The New York Attorney General has filed a lawsuit against Trump Entrepreneur Institute (formerly Trump University) for what it calls blatant lies and misleading information on the value of services it provides. The lawsuit, which calls the initiative a sham (including calling themselves Trump University, showing pictures of certificates, exploring the connections a student can gain through association with the group), seeks $40,000,000 in restitution for individuals who have paid upwards of $35,000 for the opportunity to learn from Mr. Trump in fields such as Real Estate and Business Administration. According to the lawsuit, the workshops, lectures and mentorships through Trump University do not include Mr. Trump, but the one-on-one mentorship programs and support structures, encouraged as an up-sell during the initial three-day seminars, were largely ignored by Trump Entrepreneur Institute’s team of experts, a team which the deposition says was in no way influenced by Mr. Trump. This leaves the situation as a blame game, with customers upset about broken promises and photo ops with a Trump cutout, and Trump alluding to the whole thing as a witch hunt propelled by the Obama administration.
While the allegations against Trump cast him in a felonious light and paint him as a charlatan, I am fixated on a foundational aspect of the story – why would anyone think Donald Trump could teach?
NOTE: There’s a great Mitch Hedberg joke (can’t embed from source; click here) about being a comedian in Hollywood and how success at comedy suddenly means everyone wants you to write, produce, act and market, when it took years just to get to be a quality professional comedian. It ends “Congratulations on your years and years of culinary training to become a master chef. Can you farm?”
While most all fields, careers and disciplines enjoy a somewhat asymmetrical correlation between quality and authority, the link in education deserves question but rarely receives it. One of the first rallying cries behind the MOOC movement was the notion of “democratic globalized education,” one where the best teachers at the best schools could now teach to anyone with a decent Internet connection (the irony that Sally Struthers used to end her late 80s correspondence commercials with “All you need is a telephone and an open mind” should not be lost on us). Thomas Friedman’s op-ed in the New York Times saw a high readership, and summarizes this line of thinking succinctly:
I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh
For me, what is most interesting about this sentence is the the juxtaposition of “best professors” with universities rather than best professors meaning best professors. While the professor is labeled as best in this argument, the sentence places authority at the institution. Friedman does not cite Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning (Stanford) or Kevin Werbach’s gamification (Wharton), two professors teaching successful MOOC courses in terms of enrollment and completion. Friedman does not note Mitra Shavarini’s ethics work at Brandeis, a school with a MOOC partnership (semester online) but as of yet no MOOC offering. Nor does Friedman detail the professors at the University of Edinburugh, a school with a number of MOOC offerings (including an interesting bridge in MOOC pedagogy called e-learning & digital cultures), yet as of press none in literature. The argument assumes university prestige and authority directly translates into professorial ability, a questionable argument considering the proliferation of adjunct labor at most elite universities.
The prestige of a university is bound up in numerous variables, pedagogical aptitude of the professorial staff only one. This is likely why only one MOOC affiliated university appears on the Center for College Affordability & Productivity’s list of 25 Colleges with the Best Professors. (Full disclosure: I attended one of these institutions as an undergrad. My field of study at the time was not education nor technology, but my experience over four years was surely a catalyst for embarking into education on the graduate experience) These institutions are largely small regional schools, schools with religious affiliation and/or liberal arts colleges where there are fewer variables utilized to define school prestige. Year after year, schools such as those on the list are considered the ones home to the best professors.
Of course, these schools are not inexpensive. They are less expensive than most elite universities (and, in another twist of irony, their affordability quotient as outlined in President Obama’s recent higher education plan places their value as higher than less costly schools). But they are much more expensive than what college would cost under a MOOC business model. And this is not a new business model; in 1967 Otto Peters proposed a factory model of education where the duties and responsibilities of a course were abstracted and hired out to professionals within those subsets: marketers, instructional designers, graders, printing & aesthetic support staff, administrators, tutors, and the actual content/lecture/curriculum creation. In this model, the face of the learning model would be the content/lecture/curriculum creator, a professional with extensive experience in the field. Whether this creator was an effective pedagogue would be inconsequential, as the pedagogical aspect of his (it was his at the time) profession would not be required for fulfillment of his content creation duties.
In this model, best professors is not a pedagogical designation but rather an equation of variables where publications and university affiliation are the key ingredients, not teaching aptitude. Teaching becomes a blanket designation where abstracts such as content introduction comes from one professional and ensuring learning happens across various other professionals (tutors, assessment creators, graders, learning analytics collectors, researchers)
I do not wish to unfairly sleight MOOC professors in this designation. A great deal of the MOOC literature on teaching includes quotes from professors noting how important the process of developing and delivering a MOOC has been to their understanding of pedagogy and the teaching process. This is admirable. But it is also frustrating, because the conversation of pedagogy has been ongoing for generations, viewing the lecture as an outdated method for learning rather than, in MOOC pedagogy , a structure that can be optimized through production values and time constraints (or, from Ian Bogost’s critical perspective, makes lecture a sitcom). There is a discussion to be had about pedagogy, access, scale and learning analytics, among other things. However, that conversation requires a basic level of historical understanding, lest education continues to reinvent the wheel or focus its energies on models researchers have already superseded.
And some of those superseded models represent shell games, ponzi schemes and a lack of safeguards in the proliferation of education. And that is where Donald Trump the educator finds himself lumped. A caricature to some (my first memory of Trump is seeing stacks of his board game in the clearance section of a Palm Springs toy store, a store ironically enough inside a mall that would be shuttered within the year and remain closed 20+ years later), Donald Trump has seen a great deal of success in his career, both as a real estate tycoon and a reality television character. His name is on tall buildings around the world. He has controlled a number of American news cycles in the last 24 months, first with question of Presidential ambition and then based on his questions about the legitimacy of President Obama’s citizenship. He has a whole lot of money. And that money came with a preconceived authority, which he parsed out to others to build a learning institute in his name, an institute he had little to do with and that allowed plausible deniability along its many employees and subordinates.
There will always be a manner of cultural authority that we pass along through popularized means and media. The argument that the cream rises to the top in a capitalist society will support the notion that quality will be rewarded financially, and that financial and popular recognition is based on merit, so the quality should be respected and admired. We as a society give voice and recognition to financial success moreso than critical. Many postmodernists and deconstructionists have argued the merits of this wisdom. More difficult to argue is the notion that success in a field comes with an ability to reflect success into wisdom, knowledge and pedagogy. The promise of MOOCs focuses on the access and the authority, but limits the professional educator to at best a supplemental role in the machine.