When will people stop applying the Gartner Hype Cycle to MOOCs? Wednesday’s announcement of the new ASU/edX partnership, the Global Freshman Academy (#CollegeMyWay), is the freshest coat of lipstick on the acronym. I won’t get into the details or various criticisms (George Siemens and Jonathan Rees do a stupendous job as always, as does John Warner over at Inside Higher Ed), but suffice it to say, charging more than a community college to take online courses designed for didactic learners or adult learners fails to engage the stated visions of both ASU and edX.
What are the stated visions of ASU and edX? That’s tough to decipher. From the New York Times:
“Leave your G.P.A., your SATs, your recommendations at home,” said Anant Agarwal, the chief executive of edX. “If you have the will to learn, just bring your Internet connection and yourself, and you can get a year of college credit.”
This is the traditional MOOC bluster: the technology will set you free from the oppressive agent that has heretofore stopped the average student from succeeding. Who needs to leave those things at home — those students who the existing system does not provide for. This narrative is a popular one, and it would be disingenuous to say only VC backed EdTech start-ups employed it — perhaps they do it better than others, but the education as emancipation argument has an incredibly long history on every side and at points through close to 800 years of institutional history. It is wrong on all sides, it is only that VC backed EdTech start-ups do a better job of marketing on the premise.
What I found interesting was the postmodern approach with which ASU and edX have marketed this product. There is a link to the research now: on the edX splash page, they mention the program is geared toward high school students looking for early credit, people returning to college, and the catch-all *lifelong learner* which fits the distance/online scholarship where success is predicated on intrinsic motivation for youth or andragogy/heutagogy principles for adults. To quote ASU President Michael Crow, “There are many pathways to success, both academically and in life. This is now one of them.”
Ah, but if we look at Crow’s entire quote from the press release:
The Global Freshman Academy will empower students to prepare for college and achieve what they may not have thought they could. There are many pathways to success, both academically and in life. This is now one of them.
When technology is presented as neutral, ahistorical and apolitical, it can be shaped as the tool to allow for that transformation heretofore obstructed by the existing system. The problem is, the system is but one obstruction; the narrative of education as empowerment and emancipation is just as much of an obstruction, potentially more so. A system with cultural and instrumental rules and mores has a dictated structure I can at least read, negotiate and potentially resist. An immaterial promise that shapes our culture and ethos tacitly rather than overtly has no such entry point for negotiation; moreover, if I am unable to succeed it is because of my situation rather than the promised system because the promised system is neutral and there are shining examples the tech system shows me.
This Global Freshman Academy will help some people. It may make money for both entities. It may harm community colleges and regional universities offering the same education in-person at the same cost or a slightly higher one. It will not solve problems of access, equity and emancipation in education, not because it does not ascribe to do so but because the idea of education solving such problems is a lie. It I do not believe Drs. Crow & Agarwal are nefarious people with nefarious intentions. Worse, I think they have pure intentions, and they have built their structure on a false promise they believe can be solved by technology and commerce, at the expense of the local initiatives that are the antidote to such false promises.