First, Do No Harm: Inequality in American Education Will Not Be Solved Online
Ian raises a really important issue that I don’t think is being discussed enough. I predict that computer science MOOC completers are even more white and male than in existing computing education. Replacing more face-to-face CS courses with MOOCs may be reversing the hard-fought gains we’ve made through NCWIT and NSF BPC efforts. I’ve asked both Udacity and Coursera about the demographics of their completers. Coursera said that they don’t know yet because they simply haven’t looked. Udacity said that it’s “about the same” as in existing face-to-face CS classes.
To address issues of inequality, we will have to do something different than what we are doing now, but we want to do something different that has better results. We need to be careful that we don’t make choices that lead us to a worse place than we are now.
Here’s a concrete proposal: Any institution that belongs to NCWIT (or more significantly, the NCWIT Pacesetters program) that runs a MOOC for computer science and does not check demographics should have its membership revoked. (See Note.) We should not be promoting computer science education that is even more exclusive. We need new forms of computer science education that broaden participation. At the very least, we ought to be checking — are we doing no harm? Are we advancing our agenda of broadening participation, or making it more exclusionary?
I wonder if the responsibility to check is even greater for public institutions. Public institutions have a responsibility to the citizens of their state to be inclusive. Readers of this blog have argued that Title IX does not apply to academic programs, suggesting that there is no legal requirement for CS departments to try to draw in more women and minorities. We in public universities still have a moral responsibility to make our courses and programs accessible. If we choose to offer instruction via MOOCs, particularly as a replacement for face-to-face courses, don’t we have a responsibility to make sure that we are not driving away women and minorities?
The SJSU test will be run on “remedial” courses at one of the country’s most ethnically diverse universities, of which only 25 percent of the student population is white, and which is primarily comprised of minorities, first-generation college students, and commuting students. This is a population that has more likely been subject to underfunded primary and secondary schools and, generally speaking, a whole regime of distress, neglect, and bias compared to California residents who would attend Berkeley or UCLA. Put differently, the conditions that produced the situation that the Udacity deal is meant to solve, at least in part, was first caused by a lack of sufficient investment in and attention to early- and mid-childhood education.
In response, California could reinvest in public schools and the profession of secondary teaching. But instead, the state has decided to go the private paved surface and illumination services route — siphoning California taxpayer receipts and student tuition directly into a for-profit startup created, like all startups, with the purpose of producing rapid financial value for its investors. Just how much of those proceeds Udacity will hold onto is unclear. While the company has reportedly paid instructors in the past, it’s unclear if its new institutional relationships will support paid teaching or not. Coursera, Udacity’s primary competitor in the private MOOC marketplace, has managed to get faculty from prestigious institutions to provide courses for free, in exchange for the glory of a large audience and the marketing benefit of the host institution.
Note: While I sit on the NCWIT Leadership Team, the opinions in this blog are my own. They do not represent NCWIT’s policy. I shared this blog post with Lucy Sanders, CEO of NCWIT, and she made an interesting suggestion. Some NCWIT Pacesetters are departments who may have little control over what their college, school, or university does. If they must use MOOCs, because of decisions made higher in the administrative chain, then perhaps measuring the demographics of the completers might be a way of being a Pacesetter.