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The Higher Ed Disruptors Are Still With Us

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We haven’t heard too much from higher education technofuturists lately, what with the complete failure of early MOOC trials to prepare students to pass courses. The San Jose State University debacle really shut them up for awhile. But they never went away and the New York Times is always happy to give them a forum. The paper decided to excerpt The New American Foundation’s Kevin Carey’s new book on how what we really need to make MOOCs acceptable is just forcing employers to accept online degrees as official, with the probable upside of eliminating many institutions of higher education.

Free online courses won’t revolutionize education until there is a parallel system of free or low-fee credentials, not controlled by traditional colleges, that leads to jobs. Now technological innovators are working on that, too.

The Mozilla Foundation, which brought the world the Firefox web browser, has spent the last few years creating what it calls the Open Badges project. Badges are electronic credentials that any organization, collegiate or otherwise, can issue. Badges indicate specific skills and knowledge, backed by links to electronic evidence of how and why, exactly, the badge was earned.

Traditional institutions, including Michigan State and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are experimenting with issuing badges. But so are organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 4-H, the Smithsonian, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Y.M.C.A. of Greater New York.

The most important thing about badges is that they aren’t limited to what people learn in college. Nor are they controlled by colleges exclusively. People learn throughout their lives, at work, at home, in church, among their communities. The fact that colleges currently have a near-monopoly on degrees that lead to jobs goes a long way toward explaining how they can continue raising prices every year.

The MOOC providers themselves are also moving in this direction. They’ve always offered credentials. In 2013, I completed a semester-long M.I.T. course in genetics through a nonprofit organization run by Harvard and M.I.T., called edX. You can see the proof of my credentials here and here.

Coursera, a for-profit MOOC platform, offers sequences of courses akin to college majors, followed by a so-called capstone project in which students demonstrate their skills and receive a verified certificate, for a fee of $470. The Coursera Data Science sequence is taught by Johns Hopkins University and includes nine four-week courses like exploratory data analysis, regression models and machine learning. The capstone project requires students to build a data model and create visualizations to communicate their analysis. The certificate is officially endorsed by both Coursera and Johns Hopkins. EdX has similar programs.

Inevitably, there will be a lag between the creation of such new credentials and their widespread acceptance by employers and government regulators. H.R. departments know what a bachelor’s degree is. “Verified certificates” are something new. But employers have a powerful incentive to move in this direction: Traditional college degrees are deeply inadequate tools for communicating information.

Note all the dishonesty and avoidance of tricky issues here. If the point of all this is to prepare students for a job (and let’s be clear, the point of all this is to privatize a public good and profit off of it), none of this does anything to help make that happen. How are people hired today? Largely by who they know, assuming they have the basic degree. None of that will change in this new system. Carey doesn’t even begin to address the kind of skill-building people need to be successful–critical thinking, writing skills that most students really need 4 solid years of college to develop, laboratory work, individual mentoring with professors, etc., etc. None of that matters. Carey just wants to offer badges that simply replaces the college degree without replicating any of the skills students learn there. Disrupting the college means disrupting the skills college builds. If that’s a problem, we’ll just claim those skills are unnecessary or pretend like they don’t exist!

And then there’s this:

This has the effect of reinforcing class biases that are already built into college admissions. A large and relatively open-access traditional public university might graduate the same overall number of great job candidates as a small, exclusive, private university — say, 200 each. But the public 200 may graduate alongside 3,000 other students, while the private 200 may have only 300 peers. Because diplomas and transcripts provide few means of reliably distinguishing the great from the rest, employers give a leg up to private college graduates who probably had some legs up to begin with.

This is really telling. We are focusing on the excellent 200. But what about the other 2800? What do they do for the next forty years? Take more courses from Coursera? Also, the idea that class bias disappears in hiring with new technologies is laughable. Yeah, if I’m an employer and I see a student with a Harvard degree and one with some badges from Coursera that show they have the same skills, I’m totally taking the badge person! C’mon. All this is going to do is to reinforce those class biases, as employers are going to see job candidates with real education and job candidates without real education and choose between them.

And if the disruptors win and traditional college is destroyed, what jobs are these graduates going to have available to them? What will the hundreds of thousands of people who lose their jobs when traditional universities end going to do? What does this labor market look like where disruption is fetishized for disruption’s sake and the new economy does not prioritize stable, life-long work? Carey doesn’t care about any of this.

None of this is to say that higher education doesn’t have problems. But as any professor with stagnant salaries and disappearing hiring lines will tell you, it’s not like we are rolling in money. Administrative bloat and especially disappearing state funding are the real issues here (although the rapidly growing costs of private colleges who do not rely on state funding is unrelated to this core issue for public schools and something that does not receive enough attention). For Carey, this is a feature, not a bug. This is classic Shock Doctrine. Underfund the universities, make people believe that they can’t provide a proper service, replace them with private companies, and then profit.

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