‘Farm to Brain’: Locavore Education vs. MOOCs

We are in the midst of the MOOC-ification of higher education. Depending on your response to massive open online courses, they represent either a promising future or the downfall of higher education.

By and large, the delivery platforms for MOOCS—Udacity, Coursera, edX—were developed and are managed by large research institutions, like Stanford, MIT, and Harvard. For those of us who don’t work in large institutions, I want to suggest, contrary to common wisdom, that the MOOC-ification of higher education is a boon. Not because it will give us the chance to cut costs by substituting MOOCs for what we do well on our small campuses, but because it lets us sharpen the contrast between our educational model, which emphasizes the one-on-one and the hands-on, and the remote and generic education that MOOCs must of necessity offer.

As MOOCs become the Costco of higher education, small colleges have the chance to argue that we offer a healthier and far more nutritious alternative.

I am advocating here for a “farm-to-brain” higher-education movement, one that emphasizes local knowledge produced on the campuses (campi: the fields) of small institutions. In a climate in which politicians and parents are pressuring colleges to prepare students for the job market via preprofessional programs, those of us who champion the humanities, arts, and sciences have found ourselves struggling to explain the relevance of what we teach in the 21st century.  What parent wants her child to major in English or painting? What kind of job could he hope to get with a degree in philosophy or fashion, and laden with debt?

I take the idea of a farm-to-brain movement from the food industry, where the drama that is unfolding in higher education has already played out. With the rise of agribusiness and the turn to food distribution through big-box stores, an artisanal movement has grabbed a significant share of the market by emphasizing locally grown food that tastes better and is better for you. Across the country, more and more grocery stores (even Costco and Wal-Mart!) offer their customers the choice between factory-farmed chickens and those raised without antibiotics and allowed to feed “free range.”

Restaurants in large and small towns are promoting their menus as sourced from local farms. We are offered artisanal breads by local bakers, artisanal coffees that support the local communities of underserved populations, and artisanal cuts of meat from butchers who learned their trades in the apprenticeship tradition. These foods can be experienced at “farm-to-table” restaurants—like Hatfield’s, in Los Angeles, and the Eastside Café, in Austin—where the ingredients come from nearby fields.

My job as a dean in a small college is made that much easier when large universities cheapen their products through mass production. In comparison, what we educational locavores have to sell is superior in quality—from the knowledge produced to the experience of attaining that knowledge.

A prospective student and her parents simply have to walk onto our campus—one of those campi of knowledge—and sit in on one of our small-sized classes to see that the education we have to offer is significantly better than one earned sitting in front of a computer screen and listening to a professor hundreds of miles away talk about philosophy or art or literature or history. When I hear that universities are flirting with adopting MOOCs, I cheer them on, knowing that our farm-to-brain knowledge will become more and more attractive.

Where MOOCs represent the move to enlarge universities by increasing their market share, I think the better path is to go small: trim back, pare down, return to our core mission of educating individuals through individual attention.  Many cities in the Rust Belt, like Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Detroit, have used the “go small” philosophy to rethink what it is to be urban in the 21st century. However, as the bankruptcy in Detroit demonstrates, the move to reduce is tied to an economic imperative to cut back. If a farm-to-brain education is going to be attractive to students and parents, we must acknowledge that the financial structures at many colleges has become unwieldy, and that the cost has become unsustainable.

As is evident in the organic-food section of any grocery store, locally sourced foods are expensive. So are small liberal-arts colleges, and art-and-design institutions.  Together, the MOOC-ification of America and the counterbalancing emphasis on farm-to-brain colleges threaten to widen the gap in higher education between the haves and the have-nots.

The challenge for farm-to-brain institutions is to find ways to curb the cost of earning a locavore education, and to make what we have to sell affordable to a population of students who may have the intellectual ability to thrive in a one-on-one environment but cannot afford the cost. We can do this by significantly increasing our endowments, which in turn would finance student scholarships, and by rethinking our financial structures.

Given a chance, a farm-to-brain argument could persuade philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation—which has poured millions into the kind of bland generic knowledge we see coming out of MOOCs—to redirect their efforts to a small-is-better philosophy. Such an argument could even influence President Obama and his education policies, which seem to echo Gates’s MOOC philosophy.  (Perhaps Mrs. Obama can take the president out to the White House garden to explain that a farm-to-brain education is better for our country.)

What will become more challenging for us administrators in farm-to-brain institutions is to choose to adopt more efficient business practices to reduce the cost of the educations we offer.

A.W. Barnes is dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the Pratt Institute.

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