MOOCs, power relations & the tacit knowledge of academic socialization
Professors in the philosophy department at San Jose State University are refusing to teach a philosophy course developed by edX, saying they do not want to enable what they see as a push to "replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities."The more I engage with the MOOC debate (e.g. 4 reasons why MOOCs should be discussed in international development), the more I am wondering whether the focus on lecturing, teaching and the virtual or physical classroom experience ignores important and powerful debates in higher education. These are debates that those institutions that are at the forefront of the MOOC trend tend to conveniently ignore.
(Why Professors at San Jose State Won't Use a Harvard Professor's MOOC)
My reflection will focus on the argument that academic socialization, learning the tacit knowledge that comes with a university education and the powerful ‘soft skills’ happen to a large extent outside the classroom.
More provocatively: Who really remembers their undergraduate lectures and seminars and instead creating networks, participating in social activities from parties to volunteering, maybe meeting their partner and many, many other things from living on one’s own (maybe even abroad) for the first time to seeing academia ‘in action’ as a research or teaching assistant?
The elite institutions that so graciously give away their precious learning content of their ‘superstar professors’ will not give away the soft, tacit aspects that come with the term ‘getting an education’.
How I got my first scholarship
Let me be very clear: I do not want to indulge in any conspiracy theories about fraternities and secret societies whose member rule whatever they are supposed to be ruling. I want to talk about a more modest, probably even more obvious way of how this socialization takes place.
Frankly, I do not remember much from my undergraduate comparative politics lectures and seminars. But I do remember that I got my first job as a research assistant for a couple of hours per week with the professor - a senior academic and lovely man. About six or eight months into the job I applied for a scholarship to study in England and I needed a reference. We discussed the letter and my application for about half an hour-it turned out he had been working as a referee for the scholarship fund for many years-and he was a total Anglophile. In the end, I got the scholarship and the connection with the professor had certainly helped. Something similar probably happens every day somewhere. But it happens through maintaining relationships, being ‘there’ (on campus) at the right time, befriending someone who knew someone who spread the word that the professor needed a research assistant.
From long distance relationships to intercultural skills – experiencing ‘globalization’ through university
For most students university is probably an experience that is more balanced than media or tall tales on websites want us to believe. Between Spring Break and all nighters, between copy-pasting essays from Wikipedia and earning money through a job that would make the family blush, most students are simply learning ‘the nuts and bolts’ of...of what exactly?! They are learning the behavioral cues, fitting into what is still a predominantly middle-class lifestyle and also what ‘society’ expects from them. From the first long distance relationship to dealing with a new culture, difficult language or simply how to function halfway professionally many of these skills may be required in a classroom, but they are honed in the ‘real world’.
In my first year of undergrad studies, during a guest lecture, I met an American think tank director. We made some small talk and because the research director of the Think Tank had a background in German literature I finally ended up in Washington, D.C. for my first summer internship. They did not ask for my grades, but for a ‘typical’ application letter which I was able to draft with friends. In the end, I had the most memorable summer (it was before 9/11...).
The rise of new global elite rituals
I am aware that I am writing this from the privilege of my white, European, male, middle-class background, of course, but the stratification of the ‘global elite’ is now much more diverse than ever before. Most of the international friends had a comparable background-and families, communities, churches, organizations etc. behind them who were proud of the journey, the rite of passage of living and studying abroad. Many will try to make a similar experience possible for other family members – whether in ‘good’ universities at home or ‘prestigious’ ones abroad.
How ‘product-based’ is the ‘education cartel’ really?
In the end, it all comes down to the question of how technical, stackable and virtual the educational experience is. Virtual arrangements can and will work for many people-and often for people who should be seen on the campuses around the world more often: Mature students, late bloomers and many other groups that make the learning experience more diverse. Somehow the ‘night schools’ and vocational training institutions etc. are in danger to be outsourced to the virtual world. And there will be competition. I bet you a substantial amount of money that we will soon read the story of the ‘girl from [developing country] who came up as top in the MOOC and secured a scholarship for [Ivy league school]’. A great, uplifting story for the individual and one that has always been part of higher educational aspirations and ultimately helps to replace any structural, political discussion with one of individual achievement and perseverance.
More neoliberal pressure or real transformative learning?
I do not think that there is a black-and-white picture or a happy/unhappy ending.
But like many well-intentioned learning initiatives before we have to be modest in our expectations of what a good lecture, an engagingly gamified module or an eye-opening class can do for the individual. Neoliberal ideas have become more and more pervasive since the golden age (?) of post-war education in the Western world and like many technologies and policies before, MOOCs are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They may bring the higher educational world closer to some students and communities, but they are still part of a discourse, of technologies of access and control and the powerful performance of attending, learning and graduating from university. It almost reminds a bit of the cynical saying that elections would be illegal if they could change anything...there’s probably a grain of truth in this in the MOOCs discussion as well...