Pandas, Professors, and Promises, or, The MOOC Will Not Set Us Free

By Robert ZaretskyJune 14, 2013

Pandas, Professors, and Promises, or, The MOOC Will Not Set Us Free

College (Un)Bound by Jeffrey J. Selingo

EARLIER THIS YEAR, my daughter Louisa opened a lemonade stand and made a killing. Not only was she irresistible, but so too was her sales pitch: all profits, she advertised, would go to the World Wildlife Fund. The WWF's symbol is, of course, the giant panda, and it occurred to me: pandas and professors are very similar species.

While pandas are not Louisa's favorite animal — she prefers predators — she agreed that they are cute. They are also, as she reminded me, endangered, in part because they are so odd. They are solitary, slow, and subsist on a diet of bamboo. From a nutritional perspective, this is lunacy: pandas must eat massive amounts simply to trudge from one bamboo patch to the next.

What does this have to do with "homo academicus"? We are not, my daughter reminded me, cute and cuddly. But our professional lives are mostly slow and solitary, and to survive we must consume massive amounts of the textual equivalent of bamboo: monographs and scholarly articles. While this is a diet no human being is advised to adopt, it does allow us to produce yet more monographs — just as the panda’s act of evacuation spreads bamboo seeds and maintains his habitat.

Moreover, it turns out both of our habitats are endangered. Humanities departments at state universities resemble swathes of Sichuan Province in China: preserves whose inhabitants, thanks to their bizarre diets and natures, are particularly vulnerable to man-made changes in their environment. While vast sums of money have been spent on protecting the panda’s habitat, some zoologists now argue that the panda’s habitat has simply become unsustainable, and that it is more practical to spend the money on other animals and regions.

And so with professors in the groves of academe. The debate over the relevance of the liberal arts and justifications for tenure is now reaching fever pitch with the arrival of MOOCs — an event many colleagues see the way that dodos perhaps saw Dutch sailors.

The panda often crossed my mind while I read Jeffrey Selingo’s College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means For Students. I admit this was largely for selfish reasons: as a father, I worry what the future holds in store for my children. But as a history professor, I also worry over the prospects for my guild. Having seen the future as sketched by Selingo, I’m here to report that it seems to work, except when it doesn’t.

College (Un)bound is, of course, a play on the stock phrase “college bound” — a turn of phrase underscoring Selingo’s argument that new technologies are transforming university life and learning. Of course, for anyone who has spent time on a college campus, this is less an argument than a description. But Selingo doesn’t rest there: MOOCs, hybrid courses and interactive teaching software are, he reports, unbundling universities, dismantling brick by brick the campus as the place one once lived to learn. How could this be otherwise when students have now learned to live their lives online? As a result, when these millennials start “showing up on college campuses in the next ten years [they] will want to absorb and apply knowledge on their terms…deciding when, where, and how they learn.”

Of course, the Vikings made the same argument as they pillaged and raped their way across Europe. Don’t understand Norse? No matter!  The longships and longswords practically shouted: “We’re the deciders here!” But a funny thing happened to this earlier generation of millennials: it was European civilization, in particular Christianity, which ultimately did the deciding. (Just ask Sigurd I of Norway.)

Fast forward one millennium, and the professor is now cast in the role of the pillaged villager. Even though the longships launched from Palo Alto are bearing down on our idyllic and ivy-clad shores, we cling to “outdated methods,” remain “suspicious of anything new” and “romanticize” the way we probably never were. “Some of the biggest skeptics of online learning,” Selingo reveals, “are unfortunately those who have never taught a course online.” No footnote — an older technological innovation these same skeptics would insist on from their students — follows this particular assertion, but I imagine that Selingo is right: no doubt some skeptics have not tried online teaching. What goes unsaid, unfortunately, is that some other skeptics — like myself — have tried it and found it wanting. Yet our experiences are passed over in silence.

There is a reason for this: Selingo’s account carries a whiff of a technological fatalism. Not only is the future here, not only is it brought to us by Google and Udacity, but we also have no choice but to accept its benign and beneficent rule. Either we sign on or sign out. But this strikes me as a mistaken as well as a miserable assumption. Mistaken, in part, because technological innovations rarely play out the way their early advocates predicted. Take superconductivity — which my own university did hook, line and sinker in the 1980s when they hired the superconductivity wunderkind Paul Chu and built him a palatial laboratory. No need to tell you we are still waiting for the 300 mile per hour trains and free electricity that Time Magazine promised in 1987, when its cover announced “Wiring the Future: The Superconductivity Revolution.” This is not to say that superconductivity has failed us: it hasn’t. Rather, we failed it by failing to predict how quickly (or slowly) it would be mastered and exploited — it turns out you need more than an art studio kiln to bake a ceramic wire — as well as how it would change, or would not change, our lives.

At moments, Selingo seems aware of this, acknowledging that earlier “sweeping statements about coming change” in higher education came to nothing.” Yet his central chapter, à la Time, blares “The Online Revolution” is here. Perhaps this time it is for real, but that does not mean it will unfold the way Selingo anticipates, or that it will be a good and great thing. While he devotes several pages to former Google engineer and Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun — his laudatory blurb (is there any other sort?) runs across the book’s front cover — the skeptics are nowhere to be found in Selingo’s front-line dispatches. He ignores Evgney Morozov, for instance, whose critique of what he calls “technological solutionism,” based on the dogma that data collection and algorithms can tell us what we like and who we are, goes to the heart of the issue?

And he fails to mention Nicholas Carr, whose recent book The Shallows makes a grimly persuasive case that virtual networks are reshaping our neural networks. We are losing our ability to read deeply and slowly, Carr believes. It is hardly reassuring, in this respect, that MOOCs, unlike a traditional lecture, are arranged in segments that rarely exceed 10 minutes — more or less the attention span of a generation afflicted with an array of iDisorders. Rather than pushing back and challenging the student — the essence of a true education — we are asked to accept their lack of depth and attention. Young readers risk becoming as rare as pandas, but Selingo is unfazed. Reading, it seems, is less crucial than technology in the fight to save higher education.

Why is this? Because Selingo seems to believe that teaching and information delivery are the same thing. In the “The Online Revolution,” he introduces us to Jennifer Black, a student at the University of Central Florida. Taking a quarter of her classes online, Jennifer’s experience, we are told, “is increasingly becoming the norm.” But whose norm? Jennifer’s major is hospitality — i.e., hotel and restaurant management. While Selingo does not specify which courses Jennifer takes online, my guess is that they are along the lines of “Introduction to Hospitality Technology” and “Safety, Sanitation and Security in Food Preparation,” not “Introduction to Existentialism” or “Safety and Security in the Novels of Jane Austen.” In fact, apart from an occasional and dutiful nod in its direction, Selingo does not discuss the future of the liberal arts and humanities. Instead, his roster of students and teachers hail almost entirely from the professional and vocational schools. In Selingo’s future, some norms are more normal than others.

What is not entirely normal, however, is Selingo’s assessment of online learning. In his discussion of MOOCs, he portrays Thrun as an idealistic visionary whose sole ambition is to provide “an elite education for free.” Thrun is “less motivated by money and more passionate about spreading knowledge around the world.” That may well be the case, but it is no less the case that Udacity is a for-profit start-up awash in venture capital. (Late last year, the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz ploughed $15 million dollars into Thrun’s company.) Idealism perhaps comes more easily to those who can afford it.

It is also the case of the 160,000 students who enrolled in Thrun’s MOOC on artificial intelligence in 2011, less than 23,000 completed the course. This completion rate is actually higher than most MOOCs, like UC Berkeley’s David Patterson’s course on software engineering. His MOOC enrolled 50,000 students in 2102, and graduated 4,000 — a completion rate of seven percent. In an interview, Patterson pointed to another issue hardwired into MOOCs: they create, he observed, a “cheating-rich environment.” Selingo ignores this matter, as he does another consequence of “personalized” learning: social isolation and anomie.

Also questionable is Selingo’s claim that “every new study of online learning arrives at essentially the same conclusion: Students who take all or part of their classes online perform better than those who take the same course through traditional instruction.” In a move that my own undergraduate students in history would never use, Selingo supports this sweeping claim with a single reference: a New York Times article. Yet my own research suggests that Selingo’s claim is at best dubious: most studies find that online learning is as effective, not more effective, as traditional classroom learning. (And as far as I could tell, the courses involved in these studies were either in the sciences or professions.)

These same studies conclude that, everything else being more or less equal, online courses are preferable because they are more cost effective. Here we arrive at the heart of the matter. Selingo is quite right to lambaste the current system of student loans, which has impoverished students and enriched banks and universities. But it is not at all clear that online courses are a solution to staggering student debt and insanely high tuition costs. In a recent essay, The New Inquiry writer Aaron Bady suggests that MOOCs are the disease for which they pretend to be the cure. The needs of higher education are not fueling the value of MOOCs, he argues; instead, it is media hype and the marketplace. While columnists like Tom Friedman and David Brooks (or, for that matter, Jeffrey Selingo) trumpet the coming revolution, investors in Silicon Valley are falling over themselves to profit from it. The fact that Udacity, despite the fawning portraits of Thrun and Co., is ultimately responsible to its investors, and not an ideal, is decisive.

The MOOC will not set us free. As for-profits like Udacity and Coursera bulldoze their way into university curricula — though the recent act of faculty resistance at San Jose State is encouraging — students will sooner or later be asked to pay for them as they do for their current courses with live professors. And these courses will be taught by a happy few whose performances, like William Shatner’s as Captain Kirk, will recycle into the future. Will the MOOCs, going boldly where no man (or woman) has gone before, lead us to a new and better world? Or are we the victims of a rerun, or worse: a script that will lead us back to the same world, only narrower and even more elitist, where a few powerful universities, working hand in hand with Silicon Valley, will call the shots?

As more than one blurb, from more than one college president, on the back cover declares, Selingo’s book is “provocative.” Yes, it is: but because of the issues it ignores rather than addresses. Percy Bysshe Shelley did address these issues in a different kind of unbound story, as did his young wife Mary Shelley in her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, but it seems this revolution will leave behind the poets. 


Robert Zaretsky'A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning will be published by Harvard in November 2013.

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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