We’re under fifteen feet of pure white snow

An avalanche is coming. An avalanche of nonsense.

This is not our language, which is fair – which is correct –  because this is not written for us. This is written for the kind of people who are impressed by such language.

This is written for people who would not bat an eyelid that the formerly respectable IPPR are now publishing paid advertorials from Pearson.

One of the facets of this new discourse of “disruption” is the use of vaguely connected anecdotes to illustrate a point. Pearson run a college in the UK, who are imaginatively called Pearson College – leveraging their reputation for value for money textbooks into the mass higher education market. Except they don’t really do the mass bit, accepting a cohort of around 40 students, twenty of which had their fees paid for them at the last possible minute.

Norman Davies, the esteemed and often controversial historian, was interviewed recently in the FT, and explained historical change this way:

‘historical change is like an avalanche. The starting point is a snow-covered mountainside that looks solid. All changes take place under the surface and are rather invisible. But something is coming. What is impossible is to say when.’

You may wonder why I cite a Financial Times restaurant review  at this point of the article, without any obvious context. The IPPR/Pearson advertorial does similar, and omits the following paragraph which offers context.

It seems impossible that Giorgio is going to arrive with more food, but he does. There’s a green salad, followed by fish – handsome slices of sea bass and bream, and more of those chunky jumbo prawns. “The older you get, the more large meals become something of an ordeal,” Davies observes.

The education ‘revolution’ that Barber, Donnelly and Rizvi are such keen advocates of is a comfortably fed one. This is not a cry from the barricades – not a populist movement of grass roots activists. The hand-wringing citation of unemployment statistics and rising student fees comes not from the unemployed and poor, but from the new education industry that wants to find a way into the marketplace.

And this is the underlying impression one takes from this report. The citations are shoddy, the proofreading abysmal – it reads like a bad blog post. Or a good Ted talk. It’s a serving of handsome slices of invective which would leave anyone sick to the stomach. Falling graduate wages. The lack of good “quality measures” for universities. A neatly formatted table of annual academic publication rates – in 50 year slices from 1726 onwards – labelled “The Growth of Information over 300 years”. (but “citizens of the world now cry out for synthesis”!!)

Again and again we, as citizens of the world, are encouraged to rail and protest about the broken system that somehow seems to have educated world leaders, scientists, lawyers, engineers and senior staff at academic publishers with pretensions at “thought leadership”. A system which anyone would admit has problems; problems caused by the imposition of a wearying and inapplicable market.

Here’s another aside for you. The “thought leader” (trendy term of the moment, up there with “distruptive innovator”) in question is Sir Michael Barber – the section of his wikipedia page that describes him as such was added from an IP address registered to Pearson.

Section 6 of the report, “The Competition is heating up”, retreads familiar grounds concerning the all-conquering world of the MOOC – that well known reheating of early 00s internet education hype flavoured with a rich source of venture capital. But this is situated within a wider spectrum of globalised private for-profit providers – the lot of whom (poor reputation! high drop-out rates! difficulty in gaining degree awarding powers!) is bewailed at some length.

As far as this report has any meat in it (horsemeat, maybe?) this section is it.

The reputations of some of the new for-profit providers have been
tarnished by high dropout rates (a US government report alleges an
average rate of 64 per cent in associate degree programmes) and
high spending on non-education related expenses such as marketing
and profit-sharing. Perhaps the government, through lax regulation
and student loan subsidies, has also contributed to the problem, but
either way it would be a mistake to think that the innovation itself will be
diminished by these abuses.

I’m particularly impressed with the way they decided to blame the government. If only the government had told them to stop lying to prospective students, spend less on flashy marketing and pay themselves less then everything would have been OK. Pearson here are calling for more red tape to constrain and direct the activity of HE institutions.

UK readers will be delighted to note:

In addition to US-founded MOOCs, the UK has responded with FutureLearn, an online university, which builds on the foundations of the Open University but has content from institutions around the UK.

Remember this. FutureLearn is an online university. An e-university, if you will. An e-university based in the UK. And incidently, did we mention that Pearson run a MOOC platform?

League tables are next in line. Pearson/IPPR complain that league tables are unfairly weighted against new entrants because they include things like research performance. Many would agree that perhaps too much weight is placed on research performance. But university reputations are complex things, and league tables are themselves a radical simplification of the complex criteria that we use when we decided which of two almost indistinguishable middle-ranking universities are the “best” for a particular purpose.

We can skip over the box-ticking enumeration of the neo-liberal university dream that is section two of the report, and move on to where the serious money is. Unbundling.

Research is at risk from… think tanks and government funded centres.

Degrees are at risk from… private colleges. Alternative credentials (yes! they reference my favourite “education is broken” start up DeGreed. Still no venture capital for them, sadly) And also the start-up culture wherein Peter Thiel gives smart teenagers $100,000 to do very little of any consequence. And sites like the (open university supported) Not Going to Uni.

The effects of universities on their surrounding areas are at risk from… government investment in local services. (another deviation from the small government playbook there)

Faculty are at risk from… celebrities. The connected internet age apparently means that people want to learn only from celebrities, without actually being able to communicate with them.

Students are at risk from…. actually it breaks down here, it’s just some more stuff about the connected world. Bob Dylan is cited as a college drop out, though few current undergraduates would cite a need to meet Woody Guthrie as a reason to drop out.

Administrators are at risk from… their own inefficiency. (Despite being described earlier in the advertorial as “top professionals in specialist fields [who] make up the engine that keeps the vast, complex organisation running smoothly.)

Curricula are at risk from… MOOCS! – which are themselves based on university curricula. (from prestigious universities, no less…)

Teaching and learning are at risk from… online teaching and learning. This section also contains a curious digression about the need for “practical” rather than “theoretical” learning – perhaps harking back to a desire to see the government pay for employee training.

Assessment is at risk from…computer games. No, really. There’s one of those asides about some 22 year old who became manager of the Azerbaijan football team FK Baku after 10 years of experience playing Football Manager. Which must be disquieting news for the team’s actual manager, Božidar Bandović. The student in question, Vugar Huseynzade, actually appears to be more of a business manager – though I invite any Baku fans who may read this to correct me. Oh, and Pearson already own a chain of assessment centres.

The experience of attending university is at risk from… clubs and forums.

Vice-chancellors who have read this far will likely be convulsing with laughter at this point. But never fear, as Sir Michael has a prescription for your future success.

You can be an elite, mass, niche, local or lifelong learning institution. All are at risk from the oncoming juggernaut of private sector instruction, so each must respond in different ways.

Elite institutions must share their prestige with (private) partner institutions. Mass institutions must move online, maybe with the capable support of private sector experts. Niche institutions will all be private institutions (College of Law, New College of the Humanities should it ever become an actual institution with degree awarding powers…) so don’t worry about them. Local institutions must add the vocational, employer-supporting finesse to elite content from around the world. And lifelong learning? Well that isn’t institutions at all, that’s young entrepreneurs “hacking” their education with the support of the private sector.

I’m not sure what the key thread is with these recommendations, but there does seem to be a common theme running through them.

So – having sold you the disease, Pearson now attempt to sell the cure. We must all work hard to support the brave and noble entrepreneurs as they seek to disrupt education, moving existing providers out of the way, adding or removing regulation to order.

It is essential to do this because it is essential that we prepare our young people for their lives as cogs in a machine that is already broken, as avatars of a discredited and poisonous ideology. Young people are not seekers after truth, they are consumers and their money must be allowed to flow as directly as possible to Pearson Education.

Unless there is a bigger avalanche coming.

8 thoughts on “We’re under fifteen feet of pure white snow”

  1. Obviously Pearson wants to make oodles of money, however, I think there is a role for x-MOOCS in widening higher education.

    The increase in the number of middle class in the developing world over the next 10 years will probably lead to a demand for higher education that cannot be met through existing institutions – the numbers are just too large.

    Obviously it is not ideal, or a real university experience, but an as-good-as-possible MOOC (probably delivered via smartphone) to the developing world backed by a genuine degree from a respected institution could be a very valuable option for those who cannot afford the campus experience.

    1. Maybe. Or we could, you know, invest in actual educational institutions, just like we did in the 1890s, 1920, 1960s and 1990s when more people wanted to go to them?

      1. I think it is a stretch to provide enough institutions to everyone who wants to go to one. The global middle class ($10-20 a day) is expected to increase from 1.8bn to 5bn by 2030. That is a lot of people who might like to attend university and we have less than 17 years to preside over a near tripling of available institutions…difficult.

        Also below this level are people on less than $10 a day who may like to take a degree course if it cost eg. $6,000 in total – if it was cheap enough. This would be the market I could see helped most by MOOCs.

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