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Regarding the announced partnership between Arizona State and edX to develop an all-MOOC freshman year, Matt Reed wonders what problem this particular plan is solving.

It’s a good question, because as Dean Reed correctly points out students can already take the same course – online or in person – for less money per credit hour, a course that unlike ASU’s MOOCs is staffed by “an actual instructor.

It’s patently obvious that the MOOC first-year experience has nothing to offer students in terms of either educational access or quality[1].

I think most of us inside of higher education tend to look at it as an ecosystem, a series of interrelated, ideally complementary parts, that collectively attempt to serve the needs of students[2].

But because of the management philosophies of its transformative president, Michael Crow, and the existential threat of a state legislature that has signaled its intent to zero out its funding to public higher education, ASU has decided if it is going to survive, it must become an education super-predator, hoovering up market share in the form of an increasingly large student body.

In a world of scarcity, the institution with the most will get to survive. ASU is no longer (and has not been for quite some time) part of a cooperative system. ASU denies this, at least publicly. Philip Regier, undergraduate dean for educational initiatives, told IHE, "The way we’re thinking about it is we’re making the whole pie bigger. It’s not as though the pie is a fixed size and we’re taking larger and larger slices out of it.”

But this is unlikely to be the case, and certainly won’t be the case if their initiative is likely to succeed. The giveaway is in ASU’s intention to not distinguish between face-to-face, traditional online, or MOOC credits on their transcripts. This is a way to, in the words of a commenter on the IHE report, “launder” the MOOC credit, cleansing it with the ASU brand name.

As Jonathan Rees argues, “Arizona State is now the first predator university. They are willing to re-define what education is so that they can get more students from anywhere. If they don’t kill other universities by taking all their students with a cheap freshmen year, they’ll just steal their fish food by underselling 25% of the education that those schools provide and leaving them a quarter malnourished. The result is that schools which stick to reasonable standards with respect to the frequency and possibility of teacher/student interaction now have to fear for their very existence.”

While ASU claims that they are working to maintain some measure of educational standards, for example, by making actual human beings (in the form of course assistants working under the supervision of a “master teacher") available to answer student questions. Freshman composition, with its particular challenges of grading student writing, will probably be “the last to launch.”

One of the costs of this aspect of the “New American University,” the exploitation and casualization of labor are already in evidence with ASU’s previous decision to assign five sections of first-year writing per instructor in their on-campus courses. When ASU does get around to offering that first-year writing course, is there any doubt that the student essays will be graded by an army of “assistants,” quite possibly being paid by volume?

The true cost, however, is in accepting this kind of redefinition of what it means to pursue education, particularly in a student’s first year, which we know has an outsized importance when it comes to students ultimately succeeding.

We know more now than ever before about what kinds of experiences are most meaningful to students, the “Big 6” as defined by last year’s Gallup survey of  the degree and quality of post-graduate engagement:

  1. a professor who made them excited about learning
  2. professors who cared about them as a person
  3. a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams
  4. worked on a long-term project
  5. had a job or internship where they applied what they were learning
  6. were extremely involved in extra-curricular activities

The same important findings are evidenced in How College Works, in which Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs observe that, “Human contact, especially face to face, seems to have an unusual influence on what students choose to do, on the directions their careers take, and on their experience of college. It has leverage, producing positive results far beyond the effort put into it.”

This is not to say that there is no role for online education, or that online courses cannot be stimulating. Those of us working inside of traditional colleges and universities should also take this as a challenge to truly make what we offer on campus something of value.

But we should be clear, in a culture of free-market competition, where education is increasingly viewed as a private, rather than public good, and states are moving to divest themselves of the responsibility to support their public institutions, this is the future for those of us who will not be able to afford entry into what we will come to think of as the “legacy[3]” higher education system.

ASU’s moves like the edX initiative, or Starbucks partnership, are absolutely rational, probably even savvy in the culture we have constructed. They will likely be cheered by Wall Street and Silicon Valley because they present more opportunities for markets that can be disrupted and monetized.

That’s what we should be most terrified about.


[1] As fellow blogger Lee Skallerup Bessette points out, ASU’s plan is essentially a move to give up on the notion that an important part of education may involve the building of relationships. They are taking the lowest common denominator of the large lecture face-to-face course and deciding that it is sufficient.

[2] This is not to say that we succeed in these goals, just that they are the framework within which we’re operating.

[3] I use this word to connote multiple meanings, including the notion that only the children of the already educated, the legacies, will likely have access to such places.

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