The Chronicle Review

We're All to Blame for MOOCs

Justin Renteria for The Chronicle Review

June 03, 2013

Innovation cheerleaders and flat-worlders like Thomas Friedman and Clay Shirky are very excited, for they have seen the future of academe, and it consists of MOOCs. They happily envision open and affordable online access to dynamic, learned professors—the kind once available only to students paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition at places like Harvard and Stanford. MOOCs will democratize education, they say, creating a more equal and consumer-friendly world.

Faculty members, meanwhile, watch these developments with nervousness and fear. In the rapidly rising popularity of MOOCs, they see the beginning of the end of higher education as they have known it.

Yet, far from a radical innovation, MOOCs are simply the natural extension of trends that have been at the heart of the modern university for decades. Defenders of the status quo are reminiscent of Casablanca's Captain Renault, who is "shocked, shocked" to discover an activity in which he himself partook. In April, the philosophy department at San Jose State University published an open letter bashing the use of Michael Sandel's MOOC, "Justice." Those professors compared the situation to "something out of a dystopian novel." ("Departments across the country possess unique specializations and character, and should stay that way," they wrote.)

Such rhetoric notwithstanding, faculties have been deeply invested in the logic leading to the rise of MOOCs, and are fundamentally ill-prepared to mount a serious intellectual argument against them.

For decades, nearly all of America's colleges and universities have moved away from the cultures and intellectual traditions within which they were founded. Religious institutions have become increasingly and uniformly secular (George Marsden documents this in The Soul of the American University). 

 The widespread abandonment of the title "college" in favor of "university" demonstrates the preference to be perceived as "universal" and research-oriented rather than as a "collegium" drawn to a unique scholastic endeavor rooted in place and history. Higher education is becoming increasingly monocultural as demands for geographic (and market) expansiveness take precedence.

The faculty are deeply invested in the logic leading to MOOCs, and are ill-prepared to mount a serious intellectual argument against them.

The faculty is composed of a rootless professoriate drawn from graduate programs aimed at producing research for denizens of the disciplines, and not oriented to culturally specific institutions, which, of course, are disappearing. To compensate for the professoriate's emphasis on narrowly focused research (which diminishes their focus on institutional governance), a cadre of administrators is needed. 

 Meanwhile, student bodies are becoming more homogeneous, claims of "diversity" notwithstanding, as they are shaped by standardized high-school curricula and nationalized testing regimens. Universities look to one another for prevailing norms and settle on a standardless standardization: the universal commitment to the amorphous goal of "excellence." Universities have come to value the same policies and practices: publishing in national and global academic presses and universally recognized disciplinary journals; participating in international disciplinary associations with conferences that "normalize" every discipline; emphasizing research (especially student research) at the expense of the humanities by insisting that the humanities are valuable only insofar as they create knowledge along the model of the natural sciences; and making broad institutional commitments to globalization, social justice, diversity, and the importance of STEM.

Part of this standardizing shift is driven by accrediting institutions and government bureaucracies, with their demands for "measurable outcomes" and "assessment." But a great deal of this impulse stems from internal institutional actors, including the faculty. The seemingly universal embrace of the research university—whether large and public or small and private—leads faculty members to demand that particular institutional affiliations, missions, cultures, and identities be relegated to occasional ceremonial expression. A global research culture dominates. The demand to generate "new knowledge" requires institutions to conform to canons of academic standardization that, over time, force colleges and universities to become intellectually indistinguishable from one another.

This embrace of uniformity has led nearly every institution to adopt the ethic of "globalization" and "internationalization." One sees a growing number of universities establishing international campuses, such as Education City, in Qatar, which includes programs from Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern, Georgetown, and Texas A&M. The assumption that knowledge is neither produced nor transmitted in local contexts leads, inevitably, to the conclusion that institutional identity is purely accidental—that every institution is, at its essence, a global content-delivery system. The result? Higher education is more monocultural than ever before.

As any botanist knows, a monoculture is highly susceptible to a single pathogen. A great shakeout is under way, and MOOCs are the logical outgrowth of this push for interchangeable educational delivery. Curricula, faculty, and students are overwhelmingly indistinct, and MOOCs are simply the cheapest way to combine those elements in our economically constrained times.

Colleges and universities are like the once-ubiquitous department stores in every city—Filene's in Boston, G. Fox in Hartford, Woodward & Lothrop in Washington—which, while enjoying distinct locations and histories, became increasingly similar. When consumers grew to value uniformity over a local market culture, those local stores were susceptible to the challenge from a truly universal competitor that could offer the same wares, produced cheaply, at low, low prices. Those stores are all now out of business. MOOCs are the Wal-Mart of higher education.

Consider Clay Shirky's recent paean to MOOCs:

Cheap graduate students let a college lower the cost of teaching the sections while continuing to produce lectures as an artisanal product, from scratch, on site, real time. The minute you try to explain exactly why we do it this way, though, the setup starts to seem a little bizarre. What would it be like to teach at a university where you could only assign books you yourself had written? Where you could only ask your students to read journal articles written by your fellow faculty members? Ridiculous. Unimaginable.

Every college provides access to a huge collection of potential readings, and to a tiny collection of potential lectures. We ask students to read the best works we can find, whoever produced them and where, but we only ask them to listen to the best lecture a local employee can produce that morning.

Shirky is correct, of course, that students at every institution should be exposed to a wide variety of works. Yet he finds it unthinkable that institutions would limit that exposure, or that they might have a commitment to how works are presented to students. The conceit that the cultures, missions, and identities of particular institutions produce "artisanal products" seems quaint. Our contemporary educational Filene's, according to Shirky, must get big or get out. This phrase—"get big or get out," along with "adapt or die"—was the mantra of Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture under President Richard Nixon, who urged the replacement of small, family-owned farms with large-scale, industrial farms. As it did to independent farmers, the consumerist ethic now appears poised to transform higher education.

This metaphor points to some small hope for a different future of higher education. A few winners will provide a cheap, mass-produced product to consumers—the Wal-Marts and the Monsantos of higher education—and many losers—today's Filene's, Woodward & Lothrop, and G. Fox. But Shirky's dismissive nod toward "artisanal" teaching points to a better path for those institutions that want not only to survive but to flourish, by refusing to go along with the monoculture. Those are the ones that have, or are seeking to recover, their distinctive institutional identities—often, but not always, a religious affiliation.

Think of Providence or Belmont Abbey among Roman Catholic institutions, or St. Olaf or Baylor among Protestant ones—all rightly anticipating that nondescript and indistinguishable institutions will be easy victims of the logic of standardization. This artisanal direction requires hiring faculty who expressly share a commitment to the institutional mission and attracting students who seek a distinctive education. Consider Hillsdale College, with its traditionalist emphasis on core curriculum and Western civilization, and a growing number of institutions that combine a liberal-arts education with some training in "trades" or manual labor, such as Deep Springs College, in California. (Try to teach baling hay via MOOC.)

If it is indeed time to "get big or get out" — or, better put, "get online or get an identity"—then I'm for the artisanal, the local, the educational equivalent of farmer's markets. The irony is that while most professors embrace the ideal embodied in farmer's markets, they have supported the evisceration of local institutional educational identity. It's time to insist not only on locally grown food, but on local knowledge. I'd rather make and share my own beer than encourage my students to guzzle Budweiser.

Patrick J. Deneen is a professor of constitutional studies and political science at the University of Notre Dame.