So Downes (and via Downes, Jim Groom) are hankering after the “subversive” roots of a MOOC movement that currently feels as edgy and relevent (and as exploitative and dull) as Starbucks. Reminding us that the original gameplan was to shake up those nasty elite institutions and bring new (and non-broken) education to the delighted and grateful masses.
Which might be true. In North America.
Some of us live in countries where Higher Education was free to those who could benefit, in living memory for someone in their mid 30s.
Here in the currently free nation of the United Kingdom (to give one example), the corporate hype behind MOOCs looks (and smells) the same as the hype that is pushing us to build a system just like the one that spat you out. The original wave of MOOCs (your connectivism stuff… well the ideas at least) felt like a reconnection with the earlier ideas of a system that could offer education to all. They felt like the tradition of university outreach and public lectures that have informed the UK system since before America. As in, before the European discovery of America.
We see the outsourcing of key activities, the enroaching managerialism, the flashy marketing that our institutions are beginning to undertake as just another wing of the ideology that brings us Udacity and Coursera. Maybe because other universities in other countries sold out so long ago it is easier for us to see.
What we had – what I benefited so much from – in the 80s and 90s has been under sustained attack ever since, by a shared ideology surmising that this education lark would be a nice little earner with a few little tweaks here and there. Every reform since then has been about making it easier to funnel government and student money to the private sector. Student experience is getting worse. Staff experience is getting worse. But that is not the point, it seems.
And when we see these VC-backed ex-academics, telling us that in 15 years there will be five institutions of higher education left, when we see journalists and analysts jumping on an easy answer that does away with academia almost entirely, when we see the very notion of “superstar lecturers” being taken seriously – we see the completion of this cycle.
It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that your bad experience makes the system worthless. Your bad experience sucks – this is both true and lamentable – but it doesn’t make the system wrong. It makes the influences and ideas that are slowly colonising the system a great risk that allows the same experience to be repeated again and again. This is modern neo-liberal education policy writ large – my experience was unsatisfactory, therefore the system is unsatisfactory, therefore the attractive shiny and hyped to the gills idea that is suddenly everywhere is the future. And education is fucking broken. Yes.
Modern-day universities suck. But why they suck has more to do with the same people that are selling us the new model than the people who are trying to maintain the old one.
Work needs to be done. But I am unable to agree that the answer lies in trying to subvert what already exists, because there is already an entire industry that has been trying to do that for 20 years, and they have already succeeded in destroying a lot of what was great about the old system. When we see academic conditions fall again and again, when we see new PhDs earning less than they would tending bar, when we see learners treated like numbers, we know that it could be better because in living memory it has been better. Maybe it is our memories we need to share with you.
Even the Death Star had a library. It was on Deck 106.