Universities on the Defensive: What is it we do
Ian Bogost’s piece (linked below) on Georgia Tech’s involvement in Coursera is biting and to-the-point. ”The fundamental problem isn’t one of cost containment, it’s one of funding—of understanding why the cost containment solution appeared in the first place. We collectively ‘decided’ not to fund education in America. ” Why is Georgia Tech doing Coursera? Why are any of the other schools doing this? He argues that nobody knows, that everybody is doing this because they are trying to position themselves as a member of the elite, as being in the lead. It’s a defensive posture.
Are Universities under attack? De-funding is a form of attack. Why do we have universities, then? What do Universities exist for? Why did we collectively decide not to fund education? Maybe decision makers don’t understand what we do. And the question at hand: do MOOCs replace what we do?
I’ve been thinking about this, while living at one of the world’s oldest and most influential universities. Teaching is not all that they do at Oxford, though I do think that they are particularly good at real education and not just imparting knowledge. The issues of what Universities are for were raised at the C21U launch almost a year ago. Educating students is only part of what Universities do (and there is some question about whether MOOCs education or simply train). But when it comes to education, a research university can provide a unique learning experience.
I love teaching at Georgia Tech’s Study Abroad program at Oxford. The location is amazing, but that isn’t the greatest value of the experience for me–and I hope not for the students. I love the opportunity to interact with students intensively (in class, at meals, on the street, and even in the pubs), to spend every day in the classroom, and to grade everything myself and get a sense for how everyone is doing. All of us GT faculty are here to teach. There’s a community of scholars. I meet weekly for dinner (and often over breakfast) and conversation with a group of similarly minded GT faculty who really care about teaching and students.
For me, the experience informs my research. The intensive interaction with a small number of students is my opportunity to try out new ideas (like worked examples with self-explanations and pixels in a spreadsheet) and inform my intuition about whether or not they might work. It’s the first stage of design-based research: I’m trying to make something work, with small numbers, when I can really see what’s going on. This is more than teaching for me — it’s an intense, immersive, research-informing experience.
I believe that the students are getting something unique out of this, too. Excuse me for being immodest here: This is what I’m good at, and what I’m trained for. This is why I’m a professor. I’m a good teacher, but I also have decades of experience as an education researcher. My students know that I’m trying new ideas out with them. I tell them (in both of my courses) about what I’m trying and why I’m trying it and about my research agenda. Even those students who are “just” taking a first-year-level intro to computing course are hearing about the research context and how it informs what we’re doing. My colleagues who do not do education research also wrap their courses with their research context. Every course is infused with the passion of a scholar who talks about what they study and why they think it’s amazing and fascinating.
This is education that a University can offer, uniquely. My students are learning knowledge and skills and perspectives, in a rich and intense and personal experience. It doesn’t always work so well, I admit. I can’t do the kinds of things I do here at Oxford in our enormous courses in Atlanta. And this kind of education isn’t for everybody. Turadg told us that we need a variety of learning systems for a variety of needs. I definitely have students who are going through the paces and aren’t interested in taking advantage of the whole experience.
I’m damn sure that there is no MOOC that can replace what is going on in my classrooms this summer. Now, society can decide that what I’m offering isn’t worthwhile, or is too expensive, or can be offered to too few students, or may even not as work as well as I hope. Maybe that’s the real danger of MOOCs — it offers something for free (to the students) that seems as good as what a good University education could be, or as good an education as members of our society need.
Maybe what we in Universities ought to do is show people more often what it is that we do and explain why. We need to be able to show people why what we’re offering in a University is better than a MOOC and is valuable to the greater society.
Institutions like mine are afraid of the present and the future yet drunk on the dream of being “elite” and willing to do anything to be seen in the right crowd making the hip choices. The provostial email also notes, “It also is significant that Georgia Tech is a founding member of this group.” Group membership is a key obsession of university administration, and it’s why they take systems lik the US News rankings so seriously. Of course, all such structures are partly fictions we invent to structure our lives and society. The Ivy League isn’t a natural law or a God-given lineage.
In this respect, Coursera’s clearly got the upper hand among institutions that fancy themselves elite: once they get a critical mass on board, the rest don’t want to appear left behind. Given the recent drama at the University of Virginia, whose president was fired partly for failing to blindly adopt online learning only to be re-hired after a PR-nightmare only weeks before UVA announced their participation in Coursera anyway, you can see how Presidents and Provosts across the land might be ready to sign on for defensive reasons alone.