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April 2015


Beware the thunder lizards coming to a campus near you
Cynthia Eaton


thunder lizards
Venture capitalists refer to themselves as "thunder lizards" who attack and destroy current systems in order to set up their own tech-driven systems for profit. (image by Cynthia Eaton)

They are coming to higher education, the thunder lizards, to destroy our “ancient institutions in their last days of decadence.” Like Godzilla obliterating the old to plant the “seeds of a new world to come,” the thunder lizards are an inevitable part of the demise of college-as-we-know-it to make space for “The University of Everywhere.” 

While some might shudder at the destructiveness of this vision, Kevin Carey in his recently released book The End of College hails the venture capitalists who are these self-styled “thunder lizards,” bringing their game-changing, disruptive technologies like MOOCs to academia because they view “every inconvenience, inefficiency, and injustice as a problem technology can solve.”

Remember when MOOCs were going to solve all that ails American higher education? I began my March 15 presentation at the 2015 AFT/NEA Joint Higher Education Conference in Tampa with a simple question:  Where have all the MOOCs gone?

The answer, of course, is that they haven’t gone anywhere. The New York Times reporters who so breathlessly declared 2012 The Year of the MOOC have moved on to other topics—but they do check in periodically to declare that MOOCs have had a lasting impact.

Those who propelled MOOC mania continue to believe what Bill Gates told the Meeting of the Association of Community College Trustees in October 2013, which is that MOOCs can help two-year colleges and their students. The Chronicle of Higher Ed reports that Gates told his audience of trustees, presidents and administrators that “with more work done at home and online, students could spend less time on campuses, freeing up classroom space to accommodate more students.”

I know that when I think about what our students at SCCC need, the first thing that comes to mind is absolutely not having our current students spend less time on campus so that I can have even more students to teach. Since Gates was addressing community college trustees and presidents, they likely were more receptive to that suggestion—what trustee or president doesn’t like the idea of enrollment going up?—but I’d wager most of our faculty view such a notion with suspicion, to put it kindly.

Some of the MOOC buzz died down as a result of several high profile research studies, such as a December 2013 paper by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center (CCRC), which found that community college students in the state systems in Virginia and Washington fared worse in online environments, particularly men, students of color and students with lower prior GPAs. This study by Shanna Smith Jaggars and Di Xu is widely received as solid, objective research, notable also since it was funded in large part by the Gates and Lumina Foundations.

However, last June Computers & Education published an article by Peter Shea and Temi Bidjerano that specifically called the CCRC results into question. Shea and Bidjerano, after looking at national numbers from the Beginning Postsecondary Student Survey, claim that the two state systems studied for the CCRC data must be “outliers.” They believe the national dataset they looked at shows community college students who took an online course in their first year completed their degrees at significantly higher rates than those who had not taken an online or distance education course.

Further, Shea and Bidjerano assert that these successful-because-they-did-DE-so-early students were not necessarily better prepared academically. They write that distance students at higher risk of dropping out were overrepresented on six of seven variables and that private high school grads were underrepresented in the sample.

Based on my work with colleagues who teach online at SUNY community colleges, I remain skeptical of these results. It is also of interest to note that Shea, who's currently at SUNY Albany, is former director of the SUNY Learning Network (now Open SUNY) which funded his research study and quite frankly has much to gain from an increase in the number of online courses/programs in our 30 SUNY community colleges.

And with continued low completion rates in MOOCs and in online courses, faculty need to keep a close eye on how and why community colleges are exploring the use of noncredit MOOCs to increase access to developmental courses.

We also need to keep our eye on the thunder lizards. As writers like Carey and Ryan Craig keep publishing books championing the corporatization of higher education, we must continue to raise questions about their vision of academia. Carey, for example, in an interview with NPR, expresses disgust at colleges’ near monopoly on the higher education market. “Colleges are expensive because they can be,” he asserts, although he concedes that because most colleges are nonprofit “they’re not trying to maximize their revenue; what they’re trying to do is maximize how important they are so that people who work there seem important and like special people.”

Carey has been duly criticized by “Dean Dad” Matt Reed and others for treating academia as if every institution is a private, elite Ivy League space where high costs are caused by lush dorms, lazy rivers, climbing walls and sushi-stocked cafeterias. This is especially laughable at a time when nearly half of all American undergraduates are at community colleges.

Craig, for his part, argues in College Disrupted that the “great unbundling” of higher education will actually make college more valuable, so traditional, on-campus colleges will simply need to do a better job of communicating why students who can afford it should pay for the whole package. This is perhaps the most stunningly casual endorsement of bricks for the rich and clicks for the poor in recent memory.

Texts like these remind us that the forces of privatization and corporatization are not only alive and well but actively emulating Godzilla in their approach toward public higher education.

There are smart, useful suggestions about long-term potentials for MOOCs, from serving as interactive textbooks and resources for flipped classroom innovations to offering non-credit MOOCs as supplemental study resources or to help students prepare for placement exams. Faculty continue to experiment with MOOCs in interesting ways, viewing them as opportunities to learn about learning in ways that don’t blindly accept that technology is neutral and that go beyond merely analyzing “big data.”

More faculty driven, careful research is sorely needed. As MOOC mania has subsided, the competency craze has kicked up. And we still have too many politicians like Congressman Dave Brat (R-Va) arguing that the way to improve education “would be to get private sector folks into every one of our schools, get the CEOs in the schools and move beyond this just narrow policy debate and really have a revolution.”

The thunder lizards continue to breathe fire on our ostensibly ivy-covered walls of self-importance, hawking a solution in search of a problem. Clearly our current system is not without issues and concerns, but having honest conversations about who does and does not benefit from a variety of technological solutions might just be a smarter solution than dressing up as Godzilla and destroying the entire enterprise.