This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Notes on The Digital Scholar

In Chapter 3 of Weller’s book he takes a hard look at 2 industries whose business models are being radically challenged by the widespread adoption of digital content and social sharing: the newspaper and music industry (the later I would argue could be redefined as “entertainment industry” since Netflix, Redbox, etc are all challenging the MPAA’s business model as well). We are asked to evaluate whether we can see any parallels between how these industries struggle to adapt in this brave new world and higher education. I don’t disagree with many of the stated truths, particularly “Change, when it comes, can happen very quickly” and the argument to not confuse form over function.

It’s interesting though, that Weller cites Clay Shirky’s 2009 piece Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable and just recently Shirky has entered the higher education debate as well, praising MOOCs as the brave new world both on his blog and more recently in a follow-up piece for The Awl. I’ll not pretend to be even a minor fan of Shirky. Although I think he’s a great writer and orator, I believe he’s quick to strike the death knell for whole industries based largely on his presumptions and, in the case with his recent posts, hasn’t even done the basic research to understand the history the precludes the very champion he believes will take down education. I think Aaron Bady has the best argument for why MOOCs are not the answer to the supposed “crisis” that higher education finds itself in:

There is a pulsing drumbeat of desire for a world in which self-directed learners direct their own learning, in which young people volunteer to learn whatever it is that they are supposed to learn, and in which the pedagogical labor of directing, encouraging, structuring, and disciplining the learning process is totally unnecessary, and need not be paid for. It is a fantasy. If you eliminate teachers and the broader structures of pedagogical authority that they make up, you have gotten rid of “education.” You can say that this is a good thing, if you like. Malcolm might think it is. But you cannot pretend you are saving a thing by replacing it with something that is utterly different. Sometimes destruction is creative. Sometimes it is simply destructive.

I think we’re putting the cart before the horse completely by frantically reaching out for solutions to ill-defined problems to begin with. To cite a recent post from Weller’s blog:

So, I think we need to decide what is broken with more clarity before offering solutions. We need to know what is broken to fix it effectively. I don’t want you amputing my leg and fitting me with a prosthetic, no matter how marvellous it is, if my problem is migraines.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding the impending doom of higher education and how the white horse of the internet and, by extension, MOOCs will save it largely ignores what colleges and universities get right and how the internet doesn’t replace those existing things. The residential experience and social elements of human guidance are just two examples that come to mind. You don’t get to ignore the good in favor of bolstering your argument for why something is bad.

No doubt there is pressure and change is happening quickly (as we all saw when Coursera announced last week that college credit would be offered for 5 of their courses), but what will really be devastating is if we all so quickly embrace something to replace education with a bill of goods that so clearly is not that. We will have lost something far more valuable than Shirky or Khan or Thrun could ever realize.