Archive for October 6, 2017

Disrupt This!: MOOCs and the Promises of Technology by Karen Head

Over the summer, I read the latest book from my Georgia Tech colleague, Karen Head. Karen taught a MOOC in 2013 to teach freshman composition, as part of a project funded by the Gates Foundation. They wanted to see if MOOCs could be used to meet general education requirements. Karen wrote a terrific series or articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the experience (you can see my blog post on her last article in the series here). Her experience is the basis for her new book Disrupt This! (link to Amazon page here). There is an interview with her at Inside Higher Education that I also recommend (see link here).

In Disrupt This!, Karen critiques the movement to “disrupt education” with a unique lens. I’m an education researcher, so I tend to argue with MOOC advocates with data (e.g., my blog post in May about how MOOCs don’t serve to decrease income inequality). Karen is an expert in rhetoric. She analyzes two of the books at the heart of the education disruption literature: Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring’s The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out and Richard DeMillo’s Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities. She critiques these two books from the perspective of how they argue — what they say, what they don’t say, and how the choice of each of those is designed to influence the audience. For example, she considers why we like the notion of “disruption.”

Disruption appeals to the audience’s desire to be in the vanguard. It is the antidote to complacency, and no one whose career revolves around the objectives of critical thinking and originality—the pillars of scholarship—wants to be accused of that…Discussions of disruptive innovation frequently conflate “is” (or “will be”) and “ought.” In spite of these distinctions, however, writers often shift from making dire warnings to an apparently gleeful endorsement of disruption. This is not unrelated to the frequent use of millenarian or religiously toned language, which often warns against a coming apocalypse and embraces disruption as a cleansing force.

Karen is not a luddite. She volunteered to create the Composition MOOC because she wanted to understand the technology. She has high standards and is critical of the technology when it doesn’t meet those standards. She does not suffer gladly the fools who declare the technology or the disruption as “inevitable.”

The need for radical change in today’s universities—even if it is accepted that such change is desirable—does not imply that change will inevitably occur. To imply that because the church should have embraced the widespread publication of scripture, modern universities should also embrace the use of MOOCs is simply a weak analogy.

Her strongest critique focuses on who these authors are. She argues that the people who are promoting change in education should (at least) have expertise in education. Her book mostly equates expertise with experience. My colleagues and I work to teach faculty about education, to develop their expertise before they enter the classroom (as in this post). I suspect Karen would agree with me about different paths to develop expertise, but she particularly values getting to know students face-to-face. She’s angry that the authors promoting education disruption do not know students.

It is a travesty that the conversation about the reform or disruption of higher education is being driven by a small group of individuals who are buffered from exposure to a wide range of students, but who still claim to speak on their behalf and in their interests.

Disrupt This! gave me a new way to think about MOOCs and the hype around disruptive technologies in education. I often think in terms of data. Karen shows how to critique the rhetoric — the data are less important if the argument they are supporting is already broken.

October 6, 2017 at 7:00 am 2 comments


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