The Romans had a threat that they used against besieged towns: Murum aries attigit, or, “The ram has touched the wall.” It comes from The Gallic Wars, by Julius Caesar. According to Wikipedia,
This policy was to act as a deterrent against resistance to those about to be besieged. It was an incentive for anyone who was not absolutely sure that they could withstand the assault to surrender immediately, rather than face the possibility of total destruction.
Oops. Thers, at the blog, Whisky Fire, has brought to my attention a Wall Street Journal article by former hedge-fund manager, Andy Kessler, entitled “Professors Are About to Get an Online Education.” (About to?) Anyway, most of it is the standard list of neoliberalism and technological fetishizing that we’ve been getting for the past few years—Kessler seems to believe he’s stumbled onto something new—mixed up with a general ignorance about actual education. In this case, though, it’s also mixed with some class warfare and a particularly virulent attack on teachers in general.
The trigger for the article was a recent announcement that Georgia Tech is offering an online master’s degree in computer science in collaboration with Udacity. This seems like a perfectly reasonable and inexpensive way to learn programming. Kessler also mentions a high success rate with online classes in electrical engineering at San Jose State. “You’d think,” he writes, “professors would welcome these positive changes for students.” Guess what? They do. Good for those computer programmers and electrical engineers. Really!
But Kessler, of course, is rolling, and reason has little to do with it. Of today’s college students, he writes, “This is the same generation that grew up playing online games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, but who are almost never asked to use their online skills in any classroom.” Let’s skip over the fact that all students are not millennial wunderkinder—about 25% of the students in my current online classes have been out of school for more than 10 years, and at least one is as old as me—and instead point out one of the most important rules of effective written communication: USE THY QUALIFIERS. “Almost never” in the above assertion isn’t bad. But “any classroom”? Really? To quote the inimitable Frances McDormand, in Fargo, “That’s a surprise!” My own students use their online skills (such as they are) constantly; even my FTF courses are more like hybrids these days. And I’d be willing to bet that goes on all across the country. What’s more, I’ve used World of Warcraft in my writing classes on several occasions, and once received a terrific essay on stereotyping called, “Why Dwarves Suck.”
But Kessler’s still not finished. “MOOCs,” he writes, “will inevitably come to K-12 education too,” which is a good thing, obviously, because “[o]nline education is about taking the ‘best in class’ teachers and scaling them to thousands or millions of students rather than 25-30 at a time.” Now, I realize that “scalability” is one of the most sacred concepts in the neoliberal canon, up there with “innovation” and “creative disruption,” and that by “them” he means teaching skills, and not the actual teachers, but, otherwise, I’m not sure what he means here. He doesn’t say what qualities make a public school teacher “best in class,” probably because he doesn’t know. Neither do I, actually. But I strongly suspect that, whatever such intangibles are, they have something to do with inspiration and human contact, and trying to scale them from 25 students to several million would make them highly unlikely to survive the launch.
As I said, we’ve heard all this before. Online classes are a not a new, exotic species, but an established part of every college environment. In fact, they’ve spread equally over everything, like the sun, or kudzu. Of the electronics course at San Jose State, Kessler writes (emphasis mine), “The course was so successful that the school’s president decided to expand online courses, including humanities, which will also be rolled out to other California State universities.” One size fits all, apparently, especially if its Supersize. The problem is that not every student is in STEM, although, given Kessler’s comprehensive definition of the job market as “designing new drugs, fracking for oil, writing mobile apps or marketing Pop Chips,” this may not have occurred to him.
The philosophy faculty at San Jose State decided to push back, and some other faculty members at Amherst College spoke out, as well, stating that they preferred “learning through close colloquy.” For Kessler, this was the signal for the ram to touch the wall. He posts the salaries for Amherst faculty ($137,700), and then writes, “I have nothing against teachers—or even high salaries, if the teachers are worth it. But half of recent college graduates don’t have jobs or don’t use their degree in the jobs they find.” Pity that poor “but”! Never before, I believe, has so small a conjunction been loaded down with so large a non sequitur. No wonder it was made CEO of the sentence.
He even “outs” the uppity faculty at his own kid’s school:
And at Duke, where my son is a student, a faculty council at the school’s arts and sciences college voted 16 to 14 against granting graduation credits for taking a Duke MOOC. By the way, Duke professors’ average salary is $180,200.
And also by the way, “The union-dominated teaching corps can be expected to be just as hostile as college professors to moving K-12 to MOOCs.”
I noted this in a talk recently at an education conference where the audience was filled with people who create education software and services. [Ed.: So it was a business conference, not an education conference.]
I began by pointing out that in 2011 only 7.9% of 11th graders in Chicago public schools tested “college ready.” That’s failure, and it’s worse when you realize how much money is wasted on these abysmal results. Chicago’s 23,290 teachers—who make an average salary of $74,839, triple U.S. per capita income and 50% more than median U.S. household income—cost Chicago taxpayers $1.75 billion out of the city’s $5.11 billion budget.
And the answer?
Why not forget the teachers and issue all 404,151 students an iPad or Android tablet? At a cost of $161 million, that’s less than 10% of the expense of paying teachers’ salaries. Add online software, tutors and a $2,000 graduation bonus, and you still don’t come close to the cost of teachers.
Hey, at least he lets the kids have tutors. (Another digital guru has recruited “hundreds of ‘grannies,’ volunteers from the United Kingdom, many of them retired teachers,” to be Skyped into his own computerized classrooms in India. Nothing says success like slave labor.)
In his final paragraph, Kessler writes,
Much as early movies were made with cameras in front of Broadway shows, current MOOCs are mainly professors droning into a camera. There will always be a place for real, live teachers in classrooms, perhaps more as tutors than lecturers. But online education is going to happen—and it has the potential to be the next great export market.
“Droning” is good, just another example of how he has nothing against teachers, I guess. And, no, online education is not “going to happen”—it’s happened. Yeesh. At least, at last, the mask comes off with the phrase “export market,” and the game is revealed entire.
Listen, educators are pushing back against MOOCs for a few reasons. First of all, they are inappropriate for all fields of study and all learning styles. Secondly, MOOC success presupposes a level of technological, experiential, and socioeconomic equality that does not exist, and proceeding as if it did could effectively exclude all but the most privileged students. (Which kind of puts the utopian Mooc battle cry of “Education for Humanity” in a whole new light.) Finally, it’s clear that, despite the plaintive cries of “consider the students,” the people marketing online products have one goal, and it’s not education.
One more thing, while we’re on the subject of high incomes. This is from an April 15 story at CNN Money:
Last year was a tough one for hedge funds, but the 25 top-earning hedge fund managers still managed to pull in a combined $14.14 billion in 2012.
The 12th annual “rich list” placed David Tepper, founder of the New Jersey-based Appaloosa Management, atop its ranking. Alpha magazine said he made $2.2 billion in 2012.
Three others earned more than $1 billion apiece: Bridgewater Associates’ Raymond Dalio with $1.7 billion, SAC Capital Advisors’ Steven Cohen with $1.4 billion and Renaissance Technologies’ James Simons with $1.1 billion.
I make just under $40K, which is slightly above the U.S. median. I’m not in it for the money, though, and I don’t take teaching advice and moral browbeating from those who are.