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Critical pedagogy

It is difficult to imagine in 2016 a more offensive candidate than Donald Trump… and now the world expects anxiously to see what the US President Donald Trump will do. No one really knows what this reality TV character plans for the most powerful office, but some things we know for sure: he was preferred by a shockingly high number of American citizens, in a country considered a pillar of democracy. We also know that his racists, discriminatory views were well known, so people were well aware that they elect someone associated with the extreme right ideology, a crude misogynist that is spectacular in his primitive nationalism, racism and bad taste. Famous now for his vulgar notes on mating rituals caveman style, Trump’s 3rd wife is a former ‘model’, famous only for some naked gaudy pictorials; voting proved that this couple is a perfect preference for evangelicals and their “family values”. The ignorance associated with this choice is abysmal. The difference between a reality show and real life will be soon obvious for some, but the majority will just pay attention to the new propaganda, blaming the ‘other’ for all their suffering.

There are too many notes and articles on what happened, and we can only expect the big whitewash in the following months. Trump is now slowly legitimised, considered just another leader with real policies in a world that simply goes ahead. This happened before, and Europe couldn’t stop in 1923 to listen alarmed voices and was deriding those able to see what was really coming. We can only hope that the history cannot repeat such massive mistakes.

One step to prevent this is to look at universities and their role (and place) in the current wave of populism and rise of the extreme right. Because universities are not only the place of nurturing the growth of knowledge, information and ideas, but the space where the brightest minds have the responsibility to take a critical stance when things go wrong. Their academic scepticism is the healthy condition able to unbound curiosity and go beyond appearances, deconstruct deceptive certainties that prop up populism, intolerance and fear, and build better alternatives for individuals and society. This is the place where solutions can be built on universal values and what unites us, against the temptation of simple answers provided by hate and bigotry.

A panglossian blindness

“Pangloss” is the only word able to capture succinctly the blind optimism that obscured the reality of past and future challenges for universities and colleges, students’ lives and their social contexts. The undeniable reality revealed by the election of President Trump should make us look back now and see what happened when the poisonous tension was boiling and universities across the world spent time in awe (and gullible enthusiasm) for the new wave of change represented by… MOOOCs. We have to ask where were the voices warning that a wave of crude nationalism and xenophobia was brewing Brexit? Where is the work of all political sciences schools and experts in sociology and education to show that trumpism was a reality waiting to happen?

Articles, reports and papers on higher education written in 2013 or 2014 reveal the quasi-acceptance of technological solutionism, well promoted by commercial firms with obvious financial interests in the sector. That time was also remarkable for the swift reaction against those saying that tech solutions are good and needed, but are not the ‘wave of change’, nor the solution to the most important problems facing education, students or society. Media and academics fell in love with the new narrative, waiting for the miracle solution of MOOCs. The massive open online courses were presented as the end of the campus, the start of free delivery of higher education to all corners of the world and the massive wave that will change the world. No serious questions were asked about the evidence supporting these claims, no scepticism was allowed in thinking about the real possibility of poor kids taking higher education courses in slums or disadvantaged areas. The hubris was spectacular and the focus was mostly limited to this. The future was great; the optimism was possibly shadowed only by those unable to see the wonderful promise ahead.

‘Big data’ came along to complete the narrative: it is all is under control, we finally cracked the complexity of learning and it is all measurable, predictable, and programmable. The hype about what data analytics can do still stays unmatched in higher education.

But the ‘tsunami of change’ was just a small ripple and the revolution comes in a nightmarish form, from a very different direction. Too many looked in a wrong direction.

A (needed) silver lining

We can hope now that the hype and over-reliance on data and technology in higher education will get now more scrutiny. “Big Data” was wrong in the case of Brexit, and obviously mistaken in Trump’s case. Firms specialised in opinion polls and data analytics simply got it all off target and – as an immediate effect – an astonishing amount of money was lost. We can only guess what will be the cost of this complete trust on data analytics on a long-term. However, universities have to accept the fact that the best in the game are forced now to accept the limits of data analytics and bid data crunches. It is time to take a step back and look at reality as it is, good or bad, beyond well-funded fads. Technology opens now doors that were unseen and closed before for academia, but there are limits and misuses. Academic scepticism is the safety mechanism against costly and dangerous mistakes. It is imperative to get it back.

Also, the fragility of democracy and civilisation is now clearer than it was before these ugly elections. We learned as well that is too dangerous to believe our made-up narratives about a safe and stable world, or to take democracy and civilization for granted. The important lesson for academia is that there are too little antibodies in our universities, reactive mechanisms against groupthink and comfortable fads. We still see too little courage to deal with the unpleasant – but very important to acknowledge – realities. The safe bet of embracing mediocrity and avoid by all means to rock the (sinking) boat should not be the path of action for universities and academics. It is (still) time to get back their narrative of places of learning and solutions for a sustainable and prosperous future for all.

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©popenici2014

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.

©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.