Nathan Heller’s new piece, “Laptop U: Has the Future of Higher Education Moved Online?” is a superb introduction to the debate concerning Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
For those of you who have been off the grid, here is some background. In fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig of Stanford University offered a free online course on artificial intelligence. Much to their surprise, the course attracted more than 160,000 students, logging in from 190 different countries. If enthusiasts for MOOCs are right, that course will be remembered as the shot heard ’round the world, the beginning of the MOOC revolution. Indeed, Thrun gave up tenure at Stanford and founded Udacity, a company devoted to producing and disseminating MOOCs, famously declaring that in 50 years’ time, there would be no more than 10 higher education institutions in the world. While even Thrun—perhaps for fear of provoking resistance to his enterprise—has backed off from that prediction, enthusiasm for MOOCS has only grown. Udacity, Coursera, and the Harvard-M.I.T. led Edx have already enrolled millions of students. I have written about MOOCs here.
The most important reason people are excited about MOOCs is that they promise dramatically to decrease the cost of education. It is simply cheaper to offer an online course to 100,000 students than it is to offer a face-to-face course to 30 students. And while something may be lost in this scaling up, something is gained, too. Students can hear from rock star lecturers, learn at their own pace, listen to lectures in short chunks, rather than for an hour and a half at a time, receive almost instant feedback on assignments, and participate in online forums with an enormously diverse group of students. Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and a co-founder of MRUniversity, ably explains some of the advantages here.
Yet Heller’s article, though it records the promises of MOOCs, also offers some reason for skepticism.
First, some MOOC enthusiasts do not seem to understand how education works. Heller observes that “comedians record their best performances for broadcast and posterity,” and asks “why shouldn’t college teachers do the same?” After all, “the basis of a reliable education, it would seem, is quality control, not circumstance.” But that isn’t true. Any teacher knows that circumstances matter: the characteristics of a particular generation of students, the qualities of the kinds of students one’s own college or university attracts, what is going on at the moment on campus or off, the chemistry of a particular group, and the strengths and weaknesses of individuals in it.
Good teaching calls not only for a grasp of general principles but attentiveness to the particulars. It requires prudence. A professor teaching 100,000 students, much less a recording of a professor teaching 100,000 students, is not in a position to exercise that virtue. Heller, who seems to be playing devil’s advocate early in the article, gestures at the importance of circumstance in teaching later in his piece, describing a face-to-face lecture he sits in on and the “strange transaction of watching someone who watches back, the eagerness to emanate support. Something magical and fragile was happening here, in the room.”
Magic is the wrong word, leaving the user vulnerable to Kevin Carey’s snark: “If the traditional college value-add boils down to intuiting the light in students’ eyes they’re in deep trouble.” But Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, is himself naïve if he scoffs at the idea that having a teacher or mentor who knows you is a “value-add.”
Second, MOOC enthusiasts sometimes exaggerate how innovative MOOCs are. For example, Heller reports on Harvard classicist Gregory Nagy’s reasons for thinking that “multiple-choice questions,” which are forced on him by the constraints of having to grade so many students, “are almost as good as essays.” One reason is that “The online testing mechanism explains the right response when students miss an answer. And it lets them see the reasoning behind the correct choice when they’re right.” That is what we in the education biz used to call “an answer key.”
One would not expect conservatives to be enthusiastic about MOOCs, which tend to involve more screen time and less reading, more multiple choice tests and fewer, if any essays, and more, not fewer, concessions to a student’s inability to pay attention for long periods of time. But some are excited about MOOCs because they promise, as Roger Kimball says, “to rip through the educational status quo, performing for that fetid redoubt a service similar to that performed by Hercules for Augeas, he of the largest and untidy stables.”
Colleges and universities, Kimball suggests, have largely been taken over by the left, and so there is no reason to mourn and some reason to celebrate the possibility that online learning will put many of them out of business. Thus a relative traditionalist like William Bennett is on Udacity’s advisory board, embracing Udacity in part because “traditional American higher education prides itself on a false promotion of diversity, opportunity and excellence.”
I am not a proponent of what Kevin Carey calls “MOOC denialism.” But it is a mistake to embrace MOOCs as readily as conservatives have thus far. For one thing, MOOC proponents have absolutely nothing to say about the purpose of education. MOOC companies simply offer menus from which students choose. Conservatives who have in the past allied themselves with proponents of liberal education should be skeptical that MOOCs will advance rather than further weaken liberal education. For another thing, if Thrun is even half right, we can expect the institutions that dominate the future of higher education to be the high-prestige places like Harvard, Berkeley, Wesleyan and others that have a national or international brand. It hardly seems likely that such institutions are going to help turn a false promise of diversity into a true one.
The hope that technological innovation will somehow enable conservatives to win a war they have been losing in the field of higher education is really a symptom of despair. If even a bit of a story like this one about Swarthmore is true, this despair is understandable (though Swarthmore is among the institutions least likely to suffer any damage from online competition). But without neglecting the possibility that MOOCs or some other version of online education may really make a decent education more widely and cheaply available, conservatives like Kimball should not act like spurned lovers, crying out that if they can’t have higher education, then nobody will. In cheering for a flood that will sweep away their enemies, they risk sweeping away what remains of liberal education and of intellectual diversity in the academy.
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Must-Reads from Magazine
Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.
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Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is a tyrant. It makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, but everything comes with a price tag. We may not recognize that which we are sacrificing in the pursuit of convenience, but we are sacrificing nonetheless.
The instant gratification associated with on-demand society has made America’s shared cultural moments a thing of the past. The explosion of online shopping has eliminated the time consumers wasted traveling from store to store, but physical retail is dying as a result. The modern public square and the daily human interactions that it encouraged will disappear along with it. Machine learning has the power to introduce a “more compassionate social contract” and reduce physical risk associated with workplace hazards or lifestyle choices. But risk is just another word for freedom and, in the pursuit of convenience, we risk sacrificing our independence along with our hardships.
“We’re really reinventing the traditional insurance model with our vitality program,” said Marianne Harrison, the CEO of one of North America’s largest life insurers, John Hancock, in a recent appearance on CNBC. The beaming insurance executive boasted of her firm’s effort to marry a “technology-based wellness program” with an “insurance product.” That’s a loaded way of saying that this American insurer is soon going to charge based on the real-time monitoring of your daily activities. Behavior-based insurance will track the health data of policyholders through wearable devices or smartphones and distribute rewards based on individual choices. You don’t have to wear a tracking device to participate in this program—at least, not yet. Harrison assured skeptics that they could also dole out rewards to policyholders who take simple steps like reading preapproved literature, the consumption of which they presumably track.
This innovation is optional today, but the savings it yields for both consumer and insurer guarantee that it will soon become a standard feature of the insurance landscape. Your freedom to eat poorly, use tobacco products, drink alcohol, or perform any number of physical activities that include varying levels of risk are not limited. You’ll just have to pay for them. And if Democratic policymakers succeed in nationalizing the private health insurance industry under the auspices of Medicare-for-all or single-payer or whatever other euphemisms they apply to the public confiscation of private property, these “tools” will only become more pervasive.
A similar rationale—the primacy of collective health—can be applied to any number of activities that invite unnecessary risk that technology can mitigate. Foremost among these is the terribly dangerous American habit of driving a car.
In 2017, there were over 40,000 automobile-related fatalities. This was the second consecutive year in which the roads were that deadly and, if observers who attribute this rate of fatal traffic accidents to an increase in smartphone ownership are correct, there will not be a decline anytime soon. A 2015 study purported to show that replacing manual vehicles with autonomous cars or vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems could eliminate up to 90 percent of all fatal accidents and save as many as 300,000 American lives each decade. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the option to own a driverless vehicle becomes a mandate with a hefty financial penalty imposed on those who opt out.
“[T]he threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend,” wrote National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke. Presently, the car transports its diver to wherever they’d like to go, whether there are roads to facilitate the journey or not. In a driverless world, as Cooke noted, the driver becomes a mere occupant. They must essentially ask the car for permission to transit from point A to point B, and the whole process is monitored and logged by some unseen authorities. Furthermore, that transit could ostensibly be subject to the veto of state or federal authorities with the push of a button. That seems a steep price to pay for a little convenience and the promise of safety.
The pursuit of convenience, as Professor Wu explained, has resulted in remarkable social leveling. We enjoy more time today for “self-cultivation,” once only the province of the wealthy and aristocratic, than at any point in history. And yet, we cannot know true liberty without hardship. “The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity,” Wu concluded.
There is more to celebrate in the technological revolutions of the last quarter-century than there is to lament. But in the pursuit of convenience, we’ve begun to make spontaneity irrational. In life, the rewards associated with experience are commensurate with that which is ventured. In a future in which the world’s sharp edges are bubble-wrapped, your life may exceed today’s average statistical length. But can you really call it living?
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Podcast: Christine Rosen on Brett Kavanaugh.
The podcast welcomes COMMENTARY contributor and author Christine Rosen on the program to discuss the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Have his confirmation hearings have transformed into another chapter in the national cultural reckoning that is the #MeToo moment?
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Justice both delayed and denied.
According to Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Chris Coons, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when she was a minor, did not want to come forward. In an eerie echo of Anita Hill’s public ordeal, her accusations were “leaked to the media.” With her confidentiality violated, Ford had no choice but to go public. Coons could not say where that leak came from, but he did confess that “people on committee staff” had access to the letter in which Ford made her allegations. Draw your own conclusions.
Though many observers insist that what we have witnessed since Ford’s allegations were made public is about justice, it’s hard to see any rectitude in this process. Ford has been transformed into a public figure apparently against her wishes. The details of the attack that Ford alleges are deeply disturbing, but they are not prosecutable. Ford’s recollection of the events 36 years ago is understandably hazy, but what she alleges to have occurred is too vague to establish with much accuracy. She cannot recall the precise date or location in which she was supposedly attacked. Contrary to the protestations of Senate Democrats like Kamala Harris, the FBI cannot get involved in a matter that is not within the federal government’s jurisdiction. And even if local authorities were inclined to involve themselves, the statute of limitations long ago elapsed.
With precious few facts available to congressional investigators and without the sobriety that public scrutiny in the age of social media abhors, the spectacle to which the nation is about to be privy is undoubtedly going to make things worse. A public hearing featuring both Ford and Kavanaugh will be a performative and political display, if it happens at all. It will be adorned with the trappings of courtroom proceedings but with none of the associated protections afforded accused and accuser alike. It will further polarize the nation such that, whether Kavanaugh is confirmed or not, public confidence in Congress and the Supreme Court will be severely damaged. And no matter what is said in that hearing, it is unlikely to change many minds.
Given the dearth of hard evidence, it is understandable that observers have begun to look to their own experiences to evaluate the veracity of Ford’s allegations. The Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan is the author of a powerful and compelling example of this kind of work. Her essay, entitled “I Believe Her,” is important for a variety of reasons. Maybe foremost among them is how she all but invalidates defenses of Kavanaugh that are based on the positive character references he’s assembled from former female acquaintances and ex-girlfriends. Flanagan was assaulted as a young woman, and her abuser—a man she says drove her to a suicidal depression similar to what Ford has described to her therapist—was not interested in a romantic relationship. CNN political commenter Symone Sanders, too, confessed that “there is no debate” in her mind as to Kavanaugh’s guilt, in part, because she was the victim of a sexual assault in college. The similarities between what she endured and what Ford says occurred are too hard for her to ignore.
These are harrowing stories, but they also reveal how little any of this has to do with Brett Kavanaugh anymore. For some, this has become a proxy battle in the broader cultural reckoning that began with the #MeToo moment. Quite unlike the many abusive men who were outed by this movement, though, the evidentiary standard being applied to Kavanaugh’s case is remarkably low. His innocence has not been presumed, and a preponderance of evidence has not been marshaled against him. It is not even clear as of this writing that Kavanaugh will be allowed to confront his accuser. At a certain point, honest observers must concede that getting to the truth has not been a defining feature of this process.
In the face of this adversity, there are some Republicans who are willing to sacrifice Kavanaugh’s nomination. Some appear to think that Kavanaugh’s troubles present them with an opportunity to advance their own political prospects and to promote a replacement nominee with whom they feel a closer ideological affinity. Others simply don’t want to risk standing by a tainted nominee. The stakes associated with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court are too high to confirm a justice with an asterisk next to his name—a justice who may tarnish future rulings on sensitive cases by association. Those Republicans are either capitulatory or craven.
Based on what we know now, Kavanaugh does not deserve an asterisk. Maybe he will tomorrow, but he doesn’t today. Those who would allow what is by almost all accounts an exemplary legal career to be destroyed by unconfirmable accusations or outright innuendo will not get a better deal down the line. Some Republicans are agnostic about Kavanaugh’s fate and believe that his being stopped will make room for a more doctrinaire conservative like Amy Coney Barrett. But they will not get their ideologically simpatico justice if they allow the defiling of the process by which she could be confirmed.
The experiences that Dr. Ford described are appalling. Even for those who are inclined to believe her account and think that she is due some restitution, no true justice can be meted out that doesn’t infringe on the rights of the accused. Those in the commentary class who would use Kavanaugh as a stand-in for every abuser who got away, every preppy white boy who benefited from unearned privilege, every hypocritical conservative moralizer to exact some karmic vengeance are not interested in justice. They want a political victory, even at the expense of the integrity of the American ideal. If there is a fight worth having, it’s the fight against that.