities may not have  the capacity to pay for all, but it becomes clear that quality assurance in online education for students at home is the most important investment. This is why the MOOC-hype should be considered with great care. They can bring more damage than good, especially for smaller institutions of higher education.

The poor stay poor and rich… get another freebie

Research conducted at The University of Pennsylvania also dispels the myth that MOOCs open the door for the poor and disadvantaged. It reveals not only that the vast majority is already highly educated, but two-thirds of MOOC students live in OECD countries, the club of leading industrialized nations. It is good to consider here that OECD countries account for just 18 percent of the world population.

In other words, data shows that the belief that MOOCs “lift people out of poverty” is as superficial as it seemed to be. It is interesting however to explore why there is such a superficial understanding of the context and possibilities of people living in poor countries…

The silver bullet

A genuine focus on the quality of teaching and learning, personalised education, and student engagement is what can make a university a sustainable and successful institution. The future of universities cannot be changed by a set of gadgets or technological tools, but by a new vision able to create a new context where new technologies can be used to enhance pedagogical solutions suitable to address needs and challenges of the 21st century.

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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.

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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.

Innovation

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lao Tzu

It is widely accepted that creativity and innovation are more than ever before the key resource for individuals and societies. Innovation is now the main avenue towards job creation and economic growth and the only route to a sustainable future. International studies (e.g. OECD) document the fact that the most successful economies are those capable to nurture creativity and support innovative research and quality education. However, the attraction of innovation for investment returns represents just the most visible part of a variety of benefits.

In the uncertainty marking the present and the future of higher education it became clear that the successful modern universities will be only those capable to create knowledge and innovative solutions for the multitude of economic, social, environmental and cultural challenges. Universities must find ways to adapt, change and build on the power of their imaginations.

The effect of global economic crisis and the vulnerability of economic growth, the unprecedented youth marginalization, unemployment and underemployment, the impact of ecological and social crises require the power to imagine new approaches and design new possibilities. Creativity and innovation represent the fuel and the engine capable to provide new solutions for a sustainable future. The only certainty for universities is that days ahead will be filled with uncertainty, with serious risks and some opportunities. Only those able to change and use their creativity to generate new ideas and solutions for these fast changing contexts will be able to grow.

This is why we shouldn’t be surprised that “innovative research” is included now in the “aims and goals” of all universities and their departments, faculties and various centres. This is one of the few points where we find in higher education a widespread consensus over a goal: we need to have innovation! However, very few get any at all. This is because innovation requires most of all the courage to nurture free thinking, relax hierarchies and power structures, emphasize collaboration and refuse tokenism. These are some very uncomfortable decisions. The fact is that university leaders and administrators have the power to change direction for a sustainable future for their institutions, but this requires vision, intelligence and courage. 

Innovation requires courage and vision.

A widely known example is provided by Steve Jobs. Although he wasn’t a great innovator (all great innovations promoted by Steve Jobs are invented by other people and companies), he had the tremendous courage and vision to build on (and promote) innovations rejected or ignored by others. When he returned to Apple he had the courage to reduce the number of products offered by his company from 350 to 10! Against all he said that immediate profit was not all that matters and it proved to be right! The result was that those 10 products saved the company. Later, when Nokia refused to use the touch screen (because customers will never want that, right?) he had the courage to change entirely the face of a phone and Apple created the first iPhone. He had the vision and courage to launch an iPad when all experts said that this is a silly mistake. He changed the world with courage and vision!

There is no need to be a great inventor to build a culture of innovation.

This is something that many can contemplate in higher education. Universities have a modest record for innovation, especially in the last years (and many universities register a total failure in innovative research). What goes today as “innovation” in higher education can be reduced to an obsessive repetition of few slogans, some commercial leitmotifs and a small list of mantra-like sentences that failed to advance anything for a long time. The uncertain future and fast changing contexts call to see what goes wrong and seriously rethink our solutions.

Vision and a genuine commitment to nurture imagination and creativity, build engagement and stir the passion of all involved is what a leader must have. A genuine distaste for tokenism and mediocrity, a commitment for meritocracy and flexibility are crucial for innovation in higher education. 

There is no need to be an inventor to build a culture of innovation and excellence in a team or across a university. 

Innovation is a matter of strategic choices and decisions – it is better to contemplate them before! Hanging slogans on the walls comes with a price.

It is much better to think about the call for innovation before the rhetoric is visibly and enthusiastically announcing a strong commitment to go in search of it. Innovative research involves much more than a buzzword looking good in organizational documents. If the call for innovation is doubled with micromanagement, control and a rule for all to “salute the flag”, the effect is more insidious and damaging than it looks.

We can imagine that adopters of the paradigm of bureaucratic control and the strong emphasis on hierarchies enjoy to believe their own rhetoric, count useless research projects published in sham scientific journals while listening in pseudo-academic events the sweet tones of self-congratulatory chorus. However, the price of denial is devastating: promoting an inwards oriented incremental existence and hindering flexibility, these rituals severely undermine engagement, morale, trust and stifle innovation. This model leaves the university incapable to adapt to the fast changing realities that determine its existence and future. Masked as “commitment for innovation” this is a way to secure a future of slow and painful dissolution for a university.

“I put a dollar in one of those change machines. Nothing changed.” George Carlin

How can we stir the imagination of so many experts involved in teaching and research in a wide variety of specialized fields of science and humanities to produce innovative research? What can be fixed to turn innovation from an empty buzzword into a vibrant reality across the campus? What can we learn from those universities capable to “get it right” in nurturing and securing innovation? How can we take creative ideas and apply them in universities stuck on the wrong alleys?

The bad news is that there is no magic solution to have innovation next Tuesday. The good news is that answers to these problems can be found in history, practice and a vast literature available to those who are interested to build a culture of creativity, maintain excellence in research and add innovation as an integral part of their universities*.

We explored in a book the mentality captured so well by George Carlin. In the ubiquitous call for innovation in higher education it became soon evident again that all rhetoric, effort and investments turn into a void exercise when “innovation” is accepted only when it stays in line with bureaucratic arrangements and reinforce hierarchies. Change - various bureaucrats and administrators say - but maintain status quo! Critique… but only if what you challenge is not involving us! Explore… but keep in mind that any exploration challenging status quo can cost your job! Innovate… but only in line with what we already know that we want!

This approach will never work. Innovation arises from a complex mix of factors in a certain type of culture, involving the skills and passion of those involved. It is not simply solved by pouring more money into it and assign a convenient ‘director’ to control and punish.

We can build a culture where creativity is nurtured, but innovation cannot be timetabled! 

The idea that “dropping a dollar in the machine” leads to innovation is constantly challenged by specialists (e.g. see here). Experts argue that innovation is much more determined by policies rather than pouring investments in research (eg. Allott, S.). Prioritising cash and control over the engagement of faculty and informed policies for innovation is in the current context a potentially disastrous decision for the future of any university.

Conspicuously rejecting any views and approaches that clash with their own world views, many administrators (include here Presidents, Deans, directors etc.) manage not only to turn the call for innovation into ridiculous examples of tokenism and failure, but further disengage and demotivate the faculty. The dollar dropped in the machine is wasted: indeed, nothing changes! Moreover, this poorly spent dollar is severely damaging morale and engagement.

Innovative research and academic freedom

In 1948, just few years before he was elected The President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower became the President of Columbia University. Eisenhower, a former army general used to military hierarchy and the chain of command, was addressing the faculty of this prestigious university starting by calling them “employees of the university”. A professor interrupted Eisenhower, saying “Mr. President, we are not employees of the university. We are the university.

This may seem idealistic, but the message is worth contemplating. In very few words, we can admit that a university is just the sum of professional qualities and engagement of its faculty and students. The walls are nothing without this genuine commitment for quality learning and teaching, research and their contribution to the world.

Bureaucratic hierarchy and ‘directed research’ stifle engagement and hinder change and innovation.

A modern university is facing very different demands from the audience that was familiar to the former American general. This institution is not a sum of disciplined “soldiers” working on the assembly line designed to deliver skills for a set of jobs (that may be gone when students graduate). A university is responsible to develop the whole thinking person, to expand horizons and instill the love for learning in individuals and build democratic citizenship with engaged and informed citizens who have the power to make democracy work. A university is also asked to cultivate imagination and creativity, defend civilization and create new knowledge, act as a forum where free and responsible minds can “question the unquestionable” for the benefit of our societies. Universities have the power to provide innovative solutions, but when tools of a successful army are used in this institution results are equal to those imagined if we promote debate groups for soldiers when they are in the line of fire. 

Dogmatism, control and fear are hostile to innovation.

Unfortunately, the risk to believe that administrative power is automatically synonymous to knowledge, vision and informed decisions is endemic. It is also a devastating belief for an institution. This – along with a strange managerial approach based on fear, which is viewed as a strong motivator and source of results – push ahead a misconception on the academic life and the nature of work in pursue of innovation. This approach involves serious risks for sustainability within and outside the walls of academia.

The lesson of this anecdote is that an obvious fact at the core of academic work is often missed by policy makers, administrators of universities and institutions of research: a university is fundamentally different from military! It is fair to say that both institutions deserve respect, but they have different roles, histories and demands from society. Military have to secure ironclad discipline as a key to secure the chain of command and execution, which stays at the basis of its power and efficiency. Control, fear and intimidation are important tools to train soldiers and maintain discipline, but for a university they spell disaster.

Imagine a small European city in 15th century, the size of a modern small neighbourhood (roughly 45,000 people), ruled by a wealthy family. Now imagine that in this city was possible to meet (often in the same days) some of the brightest minds of humanity, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Sandro Botticelli (unfortunately a nut like Savonarola was also there, but this is another interesting and significant part of the story). How was this possible? What was in the water? One detail is that the ruler of this city comes from a family famous for love of arts and culture, education and progress. His family protected important philosophers such as Tommaso Campanella or Galileo Galilei, the father of the Scientific Revolution. His grandfather spent a fortune to support arts, architecture, scholarly learning, establishing the Platonic Academy for the study of ancient works. This ruler, Lorenzo de Medici, known as “Il Magnifico” (The Magnificent), shares the values of his family. The enlightened leader is doing something unthinkable for those times: he protects different minds and encourages new ideas. He knew that Caravaggio is a drunk and a troublemaker, but a unique artist. He knew that Michelangelo is secretly conducting dissections on human bodies to learn anatomy, which was at that time securing a death sentence, but he was an innovator who deserved protection and encouragement.

A Cypriot crisis or a Renaissance Florence?

Lorenzo de Medici ignored the sacrilege (with some risks for himself) just because he knew that Michelangelo is a unique artist that will change humanity through his creations. He was a protector of culture and the lower class enjoyed a greater level of comfort, freedom and protection than it had before. In effect, that small town named Florence became one of the most important city-states in Europe and (arguably) the most beautiful city in the world at that time. What today is called “academic freedom” was secured for the first time in centuries and the culture and suppressed creativity exploded, opening for a period of great innovations and change. The administrator of Florence understood that “lower classes” need freedom to stay engaged and that creative individuals are not always comfortable to power. In our times we can look at this through what Michael Fullan notes as an important key to secure secure innovation:

Policy makers will have to design policy levers which give them less control than they would like [...] in exchange for the potential of higher yield innovation and commitment on the ground

A relaxed approach on hierarchy, power and control is crucial if we aim to develop a reality of creativity and innovation. Great results do not come in this field if we constantly tell people what to do and what they should expect if they do not do it as indicated.

The contemporary story of the European economic crisis should be a valuable source of lessons for universities on the price of self-comforting denial, suppression of meritocracy and silencing voices speaking “truth to power”. This is a tragic story where self-absorbed local groups and a stunning lack of vision and care for the future clashed in the end with reality. The Greek and Cypriot crisis show that countries can pay a terrible price and we can agree that a university can fall faster than a country from the same reasons!

Encourage in-depth thinking and create the means to detect and address pseudo-innovations and tokenism

Looking once over a “faculty innovation report” it became visible the the only note about innovation was related to the use of iPads in classrooms. It should be obvious that using a tablet or a laptop is not innovative. Using an iPad in classroom is not making a lecturer “innovative”, but a good customer of Apple. If you like to believe that the shiny new tablet turns you into an innovator this is just great, but it will not create knowledge or solutions.

Academic freedom** is not a luxury or an ideological stand, but a necessary precondition to creativity and innovation. This is a matter of strategic choices that can enable a university to make the most of new opportunities and find the best responses to challenges as well as threats.

“Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something” Thomas A. Edison

Suppression of academic freedom turns de facto a university and the academic life into a farce. A travesty like this works for a while, but inevitably comes with devastating consequences on the long term.

Salt

We analysed in a previous article why universities should be much more concerned – and socially engaged – about the fast changing social, cultural and economic context. It is highly relevant for their future that unemployment and underemployment is increasingly affecting college and university graduates. In USA more than 40 percent of unemployed have been out of work for more than six months, almost double the previous post-World War Two record. Moreover, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that five million college and university graduates are in jobs that require less than a high-school education. The BLS statistics reveal that 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that require less than a four-year university education. 

The proportion of overeducated workers exponentially increased in various jobs in the last decades. It is worth to observe that in 1970’s less than 1% of taxi drivers and 2% percent of firefighters had college degrees in US, while in 2012 over 15% percent do in both jobs.

This is a common situation across the world. In China, graduate unemployment is an official concern for The Ministry of Education, with millions unemployed after graduation. College educated find more difficult to land a job than those who have little formal education: “those with a college degree were four times as likely to be unemployed as those with only an elementary school education” (source here)

Unemployment and underemployment register a constant rise across European Union. According to Eurostat, in 2012 there were 9.2 million part-time workers in the EU27 who wished to work more hours and are officially considered to be underemployed. The situation is close to get out of control (and we have reasons to expect a tumultuous 2013). In Italy, unemployed workers (700,000) despair over the future as it was announced that the redundancy budget runs dry.

A report published by Credit Suisse in February 2013 indicates: “The rising trend of youth unemployment around the world threatens not just current economic growth but also political stability and the potential demographic dividend“.

In the unstable global economy innovation stays as the key factor of difference for the future of local economies, communities and countries. Our future depends on our knowledge and capacity to innovate. Too many administrators in higher education go ahead as self-proclaimed masters of innovation and astute management, wasting the time and resources of their universities on expensive tokenism able just to exhibit grave misconceptions, narcissism and mediocrity. It is vital to stop this and engage in efforts aiming to lead to a genuine change, and adapt to this new context affecting students and graduates.

Some institutions are still floating in a parallel reality where clicks and tricks are seen capable to solve systemic problems without a touch of the status quo. Too many university administrators are still sedated by the vision of eternal positions of power and control where they indicate what research is wanted and when innovation should happen. This state of facts in a general climate of economic and social instability is the recipe for disaster. In UK, today universities seek to explain a severe drop on student enrolments despite cutbacks (see here). Universities find that the new context requires new ideas, new approaches to attract students and contribute to their societies and economies. Imagining efficient and innovative solutions for student engagement becomes vital for the future of the university. Moreover, the fact that unprecedented levels of unemployment involve an increasing risk of social unrest is not only a problem of social responsibility for universities. It is also a problem for their future.

Innovation and creativity will be key for a sustainable future.

There is a known biblical story about Lot’s wife, who was punished to turn into a pillar of salt because she looked back at a burning city. This old story is a metaphor with multiple meanings and interpretations, but some details are based on facts of those times. Why turned into pillar of salt as punishment? Why not stone or sand? An explanation is that salt was used as a preservative for thousands of years. This was the most visible symbol for conservation – and it was used as a warning. Those failing to change are punished by turning into lifeless forms of salt.  

Higher education is at crossroads. It is the time for a serious reflection about the strategic decisions and choices for the road ahead for universities. Some prefer to maintain strong hierarchies, mimic change and glue the label of “innovation” on trivial and useless things just to maintain status quo. The “pillars of salt” of higher education are more fragile than it seems. It will become clearer soon that many will end up where they are heading.

*

** Resources on academic freedom:

1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure

Declaration of Academic Freedom (Scientific Human Rights)

The Magna Charta Observatory of Fundamental University Values and Rights

Network for Education and Academic Rights

Academics for Academic Freedom (UK)

IMG_6885

Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1997 “The End of History and The Last Man”, a book that became soon extremely popular and so influential that some say that international policies were shaped at that time by the strange vision promoted by the author. Fukuyama is a former official of the US State Department’s policy planning staff and his ideas were at that time widely adopted as facts and vision of a certain future. In very few words, the theory advanced by the book is that all nations are or aim to become capitalist democracies. Therefore, history “has ended” as ideological conflicts are things of the past. One vision prevailed – that of neoliberal capitalism and democracy – and institutional revolution reached an end. As economic and ideological major issues have been settled in one final perfect vision of neoliberal capitalism, the future is just peace, trade and consumption within universally accepted principles of democracy and free trade. The vision adopted in late 90’s in most centers of power proved soon to be just a superficial utopia. It became clear that taking this as a vision for the future was a colossal mistake. The history offered a painful succesion of unpredictable events, various conflicts caused by ideological differences, new crises and a rise to power of countries openly against democratic ideals (yes, China is here one notable example). The End of History and The Last Man is not only one of the most influential books of a decade, but stays as a source of some of the most reckless ideas that made the democratic world more vulnerable to crises and attacks. However, universities seems oblivious that this has happened just few years ago and fail to lern an important lesson.

The current discourse and most visible debates in education currently take the same dangerous path of shallow analysis, tendentiousness, twist of facts to fit an agenda and stay relaxed with the suppression of alternative perspectives. Higher education proudly promotes nowadays that the end of its history was reached and MOOCs – as “revolutionary change” – finally came to solve the problems of Academia, leaving behind the ivory tower.

This narrative states that students across the world will have (online) equal access to higher education, university administrators have a way to secure continuous growth, profits and expansion, while profits, peace and harmony became the only foreseeable future of new online universities. Oblivious to the complexity of current problems facing higher education and youth, these voices focus on the single problem seen on their horizon: some brick-and-mortar universities still fail to understand that this is the only path to survival. We hear that their hesitation to fully adopt MOOCs and for-profit solutions ineluctably lead to a future of suffering and painful dissolution.

In “An Avalanche is Coming. Higher education and the revolution ahead” – a widely publicized new report with a title in line with the already old “tsunami of change”, “disruptive innovation” etc. – the authors announce that even elite universities could struggle to survive if they don’t adopt a for-profit model and MOOCs. The little detail that this analysis is provided by Pearson, one of the biggest corporations in education with a set of investments and interests that stand against an objective analysis is vastly ignored. Facts seems to matter only if they serve a well funded and professionally promoted agenda.

Groupthink

Vested interest are not the only explanation for this phenomenon characterized by a focus on (not even new) technological solutions and utter disregard of pedagogical, cultural and even economic issues at the core of higher education. Facts such as that typically less than 10% of students in these courses “graduate”, that even in non-marked courses with no credits plagiarism is widespread and quality assurance is a worrying and recurrent issue escapes in the avalanche of these biased reports. It is clear that this is not the place to repeat the long list of concerns and issues related to MOOCs as analysed in the recent book “What Undermines Higher Education”. However, there are some additional concerns to this online solution that seems to be at the heart of a tunnel vision on education.

In 1972 the sociologist William H. Whyte coined the term “groupthink” to describe how a group converge to normatively “correct” ideas and interpretations while becoming impervious to alternative perspectives and criticism. Symptoms of groupthink were presented in 1972 by Irving L. Janis in the influential “Victims of Groupthink”. They are important to keep in perspective when we find ubiquitously that the current debate in higher education is reduced to MOOCs.

We find often that the “group” within and around Academia seems mesmerized by the new hype and insists to remain unaware of important challenges facing our students and unchartered implications of MOOCs, a solution used since 2008 (!) by Dave Cormier, Manager of Web Communication and Innovations at the Canadian University of Prince Edward Island, also the author of this term.

Summarizing, the inventory of groupthink symptoms includes “discounting warnings that might challenge assumptions”, “unquestioned belief in group’s morality”, “shutting down of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus”, “illusion of unanimity” or “mindguards – self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting opinions”. Many organizations became extremely vulnerable to ‘groupthink’ as internal mechanisms of freedom of thinking, dialogue and critique for progress and sustainable evolution were sacrificed for immediate profits. A top-down management style – with a limited focus on profitability justifying the ruthless approach to work-relations and employment – came with this corrosive and ultimately fatal effect.

Too often “mindguards” are lecturing now about the use of MOOCs even if it stays clear that they have no expertise in massive open online courses, use of learning management systems and online solutions for learning. The “group” insists to ignore the obvious consequences of following the advice of dilettantes in shaping the future of their institutions.

Even if we assume that most MOOCs will step beyond the reality of a simple reading list, some video /audio files and a vast discussion forum (hoping that we agree that this cannot be considered higher education), the question remains if the place of MOOCs on the agenda of most institutions of higher education coincides with the real agenda of our students. After decades of “student-centered” approaches we see that the voice of students is the least important factor in the current conversation.

There is no sign of alarm when it is widely accepted that a corporation with a revenue of over £5 billion in 2012 is telling universities that “the next 50 years could see a golden age for higher education, but only if all the players in the system, from students to governments, seize the initiative and act ambitiously”. Of course, “ambitiously” is translated in a convenient agenda for the company listed on the London and New York Stock Exchange, including MOOCs (with no clarification of solutions for their pedagogical challenges), “niches or market segments” that universities “want to serve”.

The context of the “golden age”

Universities are at the center of our economic, cultural and social life. Determined by the economy, political decisions and cultural preferences, their performance impacts directly on the future of the social fabric, culture and economies. This interdependence is important to be grasped when we talk about the present and future of higher education. Their importance explains why we have to look at the promise of a possible “golden age” with great care. 

Young people – those between 15 and 24 years old, who are the key group for higher education – felt the most the effects of the economic downturn through the GFC. Currently, the situation is truly dramatic. In Ireland, Greece, Italy, UK or Spain staggering numbers of young people stay unemployed or join the increasingly massive group of NEETs (youth not in employment, education or training). Societe Generale is warning in a recent note that:

“Economic crisis in developed countries have reinforced unemployment, especially with the youth… With lower population support, large upheavals could threaten government stability. Social unrest is also looming in many emerging markets, where income inequality has increased or remained high since the 1980s”.

It also notes that this should be a source of concern around the world and rise of inequality is a general trend: “Distribution inequalities and corruption are among the main concerns of the Chinese population according to recent surveys”. Poverty affects the lives of millions of people not only in developing countries, but across the European Union. The International Red Cross announced that that the amount of food aid distributed to people in Europe by their institution has reached levels not seen since World War II.

In the US, unemployment among 18-29 year olds is above 12% (and we can add 1.7 million young people who have just given up looking for work entirely – with this figures included the effective unemployment rate for youth is over 16%). Muhtar Kent the Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, publicly expressed the concern that youth unemployment “has a chance of cracking the social fabric“.

The fact is that inequality across the world reached unthinkable proportions and youth are one of the most disadvantaged groups. A recent report released by the Urban Institute reflects: “Despite the Great Recession and slow recovery, the American dream of working hard, saving more, and becoming wealthier than one’s parents holds true for many. Unless you’re under 40. Stagnant wages, diminishing job opportunities, and lost home values may be painting a vastly different future for Gen X and Gen Y.”

Youth, including prospective students and graduates, find that their future is bleak and a diploma is not dramatically changing what they can expect. The Urban Institute study documents that youth is facing a decline in opportunities with a clear impact on all aspects of their (and our) future.

In the last years, the most important international organizations - from OECD and UN to Eurostat and Oxfam – release severe warnings to politicians and governments around the world on the risks involved by the record inequality between rich and poor, youth marginalization and social injustice.  However, academics and universities (and loud voices of all mindguards of academic dialogue) insist to believe that higher education is looking at “golden age” if MOOCs are adopted and markets are served. It may come as a surprise that most students don’t care if they are part of a class of 100,000 and do what they already do on their own Twitter and Facebook accounts. If we continue our parallel dialogue about technology and ignore their interests and concerns students see just that they don’t find educational solutions to feel engaged and effectively learn for their future.

Before this ‘golden age’ universities will see – providing MOOCs or not – that prospective student find harder and harder to go into insurmontable debts and social tensions are on the rise. Online chats and the illusion of higher learning in massive crowds with resources that are most of the time already accesible may be insufficient to deal with daily realities. There are too many cases in history when the mistake to believe an utopian “golden age” turned into a nightmare. The next 50 years definitely require much more from higher education than an online platform solution and old neoliberal ideas packaged as serious visionary analysis.

The last MOOCs

MOOCs are one solution for an area of higher education. Online education opened decades ago new opportunities and possibilities for students and educators. Nevertheless, this is already part of learning in all modern universities. There is a time to take a look if we are not contaminated by groupthinking and shift to seriously explore wider implications of the future of higher education. We can start by seriously questioning the strident voice of those mimicking academic analysis for their vested interests. Adopting the long forgotten academic skepticism may prove once again the solution for our common progress.

If higher education reached the point of simple delivery of various reading lists, different resources, standardized tests and formal processes then it may be that the history of education really ended and we reached the days to accept it. If universities find the idea that they are responsible to their societies to provide alternative and courageous solutions, unaffected by corporate interests and short-term profit perspectives, to contribute to the world by making of higher civilization, then we have to admit that the entire discussion should be reduced to the packaging and technological solutions. We just have to provide pre-packaged education to all who can pay a small price. If it works for cheap hamburgers, it should work for junk education. Moreover, the idealistic perspective of alternative thinking as solution for flexibility, creative and new ideas for our crises may be just a futile and dangerous exercise for consumers and amenable employees.

The last MOOCs will most probably serve independently as academic ATMs for delivery of resources, tests and “academic credits”, charging just few cents per transaction. Creativity, imagination and the aristocracy of the intellect will be part of a MOOC course on ancient history. 

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