Reading Julia’s excellent post on MOOCs got me thinking about the issues that surround them generally and Janet Stemwedel’s comments in particular. I certainly agree with both of them that MOOCs aren’t going to provide the same richness of experience as actually sitting in a classroom at a place like Wellesley (not that I’ve ever sat in a classroom at Wellesley myself – I’m chromosomally disqualified – but if Julia and the other Wellesley grads I’ve met are any indication, sitting in Wellesley’s classrooms must have a pretty awesome effect on people). And yes, maybe investing time and resources in MOOCs delays or prevents the realization of structural, foundational change in the landscape of higher education that will provide more people with access to the Wellesley experience. But if I’m telling a working-class adult learner who would never be able to access a place like Wellesley today (for logistical and financial reasons on their end and for reasons of reputation management, rankings, and also finances on Wellesley’s end) that a MOOC they can access is soul-deadening and hopelessly inferior to the real thing, what am I really doing to make their life better? How is my argument that a rejection of MOOCs today will speed up the arrival of a Wellesley-for-everyone promised land 30 years from now going to fly with a person who has bills to pay today and is trying desperately to move up in their career today? It’s easy for me to dismiss financially-motivated educational pursuits as the crass exploits of deluded or unenlightened philistines, but I’m not trying to, for instance, raise children as a single parent. We don’t even know for sure that by forgoing MOOCs today we will guarantee that this utopia will arrive in 30 years or 50 years or what have you. What we are then essentially asking people to do is give up some small piece of advantage today in return for vague promises of even better days at some undetermined point in the future. I feel like I see this pattern in a lot of arguments that sociologists and sociologist-types make, like when people problematize center-left economic policies as preventing the realization of a classless society. Maybe those people are all correct. But what gets overlooked in these arguments, I think, is the thorny ethical question of whether we should sacrifice smaller victories for people today in favor of rolling the dice on a future utopia. And we make these calls in relative isolation from the perspectives and life experiences of those who are most interested in accessing the small victories that we poo-poo as insufficient or as sad bastardizations of the utopian ideal.
And I’m not even sure that we’re being completely honest about how willing we are to bring this utopia about. Janet Stemwedel says of the students at San Jose State University, where she now teaches a vastly different sort of student body than she was a part of at Wellesley – more first generation college students and students balancing education with work and family responsibilities – “These are students who need an educational experience like the one Wellesley provided for me.” I don’t doubt that this is true, but I think that the experience Wellesley provided for her is, in large part, dependent upon keeping people like the SJSU crowd out, or at least limiting their representation. This isn’t to pick on Wellesley; the same is true for most high-prestige universities that take pride in small-classroom environments. Broader access to Wellesley and places like it would dilute the potency of what makes them unique. People like Janet Stemwedel use the restricted access to places like Wellesley to their advantage – a large number of other people who might be every bit as good of a professor or public intellectual as she is if given the opportunity are screened out of the competition early by being steered by financial and logistical and cultural forces to a place like SJSU, where the opportunities to use the school as a stepping stone to a gig like she has now, while perhaps not nonexistent, certainly aren’t as readily available as they would be at a place like Wellesley. If she really wants to open Wellesley up, what exactly does she suggest? Double the size of the classes by bringing in people who would otherwise have gone to SJSU in addition to having the “typical” Wellesley students? If that happens, will the Wellesley experience that she speaks so highly of still exist, with classrooms twice as big as they used to be and more competition for Professors’ attention? Or maybe you could take a current group of 20 students in a Wellesley class and decide that 10 of them will be chosen to be sent to SJSU, in exchange for bringing 10 SJSU students to Wellesley. Will the Wellesley students be chomping at the bit to transfer to SJSU in the name of bringing the utopia closer to fruition? Probably not – they’re making the decision to put their own immediate advantage above bringing about utopia – the same sort of decision that we dismiss as short-sighted when the person making the decision is a working-class nontraditional learner signing up for a MOOC. I don’t blame them; I would choose to stay at Wellesley as well. But we should at least be mindful of how these decisions perpetuate inequalities.
I suppose someone could say that I’m being inappropriately zero-sum regarding money and influence and prestige as resources. Maybe we could have a world where Janet Stemwedel enjoys all the advantages she has now and a bunch of SJSU graduates have them too. If we could just get the government or big business or someone other than Janet Stemwedel herself to sacrifice some of their own power and give it to SJSU students, then the SJSU students and Janet Stemwedel would be riding high and we could all live happily ever after. Perhaps, but I think that is the same sort of utopian vision – in this case, of fundamental transformation of society’s financial investments and its appetite for public intellectuals – that I’ve tried to problematize. Are MOOCs a magic bullet for addressing the issues I’ve laid out here? Probably not, but neither is blanket rejection of them.