Tag Archives: Agarwal

Meet the New Hype, Same as the Old Hype

Quick note on Coursera founder Daphne Koller’s quote from Friday’s Wall Street Journal:

If you put an instructor to sleep 300 years ago and woke him up in a classroom today, he’ll say, ‘Oh, I know exactly where I am’

This sort of ahistoric bluster is nothing new.  My favorite example is from edX CEO Anant Agarwal from 2014, which came from a keynote at Campus Technology’s 2014 conference.  Agarwal had a photo of a 1950s MIT classroom as a slide, and accompanied it with this quote:


What is interesting about this photo is that nothing has changed…[Other industries have been transformed, and learners have changed, but education hasn’t changed]…It is pathetic that the education system has not changed in hundreds of years.

In the interest of full disclosure, this was not the picture from Dr. Agarwal’s presentation.  I know this because a 1950s picture of a MIT lecture hall would not have nearly that many female students.  In 1955, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Place of Women at MIT believed women were not successful undergraduates, a position contrary to the attitude of Chancellor Julius Stratton but evidenced by the low enrollment of female students.  It would taken 10 more years for attitudes to change at MIT, and nearly a generation after that before levels of gender equity would fall more in line with similar universities.

This is not Dr. Agarwal’s first ahstoric bemoaning of  the lack of change in education; just two years ago he was painted by Inside Higher Ed to be gobsmacked by education-related research from 1972.

Education changed 300 years ago, and 200 years ago, and 100 years ago, and 70 years ago and 60 years ago and 50 years ago and so forth.  Even in the past 3.5 years, since the MOOC monolith, education has changed…what has not changed is the ahistoric narrative sold by MOOC developers.

For more examples of how education has changed, and just from a lens of equity, there is a great Hack Education piece from 2012 on the very subject.



Same as it Ever Was – The Global Freshman Academy

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 marketed 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.