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Juicy MOOC meat

March 14, 2013

There’s nothing wrong with fighting a losing battle. But try not to fight the wrong losing battle.

Yesterday California’s State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg introduced legislation that would require California public universities to award credit for online courses taught by outside institutions, including MOOCs (massive open online courses) taught by private companies like Coursera or Udacity. The goal is to reduce overcrowding and help the almost half million students at community colleges who are on waiting lists for the basic courses they need to graduate.

The draft legislation includes various measures to try to ensure educational quality, and that’s been the focus of discussion in The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Unfortunately, the ongoing debate over the quality of MOOCs is a massive distraction from more fundamental obstacles to improving public higher education.

As Michael Meranze points out,

someone might be given pause by the fact that the Steinberg bill is an example of providing private capital with state funds rather than investing it in public education; that the usual venture capitalists are out in force insisting that this is all about access without mentioning their financial interests in this proposal, and that ACE [American Council on Education] is helping to streamline access for private corporations to capture markets with public authority.

Debating MOOCs also offers a comfortable way to avoid talking about spending priorities. Here are two often mentioned possibilities for improving public education with existing state revenue:

At the university level, shift funding from administration to instruction. According to the statistical abstracts for faculty and staff on the CSU website, between 1980 and 2010 the total number of faculty (full-time and part-time) went from 18,129 to 21,384. The number designated as “Executive, Administrative, Managerial, and Other Professional” went from 5,301 to 12,018. Put differently, between 1980 and 2010 the number of faculty increased by 17 percent, while the number of administrators increased by 127 percent.

At the state level, move funding from prisons to education. According to one recent analysis, “After adjusting for inflation, higher education in 2011 received 13% less State funding than it did in 1980. Corrections, on the other hand, expanded its share of the State’s General Fund by 436%.”

These are just two examples of the kind of things we’re not talking about when we’re talking about MOOCs.

All this reminds me of a line from the 1964 book Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan:

Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.

McLuhan argued that people tend to focus their attention on the explicit content of a medium, such as the story told by a play or a film. But media always create effects that go beyond their explicit content. A film and a book might tell the same basic story, but they obviously create very different experiences.

Debates about MOOCs focus on the educational content of the technology, forgetting to ask whether even the best possible online courses would actually address the basic challenges facing public universities today.

I’m also reminded of that mantra of modern parenting: “pick your battles.” In politics that’s not always possible, but it’s worth remembering the battles we’re not fighting.

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