I have been following a variety of news and discussions about the big MOOCs as a means of bringing millions if not billions out of ignorance, poverty, and lack of civilization around the world for some time. Lately, there have been far fewer people on the national scene here in the US who say the kinds of amazing things that they did until a few months ago about giving higher education an extreme makeover right here in America. But while the hype has significantly subsided on the local front, the MOOCery of higher education on the global front has been evolving into a mountain of BS. I usually tolerate or ignore the mind-bending lack of critical perspectives in the current discourse about educating the hungry masses out there, but after reading many news reports about a particularly interesting development in Rwanda today, I couldn’t help express some frustration once more.
What most bothered me was a news article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (a venue that I highly respect), which followed the pattern of a barrage of similar articles in less reputable venues; like everyone else, the writer of this article jumped on the bandwagon to essentially celebrate a group of entrepreneurs from “not” Rwanda with an utterly paradoxical vision to save that nation (plus the rest of the developing world).
As someone who has lived in some of those third world places, I found the whole project only slightly better than some of the educational scams that I have observed on the ground. Amazingly enough, in describing the Rwandan revolution in higher education, reporters on this side of the world have used words like “magic,” “game changing,” worldwide “waves,” and even “the turn” for the entire field of higher education.
When reading most of the articles, I was puzzled by how the revolutionaries and the reporters created a virtual echo chamber where they essentially put words in one another’s mouths. The reporters often cited “critics” and “detractors” but they overlooked a whole host of ugly paradoxes that any careful reader could easily notice. For instance, the central idea seems to be that the revolutionaries for Rwanda are out to make education affordable for the average Rwandan; amazingly, no one seems to notice that they are also advertising their virtual college degrees at a price that is competitive against the local, on-site versions of “elite” education, blatantly and exclusively targeting the richest students in Rwanda. The reporters seem to accept that education is about how to sell degrees that are perceived as more attractive at a more competitive price.
It is one thing to find a few thousand super rich and talented students who will get in the shamefully paradoxical queue with hundreds ahead of them in order to get US-accredited degrees after understanding the contents of courses designed for another context and poorly adapted to their local society and professions. It is quite another to actually make education accessible for the broader public.
Just clicking around for a minute or two shows that the educational revolutionaries don’t have any better pedagogical or curricular ideas than those that they borrowed from the most conventional practices in higher education back home–not to mention showing any competence for how to adapt them to the local society and context in Rwanda (as I will elaborate shortly).
It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to see that the visionaries have a strong dislike for the traditional university (especially the professors) back home. But no one seemed to notice that the primary substance of what they are selling to Rwandan students constitutes video-recording of lectures by (mostly tenured) professors back home.
Worst of all, no one seemed to notice that the entrepreneurs don’t like credit-based education back home; and yet, what they ultimately sell in Rwanda and around the world is accreditation from any local university (especially those that expressly state that they want to “dismantle” the credit-based system).
The Rwandan story is offensive in itself because the revolutionaries evidently have no interest in trying to understand or address local Rwandan needs, relevance, meaning, value, world views, resources, teachers, curricula, and such components/realities of education in Rwanda itself–other than casually expressing judgmental, supercilious, and perhaps inadvertently colonial attitudes toward Rwanda and the developing world. To see for yourself what the revolutionary education looks like in practice, you may want to see the final section of this article in the Scientific American: Consider how the best “educator” in the team uses quintessentially American terms about learning, knowledge, having your own idea, and, of course, critical thinking (which is the most universal of universal frames of analysis); consider the way they switch to teaching English, the medium of instruction, when things don’t go well, instead of, say, using the students’ local language (of course, you can’t get a real education without getting it in English); consider their plan to take their model to any other “developing” country once they’ve tested it in Rwanda (if they’re different from us, they must be all similar); or consider the project leader’s attitude when he says that the Rwandan students in the experiment have no plan B (yep, they need saving)!
And, here too, the reporter buys the whole blessed package of arguments, wholesale. I don’t doubt that the teachers on the ground are sincere and hard working, but that doesn’t justify the broader problems of how money, power, and condescending attitudes can degrade the meaning and practice of education.
As a teacher who has, on the one hand, studied the history of western university and has a profound respect for this system’s intellectual foundations and pedagogical practices, and on the other hand, has personal experiences of academic systems in different contexts/places in the world (both a student and a teacher), I wish that these revolutionaries founded their mission upon the resources and understanding of the local society, as well as drawing on the most appropriate and effective pedagogies (both conventional and emerging) from the western world.
I wish that these and other mooconeries (MOOC missionaries) built their projects in collaboration with teachers, scholars, and members of the local society, and I wish the reporters didn’t get so high on the superficial idea of using teaching “fellows” to help students learn the contents of canned lectures given by professors from a world away as a “game changing” development in higher education.
I wish that someone told both the revolutionaries and reporters that even the seemingly universal educational objective of how to “think critically,” learn or learn how to learn, and solve problems can only be achieved by putting the local first–indeed by using the local reality as the foundation, framework, and focus of education. I wish that someone told them that one of the key reasons why the current Rwandan education seems so unworthy of their consideration/respect is because the very definitions of learning and knowledge are considerably shaped by the realities and traditions of each society and context.
We could just disregard the part educational missionaries and part mercenaries of financialized global trends in higher education as just that. But it is very hard to accept it when so many and respectable venues like the Chronicle of Higher Education essentially celebrate an evidently awful and misguided attempt to “reinvent” education for the developing world–indeed for the entire world, as many have gone on to suggest. And that is why I couldn’t help wondering how on earth reporters who are quite good at asking tough questions on the local front don’t even realize or ask, for instance, why there is no one with an advanced degree in education (other than the humble teaching “fellows”) among the leaders of the Rwandan educational revolution. It’s easy to see through the specious argument that professors are too expensive; this argument falls apart as soon as we consider how much money the investors seem to want to make under the banner of “nonprofit” and “affordable” (the focus on the money is on naked display even in their description of curriculum!).
Just in case that sounds like I’m trying to complicate matters too much, please read just the introduction below from the advertisement for the position of “chief academic officer” published on the website of Kepler.org, the company behind the Rwanda story (the page was up as of this writing, Oct 4, 2013):
We’re looking for someone who wants to reinvent higher education in the developing world. Your role will be to lead an experimental new university that offers a life-defining education for Africa’s most brilliant students. (emphasis added)
To qualify, you need not have too many clues about education, teaching, or curriculum and such. It’s enough to possess an intense wanting to “reinvent higher education in the developing world”–or is it in “Africa and the Iraq, and everywhere like, such as.”
Or, just don’t read the above too carefully.
Megalomania is not a new phenomenon in the world, nor is unconsciously colonial mentality. Indeed, I don’t think the absurd visions to change the world has much to do with where the visionaries are from; I think it’s just a fascinating homo sapiens issue that tends to be prominent among those who happen to live in more dominant communities/countries at any given time! And yet, most of what I read about the Rwanda story made me wonder how hard it really is to escape the grips of the not so innocuous mentality that makes all the problem in the world seem like “our” moral responsibility and makes us somehow feel that we know best what to do about everyone’s problem (especially when we can make money out of those problems).
I want to be very clear at the outset that I am not anti-MOOC in general, not even anti-globalization of education (although I prefer multilateral internalization through educational exchange). In fact, I believe that there are unprecedented numbers and magnitudes of benefits that educators across the world can reap from MOOCs–especially from the versions that are emerging on the margins of the big bad xMOOCs (which are based primarily on talking heads from “best” universities). I believe that the benefits of MOOC are greater for cross-border engagements in higher education than for locally based practices. I just find offensive the arguments and assumptions about MOOCs in global/international contexts that are disrespectful toward local teachers, education systems, needs, limitations, opportunities, and realities. When it comes to the non-local dimension of this discourse, it is truly disappointing that even journalists reporting new developments seem to essentially dismiss genuine issues on the ground as mere “worries” and “barriers” to be overcome. Here’s a quotation from the article I’m referring to:
The program faces other challenges, say people who follow international higher education. Some American universities have established programs in foreign countries only to struggle to find their place within the local education landscape. There are also worries about the proliferation of a single strain of Western-style education at the loss of diverse practices and approaches.
In this case, the reporter didn’t even notice anything unusual about the whole university in a box; indeed, she put that phrase in the title of the article. It is amazing that otherwise astute journalists don’t realize the absence of local teachers, educational policy makers, researchers, and scholars in the initiative (other than “fellows” trained in the echo chamber of “quality” MOOC-education). It doesn’t seem to bother the reporter that the local teachers’ investment in their students’ education is just dismissed as lazy, incapable, etc; academic practices that are deeply ingrained in local social realities and cultural/epistemological world views are left out; indeed, the local professional contexts that demand a unique set/range of skills from education are not even considered for a moment, and whether the material and cultural realities are unique and complex not given a moment’s thought.
17th Century Mindsets
Let us look a little more closely at the paradoxes engendered by supercilious attitudes toward less “advanced” countries and communities. Citing the director of the “university in a box” initiative, the Chronicle reporter writes:
“We want people to copy us,” says Mr. Hodari, who came to Generation Rwanda after working as legal counsel for an investment fund in New York. “We want people to steal everything and anything we create. Our intention is to create a university in a box, a kit, down to every lesson plan.” [emphasis added]
As you see, it all begins with the a little too well-intentioned former hedge fund manager saying something impressive about how open and “free” education is going to change the face of higher learning in the developing world. ‘Coz there are too many out there who don’t have good teachers, you know, not to mention good schools and universities, and it is upon us that the almighty hath invested the responsibility to save the uncivilized from themselves. The next thing Mr. Hodari says is that, okay, he’s all excited about creating a “university in a box, a kit, down to every lesson plan.” But that’s not the juiciest part of the story yet:
So far, start-up expenses have totaled $180,000, Mr. Hodari says in an e-mail. The current per-student cost at Kepler is about $1,200 annually. At this point, the program is free for students. The goal is to lower the cost to $1,000 or less so that the program can run on tuition income when the start-up money is exhausted.
Factor in the value of Rwandan Franc relative to USD and then living cost, and the cost of that “free” and open education is not so holy anymore. Or let’s put it this way: Rwanda’s per capita income is $644 compared to $42,693 in the US.
Nonetheless, says Mr. Hodari,
Our approach has been to work backward from that cost anchor and determine the level of services we can offer for that price, rather than starting with an impossible large budget and scaling back when we realize that the people we want to serve can’t afford us.
Oh, and there’s one more dimension to the global altruism:
Program officials are also trying to form partnerships with local banks to establish a student-loan market, which Rwanda now lacks.
None of the above seemed to strike as problematic to the reporter. None. If anything, they were challenges to be overcome, worries to be addressed.
Mercenary Model–Some Details
So, here’s the bottom line. There are, at the top of the Rwandan socioeconomic scale, a certain thousand of students who have been paying, say, 1,500 USD equivalent for the nation’s top-rated degrees. A group of people with all imaginable types of backgrounds other than–you guessed it–education in general and teaching in particular, and people from a faraway land in the world figure that they can replace Rwandan elite education with another elite education, aka selling the name of an advanced nation attached to certificates given after watching videos of “best” professors from a different academic system, culture and society. The videos are primarily jabbing away the content of their discipline by professors that, strangely, the founders of the mission despise.
Yes, the lectures, shown to students by young “assistants” who have just been duly credentialed (but don’t need to be paid much) provide some context, administer quizzes, facilitate some peer feedback . . . . Long story short, the investor-turned-visionaries-of-Rwandan-education somehow get featured as potential game changers for not just Rwanda but for local higher education back home as well! Talk about how to make a soup out of fantasy, mendacity, and ignorance about the complex factors about higher education across vast material, geopolitical, sociocultural, and other differences in the world.
There is more to it though. The educational soup for Rwanda is made of various magical ingredients.
1. Generation Rwanda and Kepler Institute
There is an organization by the name of Kepler, whose vision is to not accept the dismally low rate of graduation in MOOCs; to not leave alone, in Rwanda and perhaps all developing nations, the lack of “institutions to train their home-grown talent”; and to “deliver top academic and career outcomes at a price that’s affordable to anyone with the talent and determination to take part.”
As outlined in its “project description,” Kepler’s is a vision built on a dislike of full “professors” in any country, an economically viable model that will achieve cost-effectiveness and “efficiency” by replacing the professors after painting them in the image of the worst of their kind.
So, the first step is to convince you that most (all?) professors don’t like to teach:
In a traditional university class, professors have two primary responsibilities: knowledge transfer and facilitating learning. Few professors naturally excel at this, and even fewer are trained professionally as educators. In fact, at most universities, faculty are incentivized to prioritize research over teaching by the tenure system. (emphasis added)
Imagine how Rwandan professors receive all this wisdom. I am a professor (not tenured, btw) with specialized degrees to teach what I teach; teaching is my primary job; and 95% of other professors I know love teaching so much that they sound like they’re high on teaching. Call their kind of technology the “hi-teAch” technology. But in the view of Keplers of the world, the professors I know don’t realize how bad they are. We are just too busy teaching our students through intensive class work, group work, and one-on-one meetings.
Of course, some of the above complaint sounds true about a segment of professors (or doctors or engineers for that matter) in any society; but, you see, that painting of professors is very attractive because education is too expensive in most places, professors may be over-paid depending on how much you think they deserve to be paid (say in relation to doctors, lawyers, engineers), and outsourcing them sounds like a good idea especially when the name of big universities and advanced nation is involved. All in all, it is not that hard to mask all the mercenary motives of the new model.
If you can tolerate a little more, here’s some more about the despised professors, this time specifically those at the University of Wisconsin, for some reason:
The standard for receiving a University of Wisconsin competency-based degree, for instance, would not be whether students had spent 120 credit hours learning from University of Wisconsin professors (an expensive proposition), but whether they were able to meet University of Wisconsin’s testing standards of general competencies and subject mastery. (p. 10; emphasis added)
But, by the way, on page 8, what is essentially their academic vision page also says the following:
We are presently negotiating with several universities to determine who will deliver the bachelor’s degree portion of Kepler’s curriculum; the most likely candidates are Tulane University and University of Wisconsin.
Talk about having it both ways. How nice it is to not only 1) define “traditional universities” as a place where students have to sit there for a set number of hours, listening to boring lectures from their professors few of whom are trained as “professional educators,” and get nothing but credit for your time and money, and 2) negotiate with the same professors’ universities in order to use their video lectures and change the world where most of those lectures will be utterly foreign! If outsourcing to lower cost, regardless of the relevance of education, is the objective, I have nothing to say–except perhaps that if the document cited above was written by one of my upper division undergraduate students, I would let them do some more research on higher education, learn to look at issues from different perspectives, and rewrite the paper for a passing grade.
2. College “for” America for (?) Rwanda
The accrediting institution back in the US is a body called “College for America” which seems to do good things in the US. It has been nationally highlighted for its development of an innovative competency-based model of education for learners who need an alternative to traditional college education. This is all good.
However, there is a certain common denominator between CfA’s vision/mission and that of Kepler that is a little shocking to anyone who is in the field of education with a priority on education. Toward the end of its “about us” page, CfA proudly states the following:
Established in 2012, CfA received a prestigious Educause/Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant, designed to dismantle and rebuild higher education for a demanding global future. (emphasis added)
Oh, okay, designed to dismantle the world’s best university system? I mean the one that has its intellectual foundations going back to Greece and Rome, has drawn from almost a millennium of academic practices from Europe and made stunning advancements with the birth and growth of the United States, continues to attract the best talent and best academic practices from around the world, and has unfortunately become, well, “an expensive proposition,” for those who believe the professors shouldn’t be paid so much? That went a little far, didn’t it?
No other factors about the cost of higher education–neither in Rwanda nor in the US–matter for the sake of making the moocery of established higher education systems. Just take the video lectures freely provided by some of the bad (I mean “best”) professors from the system which needs to be dismantled. Can those bad, well, best, professors in video lectures (put them in a box). Finally, use local “fellows” to translate the materials for local elite students, letting them pay slightly less than they would do at their local elite universities. That creates such an economically viable model for civilizing the uncivilized, doesn’t it?
Most of the hype around CfA is created by a group of people who seem so confused that they take a brilliant new idea of competency-based education (whose merits, by the way, I fully acknowledge) and try to apply it to every context, to address/solve every conceivable challenge in higher education, anywhere in the whole wide world!
The brilliant new idea–though it is confusing whether it is designed for dismantling American universities or civilizing Rwanda–is that if we can first define the conventional university in pejorative terms like “seat-time” and and “credit-based,” then it gets much easier to say that that’s a bad model of education.
Oh, and remember, the traditional model is also not affordable (which is going to be true if people can be convinced that that is due to how much the professors are paid). The traditional model is–and this one is largely true–not accessible for a great proportion of learners.
Put all the above together and you’ve got even a smart journalist confused and excited at the same time: unable to see false causes, logical leaps, an intense desire to replace the half millennia- old institution of the Western university with video lectures, and the equivocation about the relevance of competency-based model for everyone everyone!
If you have the urge to dig a little deeper, it’s not hard to see that some of the proponents of CfA work for CfA (see “disclosure”). Many of them also seem confused about the difference between self-motivated learning/learners and the need to educate a whole generation consisting of learners with many different needs, motivation levels, and so on.
This does not mean that learners who work at partner companies of CfA, companies like ConAgra and Walmart, are not acquiring the competency that they need for doing their current or future work. But to suggest that competency-based model is a replacement for the established system of higher education in the US (or anywhere) is mindless at best and mendacious at worst.
Let us now look at how a fairly good model developed here in the US by College “for” America is being transported to Rwanda by Generation Rwanda and its Kepler fondation.
3. It’s All in the Names
There is little more than the names in the Rwandan project. The project has no people qualified to start a university, forget about drawing on the educational materials of a vastly different academic system and building curriculum and pedagogies from the ground up.
It is just that a group of almost delusional financial entrepreneurs realized that there is power in names. The name of College for “America” sells (ironically that was “for,” and nobody seems to care about context). The name of any Ivy-graduate sells–especially if he starts acting like he knows it all about how to fix Rwandan education. The idea of getting a US-credentialed education that is competitive with the “elite” local universities sells. And that’s what they are selling, and selling is almost entirely what they are interested in. The educational, professional, social, cultural, epistemological context of Rwanda be darned.
If Rwandan educators want to provide a competency-based and affordable education to Rwandan workers, they would have to target the Rwandan equivalent of Zach Sherman, a sanitation worker at ConAgra in Ohio (a man who has become the poster child of the competency-based model and CfA). How come the elite Rwandans who have been paying 15k or so in US value are being targeted?
Worse, how are MOOCs made in Massachusetts–with materials, methods, and learning objectives based on the American college system and professional settings–going to translate into competency for the Rwandan Zach Shermans?
And, finally, how crazy does one have to be to not realize that especially in order to design/deliver a competency-based curriculum, one has to start with a curricular framework that is founded on the needs, values, and relevance of the local economy, society, culture, and professions? The attempt to start from the competency model of a fundamentally different academic system, envisioned for very different professional needs and contexts, and based on a vastly different sociocultural setting is where the professors seem unwelcome. So, you see the connection.
Kepler’s academic vision does contain “critical thinking” in its curricular objectives. I wonder if that too is put in a box so it doesn’t look too complicated and messy.
Avoid the Professors at all Costs
The vision to change not just Rwanda’s education but the US education system in the long run (once Rwanda gets a facelift) is all about efficiency. The proponents of such visions have probably never read a thing about the ethical tension between pedagogical effectiveness and logistical efficiency in higher education.
So, we have it: an attempt to do teaching while doing away with teachers and striving to find out how to do it with outsourced fellows, by training students to teach students, and above all using the machine to deliver education through a vacuum tube. If you are a teacher, you should be cautious about nausea, irritation, or plain disgust that reading the vision may cause.
As I said in the beginning, MOOC discourses on the national front has at least diverged into intellectually and pragmatically more convincing segments. For example, the idea of competency-based degrees caters to the educational needs of millions of people who are unable to go to college in its traditional form; cMOOCs of various types are becoming pedagogically more sophisticated; and the most ludicrous MOOC heads have stopped spouting as much educational nonsense as they used to until recently.
But on the global front, the desire to change the world rules. Projects that claim to provide “free” and open education, the not-so-hidden desire to suck millions in exchange of mere names of universities and nations, evangelical arguments and self-appointed saviors of the less civilized rule the airwaves on the global front. And things are blunt. They’re naked. They’re shameless.
It is not even the superficial pedagogy about mainstream MOOCs in general that is so annoying.
It is the moral vacuum, the intellectual black hole, that seems to make the tone of even a reporter who tries to fairly cover the ideas of both proponents and critics slightly awful when it comes to the global side of the mockery of higher education.
It is the nauseatingly too good intentions to save the world.