Warning: Thomas Friedman is an Education Expert Now

I am reluctant to review newspaper articles or op-ed pieces in the same way I have handled journal articles, series chapters or literature from the developers of MOOC platforms.  However, if utilizing a critical theory lens, no discourse can be ignored, especially when it is presented as dominant ideology.  And few volumes have such a cultural resonance as the New York Times and bestselling author Thomas Friedman.

Friedman commands an audience, though his pedigree to do so has been hotly debated.  Whether deserving or not, Friedman recently moderated a Davos-sponsored roundtable discussion of “how philanthropic resources and technology are being integrated to foster the growing revolution in online education.”  According to Ian Bogost, those in attendance were “two billionaires [Bill Gates & Peter Thiel], two profs who quit to be entrepreneurs [Sebastian Thurn & Daphnie Koller], 2 uni. presidents (one forced out of office) [Rafael Reif & Larry Summers], and Friedman.”  Bogost does not mention Sal Khan or Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, but his point is a valid one — this is a panel void of the vast majority of education stakeholders.  One could argue that Thurn and Koller stand for the professor prospective, but Thurn is on record as noting that he never engaged in educational theory or pedagogy, using content and panache to get his point across (and it is easy to argue that this is indicative of many of the educators heralded by the xMOOC movement, who note how MOOCs are the first time they have put thought into their manner of teaching…and a critical theorist/pedagogue would argue that the thought put in at this point is mediated by software developers, computer scientists and venture capitalists).  Perhaps Friedman is qualified to lead such a discussion, but such a discussion would be found wanting on a stakeholder level.

Stakeholders are not necessary, however, and policy and public opinion are developed through a hodgepodge of influencers.  Whether MOOCs as a system will disrupt higher education is not the only question — because of the attention and energy behind MOOCs, higher education has already changed, and the public/private, scalable aspects are gaining great traction before any of the scholarly research goes to print.  Friedman’s op-ed might lack the rigor of academic pieces, but it makes up for it in eyes viewed and opinions shifted.  That is why his words deserve the same scrutiny as anyone else casting their lot with the MOOC movement.  As always, the following assumes a reading of Friedman’s work.

*There’s a lot to unpack in this statement:

Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity.

The first and second sentence are not synchronous — education for an employable means is an incomplete picture, at least as education was considered by the likes of Dewey and others interested in authentic democratization.  This is the role of skills and what George Siemens calls competency-based learning, something he looks at as reductive.  The focus on competencies is instead of a broader focus on the elements of learning necessary to tackle large-scale, multi-faceted problems.

As for the third sentence, where was Friedman when MIT started OpenCourseware in 2001?  Or when David Wiley started bringing Open Educational Resources to higher ed in 2007?  That is reimagination, not lectures online.

*Friedman heralds the abilities of MOOCs to enroll students, talking about the enrollment numbers rather than completion rates…but of course, the terms aren’t based on enrollment, rather on students taking courses.  Anant Agarwal gives a quote often heard, saying edX has more students in a semester than MIT has had in its entire existence.  Of course, once you get a bit into the numbers, things look different.  A new study on MOOC completion rates deflates some of the pomp and pageantry around the enrollment numbers — you should read the entire article, but results of Coursera’s Computational Investing course showed that only half of enrollees participated at all, only a quarter did any work, and less than five percent completed the course.  Of that five percent, the vast majority are white, upper class males, and there is an extreme bias toward people who have already completed graduate degrees.

This plays into the idea that MOOC as supplement to learning could have legs (review material, utilize as part of a conference, incorporate into libraries and museums), but as a stand-alone learning system it lacks a great deal of what makes teaching a profession (scaffolding, motivation, context).

*Friedman does address the dropout rate, as well as the affluence and education of those who do complete.  But he rests on faith and well-worn platitudes to move past that hurdle:

I am convinced that within five years these platforms will reach a much broader demographic. Imagine how this might change U.S. foreign aid. For relatively little money, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.

Ignoring the issues of education and pedagogy, Friedman rests on the globalization and democratization that could happen here.  And we get back to the line about “best professors in the world,” even though these best professors are quoted extensively in this and other articles as saying that they never thought about what was wrong with their teaching until they had to record it…and then they never reflect on the idea that content does not equal teaching.

*We then get into the stories from those who have worked with the MOOCs — the best professors who are excited to have their lectures around the world.  That must be great, no doubt.  But how is this different than what the Internet has done for 30 years — provide content?  Now there are summative assessments as well, and discussion rooms…but 10 minutes of studying Etienne Wenger will tell you that communities grow out of need, these have sprung up without the help of learning systems, and you can’t force it.

*According to Friedman, MIT President L. Rafael Reif sees the following:  L. Rafael Reif, something that we now call a “degree” will be a concept “connected with bricks and mortar” — and traditional on-campus experiences that will increasingly leverage technology and the Internet to enhance classroom and laboratory work. Alongside that, though, said Reif, many universities will offer online courses to students anywhere in the world, in which they will earn “credentials” — certificates that testify that they have done the work and passed all the exams. 

This is where democratization breaks down, because within this argument is the idea of pay for play.  The online course is inexpensive and results in credentials.  The degree is connected with an expensive bricks and mortar experience.  Democratization suffers as we have a stratification based on cost.  Granted, there are serious problems with the cost of higher education today, but providing a lesser education to the masses is not an answer acceptable to those looking for authentic democratization.