galloway and the perpetually-to-come disruption

What is transmitted in higher learning?… Limiting ourselves to a narrowly functionalist point of view, an organized stock of established knowledge is the essential thing that is transmitted. The application of new technologies to this stock may have a considerable impact on the medium of communication. It does not seem absolutely necessary that the medium be a lecture delivered in person by a teacher in front of silent students, with questions reserved for sections or “practical work” sessions run by an assistant. To the extent that learning is translatable into computer language and the traditional teacher is replaceable by memory banks, didactics can be entrusted to machines linking traditional memory banks (libraries, etc.) and computer data banks to intelligent terminals placed at the students’ disposal. Pedagogy would not necessarily suffer. The students would still have to be taught something: not contents, but how to use the terminals.

No, that’s not from Scott Galloway’s much-circulated article, The Coming Disruption.  It’s from Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, published in French 41 years ago. And while Lyotard, to his credit, presented it in a critical mode, the 41 years since have seen a cascade of less-critical versions of the same insight: data and communications (which already seemed so seamless to Lyotard in the late ’70s!) make concentrated, in-person, active learning obsolete, since people can get their “content” digitally.

These cases–whether for MOOCs, for increasing online education in general, for narrower certificates instead of degrees–follow the same predictable logic. Typically in the name of expanding access, a would-be disruptor suggests some way of distributing lectures, discussions, ideas, etc., broadly. Distance is no longer a barrier, they typically proclaim, succumbing to the fallacy that the current bandwidth is essentially the same as being face-to-face. Good instructors are expensive. What could be better than a technical solution that decreases the cost (and employment) of academic instruction and makes it available to anybody?

The case of MOOcs (Massive Open Online Courses) is instructive. Less than ten years ago, MOOCs were everywhere. (I made a comment in Faculty Council suggesting that UNC shouldn’t dive headfirst into MOOC support and was essentially “OK, boomer”ed by the provost!) They would transform the higher education landscape: bad for overpaid, lazy professors, but great for learners and for university budgets (though the latter was never really convincingly laid out).

Didn’t happen. Most MOOC participants didn’t complete courses, even fewer continued to take additional courses, and there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that they learned much. At this point, MOOCs in the US look like other forms of optional adult education: erudite entertainment for those with a college education, not increased access to education for those who would otherwise go without.

The story for university-based online education is similar, with one twist. There are some online programs that do well educationally, but those programs tend to be quite expensive (i.e., they don’t fulfill deans’ dreams of piles of new money), and they are generally more successful at the post-BA level than they are for undergrads. Part of the reason they are expensive is that they actually don’t reduce the involvement of highly-skilled instructional labor. Teaching well online is hard, labor-intensive, and not particularly scalable.

We’ve all been learning that lesson in a hurry this year, as we’ve been forced to move classes online quickly. To the extent that we’re online again this fall, we’ll learn again that the trouble wasn’t just the emergency nature of that shift. Designing and sustaining effective online (or hybrid) classes requires a lot of dedicated instructor work.

College, done well, is also greater than the sum of its classes. I recognize that this point is different across the very wide heterogeneity of American higher education. But a great undergraduate education remains about the synergies between classes, the informal conversations, the campus events and politics, the chance encounters.

Most of the time, these efforts don’t just fail to expand access, they may actually increase inequalities in education by leaving students isolated in their homes, learning on demand, instead of participating in an intellectual community in which they are encouraged (even perhaps coerced) to pay attention to those courses and engage with instructors and fellow students. Online life makes it even harder for students to consider asking for help (H/T Jessica Calarco) or accommodations.

Now Galloway (whom the Chronicle lauds as “Higher Ed’s Prickliest Pundit”) comes along with pretty much the same case. The quick move online just shows that content can be delivered without the trappings of college. And really, the consumers of education are the big tech firms that hire a small number of graduates anyway. So what better way to cut pesky costs than to have those tech firms partner with brand-name universities to communicate “an organized stock of established knowledge”? The answer writes itself: Galloway misunderstands the economics, pedagogy, history, and missions of higher education.

I don’t think it’s going to happen this time either–I don’t think Apple or Google is interested, particularly, and the evidence is strong that the quality will suffer unacceptably. But I am concerned that the attraction of Galloway’s argument for tech types will end up undermining college for the poorest, who will be unable to pay for elite education and lack the knowledge of “how to use the terminals” to participate in the technically-mediated knowledge feast.

I’ve read two books recently that show this point: Geoffrey Harpham’s What do You Think, Mr. Ramirez? and David Labaree’s A Perfect Mess. The intensive experience of a college education is unique. The right way to expand access is to properly fund public universities to do their job well, not to pursue chimerical technical fixes.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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