Thank you, Cathy

From Cathy Davidson’s announcement of her new MOOC on the History and Future of Higher Education:

It makes me sad that, at a time of educational crisis, the ideas seem all to be coming from elite private schools (i.e. schools that do not need to change their base), from corporations (some of which have motives of public good but others of which do not and see a potentially profitable bottom line as a chief motivation for their investment in higher education now).  In terms of disciplines, the ideas are also coming out lopsided:  most are coming from the computational sciences, as if technology alone is the best way to solve a human problem.   To really reimagine higher education, we need brilliant ideas from the best teachers in the human and social sciences and the arts; we need modes of teaching that address real world problems but not with standardized, static modes of video-lecturing but with engaged, interactive peer-to-peer communities that enhance critical thinking and creative contribution.   We need that not just in higher education but, again, in the real world where that kind of in-depth thinking is desperately needed to address the possibilities and challenges of a future where technological change drives economic and social change at a blinding speed.

I’m teaching “The History and Future of Higher Education” online through Coursera next year because I hope to elicit thousands upon thousands of great ideas from people who, every day, are coming up with great ideas and have not had a chance, platform, or opportunity to articulate them to a larger public.

I dislike the use of the word crisis at the top there, a word that limits the narratives one can tell about education in unproductive ways. But much of the rest here is lovely. I know people who have been working in distance education units for ten or fifteen years, who are fountains of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t and have superb intuitions about the best routes for improvement. I know people that have been in open education for more than a decade (and some much longer than that) and can tell you where open education has really worked, where it has not worked as well, and why that might be.

And yet we’re all sitting here watching panels of people that discovered online learning and open education yesterday make the same stupid mistakes, tread laboriously over the same ground. Why?

I admire many of the people currently pushing this conversation for their commitment and their concern. I think they are sincere. But they often remind me of the redditors last week, crowdsourcing the Boston bombing investigation, so sure that they were going to prove how slow the “legacy” organizations like the FBI and Boston Police Department were, compared to the magic powers of united tech geeks.

It turns out that the FBI knows a thing or two about conducting investigations. In that case, it turns out some of that slowness is due to concerns that the redditors didn’t think through. And so it’s no surprise that the brilliance and commitment of the redditors did more damage than good, as they frustrated the police’s efforts to work methodically towards a solution. From the Washington Post:

In addition to being almost universally wrong, the theories developed via social media complicated the official investigation, according to law enforcement officials. Those officials said Saturday that the decision on Thursday to release photos of the two men in baseball caps was meant in part to limit the damage being done to people who were wrongly being targeted as suspects in the news media and on the Internet.

(By the way, that’s not where the damage ends — read that article when you get a chance, it’s a real trip.)

I may be being overdramatic, but this is what it often feels like to me. A bunch of amateurs, convinced of their native brilliance, working in ways that not only don’t seek insight from the people who have actually been trying to expand educational access for decades (read: public colleges, including community colleges, open and distance education units, academic tech outfits at under-resourced institutions, the original MOOCers, the IRRODL set of researchers, and heck, even one or two for-profits), but in ways that actively frustrate and undermine our ongoing efforts. (I suppose this is the institutionalist in me coming out again…trash my statism in the comments, I’m used to it…). And the problem is that the damage these education “redditors” can do is much much greater than what happened in Boston. We’re talking not just the safety of a city or the reputations of a few, but the future of education here. The stakes are pretty big. It’s probably time we had a talk.

So good for Cathy for bringing “legacy” voices into the discussion. Who knows, maybe this is a MOOC I could actually finish. It’s certainly one I plan to start.

5 thoughts on “Thank you, Cathy

  1. By the way, that list of people we need to include is not just people with online and open experience. It’s bizarre to me to see so many people discussing online discussion in MOOCs that have never read Brookfield’s Discussion as a Way of Teaching. His “Why discussions fail” list is pretty much a list of why MOOC discussions are failing:


    Click to access Discussion-as-a-Way-of-Teaching.pdf

    Additionally, why are we listening to Coursera founders about the future of education, but not Grant Wiggins, Dee Fink, or even older ed psych figures like Robert Bjork?

  2. Two points:

    1) Your mention of the crowdsourced attempts to identify the Boston marathon bombers is appropriate, since I’ve found the literature on crowdsourcing very useful as I help my faculty here think about designing their MOOCs. On that note, James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds has an excellent analysis of the Reddit efforts the other week.

    2) I’m glad Cathy Davidson is experimenting with teaching a MOOC, but let’s wait and see how well she brings “legacy” voices into the discussion. She has a way of appropriating other’s ideas that worries me sometimes. For instance, last year she blogged about her use of think-pair-share in a way that (in my opinion) didn’t fully acknowledge that this wasn’t her original creation.

    I’m also not crazy about how she’s argued that we shouldn’t just flip the classroom, we should make it do cartwheels. The flipped classroom idea is a powerful and important one for so many STEM faculty, and I think her use of the term devalues it. I would make a similar argument about her use of the term “alt ac.”

    Maybe I’m being a little picky, but I’ve found Davidson’s rhetoric problematic from a faculty development perspective in the past.

    • Derek – this is the place where we will agree most this morning. I’ve actually had VERY similar problems with Cathy’s rhetoric in the past. I remember reading a proposed description of what she was looking to do with a MOOC at one point a year or so ago, and thinking — um, that’s ds106. Which wouldn’t be problematic, except obviously she knows what ds106 is. So why not just throw out a quick link? A mention? I’m not sure what that’s about. I try to read it as charitably as possible, but it bothers me.

      I also agree that there is a humanities provincialism to her thinking that ignores the fact that disciplines can be very different in the instruction they require. (Additionally, the novice/expert learning issue is paved over, but that seems to be everyone these days).

      All this having been said, if she does bring in legacy voices, I applaud that. We’ll see if it happens. It’s a pretty bold and public pronouncement, so I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

  3. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who has had this kind of reaction to Davidson’s work. If Davidson were a “typical” professor, this wouldn’t bother me as much. But given her high-profile writing and speaking and her leadership of the HASTAC group, she is a de facto faculty developer. And faculty developers who fail to acknowledge their sources make it more difficult for teaching to be treated as scholarly work.

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