Kevin Carey’s April 1 article, “The Creeping Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education,” in The Huffington Post ignited an intense online debate.
This article is not another contribution to the debate on OPMs or Carey’s piece, though there is likely much more to say and explore. Nor is it an assault or defense of Carey.
We both tend to agree with much of his criticism of OPMs and the inequities that profit motives are creating in higher education, just as we agree that online education itself has become an underexamined straw man for Carey’s argument.
Instead, we wonder what it means to have this conversation -- the conversation about institutional choices and online education that Carey catalyzed -- on social media. Is social media a good platform for engaging in meaningful knowledge creation and exchange about higher education?
We wonder if discussions mediated on social media platforms can succeed in surfacing important ideas and debates.
In this specific case, one concern we have is that all the commenting and tweeting will serve to harden -- rather than advance -- whatever biases and beliefs that already exist. Further, we wonder if the format of the discussion -- again mediated through online articles and blog posts and comments and tweets -- will make it difficult for anyone who does not have strong beliefs on the topic at hand to form evidence-based views.
We are not arguing that debates on topics about higher education should not take place on social media. After all, we are ourselves active contributors to those online conversations. Rather, we’re arguing for complementing these social media debates with scholarship. We see value in discussions mediated by social media, but we also recognize the limitations of these platforms. Our goal is to lay an intellectual foundation for an academic inquiry into areas such as the growth of the online program management industry.
How might a scholarly and academic investigation on a topic such as OPMs differ from a conversation mediated by social media? We propose in the following three ways: a) hypothesis driven, b) theoretically grounded and c) evidence informed.
Scholarship, at least in the sciences and social sciences, is hypothesis driven, in that conclusions can never be definitively reached, only supported or discredited by the available evidence. If an idea cannot be disproved, it is not a candidate for scholarly research in these fields.
This does not mean that the researcher comes into the work as a neutral and dispassionate actor. Scholars, like everyone else, have their biases and beliefs.
What this does mean is that a researcher will energetically search for evidence in their search for knowledge regardless of whether it proves or disproves the original hypothesis. If the evidence ends up countering the initial hypothesis, then the researcher must faithfully report and actively grapple with that result.
What might be different about Carey’s piece and the responses if they were to start from a hypothesis rather than a perspective?
Theoretical frameworks are models of how the world works that help researchers in the sciences and social sciences develop hypotheses and interpret results. Theoretical frameworks assist in the development of testable hypotheses. In the humanities, theories serve often serve as structural models under which or in relationship to an analysis might be developed. The different approaches to theory between the sciences, social sciences and humanities is worth exploring at some point, as these differences may be illustrative of how we adopt certain perspectives.
Each of these areas, however, provides a framework in which we can situate individual events and discrete analysis. Without a conceptual framework, developments such as the rise of the OPM industry can seem disconnected from other changes occurring within higher education and across the broader economy and society.
One common theoretical lens through which higher education is often viewed today is Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory. Unfortunately, it’s rarely the case that disruption theory serves as a framework in which to test hypotheses. Instead, it more often than not serves as a talking point to help reify one's general assumptions and opinions.
What is needed is the development or applications of theoretical frameworks that are derived from, or at least sensitive to the context of, higher education’s history and structures. We need to develop our own theories to understand higher education change, rather than retrofit existing frameworks (developed for different contexts) to make sense of the future of our colleges and universities.
The third reason that we argue that the debate about Carey’s piece playing out across social media is most likely to reinforce and harden current beliefs, rather than move the discussion forward, is the existence of evidence and data. The arguments made for and against the value of online education to students and schools, on both sides of the debate, have been mainly divorced from empirical evidence. When data are presented, they are shared to support a particular assertion.
There are a lot of data available. Social media tends not to be a great place to share these data.
Social media tends to serve multiple functions in today’s society. In our context, it’s just as (or maybe more) likely to serve as a marketing tool as it is a place for critical dialogue. Because of this complex function, it is not a level playing field for the exchange of data and evidence. Social media is too many things to too many people, and as such may not serve well as a place for disinterested scholarship.
We need better mechanisms to collect, de-identify and then analyze the data related to how colleges and universities are, among other things, moving online. These decisions involve dozens of competing factors, not the least of which include how students are learning and the affordances and constraints of an institution's history and traditions. The objective of studying these data should be to create knowledge that can be shared widely. The conclusions about the impact the institutions make should be grounded in data, not in the preconceived biases of those who have a stake in the outcome of the research.
The question is who will do this research?
Watching the debate about Carey’s provocative story unfold is one of the reasons that we’ve been calling for a new cross-disciplinary field of learning innovation.
This field would bring together the hands-on knowledge of online program creation with the perspectives, values and methods of scholarly research.
How might we begin to evolve the social media debate on the value of OPMs to a research question worthy of serious, sustained and peer-reviewed scholarship?