MOOC’ing towards Bethlehem: California Embraces Online Ed

“UC Online Courses Seen as Inevitable,” blurts the title of an article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.  Flanked by Governor Jerry Brown and “three rising stars in the world of classroom-free courses” (more about that quartet later), UC President Mark Yudof predicted at yesterday’s Regents meeting that future UC students will take 10 to 15 percent of their courses online.  Calling the shift to online education “inevitable,” Yudof declared: “It’s no secret that UC has hit a wall with regard to traditional education.  The finances no longer exist to support the old model of instruction.  It’s not the time to be timid.”

And so it shall be remembered generations hence: Wednesday, January 16, 2013, will forever mark the passage from O.M. I. (old model of instruction) to N.M.I. (new model of instruction)!

Gov. Brown, CSU Chancellor White, SJSU Pres. Qayoumi, and ubiquitous Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun

This week, California has been trying really hard to launch the age of the N.M.I.  On Tuesday, Brown presided over a press conference to announce a deal between San Jose State University and Udacity, a for-profit MOOC mill.  (Also present at the announcement were Tim White, CSU’s new chancellor, and Sebastian Thrun, Udacity’s co-founder).  The week before, Governor Brown’s proposed 2013 budget included $125 million dollar increases each for the UC and CSU systems, along with an extra $10 million for each system to develop online courses.  And, around the same time, the UCLA campus hosted a conference, titled “Rebooting California Higher Education,” that featured among others: Daphne Koller, one of the founders Coursera (another for-profit MOOC mill), Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, and (yet again) Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun.

Obviously, it’s MOOC madness month in California.  But, I’ll save the discussion of MOOC’s themselves for a later date.

Paul Klee, “Angelus Novus”

For now, I want to take a closer look at UC President Yudof’s declaration of inevitability.   The cluster of recent Brown-inspired and -sponsored higher ed events certainly feels like a SuperStorm T.I.N.A. (“There Is No Alternative” – – Maggie Thatcher’s famous rhetorical pandybat).  Indeed, a TechCrunch piece on the San Jose State-Udacity deal was modestly titled: “How California’s Online Education Pilot Will End College as We Know It.”  Faculty here in California – – and perhaps elsewhere – – are right to feel uneasy about this fatal attraction among State, Silicon Valley capital, and university administration.

For reassurance sake, let me introduce a couple of possibly helpful principles.

First, the inverse law of institutional dis/order.  In other words, the further you are from the experiential reality of institutions, the more order you perceive within institutions. The greater the distance, usually measured vertically, the more legible (and hence manipulable) institutions appear.  (I’m cribbing this principle, more or less, from anthropologist James Scott’s magisterial, Seeing Like a State.)

Let me illustrate this law by counter-example.  Living deep within institutions, nothing ever seems inevitable.  Sure, technology surrounds us.  New tools for collecting, ordering, and analyzing texts offer powerful new insights.  Social media can powerfully reshape teaching and learning.  But, have you ever tried to get a digital humanities course into a department’s major curriculum?  Technology may (or may not) be) inevitable but getting things done within institutions requires lots of labor, negotiation, tacit understanding, personal relations, timing, schmoozing, local knowledge, and patience.

Change can only appear inevitable to those who dwell far away from this complicated, dynamic, messy reality.  In fact, a recognition of this reality encourages a corollary to the inverse law of institutional dis/order: rather than elucidating the fate of institutions, declarations of inevitability more usually publicize a  disconnect from the inner life of those very institutions.

Second possibly helpful principle, the ironic law of technological revolution. (At the risk of immodesty, I’m cribbing this principle from my own blog!)  The gist of this principle is pretty simple: always suspect the opposite of rulers bearing revolution.  Our cultural myths surrounding technology associate it with change, disruption, and novelty.  Technology “disrupts” and, typically, disrupts utterly.  As cultural historians like David Nye and Vincent Mosco have suggested, our infatuation with the millenial powers of technology reconnects us, perhaps, with a deep, rich mythos of American exceptionalism, opportunity, and freedom.

In any case, technology’s cataclysmic powers, it’s ability for instance to separate the epoch of O.M.I. from N.M.I., are indeed mythic.  Technology may transmogrify business to the “speed of thought,” but it’s still business.  Technology disrupts in order to sustain continuity, especially the continuity of profit, power, and status.  In fact, as Harry Braverman argued long before the dawning of the era of N.M.I., capital depends on technology and technological innovation to sustain itself.  This ironic law, whereby institutions or systems are saved through destruction, prompts us to formulate a corollary hypothesis: those who most loudly trumpet the inevitability of change through technology are often those most committed to the status quo, when that status quo is defined in terms of power and hierarchy.

Thus, a further, more daring hypothesis: technological “revolutions” most often preserve power by increasing powerlessness.  (In relation to MOOC’s, this hypothesis has been explored from various angles, and more and less explicitly, by folks like Ian Bogost, Keith Hampson, and Cathy Davidson.)

A simple question offers a more concise way of illustrating this second principle: online education may herald a New Model of Instruction, but how come it hardly ever heralds a New Model of Administration, or a New Model of Governance?

Finally, the really important thing is this: inevitability is never a fact, it is always an argument.   The goals of this argument can be various, but they almost always cluster around issues of power.

And, the most important fact about online education and educational technology is simply this: thousands and tens of thousands of faculty are already, and have been for more than two decades, experimenting, testing, remaking, and variously tinkering with technology to reshape teaching and learning.  Faculty have been anything but timid in these efforts.  And, inevitably or not, this hot mess of creativity and innovation is where the future of education lies.



1 comment
  1. This is absolutely lovely.
    There is so much here that merits attention, but I’ll limit my response to two elements of the post:
    You write: “Change can only appear inevitable to those who dwell far away from this complicated, dynamic, messy reality.”
    Spot on. Indeed, I’ve noticed that the more fantastic statements about technology in education – in terms of what it currently offers students and what it will offer “in the future” – come most often from people that have very little to do with the day to day realities of using technology in higher education. University Presidents, leaders in government and business, fall into this category.
    If you ask those people whose job it is to actually implement technology in education about the current and likely future state of educational technology, they will often provide a more muted, even cynical reading, despite being the people that are the most invested in the potential of technology in education. Instructional designers working in traditional universities regularly fall into this category.
    I was pleased to see you draw attention to the issues of power and, broadly, organizational issues. Over the last 4-5 years I’ve presented papers at conferences on the organizational side of online learning. Broadly speaking, I was trying to make the case that the obstacles to greater value from technology in higher education lie with the organization model – such as the deeply embedded notions of what constitutes the faculty member’s job, what motivates university management to move toward (or away) from greater use of technology, and so on. These issues “determine” the extent to which we can make better use of technology. Pedagogy and technology are by products, to a considerable extent, of the organization, its logic and practices. We need to rethink the organizational piece of the puzzle as we explore new instructional models, not after the fact.

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