The New American MOOC

Just a little while ago I wrote a short post on Arizona State University, mostly quoting Chris Newfield’s review of University President Michael Crow’s book on his vision of the university, and already there’s another thing to note. Inside Higher Ed reports that ASU is partnering with EdX to provide the first-ever MOOC for actual college credit.

The scheme, which allows anyone around the world to take MOOCs designed by ASU professors, offers a small up-front fee and a larger fee at the end of the semester to obtain university credit. The goal is that an entire freshman year of courses will be put together so that anyone around the world can complete a year of massive, open, online college before transferring elsewhere or moving to ASU proper.

Firstly, I’m struck by the decision by ASU to essentially become the middleman for EdX – essentially laundering a MOOC. Even if the class is created by a professor, if the platform and the mode of instruction are managed by a company, are there obstacles to accreditation? ASU will be offering very different types of education – and these differences will have consequences – but the difference will also be difficult to discern. And this could apply even to non-ASU-designed MOOCs, according to John Warner:

ASU has the potential to expand their laundry service to the entire edX universe. In other words, they may do what the founding partner institutions of edX – MIT and Harvard – would likely never consider, give full institutional credit for a course taken as a MOOC outside their own institution.

This would allow ASU to not only prey upon other universities by transferring MOOC credits, but also to appropriate MOOCs designed by other universities and accepting them, effectively accrediting whatever EdX churns out.

Crucially, Matt Reed points out the fact that all of this is marketed as a breakthrough solution – but to what exactly? According to Reed, the student who could take an ASU/EdX MOOC:

could take an actual course, online or onsite, from a community college. It would cost less, and would have an actual instructor provide actual guidance and feedback  throughout the course. The credits would transfer anywhere, not just to ASU. Tuition at Maricopa — the community college local to Phoenix — is $84 per credit, as opposed to $200 for the MOOC. Even in the higher-tuition Northeast, we come in well below $200 per credit. And community colleges run full slates of general education courses.

Even better, taking the course with a community college offers access to online tutoring, library resources, and other student supports that have been “unbundled” from the MOOC.

ASU is pointing out that a student doesn’t need to pass through the ASU admissions process to take a MOOC. That’s true, as far as it goes, but community colleges are also open-admission, and have been for decades.

If the cost isn’t actually a factor, then what is the appeal? In a second post, John Warner also argues that the drawbacks from the MOOC-for-freshmen approach could be drastic too:

The true cost, however, is in accepting this kind of redefinition of what it means to pursue education, particularly in a student’s first year, which we know has an outsized importance when it comes to students ultimately succeeding.

We know more now than ever before about what kinds of experiences are most meaningful to students, the “Big 6” as defined by last year’s Gallup survey of  the degree and quality of post-graduate engagement:

  • a professor who made them excited about learning
  • professors who cared about them as a person
  • a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams
  • worked on a long-term project
  • had a job or internship where they applied what they were learning
  • were extremely involved in extra-curricular activities

These are, of course, things that are more difficult (or impossible) to get out of a MOOC, especially if you are the kind of student that MOOCs are supposedly expanding higher ed access to – those least prepared for traditional college.

Lastly, and not that I care too much about it, where does this leave ASU Online? ASU Online is this quasi-university program through which many people take courses and earn degrees, but it’s separate from ASU. Just like Harvard’s Extension School and dozens of other distance learning programs, the curriculum and experience are entirely divorced from students in the universities’ actual schools and departments – even if you take online classes. I took a number of online classes at ASU through my departments, but never took an ASU Online course. With the introduction of the MOOC option – effectively offering three types of online experience – how will the different courses fair? It’s unclear where this MOOC or ASU’s other recent endeavors will take the university, but I don’t like the possibilities.

The traditional higher education may not have to be traditional, in any sense of the word. But massive open courses with little support for only 7.5 weeks do not an engaging experience make. According to an ASU dean, the goal isn’t necessarily enriching lives or expanding minds, though, it’s graduating people and churning them out into the world. As  Dean for Education Initiatives Philip Regier argues, “the end goal is graduating educated university students, which this country is increasingly dismal at doing.”

Maybe if universities didn’t keep undermining and eviscerating their own education, like ASU does (not just through MOOCs but through corporate initiatives, tuition hikes, heavy teaching loads, etc. etc.) the country wouldn’t be so dismal at graduating educated students. Maybe if our universities and our governments doubled down on improving education rather than “disrupting” and “innovating” our way into a deeper hole, things might start improving.

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The New American University

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Christopher Newfield has a review of Michael Crow and William Dabars’ new book, Designing the New American Universityin which he gives a cogent analysis of Arizona State University, its vision for the future, and the national higher education ground on which it stands.

Newfield summarizes Crow and Dabars’ overview of ASU’s achievements – including expanding access, increasing diversity, and providing a better education, all in a state with politics such as Arizona’s. He also gives a fair assessment of Crow’s vision for the “New American University,” a moniker he has trotted out for the last decade as president of ASU. This vision is blatantly for access and equality – Newfield calls it “anti-elitist” and I don’t think he’s wrong. ASU’s claim to excellence has long been its willingness to welcome all and provide them with a quality education. This is an important part of the New American University’s vision. But, not for nothing, Newfield looks at how ASU has operated in the current climate of austerity and belt-tightening and finds a lack of vision:

Arizona’s state legislature cut higher education appropriations 32 percent from 2006 through 2011. Then the legislature delivered another 25 percent cut in 2011–’12. While I was writing this review, they voted another 14 percent cut for 2015–’16. As a share of Arizona’s general fund, higher education spending has been cut in half since 1982 (from 20 percent to 9 percent). While ASU was working on its eight NAU goals and making some impressive progress, its public funding base was being cut exactly as though it were the Old American University that has become a political whipping boy.

ASU’s response to these public cuts has been similarly traditional. Arizona was one of four states that saw its public universities double their tuition fees between 2006 and 2011. (California and Hawaii being two others.) ASU student loan debt now averages something over $21,000, up about 20 percent since 2008. ASU has used ever-increasing student body growth to generate ever-increasing enrollment revenues. Many of the new students were assigned to branch campuses or to online programs where costs are lower. Meanwhile, Crow was trying to increase other revenue streams (corporate partnerships, philanthropy) by raising ASU’s research prestige, which means offering special working conditions and internal subsidies for research teams on whose productivity ASU’s rankings climb would depend. Crow played the conventional game by growing enrollments and then using these revenues to support research outputs and reputation. To the extent that ASU uses low-cost enrollment growth to cross-subsidize showcase research, the NAU is welding its superstructure to a traditional budget base.

When he turns to the way forwards, Newfield identifies positive steps in the “New” part of the New American University. He finds a desire for nonhierarchical innovation among the main principles of Crow and Dabars’ vision, and goes on to outline why more universities don’t adapt such models (a section well worth reading). It’s worth noting that, while faculty aren’t up in arms about the New American University and ASU has actually found ways to operate without the levels of adjunctification that many other universities have endured, many of these changes are still extremely hierarchical.

While I was at ASU there was a rash of school and department closing. Within four years as a Education major I was a part of the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, the College of Teaching and Educational Leadership, and I finally graduated with a degree from the Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College. These closings and mergers (there were three different education schools with different focuses and on different campuses as recently as 2008) were met with anxiety from some members of the graduate education population. Other departments were similarly reshuffled with little input from those working within the systems themselves. Combining schools or departments doesn’t always ensure that everyone gets the resources that they need and deserve. I am all for interdisciplinary studies (most of my education has been such), but as I’ve argued before, knocking down departmental barriers needs to be done by scholars and on scholar’s terms. There is a difference between “collaboration across traditional disciplines” and imposed interdisciplinarity.

Indeed, Newfield makes sure not to conflate Crow and Dabars’ dislike for elite, selective colleges with any hopes that they take a stand against the corporatization of universities:

At crucial points, the authors trundle in villains from central casting: “Faculty committees tend to deliberate while shifts in policy, culture, and technology flash by at warp speed,” etc., etc. Collaborative design cannot possibly move forward when the executive party feels entitled to judge (and lecture) the rank-and-file designers on the basis of off-the-shelf imperatives about disruptive innovation. Crow and Dabars miss an opportunity to advocate for fully inclusive collaborative design techniques. I wish they were as anti-managerial as they are anti-elitist.

From there, Newfield moves to a second criticism of the book (and Crow’s broader narrative) – a lack of demand for public funding of public universities. In the book, Crow and Dabars call mass funding of public higher education an “unattainable societal goal.” This is a perfect sum of Crow’s moderate fight against defunding in the Grand Canyon State, one which has caused nearly annual tuition increases in all three state universities. (Insert my all-too-frequent reminder that the state constitution calls for free higher education). Newfield closes with this wonderful conclusion on the New American University and the current higher education context in which it sits:

Crow and Dabars are right to want new public universities to replace the Harvard standard. Their book is worth reading just for that discussion. They also support “massive change” and celebrate moon shots. So then, how about these two moon shots? First, use ASU to model nonhierarchical collaborative design, design that replaces finance-driven restructuring supervised by academic executives. Second, call for the doubling of public funding of public universities (which shouldn’t be difficult as we have recently halved it), in tandem with a halving of tuition (which shouldn’t be difficult as we recently doubled it). Make “free college for all” a medium-term national goal. We did free K–12 a century ago. We did a moon shot for the actual moon. We can obviously do the same thing for correctly funded 21st-century public colleges and universities. But we need people in Crow’s position to tell the truth about the power shifts and the public money that the next-generation, democratized public university will require.

Rejecting the University

Higher education is in a rocky place, you may have heard. More and more, colleges are placing the burden of cost on their students, raising tuition in astronomical amounts. Increasingly, public colleges are recruiting out-of-state students (who pay higher tuition), abandoning their mandate to educate the citizens of their state at low cost. Departments are absorbing each other – or closing completely – and new PhDs are becoming adjuncts rather than tenured, all while new vice presidents are hired and massive buildings are erected. Colleges are increasingly exclusive and costly, and they are continuing to move away from the purpose of educating young minds.

In the 2006 film Accepted, Bartelby Gaines, a high school graduate who failed to get into eight colleges, decides to start his own fake college to fool his parents. An entrepreneur by nature, he takes the ruse all the way: renting out an abandoned psychiatric hospital to serve as a college facade. The plan blows up as other people apply and end up enrolling in the institution that Gaines decides to run. There are two questions worth exploring when watching this movie: what problems does the film have with academia? And what does it really take to run a college?

Reject rejection – and all the exclusivity, cost, and waste that it symbolizes.

When Bartleby tells his parents he didn’t get into any colleges, he spins it by telling them that it is fiscally irresponsible for him to go to college. “We could spend $80,000 over the next four years, or I could make $80,000 over the next four years.” And it’s true – college is expensive and the cost is difficult to bear for many. Regardless, his parents are irate. “Society has rules,” his father argues, “first rule is you go to college. If you want to have a happy, successful life, you go to college. If you want to be somebody, you go to college. If you want to fit in, you go to college.” College is a social need above all else.

When Bartleby hatches the plan to mail himself a fake admissions letter – to the South Harmon Institute of Technology – he is joined by a cast of conspirators who help him renovate the hospital in preparation for his parents’ visit to school. What ensues is a glimpse into what the film accuses academia of doing wrong – and what the film views as education’s purpose.

When the Gaines family meets with the Dean of the college, a former professor recently fired from a job at the mall, he lambastes the entire notion of higher education. “A lot of people say that college is the time when young men and women expand the way that they look at their world, when they open their minds to new ideas and experiences, and when they begin that long journey from the innocence of youth to the responsibilities of adulthood. Now isn’t that a load of horseshit?”  When pushed on the view, he describes the school’s philosophy: “We throw a lot of fancy words in front of these kids, in order to attract them to go to this school, in the belief that they’re going to have a better life. And we all know that all we’re doing is breeding a whole new generation of buyers and sellers,  pimps and whores, and indoctrinating them into a lifelong hell of debt and indecision.” When the family is left speechless, he continues: “Do I have to spoon-feed it to you? There’s only one reason that kids want to go to school: to get a good job. To get a good job with a great starting salary.”

The uncomfortable silence is, naturally, broken by mom’s comment that it is “so refreshing to hear someone approach education so rationally.”

There’s a rejection of college’s enlightening promise, seeing the process of higher education as merely feeding capitalism.  And the parents gobble it up because that’s how more and more people are viewing education now.  The learning isn’t important, it’s the degree that will give you a well-paying job. It echoes all the parents that harp on their English-major sons and Philosophy-major daughters and praise the niece that’s pre-med or the neighbor’s kid that’s getting an MBA. It’s all around us, and it’s not just our families feeding it to us. Our school administrations and our politicians agree. More and more, university administrators are advocating for more “professional” degrees rather than traditional academic ones. When Florida Governor Rick Scott advocated shifting state funds from humanities and social sciences towards science and technology, he referenced anthropology majors when he argued, “we don’t need them here.” This mentality is everywhere. Even South Harmon’s new fake dean spouts it to degree-hungry parents.

How strange, then, that South Harmon Institute of Technology seemingly rejects the shit out of this notion. When faced with over a hundred newly accepted students later that day, Bartleby chooses not to own up to his lie. Standing before the new students, he bemoans college exclusivity and decries “isn’t it time you’re said ‘yes’ to?” and proceeds to let everyone into his fake college. In the very next scene the President of nearby Harmon College, the region’s elite academy, explains that selectivity and exclusivity are integral to a school’s stature.  While this is traditionally a reference to the admissions process, the President lays out his plan for a physical manifestation of this exclusion: a massive, gentrifying gateway “to keep knowledge in, and ignorance out.” Meanwhile, in order to craft a plan, Bartleby pays a visit to Harmon College to figure out what higher education is supposed to be. The ensuing montage is one of highly structured, stifling curricula, a lack of individuality in massive classrooms, and really goal-oriented, grade-driven students.

Despite his dean’s argument that college was about job-readiness, Bartleby decides to ask the new students what they want to learn. “All of our lives we’ve been told what to learn, well today the tide’s going to turn because today – we’re asking the customer.” This leads to the creation of a whiteboard covered in course ideas, and each student’s tuition is spent predominantly on those subjects. When the love-interest visits, she quickly asks Bartleby, “there aren’t any tests or required reading or any of that nonsense?”

But are tests and required reading really the problem?  When Bartleby tries to steer away from traditional higher education, it results in a broad curriculum taught by the students that relies on experiences rather than grades. No required Ancient Roman history class when you want to be a photographer, no spillover class in front of a speaker, and no recording of every word in case it’s on the test. But higher education was never supposed to be these things anyways. While a basic curriculum should provide some foundation for learning, the stifling major maps of many of today’s colleges are a way of streamlining students to make everything easier for administration. Massive class sizes save school’s money and grading systems quicken the evaluation process. And on top of all of this, the exclusivity of some universities is a part of why they are so expensive. All of this is a result of the commodification of education. It’s this type of education is the kind that treats students as customers.

So when the people at Harmon out Bartleby as a fraud, the crew decides to fight for accreditation  The state defines a college as “a body of people with a shared common purpose of a higher education,” and at the hearing, the board states that a college must have a facility, a curriculum, and a faculty. The facility comes in the form of a mental hospital with a skating ramp, the curriculum is wheeled out in whiteboard-form, and the students identify themselves as faculty (kinda like, you know, grad students).  Bartleby issues a monologue decrying college traditions of hazing outcasts, driving students crazy with stress, and robbing students of creativity. “You don’t need teachers or a classroom to learn,” he argues, “just people with the desire to better themselves.”

When the board votes to allow the school to operate on an experimental basis, the chairman states that “the true purpose of education is to stimulate the creativity and the passions of the student body.”  But what hope does South Harmon have?

South Harmon eschews everything from a proper gymnasium to tenured faculty in establishing its by-the-student-for-the-student model. It succeeds in placing decision-making with those most concerned with the education at hand – the students and the faculty. With students paying into the system with the hopes of learning something in order to better their lives, they ought to have a say in what they do in school. South Harmon makes good on this promise, using tuition funds primarily on the education of students. Today’s universities spend that same money on construction, marketing, losing $23 billion in investments – anything but teaching. Tuition dollars need to go towards education, and at South Harmon they do. At local rival Harmon College, the money is spent on gentrifying the neighborhood for an arch named after the President, by the President.

South Harmon also lacks grades completely. When visiting Harmon, Bartleby saw sleep-deprived students mumbling mnemonics and frantically scribbling down everything the professor says. Note-taking and memory strategies can help you learn, of course, but test-oriented learning isn’t learning at all. Today, education at all levels is obsessed with grades – be it standardized testing or many schools’ unspoken policy or not failing students (lest they ruin the school’s stats). But in classes of hundreds of students, grading a multiple choice test is the only way your SOC-101 teacher is going to decide that you passed. In small classes, where there is more attention paid to each student and more intensive learning rather than test-taking, grades aren’t needed. If the class is small enough, you can see who’s learning and you don’t need grades. If the class is small enough, learning will be happening, and you don’t need to fail people. South Harmon’s classes are all small – except a few lectures from the dean that seem more like a speaker series than a course. Small classes with committed faculty and engaged students mean you don’t need grades. Get rid of large class sizes, get rid of grades. Just like we need to get rid of endless spending on non-educational excess.

Another place where Gaines’ model is absolutely right is the complete lack of administration at the school. Administration is – of course – the most absurd part of higher education today. It’s the source of a host of problems we face today, like stringent curricula, tuition hikes, and lack of academic freedom and it’s the embodiment of the bureaucracy of education that we’re dealing with now. Indeed, my undergraduate years were spent at a state university with a team of over a dozen vice presidents, and I’m currently studying at a school with a dozen more. Faculty and students can run schools, and they should. After all, they’re the ones that higher education is meant to serve. Meanwhile, the effects of administrative-heavy colleges is everywhere, be it the monetary cost of administrative bloatthe disasters of appointed governing boards, or the erosion of faculty governance. And South Harmon soundly rejects its very existence.

It’s not a novel concept that institutions of higher education be run efficiently to better use resources for learning and research. Rather than fund administrative bloat, go on urban construction binges, sign deals with board members’ companies, or profit off of research patents, universities should be funding teaching and research for the public good. Universities used to be run predominantly by the faculty – whose primary concern was research and education – not full-time administrators. In the fictional world of Accepted, it took a team of would-be freshmen to build their own fake school in order to have a college not turned into a money-draining all-administrative body that saw teaching as a means to feed capitalism. What will it take for our universities to throw off the yoke of the administration and reclaim the university for those who use it?