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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A Reminder to Arizona Lawmakers

Saturday morning, after a marathon night of whatever it is lawmakers do, the Arizona Legislature passed a new budget. The budget does many things, like “balance the budget.” It also does things like completely eviscerate higher education.

The cuts include $99 million taken from state universities and 100% elimination of state funding for Pima and Marciopa County community colleges (the two biggest counties in the state). Education funds that are opened up for K-12 schools include an open door for charter school expansion as well. And for the poor, cash assistance limits were cut in half and medicaid faces sizable cuts too. (Here’s a more in-depth article on the cuts). This will only exacerbate the ongoing trend of the increasing costs of getting a college education in the state of Arizona.

Why are state lawmakers doing this? Because they think they can. As the Arizona Republic editorial makes clear, “this deeper-than-expected raid on higher education is not a consequence of scarce financial resources. It is the result of ideological absolutism — and misplaced ideology, at that.” They link the budget decisions to the overwhelming number of lawmakers who have signed no-tax-increase pledges. Last week, ASU’s State Press lambasted Gov. Ducey’s logic, stating:

After campaigning on a promise to run the state like a business, Ducey has failed to enact one of the basic concepts of economics: making wise investments to ensure a stable and profitable future. Ducey and Arizona Republicans have made an all but official declaration that the education of future generations is less important than the feelings of millionaires on tax day.

I’d like to remind all of the state lawmakers that carved a giant chunk of funding from universities and carried out a scorched earth policy on community colleges of one important fact. While many of them find a pledge to not raise taxes to be a Very Important Document, there is another document that says:

The university and all other state educational institutions… shall be as nearly free as possible.

Yes, that would be Article 11, Section 6 of the Arizona Constitution.

Arizona State University of Starbucks

On Monday, Starbucks announced that it was launching a new program through which it will help many of its employees pay for undergraduate education at Arizona State University’s ASU Online program. Here are some of the details of how it would work:

Tuition for an online degree at ASU is about $10,000 a year, roughly the same for its traditional educational programs. For the freshmen and sophomore years, Starbucks and Arizona State say they will put around $6,500 on average toward the estimated $20,000 in total tuition.

To cover the remaining $13,500, workers would apply for financial aid. Since Starbucks workers don’t earn a lot of money, many would likely qualify for a Pell grant, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of EdVisors.com, a website about paying for college. If a worker qualified for a full Pell grant of $5,730 a year — or $11,460 over the two years — he or she would theoretically be left with about $2,040 to pay out of pocket.

The program would work similarly for the junior and senior years, except that Starbucks would reimburse any money workers end up having to pay out of pocket. Starbucks said most of its workers have already started school, so could potentially finish off their degrees at no cost if they applied for the program.

At first, it piqued my interest to hear that ASU was involved in such a project. ASU has long been involved in efforts that purport to expand access to quality university education, but has also engaged in moves that collapse schools and programs (which eliminates jobs and takes power away from faculty), demote staff to the status of at-will employees, and continually raise tuition.

But agreeing to pay for employees’ education is a good move, even if it does nothing to salvage the crisis of public education. And yet there are hidden aspects of this deal that are important to shed light on. Firstly, the program hopes to offer a diverse education to Starbucks employees, but having the selection of majors offered at one university’s online wing is actually quite narrow. As this piece finds, even the students featured in an NYT article about the program may not actually be able to study what they want.

In addition, online-only education is not a tried-and-true provider of education, especially for working students who have not been exposed to higher education before. Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of education policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, linked to this 2011 study [pdf] on online education and its effectiveness for low-income and underprepared students by Shanna Smith Jaggers. In short, online classes saw more low-income and underprepared students withdraw, and many of these students were less likely to return to continue their education. Learning online is as much of a learned skill as learning in the classroom, only online degrees and courses often come with less support for students. I took at least four online classes while at ASU, and only one was as rigorous as in-person courses and provided similar levels of support.

But the more important point here is that Starbucks employees are not being offered free education at Arizona State University, my alma mater and an arguably decent school from which to earn a Bachelor’s. The Starbucks program funnels workers through ASU Online, a joint-venture between ASU and Pearson, the for-profit publishing and ed tech company. The venture overcharges online students, students who may be receiving less support and less freedom in their studies and cost the university less money, but who pay roughly the same tuition as on-campus students. As one article mentions:

Arizona State University Online, a revenue-sharing relationship between Pearson, a for-profit company best known as a publisher, and Arizona State University (ASU), yielded $6 million in profit in 2011 for ASU. Projections are that it will yield $200 million in profit by 2020. Many other non-profit colleges with large online programs tout the substantial profits generated by online programs that are re-invested in on-ground facilities. Thus, online students are being substantially overcharged to generate profits that subsidize face-to-face learners, faculty and administrators.

This type of revenue-sharing happens a lot at universities between departments (the humanities often subsidize the sciences), but the inclusion of a for-profit company makes this deal smell of something far worse. Pearson has long-been a part of the ed reform movement, standardizing and assessing real education into oblivion. That it operates as a “partner” in ASU Online is a shame and a sign of how the top echelons at ASU view education.

This agreement between ASU and Starbucks is supposed to be about providing free education to lower class workers. But according to Starbucks CEO, about 70% of Starbucks workers are current in college or aspire to go. These students, working at Starbucks across the country, will now have to transfer to ASU Online if they want to take advantage of their employers’ benefits – and Starbucks is eliminating its tuition reimbursement program for the City University of Seattle and Stayer University next year in order to commit to the ASU Online endeavor.

As Melissa Byrne points out, this is mostly as PR stunt for Starbucks, whose executives have come straight out and said that they hope this will attract a better class of workers. And ASU hopes to continue to expand its growing online presence and push President Michael Crow’s “New American University” vision one step further. For many of Starbucks’ workers, this program will expand access, but access to what? And what will happen when they fail to finish because they were pushed into a program that was ill-suited for them?

Update: Be sure to check out Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece on this, in which she links ASU-Starbucks endeavor to what for-profit universities have been doing for decades.

African Studies and Militarization

Last month, an article by David Wiley, “Militarizing Africa and African Studies and the U.S. Africanist Response,” [gated] appeared in African Studies Review. It’s an important look at what Africanist scholars face in an increasingly militarized field. The piece examines how area studies programs initially developed during the Cold War (for a quick look at that, read this) and how many scholars dealt with attempts to militarize their field. He discusses how there were some scholars in all area studies who were involved in policy-making, but that many were critical of American interventionist policies. Africanists were actually late to the game in this, Wiley explains, but once they did organize against U.S. foreign involvement, (in the 70s, in Angola and South Africa), it was strong and resolute.

Africanists had a lot to criticize in U.S. Africa policy, from backing dictators to arming rebels to assassinating democratically elected leaders. In an effort to gain favor, the Defense Intelligence Agency offered four Title VI universities (there are 11 universities with African Studies programs that receive funds from the Department of Education, among other Title VI centers for other areas) large amounts of funds to work with the government, an offer which they refused. Beyond that, the directors of all of the Title VI National Resource Centers for Africa voted not to apply for or accept any military or intelligence funding in 1982, and in 2008 reaffirmed that position, stating that:

We believe that the long-term interests of the people of the U.S. are best served by this separation between academic and military and defense establishments. Indeed, in the climate of the post–Cold War years in Africa and the security concerns after 9/11/2001, we believe that it is a patriotic policy to make this separation. This separation ensures that U.S. students and faculty researchers can maintain close ties with African researchers and affiliation with and access to African institutions without question or bias. Such separation, we believe, can produce the knowledge and understanding of Africa that serves the broad interests of the people of the United States as well as our partners in Africa.

At the same time, the Association of African Studies Programs also voted to reject military and intelligence funding for programs, and argued that no scholar or program should accept funding from those sources. But while these acts of independence began in the midst of the Cold War, and were reaffirmed in the context of U.S. involvement in the Global War on Terror and in Iraq, things have shifted in the last few years. With AFRICOM coming onto the field with it’s whole-of-government approach, Africanists have faced a growing threat in the militarization of academic scholarship. Wiley gives a long list of examples of AFRICOM’s actions on the ground:

  • Establishing Camp Lemonier in Djibouti as the base for AFRICOM and allied military units, in addition to ~2000 personnel in Stuttgart, Molesworth, and MacDill AFB
  • Establishing the Social Science Research Council in Stuttgart and supporting the Socio-Cultural Research and Advisory Team to provide troops with cultural knowledge.
  • Creating an AFRICOM liason unit at AU headquarters in Ethiopia
  • Building a CIA operations base in Somalia with prison, planes, and counterterrorism training for Somali intelligence agents.
  • Establishing bases in Seychelles, Djibouti, and Ethiopia for drones.
  • Expanding intelligence operations with private contractors.
  • Expanding U.S. Special Operations teams in countries without government permission (apparently based on a 2010 directive by Gen. Petraeus.
  • Training hundreds of African military officers at conferences.
  • Mounting AFRICOM-led operations in Libya and Somalia
  • Providing 100 troops to work with Central African armies in an anti-LRA campaign.
  • Increasing the number of army personnel stationed in Africa by 3000 in Central Africa, Mali, and Somalia.

In addition to all of this, AFRICOM’s whole-of-government approach has included engaging in both diplomatic and development work on top of traditional military duties. While some hail this as a more integrated approach, it also blurs the lines between military and non-military actors. As a result, State Department officials and USAID personnel, and even non-governmental aid workers, are being viewed as part of America’s military involvement in Africa.

While this was all occurring in Africa, in the United States the field of African Studies has faced a similarly forceful push of militarization. Wiley notes an “unprecedented surge of funding for studying Africa and African languages in the DOD, in intelligence agencies, and in military-focused higher education institutions.” He also estimates that “funding for the study of Africa in U.S. security agencies now exceeds that of American universities probably by a factor of fifty, perhaps more,” despite the fact that universities offer more languages and better instruction. On top of all of this, DoD also sponsors three programs to fund the study of Africa in civilian institutions: the National Security Education Program, the Minerva Research Initiative, and Human Terrain Systems (I worked briefly on a Minerva project while I was a fellow at ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, and wrote about it and Human Terrain Teams here).

All of these programs are well-funded projects of the Defense Department, while the U.S. Department of Education cut 46% of Title VI area studies centers (including the 11 Africa universities), with the government favoring area and language study programs run by DoD. In addition to this, the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Disseration Abroad and Faculty Research Abroad programs were suspended in 2011 and the Summer Cooperative African Language Institute was cancelled in 2012. With non-military funding opportunities shrinking, scholars (and students) are facing a dilemma in how to acquire funds to carry out research and teaching.

In this time of austerity, especially at public universities, there is a growing sense that civilian agency funding is collapsing and military and intelligence funding increasingly is the “only game in town.” As a result, two university African centers and linguists in two other universities that have Title VI Africa centers (with the dissent of their African center faculty), have taken funding for African language instruction programs from the DOD’s NSEP.

Africanist scholars are beginning to fall under the control of the military as DoD-funded projects dictate what they study, where they do research, and what questions they ask. From here, things will only get worse. Title VI universities are already worried about Foreign Language and Area Studies funding suffering even more egregious cuts (FLAS grants arrive in three-year packages, and the current round of funding expires next summer), and other sources of funding will also be disappearing if Congress continues to cut funding (one needs only to peruse the Department of Education grants site to see how many programs have been suspended or cancelled). Wiley paints a sad picture of where area studies programs stand now, and the possible future we might find ourselves in. If the military controls more and more funding for higher education, our colleges, scholars, and students will have less options. As DoD annexes the social sciences and humanities, will the leading African Studies programs in the country be able to maintain their independence from military control? Or will all researchers and students trying to work in the region be following the army’s orders?