Shirky and Bady

I’ve just finished reading Shirky’s blog post about online education, and wanted to note down a few thoughts before turning to Bady’s response.

-I am having a hard time making the direct parallel assessment Shirky does between music and Napster with education and free online courses.  Firstly, educators are not business executives (though administrators are…still), and I just don’t see them pulling the ostrich move.  Not all of them, at any rate.  If Harvard and Stanford can see the positive advertising effects, other colleges will as well.  Secondly, it isn’t as though this is a game-changer that means the death of campus anymore than mp3s meant the death of the CD. Sales changed. They didn’t disappear.  And if the music industry had been more willing to be flexible and set up a site that worked properly for selling individual songs, they wouldn’t be having these problems.  Colleges already offer online courses, and therefore they are already ahead of the music industry. Lastly, people don’t expect to get something for nothing.  Hell, they’re suspicious when they do.  That’s how we measure worth in capitalism, after all, yes?

-The benefits of campus education are obvious, just as the benefits of online education are becoming rapidly apparent.  However, a person cannot perform a chemistry experiment over the computer.  Student teaching can’t be done online (unless for an online job…? Eh, nevermind).  My point is that the value of education isn’t going to change, anymore than it already is changing, because of online courses.  And it is; we are struggling to keep jobs that graduates qualify for, all the while altering the system in such a way that education is a business that aims to provide a product (the degree) to the consumer (the student), with no appreciable nod to the greater good, or acknowledgement of the fact that college cannot (and should not) be one-size-fits-all.  But we know all that. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that having an educated populace is good for everybody.

-As John Green notes: “Let me explain why I like to pay taxes for schools even though I don’t personally have a kid in school: I don’t like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.” I think the notion of something for nothing offends a lot of people that don’t see the bigger picture, where the more educated the population is, the more everyone benefits, including and especially business owners. A worker that has a broader range of knowledge is going to come up with a better solution, period.  They are also going to have more interests, and hence probably spend more of their hard-earned money on products.  I don’t particularly like couching it this way, as education has other more intrinsic benefits, but as the model for higher education has changed to a business-oriented enterprise, I figure the argument for changing it should include some of the same. Why shouldn’t people learn about what interests or benefits them?  Outside the valid argument for a liberal arts education, we all do need a bit of many subjects so we can see the interconnectedness, there’s no reason why people who aren’t cut out for the rigors of a four-year degree shouldn’t explore interests and gain knowledge at a university level, thereby becoming specialists of a sort.

One point that Shirky makes is certainly valid, how often are you hearing the best lecture on a topic…in the world?   That said, we learn a lot from bad teachers.  Seriously, a bad teacher can be as good as a great one for showing you how things ought to work. We also learn a lot from teachers that are available for consultation; we have academic professionals for weeding out the bad from the good so that they are presenting their best work possible, and giving you an accurate portrait of what they’re conveying.  It doesn’t have to be the best in the world.  That’s not the point. This is what Bady is getting at about MOOCs with his arguments about open vs. closed.  Shirky really shouldn’t have couched it in such dichotomous terms.  Universities are already a lot more open than the music industry was to change, certainly they are aware of it. And both ways have their pros and cons.  Both campus and online courses have aspects that earn them both labels.  They are simultaneously open and closed.

Bady makes the excellent point that the desire for a good education (really, there’s no reason an online degree should be any worse than from a mediocre institution, in reality) is there, and the opportunity is not.  He’s striking at the root of the problem, instead of conjecturing about the surface.  It isn’t that students aren’t willing to pay for it, it’s that college is cost-prohibitive for most people.  Even for those actually attending it.  There are larger problems here that have more to do with economics than an imaginary inflexibility of higher ed institutions to integrate the phenomena of MOOCs, should such become necessary.  As Bady pointed out, academics, unlike venture capitalists, are delighted to teach to as many curious young minds that want to learn.  It’s working out the practical aspects and taking a good hard look at how we do things that’s actually difficult.  Change is often uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.

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