Could the MOOC save education?

Two weeks ago, in this space, I offered a few observations about the rise of the massive, open, online course (MOOC) and my initial experience with a course on the subject of Global Climate Change.

At some future date, if the crick don’t rise, I will expand upon what I’ve learned about Anthropocentric Global Warming (AGW).  For now, let’s focus on the possibilities of a world in which MOOCs are becoming a real educational option.

My long-time readers will know that my critique of modern education begins with the proposition that we, as a society, have no idea what we want our schools to accomplish.
We get little guidance from professional educators – especially the well-paid, high-ranking  administrators of our universities and public school systems – who are, for the most part, mere politicians.  For surely, their agendas are political – defending and, when possible, seeking to expand their bureaucratic empires.   

That’s why the favorite “reform” of public school administrators is universal pre-K – a proposal which would, at enormous cost, add a fourteenth year of school to their empires.

That’s why administrations of both parties embrace “high stakes testing” – essentially a method of assuring mediocrity in the schools by driving out the sorts of creative teachers who make middle- and high school bearable, and intellectually challenging.

It might seem, at first blush, that mediocrity in our public schools is an odd goal for a school administrator.  And so it is.  But parents and other taxpayers should keep in mind that our public schools place extraordinary emphasis on the curious goal of drop-out prevention.  

It’s important to remember that school administrators, and most others in the public school lobby, are firmly convinced of this:  That simply keeping a teenager in a school building, without his assaulting anyone or setting the place on fire, is a good thing.

In the educational community, there’s enormous faith in the proposition that simply attending school is beneficial to a young person.

But that’s not all.  For the people who run our schools, higher enrollments mean more public money, more classrooms, more teaching positions, and more power.  For our teachers’ unions, higher enrollments mean more jobs – and larger membership rolls.

And a curriculum which defines expectations in terms of passing bubble-tests, instead of developing critical and creative thinking skills, is deemed a good way of keeping kids from dropping out.

In other words, mediocrity fills the classroom.

Thus, President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and President Obama’s “Race to the Top” program, with its heavy Federal pressure to adopt the Common Core.  Both “reforms” are heavy on adopting a “teach to the test” curriculum.

In K-12 education – soon, perhaps to be Pre-K- 12 – the bureaucratic goal is to keep more kids in school, for more years, days and hours.  It’s all about building empires, and not much about actual learning.

The same is true at the college and graduate level.  The great dream of university presidents is an ever-increasing Federal commitment to “college for everyone” – at taxpayer expense – allowing them to continue expanding enrollments while perpetually raising tuition, fees other sources of revenue.

A whole generation of students is now in a sort of debtors’ prison constructed out of high tuition costs and attractively low-interest loans – despite the increasing evidence that their expensive degrees afford them no special access to successful careers.

But our present President talks blithely of making college accessible to everyone – meaning, presumably, every 18-year-old who manages to obtain a dumbed-down, teach-to-the- test, high school diploma.  

Which should surprise no one.  Hollywood puts its dollars into movies where plot, character, and acting take a back seat to hot bodies, high-speed chases, massive, non-Newtonian explosions, and feel-good endings which leave room for a sequel.

At the cineplex, mediocrity fills seats.

At the public local high school and state university, the same is true.

Now, into this educational morass – with its strangely inverted sense of values – comes something new.  

The MOOC might be co-opted as a way of further assuring the mediocrity of our existing educational system.

But if we are wise, it also has the potential to lead a movement back toward something valid, purposeful, and sane.

The key is for Americans to decide whether the goal of education is to award “credit” for sitting through a course and receiving a piece of paper which largely acknowledges that we have put in our fanny-time – or to reward the acquisition of actual knowledge and skills, regardless where they are attained.

In other words, the challenge is to create a system which allows us to assess individuals on what they know, and what they can do – rather than on whether they can produce  diploma, degree, or transcript.

What if we liberated education from the schools and universities – and made it the responsibility of the individual?  What if...?

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