• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Can We End 'The End of College' Already?

Why are the supposed saviors of education so eager to burn it all down?

March 11, 2015

I was looking forward to engaging seriously with education researcher and think-tanker Kevin Carey’s new book, The End of College, but then I read this sentence in his recent New York Times op-ed that was inspired by some of the material from the book: “The failure of MOOCs to disrupt higher education has nothing to do with the quality of the courses themselves, many of which are quite good and getting better.”

Wha-wha-what?!? "Nothing" to do with the courses themselves?


I’m having a hard time taking Carey’s argument seriously because if any part of his case rests on this sort of unsupported – and I would argue, almost entirely unsupportable as of this time – claim, I can only believe that the foundation of a case that says we can end college is built on B.S[1].

In Carey’s op-ed, and the book itself, he discusses how he successfully completed an edX course on genetics and even has the badges to show for it. In Carey’s formulation, because an already highly educated professional can pass an online Biology course, we are on the cusp of a revolution.

This kind of badging, according to Carey, is the future because it will uncouple us from the expensive proposition of attending colleges and universities and open up credentialing to other entities. The problem, as Carey sees it, is not that the type or quality of education available via these digital platforms lacks something essential, it’s just that we don’t recognize how awesome it is because of the stranglehold traditional colleges and universities have on the credentialing function.

Carey is an example of what the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom calls a “roaming autodidact,” “a self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, culture, history, and markets.”

The future[2] Carey imagines is one that is only hospitable to the roaming autodidacts like himself who have already learned effective study strategies (and have stable Internet access), and who have the freedom of time afforded by a job at a think tank, where employees are empowered to pursue their own interests.

But Carey’s undoing of college simply ignores the way most of us learn – fitfully, sometimes unwillingly, and as parts of larger cohorts struggling with the same issues.

Carey is impressed with his ability to save and make available all of his “notes, tests, homework, syllabus, and grades” from that edX course. He contrasts this to his college coursework, which exists only as “an inscrutable abbreviation on a paper transcript.”

Carey is also a believer in the ability of these digitally mediated educational experiences to gather data, which will somehow transform the science of learning, mostly because smart people at elite institutions are interested in studying these things. In his book, he cites researchers at Carnegie Mellon who are investigating the ways different kinds of motivation and learning intersect as people pursue these badges. Someday, they will unlock the key. Maybe it is video games. Maybe grit. Maybe flow.

But a badge, like a transcript, tells us mostly what you’ve done, not necessarily what you can do next, and Carey’s embrace of badging for skills also overlooks what is most important about education, process, rather than product.

Put another way, the route to our learning, how we learned, and what we learned about learning is often more important than what we learned.

To my knowledge, the oldest badging organizations in America are the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Scouting badges are meant to signal a mastery of a skill -- specific task skills like tying knots or starting a fire -- or softer skills like citizenship, which often involves performing some kind of philanthropy.

Receiving the badges themselves is always fun[3], but it’s important to remember that the badges are meant to represent not a destination, but a journey in which the recipient has been transformed. That citizenship badge earned for a visit to a soup kitchen wasn’t worth much if it didn’t come coupled with an improved understanding of the lives of the less fortunate.

The Scouts were designed primarily to shape character, not to certify skills. That this happens in "dens" and "troops" isn’t incidental to this process. The very essence of these organizations rests on the deeper meanings of belonging to something larger than oneself.

Maybe I’m out of touch, but I don’t think there are many virtual Scout meetings. How terrible would it be if everyone had to bring their own brownies?

It so happens that this week my students are working on a process-intensive assignment of writing jokes in small teams. I am grading them on the quality of their process, rather than the quality of their product (the jokes themselves), because writing even a mediocre joke is a skill that takes much more practice than a week’s study allows.

But in the doing they will experience some important things. In collaboration they will have that wonderful moment when someone’s good idea is made great by the timely contribution of another. They will struggle with the difficulty of crafting a good set-up to a joke when words are at an absolute premium. They will bang their heads against the desk as they try to find the funny, and it’s entirely probable that the funny may never be found. I will not be able to certify most of them as skilled joke writers at the end of the week.

But they will learn. They will grow. I gave students the option of collaborating virtually through Google docs and chat, or meeting face to face out of class. All of them chose face to face because that is more fun and also, they realize, results in a better product.

Carey obviously grew as a person through his education, otherwise he wouldn’t have succeeded at his MOOC. I have a hard time understanding why someone who benefited from that kind of education is so eager to undo it for others.

I imagine Carey doesn’t see himself this way. I think he views this wave of technology as a possible solution to inequality. The old model is untenable and we must turn to something new. At times, Carey's arguments have a whiff of zealotry, an eagerness to see the old institutions fail in order to see if he's right.

I understand the concerns of Carey (and many others) regarding the current ailments of our educational system. The expense of college is a crisis[4]. Completion numbers are worrisome. If we put faith in standardized assessments of what our students have learned, we have reason to be concerned as well. Don’t get me started on the exploitation of non-tenurable academic labor.

It also appears that there’s sentiment among a significant proportion of conservatives that we should continue to scale back public contributions to higher education, i.e., Arizona, Wisconsin, Louisiana. Congressman Dave Brat of Virginia, a former college professor himself, said, “Socrates trained Plato on a rock and then Plato trained in Aristotle roughly speaking on a rock. So, huge funding is not necessary to achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”

In other news, Pearson immediately announced its intention to move aggressively into the educational rock space, promising greater rock height and stability than its competitors.

Under a scenario where legislatures wish to send us back to scratching out works on stone tablets, “The End of College” seems tempting, a lifeboat of sorts.

But as McMillan Cottom argues, the end of college, or the disrupted college, or the DIY University world will only serve to exacerbate existing inequalities[5].

I can’t help but wish for a middle ground between the rock and the digital space.


[1] Lest we forget, Sebastian Thrun of Udacity, one of the godfathers of MOOCs declared his company’s own MOOCs “a lousy product.”

[2] I should note that the book is actually multiple books, and Carey’s study of the past, a diagnosis of how we wound up in this state, I found to be excellent. Unfortunately, that careful history doesn’t sell books. It’s the pie in the sky techno-futurist B.S. that gets the attention of the New York Times. I wouldn’t be writing about that history of higher ed book in this space either, so mea culpa.

[3] The first badge should be for sewing, so the Scout can affix their own patches to the uniform.

[4] Though, of course, part of Carey et al’s case on how inexpensive the un-College world will be rests on assuming that which is free or low cost now (i.e., MOOCs), will always be thus.

[5] When Bill Gates, or Barack Obama, or Dave Brat, or even Kevin Carey educates their children via MOOCs or some other brand of un-college, I will be impressed, and also dead, because I will have expired from shock.





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