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MOOCs and Other Wonders: Education and High-Tech Utopia

Posted on Mar 5, 2014

By Mike Rose

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from education scholar and Truthdig contributor Mike Rose’s book, “Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us,” which is now out in paperback in a new revised and expanded edition.

Deep within our cultural history is a faith in the power of technology to cure social problems. Many of our Utopian visions—from nineteenth century socialist tracts and novels to Silicon Valley’s libertarian futurism—are based on technology. That faith is vibrant today, at times idealistic, at times entrepreneurial, often a blend of the two. Neuroscience will lead to the cure of mental illness and reveal the mystery of consciousness itself. Social media will bring us together across regional and national divides, and the cell phone or tablet computer will provide the platform to lift people in developing countries out of poverty. And, closer to the concerns of this book, online instruction will reduce the cost and improve the quality of education, and high-stakes standardized tests will scientifically measure student learning and teacher effectiveness.

Modern technology, of course, is stunning, and can and should be brought to bear on our social problems, education included. Those who believe deeply in technology’s virtues have reasons for their grand vision. They are well-educated and highly skilled in technology’s devices and systems, and the arguments they offer are articulate and assured. Their education at prestigious schools provides them with potent social networks that contribute to their access to power and philanthropic and venture capital resources. They are positioned to make things happen.

The limitations—and, in some cases I think, dangers—of this faith in technology are contained within its strengths.

The faith in technology can lead to overreach, to a belief that complex human problems can be framed as engineering problems, their social and political messiness factored away. Hand-in-glove is an epistemological insularity, a lack of knowledge about social and cultural conditions—or worse, a willful discounting of those conditions as irrelevant. It is telling how rarely one hears any references to history or culture in the technologists’ discourse. I think the social position of many of the technologists is a factor here: they tend to come from, at the least, middle-class or professional families, and their schooling has sheltered them from intimate knowledge of many of the people they seek to help. Reform movements have often drawn on such elites, and they can bring much needed resources and power to the reform, but their backgrounds can also blind them to conditions on the ground, to the lives they hope to affect.

I want to consider this faith in technology as it relates to education, and I’ll use as my central example MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, which are ever-present in higher education news as I write.

A MOOC is essentially a pre-recorded course, heavy on lecture, so, in that regard, it is not at all new. But it is placed online, making it available to anyone with an Internet connection. The first MOOCs originated in Canada in 2008, then spread to the United States, making a splash as several Ivy League faculty began putting their courses online. “Ivy League for the masses,” announced Time magazine. As MOOCs have developed over the last few years, lectures have been broken up into modular units—easier to process online—and additional instructional materials have been added along with limited means for participants to interact with faculty and students via an electronic forum. There are also attempts, not without considerable complication, to address the issues of testing, grading, and course credit.

Imagine a guy on a remote ranch in Montana or a young woman in Manila learning electrical engineering from MIT’s finest. One catches the idealistic thrill of this idea in Daphne Kohler’s TED talk on MOOCs—Kohler is a distinguished computer scientist at Stanford and a driving force in the MOOC enterprise—as she offers a vision of high-quality education spread across the globe via the Internet, solving the problem of access and availability. Over the last year or so, increasing numbers of colleges and universities have been signing up for MOOCs or even developing their own, and the courses are expanding from the originally top-heavy sciences and engineering to include the social sciences and humanities, and even some remedial courses.

I have been around higher education for a long time, and I can’t recall an innovation taking off like the MOOC has. There are several reasons. The humanitarianism of massive reach and open access across the planet has captured the fancy of big time public voices, including those on the New York Times Opinion Page. Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, technological idealism readily morphs with entrepreneurship, and many of the MOOC luminaries have formed both for-profit and non-profit companies that engage in the hard sell. There is a lot of hype generated around MOOCs: they are part of a “tsunami” or an “avalanche” about to hit higher education—or they are higher education’s “Napster moment.” The hyperbole has gotten so strong that suddenly some within the MOOC venture are trying to dial it down a notch. A third, and huge, factor is that college administrators and state legislators see MOOCs as a way to reduce the soaring costs of higher education as well as to provide access to high-demand classes.

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