Selling The Matrix Revolution in Higher Education

“Our belief is that deep, radical and urgent transformation is required in higher education as much as it is in school systems. Our fear is that, perhaps as a result of complacency, caution or anxiety, or a combination of all three, the pace of change is too slow and the nature of change too incremental.”

“Should we fail to radically change our approach to education, the same cohort we’re attempting to ‘protect’ could find that their entire future is scuttled by our timidity.”
David Puttnam, MIT, 2012

These two quotes are from a new publication, “An Avalanche Is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead.” The publication’s title and the accompanying quotes are intended to convince readers that if something isn’t done NOW, then all will be lost. This is a basic sales technique that is used to great effect–“if you don’t buy this new product, then you’ll be left behind.” In this case, however, the implication is even greater: if your university doesn’t join this revolution, then it will be a failure, and the next generation of students will be lost.

These thoughts came to me as I participated in a teleconference with a textbook publisher this morning. Several history professors spent 45 minutes speaking with a textbook publisher representative who was demonstrating the latest bells and whistles. Except there’s not much new about what we saw–primary source readings, response questions, talking-head videos, maps, etc., etc. The only difference is that it’s pre-packaged so that you don’t have to compile the information yourself.

The only demonstration that prompted much discussion was the automated grading of writing exercises.* Most of the other participants indicated that they taught large classes, which would seem to make automated grading desirable for them. Several of those who spoke up, however, indicated that they were uncomfortable with that tool, citing the reality that ceding essay grading to computers was tantamount to firing themselves and allowing their administrators to force them to offer MOOCs. One professor disagreed; even though s/he agreed that automated grading would cost the course T.A.s their jobs, it would lessen this faculty member’s workload.

My takeaways from today’s discussion:

  1. Some faculty members are blind to the implications of technology for their employment.
  2. Technology may be changing higher education, but there are a lot of people and companies who don’t know exactly what that change is going to look like or how to use it as a tool to help faculty rather than to replace them.
  3. Individuals and companies who make bold claims that engage our emotions are setting the pace, even if their background and motivations appear to spring from a futuristic cult that sounds eerily similar to The Matrix**.

* If you aren’t familiar with this technology, it claims that computers can grade essays just as accurately as a human. (See ETS’ explanation here.) Of course, unless you’re is gullible, you realize that things aren’t quite that simple–there are substantial problems with automated grading, not the least of which is that “it can’t identify truth.” (And read more problems here.)

** The money quote:

The assertion that computers can outpace humans by eliminating their frailties and limitations is closely linked to the ideas of Bay Area futurist guru Ray Kurzweil and his hypothesis of singularity. Kurzweil posits that convergent technological innovations will result in a super-intelligence; ultimately, humans will escape biology and mortality by being effectively “uploaded” into the computational cloud. Thrun and Norvig are both faculty members at Kurzweil’s Singularity University, a well-funded Silicon Valley research institute where artificial intelligence enthusiasts congregate. Not coincidentally, the founders of Coursera are also Stanford artificial intelligence researchers.

Thrun has probably been wise not to publicize his connection with Kurzweil and Singularity in his promotion of Udacity. Singularity is not a widely understood concept, but to most outsiders it sounds at best like a geeky fantasy and at worst like the stuff of classic science fiction nightmares. There has been no public discussion of how MOOCs fit into the broader Kurzweil-inspired intellectual agenda (what Morozov calls a “cultish ideology”). What can be said with certainty is that by embracing MOOCs as the future of college, we are remaking education around information technology, rather than using information technology as a pedagogical tool. In the MOOC philosophy, education is understood fundamentally as a transfer of information, in line with the computational understanding of cognition in which the mind is a processing device being fed input and generating output. This is a twenty-first-century version of what Paulo Freire called the “banking method of education,” a model that Deweyan humanists and practitioners of critical pedagogy have long repudiated as reactionary and disempowering.


One Reply to “Selling The Matrix Revolution in Higher Education”

  1. Not only can’t the electronic readers identify truth (or logic, or allusions, or adequate development); they can’t tell a passive sentence from a statement of being or a sentence using a progressive tense. As an instructor of English for nearly 40 years, I have had paper-grading well beyond up the wazoo, but I’m damned if I would hand this crucial aspect of teaching over to a machine, no matter how “intelligent,” that couldn’t identify problems with thought and expression, let alone usefully suggest how to address those problems. Call me old-fashioned, but it seems to me that a WHOLE lot of extraordinarily knowledgeable and imaginative people, including some of the ones who have been industriously devising these technologies, learned quite a bit the old-fashioned way.

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