How do you fix a problem like education?


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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
  • Etc

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.



  1. I think, if we take a really hard, long look at our society right now, most of our systems are effectively “broken”…and those breaks are interrelated and tied to the fact that our narratives about what do do are no longer cohesive and often at odds with what we actually do in practice. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance around most of our inherited cultural systems.
    Looking at new narratives for education might be more productive than getting stuck on the merry-go-round of “broken,” especially if we could look for narratives that go beyond binaries and straw men to make their point. There aren’t a lot of these around MOOCs right now. Sure, there are calls coming from inside the building. And outside. We need to sit back and tease apart what these are, not construct simple narratives to reify them.
    I like your bullet points: in them, I see a nod to one of the big pieces Shirky ignores about the system as it is, which is its structural (if clunky and poorly-enacted) to the concept of public. Even as universities become increasingly corporate and neoliberal, the historical inheritance of academia as a public institution expected to support and enable access and equality is visible in the many services and structures in place that don’t necessarily have to do with course delivery. When Shirky cites the Don’t Go Back to School piece, he ignores the fact that the majority of people who can get away without some kind of credential are white middle or upper-class males…the rest may well benefit from cheap education but will need it to operate beyond purely market principles in order to even begin to compete.

  2. Stealing and riffing on your idea from Twitter ?yesterday, I think I’d replace the “education is broken” slogan with “education is fixed”, with all its connotations:
    – education is a gamble rigged to favour a certain group
    – education is very set in its ways
    – education has been bodged together to patch up egregious failings
    – education has recently taken a dose of illegal drugs
    Erm … maybe the metaphor isn’t quite that good.

  3. I think the thing I see get lost in these conversations the most is that the major cost of education is not tuition, but time. Tuition is the way, in fact, that you protect that time investment in study.
    Tuition protects the investment in two ways. One: it provides support, classes, access to professors, libraries, etc. And secondly, it guarantees that that time ends up in a credential that gets them what they want out of the study.
    My point is that nobody really wants a free education — they want an education that balances protection of their time investment with cost. Our cost is, in fact, nearing the limit of what is feasible for a number of reasons you mention, but it bothers me that Shirky uses a metaphor that doesn’t account for sunk time cost to students.
    A better metaphor might be studio recording — I’ve written a song, practiced it, and now would like to present it best I can. So that has changed over the past several years — there’s now a lot of options to get software and produce your music yourself. But to the extent the music means something to me and I have disposable income, I am not going to choose the cheapest option — I’m going to balance these two things. I’ll either buy moderately expensive recording equipment, or get someone to do the master, etc. It’s not like an MP3 at all, or a book, or anything, because I have skin in the game…

  4. @Bonnie – can you please not post comments that are obviously more intelligent than the original post as it just shows me up 😉 This isn’t quite the point you were making, but I was going to say in the post (before it got too long) that education is a mirror of society, and certainly since 2008 society has been quite a bit broken. Times are hard, so it would be surprising if this wasn’t reflected in students struggling and disaffection with schools. The ‘No-school’ movement annoys me partly for the reason you identify – it’s easy to find some white, middle class male who went on to be a success. Do they also find the poor, disadvantaged kids who dropped out, for whom it wasn’t such a great success? And for every one of their stories you could counter with 1000 of people who’s life has turned out well because they studied hard and did well at normal school. So I don’t get what their point is?
    @Doug – yes Scott pointed out the same. In some ways it is a fix in that it’s rigged from the start, in the Lance Armstrong manner (rich kids do better). But like sport it’s also open and you don’t have to be a Tour de France winner to get a lot from it. Oh, I have no idea where I’m going with this metaphor, abort, abort!

  5. Mike – you make a very good point. Someone once suggested to me that the most valuable thing campus ed offers is organisation – the physical buildings and timetable do this for you. It’s probably a hard sell – give us money and we’ll organise your time, but you are quite right. Shirky misses a lot in his metaphor

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