The Governor’s Thinking Has Become Very Uptight

Originally posted on Rethinking the University.

Mulling over Jerry Brown’s recent comments on the disruptive impact of digital technology on education, I’m reminded of the lead character in the Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski. Another spokesman for the California Dream, The Dude lumbers through a mystifying course of events that seem to be related, but are not. At one point he thinks he’s figured it all out and quips, “My thinking had become very uptight.”

Yes, Governor Brown’s thinking has become very uptight, myopic, and apparently funneled through the tiny screen of his iPhone. When he thinks about the digital revolution in education, he sees only online courses. When he reads an old out of print book on his iPhone, he sees Only Google Books and not the library that contributed the book. When he Googles “university education online” he just reads the hits, and doesn’t see the educational infrastructure that trained the computer scientists who wrote algorithms and designed his iPhone.

Fact is, the University of California is plenty familiar with the creative destruction of digital technology, even if UC Online, the darling of our administrators, is apparently a failure. Setting aside the huge impact of digital technology on research and scholarly communication (digitization of sources, data mining, online publishing, etc.), and looking only at undergraduate teaching, our practice is thoroughly hybrid. Our courses use digitized readings, online discussion forums, e-mail, and other interactive, distance education tools.

What more do Coursera and Udacity offer? Without diminishing the potential of these platforms, it seems their courses are mainly recorded lectures. Even the best lecture video is just a rehash of a technology that’s been around for a while. There are distinctions. Technical courses (computer science, for instance) seem to be well suited to the digital platform. History courses, on the other hand, are mostly lectures. As cool as it is to watch a pre-eminent scholar in my field, recorded lectures delivered online are not too different from audio books, which is to say, marketable but not revolutionary.

What the massive online open courses (MOOCs) have going for them is reach, and the illusion of cost-free communication. The governor, it seems, has caught MOOC Fever. The fever-dream of one course enrolling tens of thousands of students is hard to shake, even in the face of the huge drop-out rates that always dog these courses. It may be that you can have a single course with 10,000 students. But they cannot be students in a meaningful way without expensive educational infrastructure.

The truly disruptive potential of digital technology in education waits beyond the paradigm of the “course.” Courses are administrative units, rather than educational measures. Digital platforms, while they clearly can deliver courses, are most effective when communicating granular elements of education—sources, problems, and skill-based activities. For instance, what if we reimagined “prerequisites” and even some elements of “general education” as sets of skills rather than courses? Digital media could deliver and evaluate students’ mastery of these skill sets, leaving professors to work with students on writing, communication, and complex research problems.

A system like this could operate as a supplement to face-to-face courses. It would allow students to catch up quickly when they fall behind, to change majors without fear of adding another year to the course of study. Professors teaching face-to-face classes who find a student is unprepared for course work could direct the student to these online platforms to strengthen his or her basic skills.

Imagine if this system were created and administered by a consortium of faculty, in collaboration with high school teachers and counselors—perhaps completely outside of the traditional administrative structures of higher education.

Of course, all of this is speculative, even dreamy. And it presupposes a commitment to public higher education on the part of the state and federal governments. The point is that we can imagine a future of education that uses digital technologies to serve educational purposes, rather than one in which education is crammed into ready made online boxes. But to do this we have to think more about knowledge and human development and less about administration and market-making.

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