This is why I get so apoplectic when people talk about MOOCs as disruptive technology. There is not a single thing this “New University of California” does that could not have been done technologically in 1898. Has online education suddenly improved to the point where people can gain never-before-seen levels of competency without attending classes? Hardly. Most MOOCs I’ve looked at are poorly designed even by late 90s standards, and besides, education’s killer technology — the book — has made independent learning possible for at least 500 years.Here's a story about a teacher. His name is Jerry. Some people don't like the way that Jerry teaches, but they don't want to say so. There's a lot of reasons why they don't want to criticize Jerry. The kids like him, and so do the parents. He's a devoted teacher. He's very not-awful, and there are lots of people that teach like him. And Jerry isn't so into change. He's seen the trends come and go. He's not so into learning the new edu-jargon that is research-based with pie charts and things.
The real question to ask is why policy proposals like this — formerly the domain of fringe elements — are increasingly seen as innovation. What has changed? The answers to that are complex, and have little to do with technology. But understanding the reasons behind *that* is what is crucial to understanding where we are headed and why we are headed there. I think that “authorized to contract with qualified entities” clause is a piece of it. But the story goes much, much deeper than that….
And then some new technology comes out. Jerry's principal gets excited. The people from Teen Einstein (c) have all these awesome ideas about how you can get kids more involved, and they're talking about students taking control and being engaged and personalized whatever, and Jerry's principal is saying Yeah, that's how I'd like Jerry to teach.
And what's Jerry going to say? "No, I don't want to learn how to use that tech." Nah, Jerry's just got to admit that there's something to learn here, that the technology is new to him and so there's something worth looking at. So Jerry's principal is a big fan of technology. He's predisposed to calling it "revolutionary" or "a real game-changer."
Technology solves another problem for Jerry's principal -- how do you tell people that you're improving without admitting that you've got room to improve? You can't just walk behind a podium and tell everyone that you're ending things like hour-long lectures. That's not just change, that's an indictment of your teachers, your district, and everyone else's school experiences.
But technology is (by definition!) new and unanticipated. It's a chance to change without any of the responsibility of inviting change.
There are Jerry's in other areas of education, people or institutions that folks are too polite to tear to shreds, and I think that's what's going on with the MOOCs.
Of course (some) people can learn (some) things on their own. Of course, by the time you get to college in a lot of places there isn't a lot of difference between the classroom and learning on your own. But this is not an attractive argument to make because taking this up means indicting the college experiences of everyone, along with the quality of America's college teachers, along with the institutions themselves.
That's not very nice.
But there's this radically new technology that could really change the game. With the internet there has been a revolution in information distribution, and it's changing the way people learn. Something something youtube. Something something social. Something something personalization.
So, don't worry -- nobody's getting hurt. This change isn't about pedagogy, it's not about "You don't teach well" or "What does it mean to learn something anyway?" It's about technology.
Until we figure out a way to convince pretty much everyone that there's good teaching and there's bad teaching and that you can tell the difference between them just by watching carefully, we're going to need -- as a society -- technology to give us a chance to say what we're really thinking.