Joseph Schumpeter: Imperialism
More Noted for July 25, 2013

No, Jonathan Chait, Most College Teachers Hate Not Their Students But Their Administrators

The intelligent Jonathan Chait writes a "let's Obama and professors fight!" column:

Professors Are About to Get Really Mad at Obama: Probably the most important policy idea in President Obama’s economic speech yesterday was his commitment to control the rising cost of college tuition…. Obama’s college agenda started off as a classic Democratic agenda of increasing access by making student loans more generous. But he’s come to think of college tuition costs as… [a] problem….

Families and taxpayers can't just keep paying more and more and more into an undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up. We'll never have enough loan money, we'll never have enough grant money…. We've got to get more out of what we pay for. Now, some colleges are testing new approaches…. And some states are testing new ways to fund college based not just on how many students enroll but how many of them graduate, how well do they do…

Obama pledged to unveil most of the details in a subsequent speech. Some elements will probably involve executive action, including encouraging colleges to take steps on their own…. This agenda is also likely to create even deeper fissures within the Democratic agenda than [health care] cost control did….

In my view, Chait misses the mark almost completely as the somewhat strange Jonathan Rees does.

In my experience, higher education teachers are divided into six groups:

  1. People who are trying to get rich by selling for-profit current MOOCs--which do, as Rob Reich notes, seem to be substantially fraudulent.

  2. People who are convinced that because MOOCs right now are substantially fraudulent they will never amount to anything, and need to be fought.

  3. People who are comfortable with what they are doing now, and don't want anything to change.

  4. People--largely but not exclusively tenured professors--who regard themselves as stakeholders in their institutions, believe that they will do well if their institutions do well, and want to experiment with new educational technologies so that they can teach more students more effectively at lower costs.

  5. People--largely but not exclusively graduate students and adjuncts--who fear that MOOCs and other innovations will do to them what the power loom did to the handloom weavers, and that they are the suckers in a Ponzi game that is going to be wound up unless they break every power loom in America stop the MOOCs.

  6. People--at all levels--in disciplines like economics, biology, and engineering where student demand outstrips teacher supply who are desperate to figure out how to trench more students effectively because they really believe that they have something important and valuable to teach.

Groups (1), (3), and (5) regard the students as their enemies--or at best as their cash cows. Groups (2), (4), and (6) do not. And as I understand the lay of the land, it is groups (2), (4), and (6) that are going to drive higher education policy. The question is whether group (2) will convince groups (4) and (6) that MOOCs and their ilk as implemented by their administrators are a disaster and must be fought, or whether groups (4) and (6) will convince group (2) that with proper adult supervision administrators can be trusted to do the boring and mind-numbing committee work needed to make this thing success.

I'm betting on groups (4) and (6) myself.

But what this is not is "Obama vs. Professors"…

Chait goes on:

Jonathan Rees’s polemic in Slate against MOOCs today is an important preview of the coming fight within the Democratic base…. If you can do [MOOCs]… prestigious universities can start providing degrees for their online courses, and you would have a powerful, extremely affordable new path for cash-strapped kids to obtain the benefits of a college degree.

Rees argues that this is a terrible idea that can’t possibly work…. Why do we know it’s a terrible idea? Here is his entire explanation:

How do you teach tens of thousands of people anything at once? You don't. What you can do over the Internet this way is deliver information, but that's not education. Education, as any real teacher will tell you, involves more than just transmitting facts. It means teaching students what to do with those facts, as well as the skills they need to go out and learn new information themselves….

After this brief assertion that online college can never work, Rees proceeds to the guts of his argument: it’s bad for college professors…. That is sad. College professors are good people, and nobody wants to hurt them. At the same time, designing a higher education system around maintaining living standards for college professors is an insane idea….

Rees urges his fellow academics:

It's time for us non-superprofessors to forcefully explain to our newly famous colleagues how their MOOCs are already adversely affecting the terms and conditions of our employment.

Forcefully! Perhaps some of the students who can’t afford to get a college degree should forcefully explain their plight to him.