The Ivory Tower & the wrong focus

I am at the Hewlett Grantees meeting in Sausalito this week, and last night they showed the film The Ivory Tower, in order to provoke discussion around what relevance OER had to the issues raised in the film. I’d seen it before, on a plane, and it had vaguely irritated me, but it was interesting to see it again last night, when it really irritated me.

I think a documentary film about how we fund higher education is an interesting thing to do, but this one jumps around all over the place. It suggests that the fault of high education costs lies with the university. It is not a film about how society funds higher education. For instance it only looks at the US. If you were interested in the topic of higher ed funding you would look at other countries with different models. As I’ve said before, if you make higher education a market, you shouldn’t then criticise universities for behaving in a perfectly logical way to succeed in that market. The film makes a big play on universities having climbing walls and fancy buildings, but if these attract students and money in a competitive market, then that they are inevitable. It doesn’t take the next step and make the discussion about funding in general, but rather says we should look at what universities are doing and whether education is now a good investment.

It also offers some of the alternatives that were popular a few years back, including UnCollege and, of course, MOOCs. The whole MOOC section just seems deeply embarrassing now. There is a definite ‘these will sweep away unis’ feeling, and they give the pre-pivot Thrun full rein. No-one making a documentary in 2015 would present MOOCs in such a light (which is not to fall into Good vs Evil Unicorn territory, not to say you couldn’t have an interesting doc about them). And this I think is the problem – for OERs they need to avoid getting caught up in any of the rhetoric that will date quickly. Instead, as David Wiley likes to propose, focus on particular problems and solve those. OERs don’t need to mean the end of university, but they might help with the high cost of textbooks. OERs don’t need to create an UnCollege program, but they can help students pick the right course by studying before they choose, and then help them complete by supplementing study when they’re in university. And so on. These benefits aren’t as glamorous and may not get you a documentary made, but they are actually useful.


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