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Higher Education Shock Doctrine

[ 262 ] March 13, 2013 |

The education capitalists have a great plan. We starve the universities by reducing their state funding so much that students can’t easily graduate in 4 years. Then we get our lackeys in the state legislature to pass a law forcing schools to accept online classes as credit. That opens up the possibility for gigantic MOOCs that has two benefits. First, we can cut state education funding even more. Second, we can make a ridiculous amount of money through the continued privatization of education. We then get our useful idiot Thomas Friedman to pretend that his friends at Harvard are great teachers and thus deserve to teach these MOOCs. Then we can lay off all the professors, although we’ll still have to find a way to continue hiring university VPs at six figure salaries.

I mean, there won’t actually be jobs for any university graduates. And they won’t have actually learned anything. But what do we care? We just made $50,000 in the last 4 years off each student!

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  1. Julian says:

    Holy cow that Friedman column is Friedmanesque:

    You may think this MOOCs revolution is hyped, but my driver in Boston disagrees. You see, I was picked up at Logan Airport by my old friend Michael Sandel, who teaches the famous Socratic, 1,000-student “Justice” course at Harvard, which is launching March 12 as the first humanities offering on the M.I.T.-Harvard edX online learning platform. When he met me at the airport I saw he was wearing some very colorful sneakers.

    “Where did you get those?” I asked. Well, Sandel explained, he had recently been in South Korea, where his Justice course has been translated into Korean and shown on national television. It has made him such a popular figure there that the Koreans asked him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a professional baseball game — and gave him the colored shoes to boot! Yes, a Harvard philosopher was asked to throw out the first pitch in Korea because so many fans enjoy the way he helps them think through big moral dilemmas.

    It’s got everything: the cabbie who agrees with you, who is also a Harvard professor, whose colorful garb demonstrates that the world is now flat.

  2. mds says:

    Then we can lay off all the professors, although we’ll still have to find a way to continue hiring university VPs at six figure salaries.

    Um, I don’t think they’ll have to “find a way”; they’ll just keep doing it. The academic institution at which I work imposed a faculty hiring freeze due to the economy’s implosion, but this naturally didn’t apply to top-level administrators. Perhaps most notable was when a VP found her assigned portfolio too onerous, so they split the job in half and hired another VP. But they apparently didn’t split the salary in half, oh my goodness no. I can only imagine how spectacular the reaction would be if I announced that I couldn’t handle the job I was hired for, so please reduce my workload while paying me the same amount. Personally, I blame the fact that the maintenance staff are unionized.

  3. I sure do regret walking away from academia!*

    *May not be true

  4. c u n d gulag says:

    Say what you will about Friedman, but at least he has enough humility to NOT teach a class called “Humility” – not even online.

  5. lisa_is_boring says:

    What bob said.

  6. Dmitri says:

    I am no fan of Friedman, but I thought the “driver” line was a pretty clever riposte to a well-established Friedman-bashing trope. At least it shows he’s listening, I thought.

    Also, I was a TA for Sandel’s “Justice” course a couple times, and the guy is a good teacher, no question about it. I learned a lot from him. Sure, it’s not the most advanced take on the material, but it gets 800 kids earnestly debating important things, and it’s not in any sense a gut — he holds the line on grades. Not every college course should be like this, but an intro philosophy course could be much, much worse.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      To be clear, I’m not criticizing the teaching of the professor involved. He might be really good. Don’t doubt it. But from Friedman’s perspective, what makes him good is that he’s at Harvard.

      Nevermind as well that by choosing to teach a MOOC, the professor is basically a scab, stealing labor from others.

      • Ned Ludd says:

        We must smash the machines. Servers? They serve the boss and stamp on our dreams!

        • Malaclypse says:

          Good to know we can safely assume you know nothing of the history of industrialization.

          • Ned Ludd says:

            Actually I’m a regular, just moonlighting as a troll. I know that the Luddites had a very good point. I also know that they’re now basically used as a synonym for pointless resistance to progress. I think that this is instructive for the current case. Loomis is 100% right in the original post that this is largely a scam, but I think he goes over the line when he calls some random Harvard professor a truly ugly name. And if I think that, then I’m pretty sure that the 90% of US voters who are to the right of me would think that or worse.

            • Malaclypse says:

              I know that the Luddites had a very good point.

              Perhaps Loomis does as well. And perhaps this illustrates that fact nicely.

              Loomis is 100% right in the original post that this is largely a scam, but I think he goes over the line when he calls some random Harvard professor a truly ugly name.

              So, we should be more concerned over Friedman’s friend’s feelings than the destruction of the modern university?

              • Ned Ludd says:

                No, but we should have some sense of proportion in our list of “destroyers of the modern university”. A (presumably) good professor who has a camera in his class is really not the problem, and unlike the scammers in the admin building and the lobbyist rolls, he is providing something which gives value to his audience and not just destruction to other professors.

            • Ned Ludd says:

              I mean really: by Loomis’s logic, anybody who (for instance) translates the classics of English literature into another language is a scab, robbing book sales that could have gone to native authors. Most computer programmers are scabs, because before that work was done manually. Etc. Yes, labor has a legitimate struggle and just squawking “progress! technology!” shouldn’t let any bosses off the hook, but “never do a job that was formerly done by more than one person” is never going to be a moral principle in my book.

              Oh, and I’m probably somewhat giving away which regular I am by responding to my own comment but meh.

            • Eli Rabett says:

              Well, that fellow’s head on a pike would be ripe tasty.

            • Linnaeus says:

              I also know that they’re now basically used as a synonym for pointless resistance to progress.

              A sad development, which is why I tend to avoid using the word “Luddite”- it’s been captured by people who throw it out when anyone raises questions about the wider consequences of technological change.

      • Aaron B. says:

        Educating for free so that everyone can have access to it is equivalent to laboring for a boss, for money, during a strike?

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Working for free in a way that undermines the ability of other workers to have a job? Yes, that’s scabbing. That has been a central point to unionism for over a century.

            • Ned Ludd says:

              +ha’penny (it’s all I’ve got, God bless me.)

            • Erik Loomis says:

              No. Blogging is that way if you are producing profit for an institution that then lays off other workers.

              Having lectures online is fine. Having those lectures count for course credit, that’s a totally different thing.

              • Patrick says:

                Seconded on the issue of credit. MOOCs seem to me to be intrinsically incapable of providing an education in the liberal arts sense – they take all of the drawbacks of mass-lectures (a top-down approach, difficulty of engaging the students, lack of socratic leadership) and squares them by physically separating the students. Sure there are ways of getting students to connect remotely, and some of those ways strike me as a good thing, but the opportunities to free ride on other students is huge, and the larger the class gets the less possible it will be to ensure quality. Sandel might well be able to hold the line with 1000 in-person students – what about 10,000 at home?

                • rm says:

                  Indeed, a MOOC is just a video textbook.

                  Let’s get rid of classrooms and just distribute a lot of free textbooks! Actually, freely disseminated knowledge is a good thing, whether MOOCs or books, but do not substitute for teaching.

                  When film was first invented it was going to replace schools and make the world flat, too.

                • rm says:

                  does not, not do not.

              • Ned Ludd says:

                You should have been clearer upfront about that distinction. Not all of us are up on the jargon. Hear in the 18th century, we’ve never even heard of mooks, let alone MOOCs.

                • Étienne Tempier says:

                  Hear in the 18th century, we’ve never even heard of mooks, let alone MOOCs.

                  Ned, your movement was early 19th century.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  Dammit.

                • Ned Ludd says:

                  ‘My” movement was, but I was already a folk hero from decades past when they arose. I am in the 18th century, if indeed I exist at all.

              • So…you don’t think the proliferation of people writing things for free online undercuts the jobs/wages of people getting paid to write things online? Perhaps I’m just too immersed in sports blogging, but…really?

          • ajay says:

            Working for free in a way that undermines the ability of other workers to have a job? Yes, that’s scabbing.

            Actually it’s “volunteering”.

          • Sebastian H says:

            Seriously? Online courses are a form of scabbing? Is charging student obscenely high fees for lecture room survey courses a central point of unionism too? If this is unionism there isn’t any need for explanation as to its decline. Who is more exploited, the teacher making an excellent living, or the hundreds of students going into severe debt present in each class?

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            Er…I confess that I’m not quite grasping this point.

            Perhaps the formulation is incomplete?

            For example, I don’t think I’m a scab if I help troubleshoot a friend’s (or my mom’s) computer even though I’m working for free and it undermines the folks at the genius bar. I might write a howto or book (for free or for profit) that competes with other sources of help.

            I thought “scab” was more narrowly tailored to people who worked in opposition to a specific industrial action which undermined that action. I might be a scab if I helped people for free while their was a genius bar strike on (though, even then, I suspect that it would only be scabbing if I did it so the company got money or benefit; if I did it to ease the pain of the strike for the public thus helping maintain their support, I think that’d be different.)

            • Erik Loomis says:

              Two points:

              First, the term “scab” is more commonly used as you describe it, but has long been more broadly used in reference to union-busting activities employed by individuals that undermine the ability of people in your profession to work.

              Second, the term is relevant here if a person is running a MOOC with the knowledge that doing so is going to allow universities to cut back on labor while still charging students tuition, thus undermining the ability of fellow workers to earn a living. The key, as you point out, is whether it creates benefit for the company, in this case universities. Which is very different than you helping out your friend or whatever.

              It is too harsh at this point to call this person a scab, but the behavior is scabbing.

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                Thanks.

                Is there a distinguishable difference in this context between union-busting behavior and competing? I mean, if I decide that I hate universities and decide to quit and found my own MOOCompany because I genuinely believe I know how to do better, am I scabbing? I.e., I’m not targeting the university workers per se (indeed, I still adore my former colleagues and wish them well).

                I do do some research on educational technologies which may reduce the need for human effort. Now, I generally focus on things that reduce drudgery (e.g., generation of MCQs) thus, hopefully, freeing up instructor time and effort for other helpful activities.

                I guess I’m having a hard time drawing a line here. I think MOOCheerleading is misguided for all sorts of reasons and esp. as a backdoor to privatisation, but I’m not yet convinced that we won’t find ways to teach certain classes of material at high scale for low effort. And that seems potentially good even though it may hurt some labor forces.

                What does solidarity demand of us? (Actually, I’d love a full post on this topic!)

      • There’s great irony in Michael Sandel, of all people, leading the MOOC movement.

      • Lasker says:

        I think this would be much better narrowed to include only those who teach MOOCs and allow them to be used to reduce the quality of education available to students.

        Otherwise it would be better to teach students poorly in order to provide more work for tutors, teachers of remedial classes, etc, which is obviously wrong.

      • Bloix says:

        Oh, please. Faculty members at large universities hate doing this sort of “labor.” Many of them do it badly, many do as little of it as possible, and most of them make no effort (other than two exams a semester, graded by a TA) to determine whether the students are learning or not, and if not, what they can do about it. If they learn, fine, if they don’t, well, they’re adults aren’t they? That’s the attitude. The professors want to write their articles and the students are troublesome obstacles to the real work of an academic.

        No doubt there are all sorts of ways that a professor could make a large survey course more engaging, inspiring, and effective than an on-line MOOC. The trouble is, professors don’t try. They’re not paid to make their classes better, they’re not interested in doing it, and they have no institutional support to do it.

        This blog in particular used to make a specialty of showing its contempt for students. Stupid, stupid students, actually wanting some attention and compassion for their $50,000 a year! They’re adults, aren’t they? The attitude was, I don’t care about you as a human being any more than that box of silicon chips on your desk.

        So no more, please about how replacing the professor who talks at 300 students a semester from his ten-year old lecture notes with a machine is the same as taking the bread from the mouth of a 19th century handloom weaver.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          This is stereotype. I’ve taught at 4 schools, including 2 large state institutions and 2 good liberal arts schools, and I have not found this to be true at all. At both UNM and URI, departments pride themselves on EVERYONE teaching the survey courses. I love teaching the survey classes and so do many of my colleagues.

          • Just because it’s a stereotype doesn’t mean it isn’t true in some/many cases.

            • Erik Loomis says:

              I’m sure it is true in some cases. But it’s also not true in many, and I’d argue most, cases. And it’s a very damaging stereotype that needs to be pushed back.

              • I suppose I’d add that there’s a reasonably decent chance that the “disinterested professor” is quite possibly disinterested because he realizes that his involvement/large group lectures are totally pointless for these classes too.

              • Linnaeus says:

                I’m with Erik here. From what I’ve seen in academia, most of my colleagues (graduate students and faculty) take their teaching very seriously. What’s also interesting is some of the pushback I’ve seen when faculty and graduate instructors do things like increase the number of assignments, make a certain number of contact hours mandatory, etc. Doesn’t happen all of the time, though.

              • Manta says:

                I agree with Erik here.
                Mind you, there are also professors that try to do a good job and fail, but in general I would say most professors do care about teaching.

                On the other hand, I agree with Bloix that the institutions of HE don’t give incentives to teach well, or at least not enough.

                • DrDick says:

                  Agree completely, especially to the last. While the university gives lip service to teaching excellence, that is seldom a significant factor in promotion and raises.

                • Linnaeus says:

                  On the other hand, I agree with Bloix that the institutions of HE don’t give incentives to teach well, or at least not enough

                  There’s something to that. In my department, if you’re a newly-hired assistant prof, you better have a book published within six years or your hire, or you won’t be tenured. Which isn’t to say that research shouldn’t be a factor in making promotional decisions, but those considerations should be more balanced.

                • Erik Loomis says:

                  Right–it is absolutely true that the structure of the system, at least at many schools, suggests one can be a mediocre teacher and still get tenure. The fact that so many of us strive to be good teachers despite the lack of incentive I would like to think suggests our professionalism and genuine care about teaching.

                • djangermats says:

                  ITT professors think professors are great at teaching

                  Fucking lol

              • wengler says:

                In my college experience it was about 75-25 in terms of those interested in teaching courses against those not at all interested.

                I even had one semester where the class had one professor for the first half that was great, and another for the second half that was terrible. She even failed to book a room for the final so an entire 200 person class had to take it on the floor in the lobby and halls of the building.

          • bugman says:

            Yup, Eric is right on. This might fly at some places, but if you want tenure at my mid-size place, you’d better be at least a competent instructor.

          • Tracy Lightcap says:

            I think the real problem here is the incentives, as is said below. But it works both ways.

            True, in research university and elite liberal arts settings, there are tremendous incentives to do research (duh) and not as much to teach well. Still, everybody I know at the Bigs does work on their teaching, albeit with different success. Further, the graduate programs at almost every outfit these days have seminars – either required or highly recommended – on educational research and how to teach. So here the problem is equalizing incentives to make teaching more important.

            Now, let’s turn to the largely teaching universities at the middle level and at not-so-elite liberal arts colleges. Here the situation is exactly reversed! Down here in Georgia, faculty at the new “state college and university” (don’t ask) schools are up in arms because the Regents are demanding that all tenured faculty produce a publication of some sort each year. Their response: we were told when we were hired that all we had to do is teach! There were, like, zero incentives to any academic work at all. The evaluation systems were all set up to score teaching and still are, but now you pull this on us! Of course, many faculty do and did research anyway, despite not being awarded for it, just like the conscientious teachers at the Bigs.

            Iow, no one in the higher education at any level has ever worked out a way to make the biscuits and the jam come out even, as Lazarus Long said. And, of course, it is high time for someone to try.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          This blog in particular used to make a specialty of showing its contempt for students. Stupid, stupid students, actually wanting some attention and compassion for their $50,000 a year!

          [cites omitted]

          • sharculese says:

            Seriously, like, you mostly don’t even talk about your students (I think you do sometimes, mostly with pride?) except for SEK, and there the love and affection shines through, even when he’s frustrated and shit.

      • mark f says:

        from Friedman’s perspective, what makes him good is that he’s at Harvard.

        I think it’s simpler than that. What makes Sandel a good teacher is that he’s friends with Tom Friedman.

    • sharculese says:

      I am no fan of Friedman, but I thought the “driver” line was a pretty clever riposte to a well-established Friedman-bashing trope. At least it shows he’s listening, I thought.

      Except the idea of Thomas Friedman having self-awareness is pretty implausible.

      • Dmitri says:

        No, that’s the amazing part! I contend this is an actual, empirically verifiable sign of Friedmanian self-awareness. It’s like a nematode rearing its ugly little head up and reciting some line of Shakespeare. Someone should write a biology paper on it for sure.

  7. Lecturer says:

    It’s not legislators forcing this on us, it’s the Disruptive Disruption of the Infallible Free Market!

  8. Shakezula says:

    A question I’ve had since before I got my undergrad diploma and ask pretty regularly now that I am married to a very smart person who has gotten along just fine with a H.S. diploma and minus the giant student debt load:

    At what point does this crap all break down because college credits and college diplomas have become meaningless. Or to put it more cynically, employers realize that a college diploma tells you jack + shit about a job applicant. Yeah, I guess you can funnel a percentage of students up to certain grad programs but at the end of the day you’re left with a lot of people with fancy bits of paper.

    • Malaclypse says:

      Or to put it more cynically, employers realize that a college diploma tells you jack + shit about a job applicant.

      Nobody ever gets fired for adding “college degree required” to a job description. But whoever takes that out will be held personally responsible for the first bad hire.

      • Shakezula says:

        Sure, but internally it still is (or will be or might be or willan on-be) a useless marker of whether the applicant is qualified for a job.

        The only way I can see around it is if every employer also requires a highly specific major or additional certification for a particular job, which is something I have seen, but again under this model I don’t think is sustainable.

      • Murc says:

        And to expand on what Mal said, the sheepskin is what HR departments use to make initial cuts.

        If you think your resume is being read by a human being, you are wrong in many cases. They’re looked over by text-recognition programs that make initial cuts based on things like level of education and professional certifications. I know, personally, people with 15+ years of experience in programming, resumes longer than my arm, and glowing references, who cannot get their foot in the door at certain companies because they don’t have a diploma and the HR department will trash their resumes sight unseen.

        • Shakezula says:

          Yes, but I’m asking what the HR department (or its scanners) will do when 90 – 100% of all applicants have diplomas?

          • Murc says:

            … we are so far away from that being an issue it’s not even worth worrying about.

            Seriously. Worrying about that is like worrying what the deficit will be in 2070. Less than half the people in this country have any kind of college degree.

            • Shakezula says:

              Dear me, my hypothetical posted in a blog comment does not have immediate impact on the world today!

              • thebewilderness says:

                When they started this transition to higher minimum qualifications in the eighties it was clear that it would have long range impact on all of us. Applicants must have a college degree, and oh fancy that, there are internship programs where you can work for free while you get your degree!
                The answer to your question, I think, is that they will raise the minimum qualification.

                • Shakezula says:

                  Hmmm. The question then would be which would happen first:
                  1. You need a graduate degree to get a job scrubbing floors.
                  2. Aliens sense our civilization is on the edge of destruction and convert us to SnackPacks.

                  I’m hoping for 2.

          • TribalistMeathead says:

            Then they’ll start making cuts based on other keyword searches. There will never be a day when each resume submitted to a company is reviewed by a human being in HR. I’ve been out of school for 12 years and have never gotten a job without the assistance of someone advocating on my behalf, either a recruiter or a current employee of that company.

            • Oxblossom says:

              Yes,uh-huh, so clear that it’s all about “who you know,” and there’s nothing new about that under the sun. Recently though, I heard a prominent lawyer state the matter more elegantly: getting that job you want is “all about being known.”

          • DrDick says:

            Raise the bar and require graduate work. A large portion of the jobs that now require a college degree could easily be done by a competent HS grad. The degree simply provides an easy and entirely arbitrary criteria for exclusion and narrowing the pool of people they have to think about. Give trends in college funding and tuition, there is also a vanishingly small likelihood that you will ever get anything close to even a 50% college graduation rate.

            • Linnaeus says:

              A large portion of the jobs that now require a college degree could easily be done by a competent HS grad.

              Yes, and employers used to do a lot more on-the-job training than they do now. But they see that as a cost that they want to externalize, and one way they do that is by requiring certain kinds of credentials.

              • cwaltz says:

                I think you’re overthinking it. Many of these managers are just lazy and lack critical thinking skills. Quite frankly, it’s pretty funny that some of them can’t see the advantage of hiring someone who actually matches the skill set required and that isn’t going to be looking for something because the job bores the person to tears.

    • gorillagogo says:

      At what point does this crap all break down because college credits and college diplomas have become meaningless.

      I wonder about that myself. I never had any kids, but if I had I would try to steer them to a trade school so they could earn a decent living as an electrician or something similar

      • cwaltz says:

        80% of self made millionaires never attend college.

        I have 2 of the over 18 set. I have told them they can continue to live at home rent free until 22 but if they want to attend college then THEY will pay for it. One has already decided that she wants to go the technical route. She is saving for dental assistant school and massage therapy. Both schools will cost her a modest $10,000. Pretty much the cost of one year at school. The other, is apparently a masochist. He wants to teach. He’s looking at upwards of $30,000 for a bachelors and he’d likely start as an assistant making $9.50 an hour. Luckily, I have time on my side. He absolutely agrees with me not to go into debt. 2 years in and he’s saved $10,000.

    • Pooh says:

      This is sort of Campos’ beat, but he’d call it a sorting mechanism, though not as strong as law school since undergrad is not as rigorously hierarchical as law school.

  9. Jonas says:

    Not sure why your complaining. Laid off professors can just sell t-shirts that said “I lost my job to a MOOC and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” and can become rich entrepreneurs.

  10. Zifnab says:

    I’m sorry, but there’s got to be a middle ground between vilifying and deifying online education materials. There are more than a few classes I took from 600-person stadium seating in my state university that could just as easily have been delivered via YouTube video. The homework was already online. The textbook was a print-out binder. And the only real interaction we had with the professor was a little garage door opener we used to answer questions at the beginning of class. Tell me that couldn’t have been done via the web just as easily.

    I think there’s serious merit to online education and certification. The system, as it stands, is already functionally in place. We just have a handful of elite gatekeepers that demand a $50k payout before they hand you a diploma.

    That’s not to say the in-the-flesh University experience is without merit. But the merit comes from bringing large numbers of intelligent young people together in the same location to be students full-time. It doesn’t come from the modern college classroom setting of several hundred half-asleep warm bodies shoved into a classroom and talked at for an hour.

    Can we find some way to leverage the efficiency of online educating without going on the full Thomas Friedman mustache ride?

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Increase funding for education and promote small class sizes. That’s the answer to the large classroom set up. Hire more professors.

      • Zifnab says:

        Which raises costs and creates more barriers to entry.

        Isn’t there a way to use online material to allow for larger class sizes or to lower the cost of education certification without sacrificing quality?

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Using online material, no.

          Lowering costs, yes. But to do that, you’d have to go after the structure of universities. Because for all the ridiculous amount of money that it costs for an education, professors aren’t seen a dime. We haven’t gotten a raise in I think 3 years now, thanks to Lincoln Chaffee screwing us over on our contract. I believe the price of tuition has gone up by something like 15% in that time. We have literally not seen one cent of that money.

          • Zifnab says:

            Which is bad. I understand that. But you’re basically saying “Professors aren’t getting paid enough, therefore online education isn’t useful for students”. That doesn’t really follow.

            I mean, I’m sure we could set up some kind of system where tenure came with some kind of “Partnership” deal in the university, giving you a big stake and say in how the system is run. Or we could just mandate “X% of tuition revenue must go to faculty” and maybe institute a salary cap on administrative personal a la the major league sports union solution.

            But those are huge structural changes which will have only tangential effects on how easily prospective students can access education cheaply. From a student-perspective, I want high quality instruction at a lower price. Distributing more tuition dollars to professors doesn’t do anything to drive down inflated college costs.

            • Erik Loomis says:

              No, what I’m saying is that online education as it is being constructed is part of the same system that brought you all the bad things about higher education in the first place. These administrators and capitalists don’t have students’ interests at heart. It’s all about generating more profit off a captive market. And don’t fool yourself about it being cheap–it might be now, but as soon as the competition is gone, i.e., traditional education, the cost will skyrocket.

              • Murc says:

                No, what I’m saying is that online education as it is being constructed is part of the same system that brought you all the bad things about higher education in the first place.

                The emphasized part is the most important part of Erik’s point, I think.

                Online materiel can be pretty amazing and convenient. I love being able to get to my assignments anywhere and submit them online from the comfort of my own home rather than have to print out a giant chunk of dead tree, put it in a pretty binder, and hand it to a weary TA.

                Erik isn’t talking about stuff like that. He means the whole damn edifice.

        • Good things cost money. Infrastructure, which is what education is, costs money. When a road needs maintenance, that costs money, and you either fix the road or it falls apart.

          Yes, if we as a society are unwilling to support public education (higher and otherwise), then there is no solution. We are fucked.

        • ajay says:

          Isn’t there a way to use online material to allow for larger class sizes or to lower the cost of education certification without sacrificing quality?

          Like this: http://www.open.ac.uk/

    • John says:

      I think the appropriate response to this is that those kind of giant intro classes shouldn’t really exist in the first place.

      • Shakezula says:

        I think it might go back further than that and people should ask why is this giant intro class being offered? Is it to meet some basic credit requirement that has been on the books for ages? Should it maybe be eliminated?

        For courses related to a major at a huge university, I can see why intro classes would be pretty immense, but it seems that where it just isn’t possible to have an ideal student-teacher ratio, that can be mitigated by mandatory study groups with assistants to give the students closer contact with an instructor.
        However, if you’re just taking a class because you’re sort of interested and you need a credit, I can’t see how class size would be an issue.

        (Note: I went to a very small college so I may be talking pure and hilariously idealistic bollocks.)

        • Murc says:

          I think it might go back further than that and people should ask why is this giant intro class being offered?

          In many cases, it is being offered because the students in question actually need remediation in one or more subjects.

          You can argue that colleges should only admit students who are already prepared for the college experience. Doing this, however, will completely lock out many people who have been ill-served by their high schools through no fault of their own.

          It’s perfectly possible to be a good, but not spectacular, student who graduates high school with a B average or higher but who lack a solid grounding in certain kinds of mathematics, science, or writing that are necessary to get by in college. I went to a very nice high school in an upper-class (I don’t mean upper-middle class; I mean upper class, ’16 year olds in Mercedes’) area. It was possible to graduate without being really forced to ever write a proper research paper, for example.

          And that’s at a good school. What is a state university or community college supposed to do with people who got a GED at the age of 20 and understand that a higher education is the key to getting out of poverty but never even really completed their secondary schooling?

          Colleges react to this by cramming 600 people into English 101. You can argue that the proper response is to reform our public schools. That’s true, but it doesn’t address the immediate problem.

          • Shakezula says:

            Yeah I went to private school with some stellar morons and no hopers. Thank God for cash.

            However, “remediation” would be necessary to the student’s education, correct? And I imagine some thought goes into which students need what sort of refresher courses. For example, some students might need help with writing. Certain students might need a math class if they plan to major in an area where math is required.

            Second note: My college has no math or hard science requirements. Psychology and sociology are called sciences. Even I think this is a joke and I majored in psych. Bottom line, what is required to give someone a diploma ain’t set in stone.

            So again, if there are required classes that have nothing to do with the student’s education, I question the value of making them mandatory. An example, I think most universities have a language requirement. I am a language whore but I think this is stupid. It is even more stupid that some universities allow students to take Latin to fill this requirement. Huh?

            • somethingblue says:

              Why is that stupid?

              • Shakezula says:

                Why is it stupid to require foreign language credits when the student’s major does not involve a foreign language?

                Or to break it down even further, why is it stupid to require students to take a foreign language class for just long enough to be 99% non-competent?

                Um. Because it is … stupid?

                • somethingblue says:

                  No, you misunderstand me. Why is it especially stupid that Latin, which is a foreign language, can be studied to meet a foreign language requirement?

                  On your larger point: blanket foreign language requirements are Gen. Ed. requirements. They’re not there to be relevant to your major. They’re not even there to produce fluency in a foreign language. (I agree that 2 years of a college class aren’t enough to produce that in most people.) They’re there to teach you about language, and to give you a perspective on your own language that you can only get by standing outside it, however briefly and imperfectly.

                • djw says:

                  Why is it stupid to require foreign language credits when the student’s major does not involve a foreign language?

                  The philosophy behind a BA revolves around a major and set of general education requirements. The language requirement is pretty easy to justify under just about any theory of general education I can imagine, for the same reason you might find yourself required to take classes in literature, philosophy, social science, history and physics, even if you’re a accounting major. If you’re questioning the very idea of general education at the post-secondary level, and think college should only be about the major and classes that directly support it (which is how college is organized in some countries), I understand where you’re coming from although I can’t agree with the critique. But I have no idea why you’d single out foreign language requirements as uniquely unworthy of inclusion as part of a general education program.

              • Lee Rudolph says:

                Yeah‐shouldn’t students from any university be able, if they want, to acquire one of the requirements for the Papacy?

              • wjts says:

                It might be stupid, but it depends on what the purpose of the language requirement is. If the purpose is to make students more attractive job candidates or to allow them to communicate with other people who speak a different language (and I’ve seen defenses of language requirements phrased in both of those terms), it’s kind of stupid. If the purpose is to give students the skills necessary to read a corpus of literature or to make students learn a new language because they’re in college and they should be learning things, Latin makes as much sense as anything else.

                • Shakezula says:

                  Here’s the thing: I’ve seen otherwise very smart people crash and burn because they just didn’t have the head for languages. It is exactly what would have happened to me if I had not found a college that had no math or hard science requirements.

                  (So if it makes you feel better you may substitute Language for some other class.)

                  On the other hand, I’ve seen people cruise through the language requirement because they were already fluent or very proficient in another language. Yeah, that really enhanced their college experience.

                  I maintain, that when it is not relevant to a major, it is stupid to base a person’s future on whether or not they can pass a language course. Or math. Heh.

                  The idea of making a student do it because it is “good for them,” or will “make them a more well rounded person,” don’t cut it with me. Why language and not … a music class?

                • somethingblue says:

                  Many institutions do, in fact, have some sort of art/music requirement as part of Gen. Ed. Most also require some kind of writing course, even though there are bright people who can’t write very well.

                  There are, of course, some schools that have no such requirements and I am pleased that you found one that suited you.

                • djw says:

                  Yeah, if your argument is it shouldn’t be a requirement because “some people aren’t naturally good at it” you’re basically arguing against any gen ed at all.

                • FlipYrWhig says:

                  Yeah! No more of this “learning things”! Things, feh. Either you’re good at them already, in which case you don’t need them, or you suck at them, in which case fuck them! Education, solved.

                • Murc says:

                  Part of the disconnect here is the fact that college has become a very expensive credential.

                  Having a well-rounded general education is of value, but college is no longer attended near-exclusively by well-heeled gentlemen scholars. It is attended by people who are assuming incredibly large, in some cases near-ruinous, amounts of debt because the education provided by a college, and the credential accompanying that education, is what will allow them to provide a decent living for themselves or their family. Many of them are working very long hours outside of college in order to afford said college.

                  For those people, they get anywhere from annoyed to angry when they’re forced to do a language requirement or take gym or something when all they want to do is get their engineering degree so they can go to work and begin paying down their debt, maybe start a family. It seems insulting and unfair that they’re forced to pay many thousands of dollars for something they have no practical use for, while people cluck-cluck at them that it is part of having a well-rounded education.

                  Now, obviously, the solution to this is to not have college be so ruinously expensive. But until that day comes, I find it hard to disagree with people who are angry about needing to drop ten grand on four or five courses that are of marginal practical utility when it comes to earning potential.

                • Governor Rick Scott says:

                  I wish to endorse this excellent comment by Murc.

      • djw says:

        Or if they do exist, they should be accompanied by small “sections” (or in the sciences, labs). Otherwise, yeah; not much point.

    • Ned Ludd says:

      You have an excellent point, but then again, I’m being a troll now. So, if I say “smash the machines”, then the chances of Loomis addressing the shades of grey* go down, and we trolls win!

      *Notice how the spelling helps me take on the role of a mentally handicapped English worker?

    • witless chum says:

      It think this is true, but the problem is that such things are being offered by total charlatans who don’t give a shit if you learn anything or not. The University of Phoenix and such, basically the higher ed versions of the charter school assholes who are just about looting the public treasury without producing anything worthwhile in return.

      • Zifnab says:

        Right. I’d like to find some middle ground between diploma-mill-that-teaches-nothing and the $10k+/year ivory tower. Surely we can leverage the internet to lower the price of education while still maintaining some kind of respectable quality standard.

        • NonyNony says:

          Explain how you are going to implement means to prevent cheating with any MOOC system. Otherwise it’s just a system of taking money in exchange for a grade.

          MOOCs are for self-learners and should never be used to give credit – they’re ways for people who are willing to put in the extra time and effort to learn something where the end result is the learning itself and not the grade received or the credit for the course. As soon as you change the goal to something other than learning (and let’s face reality – most students pay thousands of dollars for college not for a broad education but for the piece of paper that will convince HR departments that they are a serious candidate for a job), the system breaks down.

          (I’d make the same argument for stadium-sized classes too – great for people who can learn the material with minimum direction and supervision, lousy for students who don’t see the value in the material and just want to have the piece of paper that says they get credit for it, lousy for students who do see the value in the material but aren’t skilled at self-directed learning. Basically lousy for at least 75% of the student population at your average state university…)

          • Zifnab says:

            Explain how you are going to implement means to prevent cheating with any MOOC system. Otherwise it’s just a system of taking money in exchange for a grade.

            Use the same magic fairy dust that prevents cheating within the current system. Because we all know cheating never happens in the status-quo system. :-p

            MOOCs are for self-learners and should never be used to give credit – they’re ways for people who are willing to put in the extra time and effort to learn something where the end result is the learning itself and not the grade received or the credit for the course.

            I take classes for a lot of reasons. I’m taking a Chinese class right now to restore some semi-balance of fluency. I took a free online course from MIT because I wanted to learn some new programming techniques.

            But if I’m getting an education for the purpose of improving my job prospects, I’m not clear as to why I absolutely need to be shoved through the University meat grinder once again. There is a lot in the University system that is utterly dysfunctional – weed-out classes more interested in thinning student volume than teaching anything, TAs that don’t speak English, curve systems that reward or punish relative to your classmates rather than to some objective educational standard, post-grade begging for GPA that mostly just involves how friendly you are with the person recording your score.

            Say what you will about a Microsoft Certification or an SAT test, but everyone knows exactly what they’re getting into when they take these exams.

            I can understand criticizing particular accreditors – like U. Phoenix – because the grades they give don’t reflect the skill of the degree holder. I can’t understand simply saying “An online test isn’t the same as a paper test, and your knowledge shouldn’t be formally recognized.”

            • Shakezula says:

              Use the same magic fairy dust that prevents cheating within the current system. Because we all know cheating never happens in the status-quo system. :-p

              This. I went to school pre-Internet and cheating was rampant then. How schools are effectively preventing cheating now … I’m glad I don’t have to tackle that problem. Yick.

          • Cody says:

            I enjoy greatly the concepts behind Udacity, Saundy, Khan Academy, and many other websites.

            These places don’t really give credits. However, when I wanted to pick up Python taking CS101 off Udacity was great.

            It gave me the structure I need with valuable lectures. I’ve often contemplated going back to school for CS because I don’t seem to like EE, but another degree would not be worth the cost. I just prefer to learn by myself things I don’t know!

            I like Khan Academy like an Encyclopedia – I can just go there and learn about anything interesting.

          • wengler says:

            The accreditation authorities could always design rigorous testing regimes to get credit for MOOCs. It’s done all the time for other fields.

            Tests that cost a couple hundred bucks that fail out about 70 percent of the people that take them seems like a happy medium.

        • NonyNony says:

          Surely we can leverage the internet to lower the price of education while still maintaining some kind of respectable quality standard.

          Also – the best way to lower the price of education is to do what we used to do in this country – subsidize the hell of out it in exchange for tuition caps on state universities.

          This system worked for decades, and was only dismantled because taxes are evil and banks lobbied hard to open up that sweet sweet student loan market. If we went back to subsidizing state colleges at the (inflation-adjusted) levels they had back in the day, we’d have a better chance of having something affordable. The shiny object of “oooh technology will solve it” is being waved to keep people from realizing that what has really changed to make education so expensive is the funding model.

    • NonyNony says:

      There are more than a few classes I took from 600-person stadium seating in my state university that could just as easily have been delivered via YouTube video.

      This is the low-tech version of stealing your money. The MOOC is the high-tech version of it. The complaints that Erik makes about MOOCs are just as relevant to the stadium approach to “education”.

      The stadium seating thing is brought about by administrators with the same mentality as those pushing MOOCs. Students are ill-served by both models and both models need to be eliminated, but moving stadium-sized classes to MOOCs and small classes to stadiums is clearly the wrong direction.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        Right. Administrations are pushing large class sizes because it’s all profit they can then spend on their pet projects. It’s all the same system. That’s especially true in the Humanities, which administrations see as nothing more than an endless profit-generating cycle of bigger and bigger classes taught by more and more adjuncts. No cost, all profit. And we can use that money to create a 4th vice president of research with a full office staff.

        • NonyNony says:

          And technology can actually be used properly to help a lot of students. The inverted/flipped classroom model is what the MOOCs are a perversion of – take all that lecture time and move it into the homework where students can “attend the lecture” on their own, then you can spend your classroom time on things that you really need/want to have groups together. Like small group activities, discussion groups, etc.

          THAT model should be the wave of the future. But unfortunately it’s getting a lot of pushback from professors and instructors who see it (perhaps rightfully) as a foot in the door for an administrator to turn their class into a MOOC or hand it over to a TA to run since the “hard work” of the lecture material is done once and that just leaves the easy part of running a “recitation section”. Sigh.

          • DrDick says:

            I think it is the latter (and I teach both large lecture and online classes) and it is a very real threat. There are several universities and colleges around the country where all the online instruction is done by graduate students or poorly paid adjuncts (I have a grad student who does that).

        • mds says:

          And we can use that money to create a 4th vice president of research with a full office staff.

          Yeah, my point exactly. What, back when CCNY didn’t charge tuition, all the faculty were dedicated unpaid volunteers? The steep recent rise in tuition costs has tracked with the decline of tenured faculty and and an increase in administrative staff. Yet now the solution for affordable access to education is to eliminate even more faculty, because technology?

          • Steve LaBonne says:

            All those pesky faculty members do is annoy administrators with their impertinent questions and demands. Well, that and soak up salary money that the administrators could use to pay themselves more. Nobody important (i.e., administrators) will miss them.

          • BigHank53 says:

            Surely it will succeed this time. We just didn’t bleed the patient enough before, and he remains filled with ill humors.

    • TribalistMeathead says:

      “It doesn’t come from the modern college classroom setting of several hundred half-asleep warm bodies shoved into a classroom and talked at for an hour.”

      I went to a small liberal arts college, and the only real difference was the fact that my Chem 101 class had 60 half-asleep warm bodies instead of 600.

      • Zifnab says:

        :-p My point being that a University chemistry course is valuable because you get put in the lab with actual chemicals and the facilities to do something with them.

        The lecture hall is not a unique and valuable component of the University education system, and if you put that kind of material online while gearing Universities toward the hands-on aspect of education, it would allow people to accredit themselves of the theory with the convenience that online education provides, before you shove a titration kit into their hands and tell them to go do real work.

        • rea says:

          The lecture hall is not a unique and valuable component of the University education system

          The lecture hall is a holdover from before the last big technological innovation in higher education–the invention of printing.

        • Steve LaBonne says:

          And I’d love to live in the alternate universe in which online education would actually be used that way. But I don’t and neither do you. It’s kind of like charter schools- when I first heard about them they seemed like a good idea, but the practice is very very far from the (ostensible) theory.

      • Shakezula says:

        But the dynamic is different. Most of my classes averaged 30 students but there were a few that had 100 or more. Massively different vibe between the two. For one thing, in the small classes the teacher would notice if you fell asleep or consistently skipped.

        • DrDick says:

          True. When classes are 20-30, then you can get a real interactive experience between the professor and students. That gradually degrades until you get to about 50 students, when interaction completely disappears. Over 100 and half of the students are not even awake or paying attention.

          • Cody says:

            Through 4 years of college I talked to a total of three professors on a personal level.

            Sometimes there were questions in class, but that is about it.

            Though the TAs in lab were extremely helpful. To be fair though, my Professors were rather busy with exciting research. And I’m well aware that’s what they got paid for.

          • Lurker says:

            Then, at the hard end of the spectrum, are the very small classes of the graduate courses. I have both given and attended a semester-length course with only three students. You know, that becomes a very intensive experience.

            And what did we do in those courses? In fact, we took a book (we only had a single copy, used both by the instructor and the students, because it was economically inefficient to buy several) and went through it, chapter by chapter, truly working out each and every equation and derivation within those pages. This cannot be done on-line, but it is by necessity, the domain of the Ph.D students,

            • DrDick says:

              At my university, there are no such thing as classes of 3 students. The minimum size is 5 for grad seminars, 10 for upper division and 15 for lower division. Got to make that money.

  11. Aaron B. says:

    The bill California is considering is an either/or proposition:

    either you offer an online course for students who otherwise can’t take this offering;
    or we will force you to accept credits from other institutions.

    As such, it seems pretty clear to me that most institutions will just move quickly to approve their own online course offerings. Which is, y’know, kind of the point.

  12. SP says:

    Did Yglesias just call you a dyspeptic technophobe? I believe he did (or maybe it was a technophobic dyspeptic.) Blog fight!

    • Steve LaBonne says:

      It’s never worth reading anything Yglesias says about education. He’s simply unable to say anything well-informed or sensible on the subject.

      • Ned Ludd says:

        Seriously. I mean, I’m a troll, and even I’d never stoop to smashing Yglesias’s machines.

      • mds says:

        Yeah, you’d think with all the online access he has to educational data, studies, debates, and the like, that he’d take the opportunity to make himself better informed on such issues. Yet he coasts on his gilded credentials and preconceived notions instead. Hey, in unrelated news, let’s offer more certification-granting material over the internet, since everyone will inevitably seize the chance to maximize their learning opportunities.

    • Murc says:

      You know, I’m often prepared to defend Yglesias, but in this case he’s just being blinkered.

      Yglesias means well, but he often seems to assume other technocrats mean equally well. When he hears ‘online education’ he thinks ‘oh, yeah! Let’s use learning management systems to make it easier for more students to learn more than ever before! Let’s get them in touch with their professors more often and set up video conference calls and allow for people who live hundreds of miles from a college and/or are physically disabled to access a higher education! It’ll be great.’

      And you know what, I don’t think Erik would disagree with using modern informational infrastructure to do any of that. Those are great things! They should be done! But the people pushing this kind of stuff aren’t interested in the democratization of education or of better serving students. They’re interested in extracting every last dime from the system before it collapses.

      • Agreed with this 110%. In general, I totally think Yglesias’ blinders in this area stem from the fact that he’s ultimately well meaning, and struggles to identify the people who superficially agree with him who are very much not well meaning.

        • Medrawt says:

          That might be right for his education thing. But, as someone who generally agrees with him that lots of small time licensing requirements are a net negative, I still don’t get his particular obsession with barbers and hairdressers, no matter how many times people point out the hygiene issues, use of chemicals, etc. that go into being a fully qualified practitioner; we’re not talking about people braiding hair out of their home.

          • Because the idea that your average adult human being can’t figure out how to properly use barbicide without hundreds of hours of training and an expensive licensing fee isn’t actually very persuasive? I guess I don’t know if he’s differentiated hairdressers or not, but I do know that he’s stated that he’s okay with licensing requirements in situations where not knowing what you’re doing can cause actual physical harm that can’t be adequately handled with simple regulations.

            • John says:

              The point of the license is that you can take it away for safety violations. I don’t think anybody has ever argued that the precise currently existing licensing requirements for hairdressers are necessary. The problem people have is Yglesias’s idea that the very idea of licensing hairdressers is self-evidently outrageous.

        • JL says:

          Agreed.

          A lot of my techie friends have basically the same mindset as Yglesias on this sort of issue. I once did too. I still have to suppress an Yglesias-style technocrat reaction to something like Erik’s OP (and ultimately think he has a good point but would not go as far as he does). I know people who have or are seeking low-level jobs at stuff like edX (when they could be making a lot more doing something else) precisely because they mean well and are taking those jobs for altruistic reasons…democratizing education, increasing access for people with disabilities, etc. It is very easy to think of these issues purely in that way without a counterweight.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        I fully support small online classes that expand access and use a discussion forum to engage students. I also don’t think they can work with more than 25 students.

        • Sebastian H says:

          That isn’t really the question. More valid possible questions would be:

          Can they were work as well as the average lecture hall survey course?

          Or

          Can they work almost as well as the average lecture hall survey course and come in at about 1/10th the price so we don’t fuck over the student with ridiculous tuition?

          • There are better ways to avoid fucking over the student with ridiculous tuition.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            If you think they aren’t going to raise the prices of those courses as soon as the competition has been eliminated, I suggest a course in the history of capitalism. One that of course won’t be possible once we are fully MOOC operational.

          • Cody says:

            Can they work almost as well as the average lecture hall survey course and come in at about 1/10th the price so we don’t fuck over the student with ridiculous tuition?

            Average lecture hall survey courses could come in at 1/10th of the price they cost currently. Don’t even need to put them online!

    • rea says:

      Yglesias has to be the quickest draw this side of Billy the Kid, though–this post hasn’t been up for 90 minutes, and already Matt has a post three times as long criticizing it . . .

  13. Anon21 says:

    You know, I think some California students are actually going to be pretty happy about this. I have a friend who was pursuing a civil engineering degree at Cal State, and she ended up spending 6.5 years for what was supposed to be a four-year degree, because she kept getting locked out of necessary prerequisite courses. That’s really not a good thing, and this seems like a genuine step towards fixing that particular kind of problem.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      It’s shock doctrine. Starve the system until people are relieved by whatever solution someone comes up with.

      • Aaron B. says:

        Christ you’re an asshole sometimes.

        • Steve LaBonne says:

          Project much?

          • Aaron B. says:

            I’m a little upset that Loomis’ response to someone going “Y’know, my friend had a serious problem that this policy is trying to address” is “That is central to my point!”

            • Erik Loomis says:

              This is how it works. How can you not see this? Have you not read Naomi Klein? She describes this process exactly.

            • BigHank53 says:

              Now, you see, we used to have a solution to this: we gave a lot more public money to state schools. We could go back to that model. We know it works. We even know how it works.

              But no, let’s do something else that will (a) move more money to people who are neither teaching or learning, (b) has no guarantee of success, and (c) entails the risk of making all the problems with higher education worse, because internet.

        • spencer says:

          But is he wrong?

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          I really think you misread Erik.

          He is sympathetic to Anon21′s friend. But the point is that the problem that friend had was manufactured and the solution is mostly attractive because of the manufactured problem. The problem is readily solved by offering more traditional prerequisites course and, arguably, this needn’t be cost impossible or even difficult.

          A lot depends on whether faculty salaries are the source of tuition inflation. My understanding is not (i.e., faculty salaries have not risen at the pace of tuition inflation nor has the faculty size increased so as to explain the tuition rise). If people teaching is inherently too expensive, then that does suggest a need to increase productivity. If, otoh, the problem is skimming, mismanagement, boondoggles, management costs, etc., then that’s quite a different story.

      • Ian says:

        Yeah–people need to realize what’s happened in California in terms of state funding of the universities. In 1990, the state kicked in $16,500 per student, which with UC funds and tuition meant a total of almost $21,000 funding per student. By 2009, the state contribution had dropped to $7,500; thanks to massive tuition increases, the total funding per student had only (!) declined to $15,800.

        Without getting into whether or not online education could be a good thing, the situation is exactly as Erik is describing. (And in the process, the greatest public university system in the world is being destroyed.)

    • BigHank53 says:

      Let me be the first to assure you that a bunch of those engineering prereqs are going to be the last things that go online. And the required lab sections will never be online, and somehow all the money that gets saved will never be used to build more labs that accommodate more students.

    • S_noe says:

      Thanks for bringing in the students’ perspective. I didn’t go to college in California, but I live here and hear the same kinds of stories from CSU students and teachers all the time, and increasingly so since the financial crisis.

      I am actually pretty willing to concede the possibility that this policy is motivated by good intentions – it does address a real problem in the immediate term, and even might be better than doing nothing at all, if that’s the alternative.

      Still, it seems really unlikely that there aren’t other, better reforms available at little or no cost to get the students their degrees – and decent educations, too. Off the top of my head, making the degree requirements less reliant on taking this or that prerequisite or GE course? That runs the risk of diluting the degree if done haphazardly, but my hunch, from what I hear, is that there’s definitely room to increase flexibility on this stuff from the Byzantine mess it is now.

      Might not apply so much to fields like engineering, but making a BFA student in Fiber Arts delay graduation by a semester so she can finally get into Metalworking 101 is tying up resources that could fund the necessaries.

      • Lurker says:

        Please enlighten me. I presume that Metalworking 101 is a course that deals with certain practical skills of metalworking. How on earth could such a course be taught online? You only learn to work metal by working metal. No amount of instructional videos can substitute for actual hands-on experience.

        I studied, in Europe, in a German-style program that educated Diplomingenieure, Masters of Science in Engineering with a very theoretical bent. Even there, some 40 of my 180 credit units (in a now-obsolete, national credit unit system) were hands-on courses where lab work was necessary. And those are the expensive courses to teach. Large-class theoretical courses are cheap. CSU trains engineers of more practical bent, so I would say that even a larger proportion of courses should be lab work.

        • Anon21 says:

          I think you misunderstood–he was using Metalworking 101 as an example of a course that is perhaps unnecessarily made a requirement for a degree that’s not really dependent on that particular skill. He’s not saying you could teach that class online.

          • S_noe says:

            Yeah, I may have been unclear in offering prerequisite-relaxation as an alternative to online study.

            Although I see great potential for hilarity in online metalworking in the abstract.

            • S_noe says:

              To make it even clearer: Fiber Arts is focused on cloth – weaving, dying, embroidery, etc. Although you could incorporate metal into your weaving, maybe? Not my area of expertise. That whole example was pretty much non-fictional, btw – I don’t think CSU uses “101″ in its course numbers.

  14. evagrius says:

    All foretold in ” The Prisoner”, episode 6, ‘The General”.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIEwXbMO3X0

  15. Linnaeus says:

    Over at The New Inquiry, Aaron Bady has been writing some really good stuff about MOOCs. I guess he’s gotten into an extended tangle of sorts with Clay Shirky.

  16. pete says:

    Sandel is worth reading, which makes the phrasing of this post (with which I essentially agree) a bit problematic. His most recent book for the general public is What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

  17. Aaron B. says:

    Should free MOOCs like edX be accepted for course credit? I’m not sure, I don’t know much about education. But they are a huge plus for humanity, and the people running them shouldn’t be equated to scabs.

    • Steve LaBonne says:

      They’re scabs if they’re trying to get crap MOOCs, from which they profit, accepted for course credit in place of actual instruction. If the shoe fits…

      • Sebastian H says:

        I don’t know what the fallacy of comparing the worst MOOCs to the very best forty person class with the most engaging instructor is called, but it is certainly a fallacy.

        It doesn’t have to be crap MOOCs that are offered for credit. And contrary to popular belief up thread, lots of huge lecture courses really abysmally suck, *even if the professor tries really hard and perceives himself to be taking the course seriously and even if he thinks he is engaging*. Calling three students out of hundreds and sort of maybe engaging in a dialogue with them doesn’t reduce the stultifying quality for the other hundreds of students.

        Charging enormous fees for that experience is at least as much an injustice as ‘scabbing’ by creating perfectly serviceable, and maybe even good to excellent online lectures. But that is a grave injustice the author is actively complicit in every day of his work life. Which in fact doesn’t make him evil or worthy of nasty names. It makes him someone who ought to be a bit more sympathetic–he is perfectly willing to work creating partial injustices balanced by his own priorities and view of the balance of powers and obligations just like the rest of us.

        • Steve LaBonne says:

          The red herrings contained in that comment have already been addressed above. MOOCs are being floated as a “solution” to the problem of absurdly large lectures caused by the very same problems of underfunding and ridiculously low faculty / administrator ratios that cause MOOCs to be floated as a “solution”. Like charter schools, they’re an idea that sounds superficially attractive but turns out, in the real word, to be basically a scam.

          • Aaron B. says:

            MOOCs aren’t the Cadillac of education options, they’re the Ford Pinto. But I’d rather pay Ford Pinto prices for a Ford Pinto than pay Cadillac prices.

            Which is a snarky way of saying that high faculty/student ratios and small classrooms are awesome, but exceedingly expensive, and in a world where we have to make choices and trade off between different resources, I’d much rather have a dirt-cheap and mediocre MOOC option than a pricey and equally mediocre lecture class.

        • Brautigan says:

          Since you seem to have missed this upthread, I’ll repost:

          BigHank53 says:
          March 13, 2013 at 12:41 pm
          Now, you see, we used to have a solution to this: we gave a lot more public money to state schools. We could go back to that model. We know it works. We even know how it works.

          But no, let’s do something else that will (a) move more money to people who are neither teaching or learning, (b) has no guarantee of success, and (c) entails the risk of making all the problems with higher education worse, because internet.

  18. Schenck says:

    Nevermind the fact that you can’t video tape a socratic course and then pretend that watching the video tape is high level learning, you’re just watching a lecture at that point. Might as well be Famous Amos on PBS’s “Learn to Read” (which was obviously canceled too soon, they could’ve marketed it as a televised MOOC).

    • Sebastian H says:

      You’re just watching a lecture anyway with a 1/1000 chance of getting called on. Lecture room ‘Socratic’ classes are Socratic in marketing, not in useful function.

        • Sebastian H says:

          About the same.

          So it isn’t clear why you should pay enormous amounts for one and much less for another.

          • Sure. Small close classes for everyone. No lectures, no MOOCs. That way you retain scholars and teach well. Everybody wins!

            • Sebastian H says:

              You can’t even get that for survey courses at Harvard. And I’m not sure how you’re going to avoid the enormous amounts of money under that model.

                • Steve LaBonne says:

                  Because rich assholes haven’t gotten enough tax cuts yet.

                • Sebastian H says:

                  Because lots of people already can’t afford college, and out of control credentialism hurts their ability to work.

                • So you fund colleges and students. Problem solved!

                • Murc says:

                  Because lots of people already can’t afford college, and out of control credentialism hurts their ability to work.

                  What’s the first got to do with the second?

                  Being well-educated is very valuable on both an individual and a societal level. If lots of people can’t afford an effective college education, we should make the cost of an effective college education more affordable. There’s an existing, proven method for doing so: socialize the cost. We tried it. It worked. We stopped doing it for some reason.

              • Murc says:

                You can’t even get that for survey courses at Harvard.

                Yes, because Harvard is very stingy with it’s enormous multi-billion endowment that it’s more focused on expanding every year than in spending on its students.

      • djangermats says:

        Can anyone who isn’t drunk on academy kool-aid hear the word ‘Socratic’ and not gag?

        Is there actually somewhere in the world of things that actually happen where that word doesn’t mean ‘grind class to a halt and hassle some random student instead of continuing to teach’?

        • rea says:

          One of my teachers in law school, James J. White (the famous expert on the Uniform Commercial Code) was a master of the Socratic method, and the best teacher I ever had under any method. But I freely admit, lots of teachers aren’t good enogh to pull it off.

  19. Sly says:

    The only real observation I have on MOOCs is that they show just how distorted the educational market is becoming, just by its very nature. It’s actually worse than health care, if we just go by the rates of inflation.

    The ideal learning experience is one student and their teacher having a dialogue, so any student/teacher ratio greater than 1:1 sacrifices effectiveness for efficiency due to the fact that we (a) don’t have and will never have a 1:1 student/teacher population and (b) maximize the number of students we expect to educate.

    So there has to be some kind of baseline of educational effectiveness (as non-quantifiable as such a thing is) that we are willing to give up for the sake of efficiency, before the money gained through efficiency simply isn’t worth the price we pay for effectiveness. The problem is that, whatever that baseline is (and we all probably have our own preference), the economics of college credit makes it incredibly difficult for students to make informed choices about what we’re getting.

    These are the three features of the system that I see as most problematic:

    1) Most courses are worth a standard number of credits. A student gets three credits whether they pass a small seminar with ten students or a massive lecture with five hundred students. Though the experiences differ, they are all assigned the same educational value.

    2) Universities often charge the same amount for courses ranging from small seminars to massive lectures. Though the experiences differ, they are all assigned the same price.

    3) Colleges and universities don’t (and in many cases, can’t) offer multiple types of class formats for a given academic topic so that students can make comparisons of effectiveness; in most cases, they just switch to smaller-sized courses when they hit their junior year.

    All three of these create a pretty big distortion in the perceived value of educational experience, and this is not just true for students but for administrators as well. If they can get more money for the same cost on a product for which their consumers can not make an informed purchase, of course they’re going to go with the cheaper alternatives. It’s a built-in incentive.

    Ideally, colleges and universities would offer a bigger range of credit for classes, with small seminars at the peak and massive lectures at the bottom. Seminars would be more expensive but offer more credit, while lectures would be cheaper but offer less.

    Instead we’re going the opposite direction. Why? Because there is a cap on the amount of effectiveness you can sacrifice. The difference between a 100 student lecture and a 1000 student lecture in terms of what the students are losing is vanishingly small, and that difference becomes smaller as the ratio increases. So along come MOOCs, which offer a theoretical infinite student/teacher ratio, which makes efficiency even more attractive. Attractive to the point where we’ve essentially forgotten about effectiveness, the preservation of which was the whole goal in the first place.

    Tom Friedman tries to do an end-run around this by assuming that Harvard professors are innately superior to the professorial rank-and-file, by several orders of magnitude, so that effectiveness isn’t actually lost. But that’s just more of the same kind of middle-brow bourgeois horseshit I’ve come to expect from him.

    • Lurker says:

      I agree with you on the conclusion of your post but I would posit that one-to-one teaching is not the most efficient method. In many cases, one-to-two or one-to-three or four is just as efficient or even more efficient. The small group dynamics add value, because discussions in a small group are more lively and having peers increases the efficiency of learning things.

      With a more intellectually diverse student population, the ideal group size may be even larger, with maybe six students as an optimum. This is because in such a group, the weakest students benefit from the upwards-pulling effect of their more able peers. (Vygotsky’s “Zone of proximal development“)

      Most people here also miss another important difference between a large hall lecture and an online course. A lecture has a student population that is interacting and knows each other. An online course does not necessarily have a similar population and possibility for interaction. Even with a forum or a bulletin board, the possibility for free interaction is limited, because the forum is supervised by the teaching staff.

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