I've blogged a couple of times before about my frustration with the education is broken rhetoric. To be clear this doesn't mean I think everything is rosy and we carry on as we are, but I think it's too simplistic and doesn't really get us anywhere. I'll try and explain why in this post.
Clay Shirky posted a piece on MOOCs as higher education disruptors last year, and has followed up with another piece here. He uses the phrase "school is broken" so my education is broken klaxon went off, forcing this post.
I should say that, unlike some of my edtech peers (stand up David Kernohan and George Siemens), I like Shirky, I think he is often very perceptive and he is also a very persuasive writer. In this piece he definitely nails some things – most significantly the common misperception of a university student and university life. It isn't young people at pristine universities, so making appeals to this type of learning as typical doesn't do anyone any favours. I wonder though how many people really do this? Maybe it's a US thing – in the UK we've had a very mixed economy of higher education (including that Open University thing) for a long time now.
I have a number of issues around the education is broken theme though. It's never clearly explained what exactly is broken. Is it the cost? Is it student achievement? Is it student drop-out? These are quite different issues. If cost is your main concern, then maybe it's not that education is broken, but that education funding is broken. This is quite different. You could argue here that the problem is not with an inefficient education system (I'm sure it is inefficient, but certainly less so than it used to be), but rather with the notion of an education market. As has been pointed out in the UK, marketing spend has gone up considerably in universities. This is a natural consequence of making education compete in a market place. As is providing better sports facilities or bars than competitors. All of this spend has little to do with education, but having created a commercial market through fees, you can't then complain that universities behave in an entirely appropriate way to survive in that context.
If it is student drop-out that is your main concern, then I agree, we could do a lot more. A small example, but my colleagues on the Bridge 2 Success project worked with many of the students Shirky identifies, and who had struggled with maths to the point where it was preventing them from gaining employment. By creating an online course from OpenLearn content and backing this up with support (sometimes face to face, sometimes online) they got something like an 80% pass rate. Absolutely we need more ideas like this, simply sending people back through the same system that they've struggled with before makes no sense.
So, I think we need to decide what is broken with more clarity before offering solutions. We need to know what is broken to fix it effectively. I don't want you amputing my leg and fitting me with a prosthetic, no matter how marvellous it is, if my problem is migraines.
My second beef/horsemeat (UK joke) with Shirky is his naive view of MOOCs as panacea. He cites a book "Don't go back to school" which interviewed 80 people who had dropped out of school and gone on to be successful. I'm sure there are very interesting lessons to learn here. But really, a carefully selected sample of 80 people? And from that you want to make recommendations about education for everyone?
So when Shirky promotes MOOCs as the equivalent of MP3 or YouTube, he underestimates the demands that will be put on them, and is, unusually for him, wrong about the analogy. MP3s could replace vinyl/CDs pretty much completely. Free MOOCs can't replace education because much of the cost of education is nothing to do with the educating part. Taking a MOOC for fun is great. But when your job will depend on it, then you'll start making demands of it that currently don't exist. If MOOCs replace higher ed then they'll need to find ways of doing the following:
- Dealing with student appeals
- Coping with a diverse range of students and abilities
- Ensuring quality control of content
- Develop assessment methods and procedures that can be defended
- Ensuring robustness of service
- Ensuring accreditation reliability and trustworthiness
- Complying with numerous regulations on issues such as accessibility
You get my point. All of these requirements will cost money. So MOOCs as universal education method will soon begin to cost more and more. They'll also start to spend more and more on recruitment and marketing. Sound familiar?
But, I think he is right when he highlights price as a factor. Free education is one revolution, cheap education might be even more significant.