Friday, August 8, 2014

The cost of Open

This past week on the #rhizo14 facebook group my colleague, and co-author, Rebecca Hogue posted a link to this TED talk by Shai Reshef on the Ultra-Low Cost University. This talk really bugged me for a variety of reasons. On the facebook group I wrote that I was angry when I saw this, but it was really more of a "WTF" reaction to the video.  More disbelief that the incredible amount of BS†, and the attempt to place a reality distortion field around this product.

With a new cMOOC on the horizon for next week titled "Why Open," I thought this would be a good chance to elaborate more on why I had such a visceral reaction to this video. As a side note, if you are interested in the whole Open thing, check out Stanford's Open Online Course starting this fall semester online. The topic is interesting, but after #whyopen, Wiley's #ioe12, and being steeped in this culture for the past decade, I don't know what a 13-week course (traditional semester) has to offer me personally (well that, and I am starting my no time at hand even if I wanted to).

Anyway, back to this TED talk. I guess the main point is that People's University, which is an accredited degree granting institution, you can attend university online, for "only" $1000 per year. How is such a marvel done?  Through the use of Open Educational Resources on the web of course! This is a "new model of higher education" which will expand the capabilities of people who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to pursue higher education. The prompt of this presentation is to focus on parts of the world and see people chasing higher education.  I would argue that they are chasing education and knowledge, not necessarily higher education, but I'll get to that later.

So we're shown some tug-at-the-heart stories, an African, a Middle-Eastern, and a lower income US case.  People with a dream to pursue higher education. These people had very good grades in high school, but life intervened and they could not attend college, or didn't have the money, or they are victims of a male-dominated society where women aren't allows to enter a "man's realm" like higher education. Now, only a callous idiot wouldn't feel something at this point. A yell for equality, a hurrah  for pursuing and achieving one's dreams, a "let's set the world right!" attitude should be the normal human response, and that's what the presenter is going for! He is presenting selected case of people to illicit an emotional response and put aside any potential arguments or roadblocks on his idea. Despite my belief that education should be available to all, this presentation and his arguments have holes in them.

My first issue is this: "Going to college" seen as an end in-and-of-itself.  The people showcased at the beginning of this presentation have the dream of higher education, but do they?  Is it the sheep skin (diploma) that matters? Or is it what it signifies?  For instance, my father never went to college. He finished some technical school and got into the workforce early.  However, he is a voracious reader. Over the last 30 years of my life he's read diverse topics including literature, philosophy, legal texts, biology, physics and history. He likes to read, to ponder, and to debate with others. Sometimes he can get under your skin, but the spark for knowledge is there. Would college make sense for him?  Probably not. He has established his career, and he has the skills necessary to be a life-long learner. Getting a diploma isn't something that is necessary for him, but what is important is the end-result: knowledge, both mind-expanding and action-oriented knowledge.  Do these use cases want knowledge for everyday (and not-so-everyday) life? Or do they want the diploma and the bragging rights of having finished college? The presentation seems to indicate that they want the latter, whereas the important bit is the former.

My second issue with this video is the infomercial nature of the presentation. Words such as "disruption" and "power of the internet" just seamlessly flow into this uncritical discourse with statements such as "disrupt the current higher education system and open the gates for all qualified students" and  "we didn't need to reinvent the wheel, we just looked at what was not working and used the amazing power of the internet to get around it." This just makes me think of higher education like it's a shamwow, and Shai Reshef is Vince Offer in this scenario. Words like these are like intellectual fast food.  You may bite into them and get a rush, but they leave you wanting more since there is little substance behind them.

My third issue here revolves around the cost, and the inappropriate comparisons between on-campus and online education. On-campus universities have costs which online ones do not, or so Shai says, so there is no cost to pass on to the students. I guess what Shai is referring to here are physical plant costs like offices, classroom, and buildings; with their associated costs of internet connection, heat, water, cleaning, and human staffing!  I guess you don't need that online...but oh, wait... you do!  You need people who are working for an institution who make sure students are progressing through their studies and receiving proper advising and mentorship, you do need qualified teaching personnel to teach and mentor, you need proctors to proctor exams, you need these people to be connected to the web so that they can undertake all these tasks, and you need them to be housed somewhere to make this happen.  On top of this you need access to reliable, easy-to-use, online platforms, be they PLNs or LMSs, or synchronous conferencing tools.  These things cost money, real money!  How do we get past this?

My fourth issue:  This statement bothers me because it reminds me of silly thinking of the early aughts when online degree programs were coming online: "there are no limits in seats for virtual universities." Perhaps we can cram them all in, as we see with MOOCs it's easy to just hit an enroll button for the course. The technology is here to support us, I don't disagree with that.  However we still need humans to act as trainers, facilitators, mentors, and evaluators of student work.  Those people still cost money, and as established in point #3, that costs money!

My fifth issue revolves around the area of free textbooks and OER. Because OER is available, students do not need to buy textbooks, hence saving a pretty penny! Shai does acknoledge that this is possible due to the generosity of professors who've made their materials available in OER format,  I think the point is really brushed over. It's not just OER that's free though, "even professors, the most expensive line item on the balance sheet of any University comes free to [the University of the People] students."  While I don't doubt that there are many out there who volunteer their time to create OER, Open Textbooks, edit open access journals, and heck even be a mentor, this is only possible because someone else is paying for their salary!  OER seems to often be a happy by-product of someone else's paid work, and people who volunteer do so because they have time available to them.  Time made available from employer flexible employment policies and because their employer is paying them a wage that can (supposedly) sustain these individuals.  I can speculate, with a degree of certainty, that those adjuncts who teach five or more courses per semester to make ends meet don't volunteer for any such endeavors. Their basic needs, according to Maslow, are being met, so that they can now focus on those higher needs like self-actualization though volunteerism.  In essence, and in my opinion, the UoPpl is leeching off the current system that it aims to disrupt!

My sixth issue: P2P learning as a way to reduce professor time.  I think peer2peer learning, peer review and group learning are really valuable, don't get me wrong.  But they are not a substitute for a trained subject expert who will give you valuable insight.  Furthermore, the acceptance into this program means that you are already a self-starter in a sense.  You have some level of metacognitive awareness, motivation, and drive, to help you get started with your educational endeavors. Not every learner entering college, for better or worse, is at the level where they are metacognitively aware, self-starter learners, who will succeed.  Students need mentoring, guidance, and practice at reaching this level, and P2P learning may not be sufficient.  This is why universities have writing centers and tutoring centers, to help learners stand on their own two feet.  This project assumes that people are already there, and that assumption is a fallacy.

Finally, the gates are open for qualified students with an internet connection, for $1000/year. This makes major assumptions. First that students are self-starters (see point #6) and that students have the literacy skills necessary since the UoPpl doesn't use audio or video; that students have a reliable internet connection (there are still parts of the world that do not); that education costs money (in many countries college is free), and that people can spare $1000/year.  In the US, who knows, this is possible.  In other countries, this might as well be thousands of dollars because they can't afford even that!

Having watched this a second time, I really feel like I watched an educational shamwow commercial. A (non-profit) company using free labor to educate the world, and trying to disrupt a system which it cannot disrupt because it needs it for the free labor and resources that it provides it. Long story short: No matter how people try to make "Open" = "Free", open is by no means free!

Your thoughts?

 † the "other" BS, not Bachelor of Science
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