Thursday, May 16, 2013

The End of History and The Last MOOCs

Cover of "The End of History and the Last...
A Truly Destructive
by Dr Stefan Popenici:

Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1997 “The End of History and The Last Man”, a book that soon became extremely popular and so influential that some say that international policies were shaped at that time by the strange vision promoted by the author.

Fukuyama is a former official of the US State Department’s policy planning staff and his ideas were at that time widely adopted as facts and vision of a certain future.

In very few words, the theory advanced by the book is that all nations are, or aim to become, capitalist democracies. Therefore, history “has ended” as ideological conflicts are things of the past.

One vision prevailed - that of neoliberal capitalism and democracy - and institutional revolution reached an end.

As economic and ideological major issues have been settled in one final perfect vision of neoliberal capitalism, the future is just peace, trade and consumption within universally accepted principles of democracy and free trade.

The vision adopted in the late 90’s in most centers of power soon proved to be just a superficial utopia. It became clear that taking this as a vision for the future was a colossal mistake.

The history offered a painful succesion of unpredictable events, various conflicts caused by ideological differences, new crises and a rise to power of countries openly against democratic ideals (yes, China is one notable example).

The End of History and The Last Man is not only one of the most influential books of the decade, but remains a source of some of the most reckless ideas that have made the democratic world more vulnerable to crises and attacks.

However, universities seem oblivious that this happened just a few years ago and have failed to learn important lessons.

The current discourse and most visible debates in education currently take the same dangerous path of shallow analysis, tendentiousness, the twisting of facts to fit an agenda, and remaining relaxed about the suppression of alternative perspectives.

Higher education proudly promotes nowadays that the end of its history was reached and MOOCs - as “revolutionary change” - finally came to solve the problems of academia, leaving behind the ivory tower.

This narrative states that students across the world will have (online) equal access to higher education, university administrators have a way to secure continuous growth, profits and expansion, while profits, peace and harmony become the only foreseeable future of new online universities.

Oblivious to the complexity of current problems facing higher education and youth, these voices focus on the single problem seen on their horizon: some brick-and-mortar universities still fail to understand that this is the only path to survival.

We hear that their hesitation to fully adopt MOOCs and for-profit solutions will ineluctably lead to a future of suffering and painful dissolution.

In “An Avalanche is Coming. Higher education and the revolution ahead” - a widely publicized report with a title in line with the already old “tsunami of change”, “disruptive innovation” etc. - the authors announce that even elite universities could struggle to survive if they don’t adopt a for-profit model and MOOCs.

The little detail that this analysis is provided by Pearson, one of the biggest corporations in education with a set of investments and interests that stand against an objective analysis is vastly ignored. Facts seem to matter only if they serve a well funded and professionally promoted agenda.


Vested interest are not the only explanation for this phenomenon characterized by a focus on (not even new) technological solutions and utter disregard of pedagogical, cultural and even economic issues at the core of higher education.

Facts such as that typically less than 10% of students in these courses “graduate”, that even in non-marked courses with no credits, plagiarism is widespread and quality assurance is a worrying and recurrent issue escapes in the avalanche of these biased reports.

It is clear that this is not the place to repeat the long list of concerns and issues related to MOOCs as analysed in the recent book “What Undermines Higher Education”.

However, there are some additional concerns to this online solution that seems to be at the heart of a tunnel vision on education.

In 1972 the sociologist William H. Whyte coined the term “groupthink” to describe how a group converge to normatively “correct” ideas and interpretations while becoming impervious to alternative perspectives and criticism.

Symptoms of groupthink were presented in 1972 by Irving L. Janis in the influential “Victims of Groupthink”. They are important to keep in perspective when we find ubiquitously that the current debate in higher education is reduced to MOOCs.

We find often that the “group” within and around academia seems mesmerized by the new hype and insists on remaining unaware of important challenges facing our students and the uncharted implications of MOOCs, a solution used since 2008(!) by Dave Cormier, Manager of Web Communication and Innovations at the Canadian University of Prince Edward Island, also the author of this term.

Summarizing, the inventory of groupthink symptoms includes “discounting warnings that might challenge assumptions”, “unquestioned belief in group’s morality”, “shutting down of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus”, “illusion of unanimity” or “mindguards - self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting opinions”.

Many organizations became extremely vulnerable to ‘groupthink’ as internal mechanisms of freedom of thinking, dialogue and critique for progress and sustainable evolution were sacrificed for immediate profits.

A top-down management style - with a limited focus on profitability justifying the ruthless approach to work-relations and employment - came with this corrosive and ultimately fatal effect.

Too often “mindguards” are lecturing now about the use of MOOCs even if it remains clear that they have no expertise in massive open online courses, use of learning management systems and online solutions for learning.

The “group” insists on ignoring the obvious consequences of following the advice of dilettantes in shaping the future of their institutions.

Even if we assume that most MOOCs will step beyond the reality of a simple reading list, some video /audio files and a vast discussion forum (hoping that we agree that this cannot be considered higher education), the question remains whether the place of MOOCs on the agenda of most institutions of higher education coincides with the real agenda of our students.

After decades of “student-centered” approaches we see that the voice of the student is the least important factor in the current conversation.

There is no sign of alarm when it is widely accepted that a corporation with a revenue of over £5 billion in 2012 is telling universities that “the next 50 years could see a golden age for higher education, but only if all the players in the system, from students to governments, seize the initiative and act ambitiously”.

Of course, “ambitiously” is translated into a convenient agenda for the company listed on the London and New York Stock Exchange, including MOOCs (with no clarification of solutions for their pedagogical challenges), “niches or market segments” that universities “want to serve”.

The context of the “golden age”

Universities are at the center of our economic, cultural and social life. Determined by the economy, political decisions and cultural preferences, their performance impacts directly on the future of the social fabric, culture and economies.

This interdependence is an important concept to be grasped when we talk about the present and future of higher education. Their importance explains why we have to look at the promise of a possible “golden age” with great care.

Young people - those between 15 and 24 years old, who are the key group for higher education - have felt most of the effects of the economic downturn through the GFC. Currently, the situation is truly dramatic.

In Ireland, Greece, Italy, the UK and Spain, staggering numbers of young people remain unemployed or join the increasingly massive group of NEETs (youth not in employment, education or training).

The Societe Generale has warned in a recent note that:

“Economic crisis in developed countries have reinforced unemployment, especially with the youth … with lower population support, large upheavals could threaten government stability. Social unrest is also looming in many emerging markets, where income inequality has increased or remained high since the 1980s”.

It also notes that this should be a source of concern around the world and that the rise of inequality is a general trend: “Distribution inequalities and corruption are among the main concerns of the Chinese population according to recent surveys”.

Poverty affects the lives of millions of people not only in developing countries, but across the European Union. The International Red Cross announced that that the amount of food aid distributed to people in Europe by their institution has reached levels not seen since World War II.

In the US, unemployment among 18-29 year olds is above 12% (and we can add 1.7 million young people who have just given up looking for work entirely - with this figures included the effective unemployment rate for youth being over 16%).

Muhtar Kent the Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, publicly expressed the concern that youth unemployment “has a chance of cracking the social fabric“.

The fact is that inequality across the world reached unthinkable proportions and youth are one of the most disadvantaged groups.

A recent report released by the Urban Institute reflects: “Despite the Great Recession and slow recovery, the American dream of working hard, saving more, and becoming wealthier than one’s parents holds true for many. Unless you’re under 40. Stagnant wages, diminishing job opportunities, and lost home values may be painting a vastly different future for Gen X and Gen Y.”

Youth, including prospective students and graduates, find that their future is bleak and a diploma is not dramatically changing what they can expect. The Urban Institute study documents that young people are facing a decline in opportunities with a clear impact on all aspects of their (and our) future.

In recent years, the most important international organizations - from the OECD and the UN to Eurostat and Oxfam - have released severe warnings to politicians and governments around the world on the risks involved by the record inequality between rich and poor, youth marginalization and social injustice.

However, academics and universities (and loud voices of all mindguards of academic dialogue) insist in believing that higher education is looking at a “golden age” if MOOCs are adopted and markets are served.

It may come as a surprise that most students don’t care if they are part of a class of 100,000 and do what they already do on their own Twitter and Facebook accounts.

If we continue our parallel dialogue about technology and ignore their interests and concerns, students will see that they won’t find educational solutions to feel engaged and effectively learn for their future.

Before this ‘golden age’, universities will see - providing MOOCs or not - that prospective students are finding it harder and harder to go into insurmountable debt, and social tensions are on the rise.

Online chats and the illusion of higher learning in massive crowds with resources that are most of the time already accessible may be insufficient to deal with daily realities.

There are too many cases in history when the mistake of believing in a utopian “golden age” turned into a nightmare. The next 50 years will definitely require much more from higher education than an online platform solution and old neoliberal ideas packaged as serious visionary analysis.

The last MOOCs

MOOCs are one solution for an area of higher education. Online education opened new opportunities decades ago as well as possibilities for students and educators. Nevertheless, this is already part of learning in all modern universities.

This is the time to ensure that we are not contaminated by groupthinking, and we need to shift to seriously exploring the wider implications of the future of higher education.

We can start by seriously questioning the strident voice of those mimicking academic analysis for their vested interests. Adopting our long forgotten academic skepticism may prove once again the solution for our common progress.

If higher education has reached the point of simple delivery of various reading lists, different resources, standardized tests and formal processes, then it may be that the history of education has really ended and we have reached the days of just accepting it.

If universities find the idea that they are responsible to their societies for providing alternative and courageous solutions, unaffected by corporate interests and short-term profit perspectives, to contribute to the world by the making of higher civilization, then we have to admit that the entire discussion should be reduced to the packaging and technological solutions.

We just have to provide pre-packaged education to all who can pay a small price. If it works for cheap hamburgers, it should work for junk education.

Moreover, the idealistic perspective of alternative thinking as a solution for creative and new ideas for our crises may be just a futile and dangerous exercise for consumers and amenable employees.

The last MOOCs will most probably serve as academic ATMs for the delivery of resources, tests and “academic credits”, charging just a few cents per transaction. Creativity, imagination and the aristocracy of the intellect will be part of a MOOC course on ancient history.
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