Clay Shirky: Can MOOCs save college?

Another terrific essay from Clay on pushback by the academy. Excerpts:

(…) Bustillos’ answers seem to be that in the world of higher education, things are going fine, mostly, and that the parts that aren’t going fine can largely be fixed with tax dollars. (Because if there’s one group you’d pin your hopes for an American renaissance on, it would be state legislators.) I have a different answer: School is broken and everyone knows it.

(…) If you want to know what college is actually like in this country, forget Swarthmore, with 1500 students. Think Houston Community College, with 63,000. Think rolling admissions. Think commuter school. Think older. Think poorer. Think child-rearing, part-time, night class. Think 50% dropout rates. Think two-year degree. (Except don’t call it that, because most graduates take longer than two years to complete it. If they complete it.)

(…) In the academy, we’re fine with anything that lowers the cost of education. We love those kinds of changes. But when someone threatens to lower the price, well, then we start behaving like Teamsters in tweed.

* * *

I’ve been thinking about the effects of the internet for a couple of decades now. I’ve watched industry after industry forced to renegotiate their methods and models, in the face of a medium that allows for perfect copying, global distribution, zero incremental cost, ridiculously easy group-forming: The music business. Newspapers. Travel agents. Publishers. Hotel owners. And while watching, I’ve always wondered what I’d do when my turn came.

And now here it is. And it turns out my job is to tell you not to trust us when we claim that there’s something sacred and irreplaceable about what we academics do. What we do is run institutions whose only rationale—whose only excuse for existing—is to make people smarter.

Sometimes we try to make ourselves smarter. We call that research. Sometimes we try to make our peers smarter. We call that publishing. Sometimes we try to make our students smarter. We call that teaching. And that’s it. That’s all there is. These are important jobs for sure, and they are hard jobs at times, but they’re not magic. And neither are we.

(…) For all our good will, college in the U.S. has gotten worse for nearly everyone who relies on us. For some students—millions of them—the institutions in which they enroll are more reliable producers of debt than education. This has happened on our watch.

The competition from upstart organizations will make things worse for many of us. (I like the experiments we’ve got going at NYU, but I don’t fantasize that we’ll be unscathed.) After two decades of watching, though, I also know that that’s how these changes go. No industry has ever organized an orderly sharing of power with newcomers, no matter how interesting or valuable their ideas are, unless under mortal threat.

Instead, like every threatened profession, I see my peers arguing that we, uniquely, deserve a permanent bulwark against insurgents, that we must be left in charge of our destiny, or society will suffer the consequences. Even the record store clerks tried that argument, back in the day. In the academy, we have a lot of good ideas and a lot of practice at making people smarter, but it’s not obvious that we have the best ideas, and it is obvious that we don’t have all the ideas. For us to behave as if we have—or should have—a monopoly on educating adults is just ridiculous.