Professor Mike Niman on lowering higher education

Last week Barack Obama visited SUNY/Buffalo, where I got my BA, to talk about education. My friend Mike Niman was not entirely pleased with the president’s message:

The frustrating thing about Obama’s visit is, while he addressed the problem [of much higher costs for post-secondary students], the cause seemed to have eluded him. The math is not fuzzy here, Mr. President. A 2012 study by two Federal Reserve economists documented the relationship between dwindling government support of higher education and increasing tuition. …

One way colleges and universities absorbed state aid cuts is by cutting, and in many cases, decimating academic programs, replacing retiring professors with an exploited overworked contingent “part time” workforce where in many cases workers barely earn minimum wage after calculating grading, prep, course material research, and meeting hours. This trend, which goes back three decades, has transformed academic institutions from environments where ideas were born and nurtured and intellects exercised and developed, into places where ideas are flattened, packaged, and “delivered” on the cheap.

This is the corporate mold for higher education—a system where vendors sell “deliverable” education products. …

The corporate product underlying this delivery system is the “MOOC” (Massive Open Online Course). It works like this: MOOC vendors contract with elite institutions such as Harvard to teach real college classes to privileged students. In many cases they’ll employ the traditional Socratic method of participatory discussion. No doubt this will be an excellent class—for those present in the classroom. The whole experience will be recorded by the MOOC vendors who will deliver the course virtually to the rest of the college world where less fortunate students will watch the elite students participate.

Academic workers, either at decimated campuses or online, will administer assessment tools and, in the best cases, facilitate a scripted discussion. In the worst cases there are no such workers. What we get is a sort of apartheid where working and middle-class students pay to watch the privileged learn in the sort of dynamic, interactive classrooms that once defined a good public liberal arts education. …

The result is that even the select information snippets and factoids that the MOOCS and other online education technologies deliver seldom get the mental reflection and contemplation needed to move them from short-term to long-term memory. For this, one needs to participate in a class rather than simply interact as a voyeur. Perhaps this is why graduates of virtual colleges and universities tend to be less successful in attaining their life goals. It’s because they never actually went to college despite the huge amount of time spent and debt accrued in procuring their online diplomas.

So far, all we’ve seen from such “reform” is an overpriced, second-class education.

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