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.