Friday, October 7, 2016

College Digitized and Privatized

Slice the "a" from 'audacity" and you have Udacity, the leading purveyor of for-profit, on-line college. Udacity is the dead of digitizing, the maharajah of MOOCkery. In them, we can see everything in the digitally privatized future face of higher ed that some folks love and other folks find appalling.

Born in 1967, Sebastian Thrun came from Germany and found a place as a Stanford professor and Google VP. He was the founder of Google X, the big geeky exploratory part of Google, and he has had a hand in everything from hoverboards to self-driving cars.

Thrun is also one of the co-parents of Udacity, an on-line digitized set of courses that can earn you, among other things, nanodegrees, which appear to be the same basic idea as micro-credentials, but which sound slightly more academically legit. Udacity started out as a few computer courses offered for free by Stanford, and its nanodegree offerings still seem primarily tech oriented, with everything from software debugging to interactive rendering to software development to web design to inscrutable-to-laypeople programs like full stack web developer. Plus a couple of Google-specific programs. And currently their most hugely popular offering is one "taught" by Thrun himself-- Self-Driving Car Engineer. SDCE has pulled huge numbers of interested customers students for the course that will cost $2,400 for three twelve-week terms.

The usefulness, effectiveness, and educational validity of Massively Open On-line Courses has been debated from Day One. Late in 2012 a short cyber-debate erupted between Clay Shirky and Aaron Bady. Shirky is a tech writer thinky guy, while Bady is a blogging Cinderella story who rose to prominence because he had some good thoughts, written well, about wikileaks. Their conversation begins here, with Shirky claiming that MOOCs are like recorded music. Bady replied here in Inside Higher Education.

Some of his criticism will seem familiar:

Udacity’s primary obligation is to its investors. That reality will always push it to squeeze as much profit out of its activities as it can. This may make Udacity better at educating, but it also may not; the job of a for-profit entity is not to educate, but to profit, and it will. 

But this next point is new and  interesting, and well worth resurrecting from almost four years ago:

The key difference between academics and venture capitalists, in fact, is not closed versus open but evidence versus speculation. The thing about academics is that they require evidence of success before declaring victory, while venture capitalists can afford to gamble on the odds. While Shirky can see the future revolutionizing in front of us, he is thinking like a venture capitalist when he does, betting on optimism because he can afford to lose. He doesn’t know that he’s right; he just knows that he might not be wrong.

Bady also clearly sees how these on-line institutions like Udacity as pale imitations of real education-- and are meant to be.

The giveaway is when Shirky uses the phrase "non-elite institutions": for Shirky, there are elite institutions for elite students and there are non-elites for everyone else. The elite institutions will remain the same. No one will ever choose Udacity over Harvard or U.Va., and while elite institutions like MIT, Stanford, Princeton, and my own University of California are leaping into the online education world head first, anyone who thinks these online brands will ever compete with "the real thing" will be exactly the kind of sucker who would fork over full price for a watered-down product.

And he lands on this important question:

Why have we stopped aspiring to provide the real thing for everyone? That’s the interesting question, I think, but if we begin from the distinction between "elite" and "non-elite" institutions, it becomes easy to take for granted that "non-elite students" receiving cheap education is something other than giving up. It is important to note that when online education boosters talk about "access," they explicitly do not mean access to "education of the best sort"; they mean that because an institution like Udacity provides teaching for free, you can’t complain about its mediocrity. It’s not an elite institution, and it’s not for elite students. It just needs to be cheap.

Maruia Bustillos, following up on this conversation in The Awl, asked a more pointed version of the same question.

Okay, fine, but let’s get this straight: public money has been mercilessly hacked from California’s education budget for decades, so now we are to give public money, taxpayer money, to private, for-profit companies to take up the slack? Because that is exactly what is happening. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just fund education to the levels we had back when it was working?

Bustillos followed up with Bady, who offered this elaboration on the point:

If you start by not letting education be anything more than what it’s possible to deliver via YouTube — and MOOCs are a little more complicated than that, but essentially all the arguments for the cheapness of MOOCs are based on that model, that it’s something you can digitize and then distribute very cheaply — then if that’s all you want, if you’re satisfied with that, then yeah, MOOCs are great, because they’re cheap. But you’ve already given up on almost everything that the entire academic enterprise has been creating for centuries. So it’s that framing of the conversation, much more than Shirky’s particular argument, that drives me up the wall. 

Emphasis mine. Digitizing education requires that we reduce education to something that will fit in those digits. And aiming it at "non-elites" or "lessers" or "those people" is a cheat because it sets the bar at "well, anything that's better than nothing is an improvement of what Those People were going to get."

In other words, we look at some poor folks who get barely one meal a day and say, "Well, let's get them all a single piece of cold, day-old pizza. Granted, it's a sad shadow of actual decent healthful food, but it's better than nothing." Why are we doing that instead of asking why we can't arrange for those folks to eat as well as we do? Why do we not examine the damning charge implicit in our assumption-- that we are not willing to make sure Those People get something as good as what we've got, that we know in our hearts that we will never willingly pay the cost of getting Those People what the more fortunate among us can take for granted.

Programs like Udacity are cold, dry pizza instead of full, rich healthful education. But they let us off the hook for the problems of Those People. 


  1. Peter, I have a large collection of CDs (and even my old LPs) which I rarely touch. Each contain 1-2, perhaps 3 really good songs. But to get those few I had to buy them packaged with 6-7 mediocre or bad songs.

    Public schools and many universities (or as you call it "real" education) are like that. I'm sure you're a great teacher, but for my kid to sit in your class requires they endure the mediocre science teacher and the burned out tenured geometry instructor.

    Yep, mp3s don't have the audio quality of a CD, but a crappy song in high-fidelity is still crap. Yep, MOOCs may not have personal interaction of a public school, but a crappy teacher in a 'real' education building is still a crappy education.

    And to expand on your pizza analogy. At present, if you want just one slice of hot tasty pizza, you're forced to buy the whole pie which includes 5 cold slices and two which are downright moldy. Nothing appetizing about that.

  2. I don't get how Shirky's analogy between MOOC's and recorded music is supposed to support the idea that local, live instruction by a teacher is in trouble. Recorded music sales did shift from CD's and other physical formats to digital formats. But live musical performances by live musicians seem quite popular. In fact, the popularity of live musical performances seems to have increased in the last decade or so. Check the local concert scene or just get out to a bar or restaurant on the weekend. The live music scene is very healthy across the nation.