Why the plutocracy loves the new online model

I reference first the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the bill being proposed in the California legislature to create a “faculty-free” New University of California online (read it and scream).

And yet, this should surprise no one. We are living in a plutocracy. MOOCs are becoming popular as potential money savers for universities and money makers for “education” companies. One might think these two phenomena are unrelated. They’re not.

It is in the interest of a plutocracy to keep people uneducated, since an educated populace is dangerous. By marketing education as a commodity, the plutocracy encourages the view of education as a product that can be purchased, and is sold by professional “manufacturers” – companies like Coursera – and whose services can be outsourced.

The body of knowledge (actually the body of information) that is freely available can now be packaged and sold, farmed when necessary but also created in a lab. People will prefer processed education because it is convenient and inexpensive, just as they prefer processed food and shopping at Walmart despite the hidden human costs.

In such a system, faculty are perceived as aristocratic remnants of a past where their services were needed due to the scarcity of information (actually a scarcity of knowledge). Now that such information is “free” (floating in Wikipedia, scanned books, blogs etc.), professors can be replaced with “knowledge workers” and “content experts” employed by companies and universities that manufacture courses and degrees.

This is acceptable because of the general belief that much of what one learns in college is not used later by the individual. Most members of the legislature, Congress, and corporations went to college and know they use very little of the information they were forced to learn there. That focus is on content (information) rather than analytical skills (a foundation of knowledge). Thus those without such skills conclude that content can be packaged by educational entrepreneurs and will be welcomed into the marketplace.

And they’ll be right since those buying (and promoting) the product lack the analytical skills necessary to understand that college is not about information and its retention. The “customers” of such a product want to “learn” the information, be tested on it, and get a degree that lets them move on and make money and buy a car and support a family and save money by shopping at Walmart.

This must be OK, because capitalism provides for the best products and services to rise to the top at the best prices. What harm could there be? The market will provide us with the best and least expensive education.

Here’s an example of what happens in my discipline. History education is primarily based on narrative – American history is the “story” of our country. The story line is adapted to promote certain values by emphasizing particular events, documents, and ideas. Keith Ereksen’s Beyond History Wars in the current OAH journal, looks at the story lines of American history and notes:

For more than two centuries Americans have told stories of “consensus” that emphasize the ways that “one people” and “one nation” formed a triumphant and unique nation…. Thus, what is truly at stake in history wars are not facts but stories. Because neither facts nor historical documents “speak” for themselves, we must pay attention to the way that details are placed within larger story lines. These story lines—persuasive historical narratives and interpretations—tell people which facts are important to remember and which are not.

When learning is focused on content, we absorb the narrative.

This organizing power of stories explains why students can read a textbook filled with correct facts, watch a Hollywood movie riddled with errors, and then recall only the errors on subsequent tests…

In any history class, the narrative is provided by the textbook and/or the instructor. In a “processed” class, retention of facts via the narrative is assessed. With little or no opportunity for debating or discussing competing narratives, or different uses for the same historical information, students have no opportunity to gain knowledge rather than information.

Thus “education” becomes a product to be packaged and sold, rather than an achievement earned through that messy process of learning, with all its nuances, grey areas, and complexity. We distill it to something that requires no interpretation except the one you are given.

Anyone who understands democracy can see the danger in that.




3 thoughts to “Why the plutocracy loves the new online model”

  1. Congrats for an excellent post. These are real dangers that we should be aware of. Commercial/financial interests combined with the prestige (deserved or not) of the institutions/organizations leading this process might produce really bad, uninformed decisions with terrible consequences, as you very well point out.

  2. Este es un interesante trabajo, en una línea que podríamos llamar crítica radical, o social, a los MOOCs. Es una línea a tener en cuenta y plantea una serie de interesantes cuestiones a debatir, en un marco más amplio. Habla de “trabajadores del conocimiento”. Curiosamente es el mismo o parecido término, pero igual concepto, que el que utilizo en http://eprints.rclis.org/17414/1/sociedad_del_conocimiento_I.pdf en 2.4. Implicaciones sociales. pág. 14 y 15. “La Sociedad Postindustrial del Conocimiento. Un enfoque multidisciplinar desde la perspectiva de los nuevos métodos para organizar el aprendizaje.”

    This is an interesting reflection in a line that could be called radical critique, or social, to MOOCs. It is a line to be considered and raises a number of interesting issues for discussion in a broader framework. He speaks of “knowledge workers.” Curiously, it is the same or similar terms, but the same concept, that I use in http://eprints.rclis.org/17414/1/sociedad_del_conocimiento_I.pdf en 2.4. Implicaciones sociales. pág. 14 y 15. “La Sociedad Postindustrial del Conocimiento. Un enfoque multidisciplinar desde la perspectiva de los nuevos métodos para organizar el aprendizaje.”

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