Thomas Friedman and Bad-Faith Technological Utopianism

Thomas Friedman’s enthusiastic embrace of MOOC [Massive Open-Enrollment Online Courses] as a fix for the problem of higher education costs is troubling, because a Friedman endorsement generally signals both that an idea has become part of the establishment consensus and that it’s completely wrong. I’m not here to conduct an extensive critical mockery of Friedman; It can be left to the professionals or to random content generators, and I don’t have the time. Nor am I here to explore the politics of online education as the latest utopian fix for the inherent contradictions of providing a labor-intensive service on a mass scale on the cheap. That task is expertly handled by Jonathan Rees at his place.

But I do want to highlight Friedman’s lede:

I just spent the last two days at a great conference convened by M.I.T. and Harvard on “Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education” — a k a “How can colleges charge $50,000 a year if my kid can learn it all free from massive open online courses?”

We’ve all got room to improve as writers, myself included. But even I feel competent to make an intervention as an occasional ad-hoc teacher of writing and argument (and more on that in a bit). You should revise your essay if you lead with a rhetorical question that can be immediately turned back on you in a way that exposes the illogic of your entire case, like so:

So, Thomas Friedman, if your daughters Orly and Natalie were today preparing for matriculation at Yale and Williams, would you pay a half million dollars of your wife’s shopping mall fortune to enroll them, given that they could just enroll in a Coursera MOOC for free? 

Presumably, Friedman’s answer is “yes,” so unless he’s a fraud or a fool, he owes some accounting of his reasons to his readers, who, possessing the mental capacity to turn on a computer or flip the pages of the Times, most likely arrived at some variation of the question I just posed within nanoseconds of reading Friedman’s first paragraph.

But Friedman can’t or won’t provide those answers because he’s deliberately obfuscating a crucial point. His kids, the ones whose educations cost $50,000 a year, are not the market for the Glorious MOOC Revolution, and never will be. Mediated encounters with a small number of elite professors will be the product that non-elite institutions offer to their students at discounted tuition (but not for free) in place of actual encounters with actual professors, with whom they might converse, joke, build relationships, or even disagree.

I’ve gained some perspective on this because I’m currently on a visiting faculty position at one of the $50,000-a-year institutions that Friedman would have us believe are the bloated supertankers of higher education, the dinosaurs ripe to be slain by the tsunami of online courses (is that an adequate simulacrum of Friedmanesque mixed metaphor?). The institution I’m visiting has had its own brushes with infamy lately, but it certainly doesn’t feel threatened by online courses. Rather, it sees itself as jumping on the train before it gets too far out of the station, placing its brand on the products that institutions further down the ladder will license when the MOOC revolution matures.

One thing I can say with certainty is that these courses will not be the courses fetching top-dollar on campus. I had a wonderful exchange today with my upper-division undergrad students in “Making Modern Atlanta.” The context was Kevin Kruse’s argument in White Flight that the political consciousness whites formed in resisting integration in Atlanta and ultimately in fleeing to the suburbs was the foundation for contemporary conservatism. We discussed the rhetoric of equality of opportunity and its imagined counterpart equality of outcome, the overt and hidden elements of public policy that undermine this equality and sustain suburban privileges as social entitlements, the mechanisms by which the overtly racial oppressions of history are reproduced as problems of human and social capital that happen to map onto racial segregation. My students referenced historical and sociological insights, elements of critical race theory, and populist politics. One of my favorite moments of the whole semester happened today when a student upended our whole discussion by pointing out that Kruse’s arguments about how suburban whites found their affinity for Republican Party policies, though quite compelling on their own, did little to help us grasp how elite interests might be implicated in this political change. I’m continually amazed by the connections my students draw across the readings. I could be convinced that this kind of exchange is theoretically possible in the context of a MOOC, but I will never be convinced that it is particularly likely.

I don’t say this to boast about my particular skill as an educator. I take pride in facilitating this discussion, but the credit for making it happen lies with my students. I and they just happened to be connected by mutual presence, face to face, in a small classroom. At this institution, my labor is an input that is valued highly enough to be considered cost-effective in a class of 13 enrolled students. Because these are the conditions under which I teach–because the institution and its tuition-paying stakeholders, including parents of Thomas Friedman’s social class, accept small classes and interaction with faculty as value-added propositions–I can learn from my students. I can build relationships with them that allow one student to respectfully challenge my choices in crafting the syllabus, prompting a discussion about the role of multiple agents in social change. They can know each other. I suspect that on occasion they can walk out of class, out of earshot, and discuss my outdated popular culture references or agree that I might possibly be full of  it.

I will return in the fall to teaching at an institution where faculty labor fetches a lower price on a per-student/hour basis as an input to education. This is a pragmatic choice my home institution makes as a compromise to avert tuition hikes or increased demands on state support (mostly the latter). I can respect that the institution’s leadership makes choices in a context of constraint, and I work very hard to make the kinds of interactions I enjoyed today part of the class experience there, even with several times as many students. If the powerful political constituencies who are aligned behind the drive for a bachelor’s degree that costs the same as a used pickup truck have their way, however, universities like my home institution may be not only tempted but compelled to replace time with me with time in front of a screen, observing lectures by a professor whom students will never meet in person. Again, I don’t want to boast, but I think my students deserve more of me. Or, if not of me, more of a professor with a personal investment in their educations, who might someday read their name out loud as they cross a stage at graduation, or who has to look them in the eye if a day’s lesson falls flat, or who can engage in an in-person eyeball test to determine if a concept is understood. They deserve education done well above education done cheaply.

Friedman writes that

We demand that plumbers and kindergarten teachers be certified to do what they do, but there is no requirement that college professors know how to teach. No more. The world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor.

This is the most pernicious deception Friedman perpetrates. There is competition afoot here, but it’s not about the professor in the classroom. The profs who will be providing the content when the MOOC becomes the MFTOC (Massive For-Profit Tuition-Paid Online Course) will be those fortunately affiliated with an institution whose brand is commercially valuable to Coursera or other providers. Contracts signed between university administrators and software company executives will certify which faculty are qualified to replace dozens or hundreds of others.

It’s odd, isn’t it, that the difference between my pedagogical value today and in five years time could depend not on what I do with and for my students but on who signs my checks?