Is Unbundling the University Such a Bad Thing?
I agree with Aaron Bady that a strain of overwrought techno-utopianism cripples Clay Shirky’s analsysis of higher education in key places. Reading “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy,” it is at times almost impossible to stomach Shirky’s disingenuous proselytizing on behalf of “massive open online classes.” As Bady points out, the rhetorical approach of the essay is one predicated on circular logic and techno-revelation, delivered with a heaping dose of cynical salesmanship.
Per Shirky, open courses are open, and so will not only evolve beyond their brick and mortar rivals in no time at all, but will also expand access to the majority of post-secondary students who are so under-served by the current university system. Why web lectures will soon surpass in-person ones in quality, or ever for that matter, is never clearly explained. And why those who can’t afford an education at the country’s top “institutions” should settle for a digitally derivative experience is a question left entirely unexplored.
And yet in his sprawling critique of Shirky, Bady also fails to engage these issues. He notes Shirky’s delinquency, but his positive rebuttal is not so forthcoming either. Instead, a defense of higher education as it presently takes place boils down to Bady’s own personal experience while at Ohio State, and lamenting the fact that less and less students are able to participate in great public schools like it because we as a country have stopped properly funding them. Now I don’t want to discount Bady’s positive experience at Ohio State. But I also think it would be extremely dubious to over extrapolate from it. My own experience at university was very positive as well. If anything though it made me more aware of just how many people the current regime fails.
I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, a quasi-public institution ranked only two spots behind Bady’s own Ohio State according to U.S. News and World Report. I took as many credits each semester as I could, hit the books on week nights and weekends because I liked my classes and loved what I was studying, and feel that I got my money’s worth (though looking back I would certainly have done many things differently). Unfortunately, I knew students, many of them in the very same classes as me, who didn’t. Many are probably just as in-debt as I am, but with less to show for it. Classes were something to get through. Ultimately credentialing was all that mattered; a strategy that leads many people to miss the forest for the trees.
Where Shirky’s comparison to the unbundling of media products is useful is in an analysis of the university as a place where different people go for different reasons. Bady too readily dismisses Shirky’s analogy because he focuses on the classroom experience as what’s being unbundled and digitized into discrete educational packets. Really though, the major problem with modern American universities, and one that is obscured by Shirky’s obsession with “institutions,” is the level of cross-subsidization and continual assimilation which undermine their effectiveness in meeting undergraduate goals. Students enrolled in humanities classes subsidize those enrolled in STEM classes, students enrolled in large classes subsidize those enrolled in small ones. Sports programs which make no money rely on the increasing commercialization of the ones that do. Vocational and technical skill sets which had previously been the province of individual schools and business training programs have been absorbed by colleges on their path toward university level status.
In a way, the debate over whether someone can lecture more effectively in person or through a computer monitor (or tablet, smartphone, etc.), is a distraction. The real question is to what degree new technologies will make the “something for everyone” approach economically and culturally unsustainable, and which of the university’s components can and should be unbundled. I think a growing consensus already believes that big college sports are an easy place to start severing. A less obvious example might be university libraries, which have been rendered all but obsolete with the digification of academic journals. Whether a physical space for studying in social silence can be maintained in the absence of rows and rows of stacked books is, for me at least, an interesting question. But it seems clear that university libraries could perform their primary function more efficiently if they were converted into glorified Wi-Fi hotspots surrounded by computer labs instead (and most have already begun this transformation).
And a third place to cut will probably be, yes, large lectures. The original point of the university was the efficiency of large classes and large faculties all housed in the same location. That efficiency can now be gained in other ways. Especially if you already have the tools to do most of the learning on your own, which large lectures more or less require anyway.
My professor for Chemistry II second semester of freshman year was so bad that my two friends and I stopped attending lectures after the second week. Instead we met at one of the campus’ study lounges, read and outlined our textbooks, and fielded questions from one another when we had them. If none of us could answer the questions ourselves we would email the professor. All of us got As in the class, and spent less time on that specific class because we had saved ourselves from wasting three hours a week in lecture but still got credit for it.
I bring up this anecdote to illustrate two things. First, any lecture that gets above 50-60 students will be just that: a lecture. Second, lectures are already creatures of efficiency, and putting them online will do no less to address differences in how students learn than the currents ones do. What putting lectures online does do is allow them to be revised, stored, and retrieved whenever need be. This is the point of textbooks, and while I would be the first to recognize the limits of most of them, they are extremely effective as repositories for standardized information and references. I did well in Chemistry II not because some inspired professor was around to chat about mols and valence shells, but because the textbook made the material accessible enought for me to digest on my own.
Of course, to simply recommend then that all large lectures be turned into online courses skips an important question, which is whether they should be turned into small seminars instead. And this is the real alternative to online lectures (since, unlike Bady, I do think the physical lecture is a dead medium). Despite doing well in intro level chemistry, I don’t know nearly enough about it to suggest what the best way to teach it is. Perhaps the current method, in which beginning classes simply try to help students digest large amounts of information, is the best one. Or it might be that certain courses (e.g. physics, calculus) need to be re-thought and more organically organized around the methods of inquiry which underlie them rather than as tutorials for solving certain kinds of math problems.
As an undergraduate I had classes that ranged from 200 students to ones with 10. I always preferred the ones with 10. But those also happened to be subjects (Philosophy of Religion, Great Books) which really benefitted from greater student interaction and more time for the professor to spend assigning and grading papers. Still I can see students benefitting from more one-on-one time if they really like chemistry as well, but this wouldn’t apply to students who are doing fine in the class and are only taking it because it’s a requirement (like I did). And this issue already works itself out to a degree since students who are genuinely interested or need help will go to see professors during office hours while others won’t. This is then another form of cross-subsidization since office hours benefit only a few while everyone taking the class is pressumably paying for them.
Chemistry cost me several thousand dollars to take across two semesters. I also didn’t want to take it. Once again, the solution to this poor fit could be cheap (or free) online classes. It could also be the unbundling not just of lectures but of what constitutes the undergraduate degree. Ultimately then what the proliferation of online lectures will do is push universities to defend both their value propositions and their effectiveness. Is the current model the cheapest and best way for me to increase my wages or get a job doing X? Is the current model the best way for me to learn Y and meet other students and faculty who share my interest in the particular field as well as a general predisposition to scholarship and research? I think the obvious answer to both of these questions right now is unequivocally no. And online courses will be a first step toward dismantling the current higher education system, and allowing us to reconsider the goals of those involved so that we can reconstitute institutions more appropriate to meeting them.
One last point on all of this: the kind of crucible I’m advocating for could well end up undermining egalitarian goals for higher education in the long run. This would be both unfortunate, and potentially a reason to resist the unbundling of the university, though possibly a futile one. I am under no illusions that when the economic goals of higher education are separated from the intellectual ones, the latter could very well lose even more public funding.
Part of the American dream is being able to send your children to quality universities. But post-secondary education no longer means more money and a better job. Specialized education and training do. Specialized degrees do. But not general four-year ones from mid-tier (or especially lower tier) institutions. Which means that if we do ever get around to solving the disconnect between employers and employees currently filled by university middle-men, I don’t think there will be funding for general intellectual pursuits.
That is, there won’t be cheap state universities where I can go study rhetoric, literature, and philosophy within accomplished academic departments for four years on low-interest loans before going to join the white collar workforce instead of continuing on to Masters or PhD programs. Pure intellectual development “for all” just won’t be a priority of the public. And maybe it shouldn’t be.