Can’t Find the Love: Reflection on Sharky v. Bady (with help of a few friends)

I know this title sounds like a bad song lyric from the 80’s, but it’s the feeling I cannot seem to shake no matter how many articles I read on MOOCs. Oh, please don’t get me wrong; I really want to find the love. The utopian appeal of the concept of Massive Open Online Courses is difficult to ignore. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “almost 67% of college students who graduated in 2012 had loans, up from 63% a decade ago”. Many critics complain that the government’s long defunding of state education is to blame.

In a news article, on the site Genius, author and educator Dr. Cathy Davidson writes that it is a product of a pattern of neoliberalism, dating back to the “late 18th and early 19th century” (footnote: she also shares a short castigation on the subject during Unit 1’s video on our Connected Courses MOOC). She also points out that this is not unique to U.S., that there are instances of the same pattern across the globe. The most radical followers of this neoliberalism concept believe that no state money should go to public education, that it should be funded and managed by industry and private companies. Clay Shirky provides a slightly different explanation for the rising costs of education.

In his blog, back in 2012, Shirky pointed to Baumol’s cost disease. Applied primarily to public sector jobs now, the original study looked at the number of musician’s needed to play a Beethoven string quartet in the 19th century. It takes the same number of musicians now, but the salaries have increased significantly from that time. That cost increase is in turn passed on to the consumer (the audience). However, they are not receiving more musical notes for their money now than the audience did back when Ludwig was first collecting his groupies.  The finding goes that applying new technology does not reduce the number of musicians needed to produce the piece, but does this hold up today. Arguably, I say no. I understand the point, but I think computers and synthesizers devalue this analogy now. Likewise, can technology counteract the disease that is eating the pockets of students today?

Bady staunchly questions that. He critiqued a number of Clay’s points, but I think the most glaring was how Shirky, and others, overlook “the way this country used to provide inexpensive and high-quality education to all sorts of people who couldn’t afford to go to Yale”. Bady echoes Dr. Davidson’s concerns about States’ defunding of higher education, but he interprets Shirky as offering MOOC’s as a total solution to the access problem rather than asking “why have we stopped aspiring to provide the real thing for everyone?” Maybe instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water we should take a closer look at why the baby got so dirty and work on efficient ways of preventing it from happening again.


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