• October 23, 2014

Size Isn't Everything

For academe's future, think mash-ups not MOOC's

Size Isn't Everything 1

James Yang for The Chronicle Review

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James Yang for The Chronicle Review

Size Isn't Everything

James Yang for The Chronicle Review

My reading material to and from London recently for the annual open-source programming event known as Mozfest, or the Mozilla Festival, included two glossy magazines focusing on the future of education: the November 19 cover story in Forbes and the entire November issue of Wired UK, an offshoot of the American magazine. Education is rarely seen as sexy or lucrative enough to take over business and technology magazines.

Should educators be delighted by this unexpected attention—or very, very worried?

A little of both. Wired UK raises the possibility that the university may have to restructure itself. That undoubtedly will raise numerous hackles. But from an intellectual standpoint, it signals a revolution in waiting. Forbes, on the other hand, touts the financial promise of investments in MOOC's and other digital educational offerings. Entrepreneurs and college administrators are already heeding that siren call. But it is mostly the sound of yesterday.

Let's look at Wired UK first. The issue is devoted to MIT's famous Media Lab and its innovative approach to research, teaching, and collaborative learning. It marks the return to the magazine, after a hiatus of many years, of one of its original backers, the legendary Nicholas Negroponte, who also co-founded the Media Lab in 1985.

Featured are both Negroponte 1.0, the editorial that launched Wired in 1993, and the new Negroponte 2.0. In the 1.0 version, Negroponte promises that as your "television's intelligence increases, it will begin to select video and receive signals in 'unreal time'" and predicts that companies like Nintendo, Apple, and IBM (not TV makers) will soon be presenting the world with multimedia products for the home. "The six o'clock news can be not only delivered when you want it, but it also can be edited for you and randomly accessed by you." Well, the man got that one right!

Given that such 20/20 foresight is rare, it is worth paying attention to Negroponte 2.0. The new message isn't much different from his old. Negroponte still insists, for example, that what makes the Internet different from devices like the dumb TV is that we contribute to it, shape it, make it; we do not just "consume" the World Wide Web.

He also still maintains a position he stated long ago: "Computers are not about computing, but everyday life." Everyday life is being transformed not by technology, he argues, but by the new ways that humans, globally, connect to one another. Boundaries and hierarchies are becoming fuzzier as "work and home, reader and author, education and entertainment, container and content" overlap. And disciplines are coming apart, as imagination and creativity become (as Steve Jobs also said) the lifeblood of technology and (Negroponte) "perspective is more valuable than IQ."

If you are a traditional educator, you should be scared.

So what's different in 2.0? Mainly, Negroponte is no longer predicting; he is describing our reality, and the rest of the issue shows how the Media Lab has transformed education for this merged and fuzzy world. The changes described in the lab's research protocols for everything from robotics to preschool education are enormous.

Indeed, it is clear that the Media Lab is dismantling many of the institutional forms, divisions, metrics, and assumptions of the research university that have been honored at least since the late 19th century. If you think it is about time education moved away from Fordist, production-line compartmentalizations and hierarchies of knowledge, there is much to applaud in the Media Lab's arrangements. If you are a traditional educator, you should be scared.

The Media Lab is dedicated to changing just about everything in the traditional system, starting from the current assessment methods based on assumptions about quantifiable student intelligence and educational outcomes. The lab's keywords for learning are "experience," "motivation," "curiosity," "imagination," "creativity," or, to use Negroponte's word, "perspective."

The lab means to remake education from preschool onward, adding in such fabulous open-source learning experiences as Scratch, a free online resource that has enticed more than a million kids to create and share animations, and mix and remix narratives and games while learning basic programming skills.

In the words of Joi Ito, the dynamic new head of the lab, himself a famous college dropout, the key to 21st-century learning is "antidisciplinary," not just "interdisciplinary." Ito's goal is "a world of seven billion teachers," where everyone on the planet has something important to teach to someone else, and everyone does.

"Educational reform" is also on the lips of many college presidents and policy makers these days. However, I worry that, for many of them, reform is less about learning than about new sources of revenue. Too often, their idea is less like the vision presented in Wired UK and more like the one in Forbes.

If you are a traditional educator, Forbes's manifesto for educational reform should have you shaking, too. Forbes hails the revolutionary opportunities available in MOOC's. But, reflecting the magazine's focus, its cover story is less interested in how the online courses transform learning for students than how they offer investment opportunities for venture capitalists. Higher education of the MOOC variety is touted as the Next Big Profitable Thing, what Forbes calls "The $1-Trillion Opportunity."

Read against Wired UK's story, the opportunity Forbes describes seems revolutionary but, in its DNA, is the opposite. The MOOC model depicted here ossifies the already outdated mission of 19th-century education. Far too many of the MOOC's championed in the article use talking heads and multiple-choice quizzes in fairly standard subject areas in conventional disciplines taught by famous teachers at elite universities. There is little that prepares students for learning in the fuzzy, merged world that Negroponte sees as necessary for thriving in the 21st century.

Making courseware "massive" may dangle the eventual possibility of trillion-dollar profits (even if they have yet to materialize). But it does not "fix" what is broken in our system of education. It massively scales what's broken.

The subheading of the Forbes article states, "No field operates more inefficiently than education. A new breed of disruptors is finally going to fix it." The part of the magazine's pitch that is absolutely right—and that every educator must take to heart—is that the current educational system is failing too many students, at every age. As the magazine notes, "The U.S. is the only developed country to have high proportions of both top and bottom performers." We've all seen the statistics.

What is missing in the Forbes analysis is exactly what is implied by the comment about top and bottom performers: Educational success in the United States maps all too precisely upon wealth. We know that at elite private universities, where a student's finances are less crucial to being admitted and succeeding than at many public universities, graduation rates far outstrip those in the rest of higher education. Money is a major factor.

What is smart and wise about the Forbes article contributes a missing piece to the glorious creative playground of the MIT Media Lab: the emphasis on free offerings, the new awareness of motivated global learners, and the promise of scale.

So Salman Khan, executive director of Khan Academy, is on to something: He makes learning free (or at least universally affordable), available any time, anywhere, to anyone who wants it. Millions of people who cannot afford traditional education are taking advantage of the opportunities. The Media Lab, by contrast, can only educate a small cohort of elite students. Even in starting exceptional programs in places like Detroit, its reach cannot come close to that of the MOOC's Forbes points to, offered by Khan, the for-profit Coursera, or MIT's own not-for-profit MITx.

For the most part, however, what Forbes seeks to scale for venture capitalists is a for-profit model in which learning is neither free—nor innovative.

In the future, merging a Media Lab 2.0 with some form of MOOC's might prompt traditional educators to think seriously about new learning models, methods, and audience. Sebastian Thrun, chief executive of Udacity, a private organization that offers MOOC's, is also featured in the Forbes article. Thrun's commitment to democratizing learning is profound, and so is his visionary idea about education. He suggests that we should abolish false divisions of the human life span into separate stages of play (early childhood), education, work, and then play again (retirement). He wants all of those mixed and merged—play with learning, work with childhood, education lifelong.

He also offers a clearer business model than some of the other MOOC's. Udacity offers courses free to those for whom learning is the objective. If students want to take Udacity courses for official credentials or to be part of an employment service, then they have to pay—or the prospective employer (such as Google) does. That model probably won't yield the trillion-dollar investment Forbes promises. But it does offer a challenging new paradigm for learning.

We need the challenge. It's a tragedy that we are robbing our public universities of funds at a time of such radical technological change, when education is so desperately needed. But even if by some magic our universities were suddenly to be refinanced, we would still need a huge overhaul of our traditional educational institutions.

The astonishing enrollment in MOOC's in the past few years has taught us an important lesson about the powerful motivation people have to learn. From voluntary, participatory sites such as Yelp or Wikipedia, we also see that people love to contribute what they know and are willing to learn from one another (as Ito notes), not just from experts. That's the paradigm shift that, as educators committed to the future well-being of our students, we need, fearlessly, to embrace.

Forbes may see an investment opportunity for profit-based online educational companies. But there is also an investment opportunity for any educator (with or without degree) to rethink learning top to bottom, inside out. We have a potential for a learning mash-up of the loftiest, most creative, learner-centered kind. Whether we are talking about Khan's millions of learners who have a handful of teachers or Ito's billions of teachers learning from one another, the idea that we educators don't have to force education, that people like to learn if there is something worth learning, is the gold mine for the digital age offered by the glossy promises made by these two popular magazines.

Cathy N. Davidson is a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Duke University. She is the author, most recently, of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press).

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