The disappearing public university

This is a revision, based on comments made by the editors, of the essay I ran here earlier, “On democracy, economy, and the rise and fall of the MOOC.”

The disappearing public university


I teach Latin American literature and culture in a public research university that, having lost half its state funding over the past five years, has moved at near warp speed to an entrepreneurial model. So as to become more current on pedogogical and policy issues affecting us and other institutions in similar situations, this summer I joined a Coursera MOOC and a Facebook group where faculty from around the country discuss online teaching.

In 2008, the year the markets crashed, the Gates Foundation announced a new focus, on recasting postsecondary education as a credentialing process. Gates and other private foundations dedicated to the educational “reform” movement donated generously to news organizations covering higher education. The opinion pages of newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal advanced the foundation agenda, touting the advantages of massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Backed by venture capital, these low-cost courses would allegedly solve the budget crisis in higher education by supplanting traditional universities. Taught by the best faculty, in the most modern way, MOOCs would be a pedagogical improvement as well as a device to cut costs or perhaps, raise revenue.

The MOOC I took, however, was pedagogically weak. The topic was Latin American culture. The professor had no academic preparation in field. The course bore the brand of an institution which does not recognize it for credit, even from the division for continuing education.

In six weeks we were assigned one academic article. Other readings, and lectures appeared to be derived from popular encyclopedias. They offered shapeless, often outdated lists of names and facts. Key readings were policy proposals from private foundations and international organizations based in G-8 countries, informed by assumptions about the region that were never debated. A typical discussion question was, “Has urbanization encouraged development in Latin America?” We had quiz questions on whether global warming had an effect on Latin America, whether eco-tourism available, and whether Latin Americans had contributed to world literature.

By the third week there were active forum threads on design weaknesses of every type, from the poor quality of questions to the chaotic architecture of the website. Other common complaints were the inaccessibility of the professor, and the lack of monitoring on the forums, and a grading system that ignored content in favor of form.

Automated messages from Coursera, meanwhile, told us we were wonderful students, dedicated to learning. Would we like to join the Signature Track, offering a paper diploma and a signature in ink? The Signature Track normally cost $59, but it was available for a special price of $29.

Soon the approach to the material came under serious challenge. The course assumed a Latin American cultural unity, based on a common past and presaging future glory. It drew on mid-twentieth century developmentalism, and emphasized the importance of free trade. Many students knew how dated and how partial these perspectives were, and the discussions questioning them were spirited.

Students also set up web pages to help each other search for more comprehensive and more objective sources, and more nuanced discussions of Latin American cultural processes. The pages attempted to counterbalance the lack of authentic materials from Latin America in the course, and the preponderance of material from organizations defining Latin America as a “problem” to be solved by Europe and the United States. This was “peer-to-peer” learning, but we could have engaged in it at a higher level had we not been obliged to excavate basic materials and cast off outdated arguments first.

We were at a disadvantage in comparison with students in regular online courses, since they can count on library databases, journals, e-books, and bibliographic guides, as well as online chat and telephone consultation with reference librarians. The lack of access to such resources rarely comes up in discussions of MOOCs. But library resources are essential to any “top-tier” education.

This apparent oversight may indicate a deeper problem in the MOOC ideology. The claim that learning is best done without teaching, imagine that these do not go together, and that research is unrelated to either. It would be disingenous to say my MOOC classmates improved upon traditional university education by sidelining the professor and engaging in collaborative learning.

The students did pool resources to discuss the course topic, despite the lack of materials and of a professor working in field. Given an informed and engaged professor, richer course materials, and access to a research library, things normally provided in university courses, the quality of discussion and of collaborative projects could have risen higher.

Is the MOOC I took an anomaly? Or is it what MOOCs may become once the current fervor wanes? Are star-led MOOCs the wave of the future? Or will these be a small vanguard of loss leaders, designed to legitimate the new convention, but soon to be diluted in cost-cutting mediocrity?

In my Facebook discussions on MOOCs and online teaching with faculty nationwide, it became evident that a well thought out MOOC is expensive to create and to run. Those preparing MOOCs reported large investments of equipment, time, and technical assistance. Much of this preparation would have to be repeated for each iteration of the course, if it were to remain fresh. Only MOOCs preserved like yellowed lecture notes, would be inexpensive.

To think clearly about well-tempered MOOCs, we might separate the projects of making education more affordable, and offering courses from US universities to global audiences. Their conflation, through the intimation that the work of corporations like Coursera is a philanthropic project to “democratize” access to higher education, muddies the issues substantially. Privatization often sells itself by offering both democracy and economy, as it stakes out new resources to monetize. We should not let this rhetoric direct our thinking on educational practice.

Finally, although the desire to improve educational quality worldwide may be laudable, it overlooks state institutions like mine, hard-hit by the funding crisis. Can MOOCs save our students? Stay tuned.


Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have been aggressively promoted as strategies for teaching large numbers of students, in ways both more “efficient” and more pedagogically sound than the courses we give now. The companies offering these courses, as well as some faculty developing them, have also presented MOOCs as altruistic ways of extending the resources of our most privileged institutions to students worldwide.

This discussion condescends to foreign universities, an issue on which Jon Beasley-Murray has written eloquently. Like the representation of MOOCs as a way to provide top-flight education to students who have not gained admission to college, it overlooks the hundreds of thousands of students who have enrolled only to find that their institutions are being defunded and dismantled at a furious pace.

Universities nationwide are being forced to curtail programs. Students graduate with a debt burden that severely limits their horizons. Many faculty are part-timers without access to a living wage, let alone resources for teaching or professional development. Libraries have had acquisitions budgets eliminated, and journal subscriptions cut. Faculty and students are no longer considered primary stakeholders in the university, and administrators are tasked with repurposing our institutions to more commercial ends.

Serious as this situation is, it is premature to take it as a fait accompli whose remedy will be MOOCs and other corporate solutions. Focus groups and “town hall” meetings at our universities may urge us to leave the past behind, invent strategies for accommodation or survival, and accept corporatization as the only viable solution to the funding crisis. But the interest venture capital takes in us should indicate that we still have assets worth saving. To put the case more strongly, we are assets worth saving. We should push back against the defunding and dismantling of our institutions.

My second MOOC starts tomorrow, and I can already see it has been far better conceived than the first. Indirectly or directly, MOOCs might generate cash for both corporate backers and institutions. Already privileged global students, the ones with good English skills and fast Internet connections, may benefit from them just as I am about to benefit from mine. But MOOCs are mere toys in comparison with what actual universities have to offer.

My university has robust distance learning programs for those who cannot travel to campus, and we are expanding our online offerings. We do not lecture from stale textbooks. Our course websites are well administered, and most courses are richly enhanced with a variety of media. Colleagues from around the country give guest lectures, in person and by Skype. In-state tuition and living expenses together are $15,000 a year. We are not “broken,” but we have surely taken a beating. We have good rates of placement in jobs as well as in graduate and professional schools, but we would like to offer more.

Rather than accept further gutting and the corporate solutions which, as in other instances of structural adjustment, are waiting in the wings, we should work to meet our actual needs. Much more than support from Udacity or Coursera we need, not in any particular order:

a. For the library: acquisitions, as there are fields in which we own no materials from the present century, and continued maintenance of all current subscriptions.

b. For study abroad: expanded programs, office support for these, and also locally based financial aid supplements since we are utterly dependent upon Federal scholarships, which are inadequate.

c. Smart classrooms: so we can access the Internet and use other a/v materials in all courses, without having to apply ahead of time for use of a special room on a special day.

d. FTEs, so students are not taught by a patchwork of adjuncts, and tenure-track lines, so that students can be taught by experts currently engaged in research.

e. Salaries and benefits adequate to recruit and retain quality faculty. At present we only contribute 1.5% of salary to retirement funds of new hires. With the lack of raises since 2008, instructors are now teaching up to seven courses per term so as to make ends meet. This cannot fail to have an impact on the quality of instruction.

f. Restoration of regular sabbaticals, summer salary support, research and travel funding, including funding for travel to discipline-specific conferences on pedagogy; and funds for the acquisition of books and other research and teaching materials.

All of these these things, it should be noted, are not luxuries, but essentials if we are to maintain and enhance quality teaching and learning, or research. They are what we have renounced as budgets shrank. These, and not corporate pedagogies, continue to be our needs.

The MOOC fervor has been instructive because it so well illustrates the mechanisms, both practical and rhetorical, by which institutions are gutted and public monies are moved to private coffers. Arguments for expanding access to higher education ring hollow in the absence of credible public investment in it. When defunding requires us to cut services and raise tuition, it is easy to say that quality and value are declining. The problem must be pedagogy, and the answer must be a new, commercial product.

This strategy has been exposed, but the discussion may have advanced the redefinition of university education as credentialing, and teaching as training. These propositions will surely arise again, in service of the agenda on, or against higher education that has been in place since the Reagan administration. We should not allow those who view us as resources to exploit define our problems, or prescribe their solutions.



9 thoughts on “The disappearing public university

    1. The response by Richard Hall to that quite dogmatically economistic (and technologically deterministic) post is quite impressive– very worthy stuff. See the comments.

  1. Taking an elementary course in a subject that you are an expert in doesn’t give you a student’s eye view of the course. Try taking a course in something you know nothing or very little about – preferably in a field far from you own. Read other students comments.

    There are lots of poor and mediocre courses in regular universities, so it’s hardly surprising that some exist on MOOCs.

    1. You’d be surprised how easy it is to go into student mode — do you take courses and workshops regularly (I do)? And how easy it is to know what other students say and what experience they are having if you are talking to them (as you do if you are taking a course, and which MOOCs make you do even more).

      Course was not elementary; topic was something anyone can always stand to learn more about; student comments were blistering (did you even read my piece?), and MOOCs are supposed to be the best courses with the best faculty … so where do you get off justifying it by saying there are always bad courses?

      Could repeat more from my piece(s) here but have to go to class. Note one of the points here though: prof. had no academic background in field. In a real school, no matter how “bad,” prof. has to have background in field. That’s a step up right there.

      And: get away troll, I can smell your trollish nature from here. Read the link in my comment above, it is very instructive.

    2. Actually what seems to be coming out is that the people who do best in MOOCs / that MOOCs do best for are people who already know a lot about the subject. This enables them to deal with the course, and the course can serve as an institutional credential for people who learned things in other ways.

      Also see the link above, on what MOOCs were imagined as before they got into the hands of Coursera and so on…

  2. Ultimately, what is damning about the present pro-MOOC, anti-public-higher-ed rhetoric is that it can mobilize a brutal skepticism against any claim that professors who doubt the advance of the MOOC are concerned about the quality and outcome of education. Everything can simply be reduced to “those liberal eggheads just want to keep their jobs.” In an economy in which most of the jobs are now know-nothing jobs, we can perhaps see why using a know-nothing attack against public higher ed would make sense. But it’s fucking depressing. I dream every day of leaving this country. (signed, a fellow academic at a public institution not in your area of the country)

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