Tech Press Flubs the Ed-tech Story (Again): Minnesota and Coursera Edition

This past week saw some fireworks over changes in the language of the Coursera license agreement. Seems that they were contacted by the state of Minnesota about registration of degree-granting institutions and decided to change their terms of service. Ok.

Here’s my paraphrase of the story that the tech press told: Minnesota won’t let its citizens take online classes. Obviously, Minnesota is a fascist state that wants to control every aspect of people’s lives, including how and when they think. How dare a state stifle innovation!? This sort of stuff was the core of quite a few stories that felt, to me, reactionary, off the cuff, melodramatic, and snarky. Ars Technica seems to have been the first organization to research the situation. The title of their story says it all: No, Minnesota did not kick Coursera out of the state. (Check out the transcript of the letter to Coursera from George R. Roedler, Jr., Manager of Institutional Registration & Licensing in the churnalisticly titled story “Is Minnesota cracking down on MOOCs?” )

So, what gives?

A Tale of Two Stories

What we see here is the clash of two cultures. One is the tech culture. Tech companies and tech culture focus on innovation and thrive on the new. Tech companies are used to both massive success and massive failure. They have, for the most part, operated in an open environment that does not see a whole lot of regulation. Nice deal.

The other is the educational culture. Educational institutions move slowly, thriving on the wisdom of traditions, only accepting the new once it has been thoroughly tested and proven to be right. Educational institutions live with a whole lot of regulation.

Thus, Minnesota is pretty typical: many states require that educational institutions to register with and submit to review. (For an interesting “running list” of some of these standards, see the Start List document by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education Cooperative for Educational Technologies.)

When technologists ran afoul of this basic rule of education culture, they cried foul loudly and viciously. They told the story of a crazy, misguided, even stupid culture called the American education system.

Easy story that garners lots of hits, but leaves out the other side of the story.

The Story the Tech Press Didn’t Tell

And there is another story, of course. In this story, the state of Minnesota acts responsibly and fairly—consistent with law and ongoing practice—to ensure that schools are properly vetted before offering education within the state. They got caught by a new situation that they are unprepared for as they tried to do their duty as required by the citizens and laws of the state.

Underlying this view is the idea that education regulation is nothing new, and it is not stupid. It is not aimed at stifling innovation, to stopping people from opening schools (private schools make it through the process all the time), or ensuring some kind of “proper” political or social agenda. School regulation is aimed at protect consumers by requiring that schools are qualified to deliver education and, over time, are successful at doing so. Accrediting agencies award their seal of approval to schools who make the grade. Attorneys general prosecute fraud when charlatans set up shop. All of this is by way of helping students gain a reasonable sense that they won’t be wasting four years on something that will lead to nothing. Even though the sometimes are a bit too stringent, there is a compelling social interest in ensuring that educational institutions are minimally qualified to offer the programs they offer. (1)

The fact that technology folks aren’t use to living with regulations doesn’t make the state of Minnesota dumb or evil. It just means they work in a world that values different things.

Car makers have to deal with the NTSB and do recalls when they endanger public safety. Drug manufacturer have to deal with the FDA in order to ensure that their products don’t unduly harm patients. Electronics manufacturers have to deal with a host of standards and safety organizations to ensure that their products don’t do things like spontaneously combust or interfere with radio signals. In education, review by a whole host of accrediting and regulatory bodies is a way of trying to protect people from avoidable harm when they shell out lots and lots of time and money.

As someone who has worked in both the tech and education industries, this doesn’t bother me. Why not? Because people stake their lives on education in a way they don’t with consumer products or software. Their longterm livelihood on four years. That is a huge responsibility, and society has a vested interest in doing all we can to see that they don’t operate in poor or untrustworthy ways. A diploma is not just a piece of paper, it is a legal document. As such, there has to be something that stands behind it. That’s why when you print up one on your printer, it has no legitimacy. That’s why you can’t start your own college in your living room. No one wants fly-by–night schools. Just like I want a recall program for toys and cars, I want a recall system for education. Minnesota agrees.

Why not just say, “buyer beware”? That seems to me inadequate when we are talking education. It’s one thing to have to buy a new toaster when you have a crappy one. You don’t lose years of your life to a toaster. Or an app. What happens when you invest a few years in an education, only to find that (unbeknownst to you, since you’ve never been to college before) the quality of the courses was so poor that you don’t know your stuff and can’t get a job? Do you start college over again? That’s pretty rough. And if there is lots of that, it harms the common good. And while the Minnesota courses may have been free, we are going to get to a point pretty soon where MOOCs aren’t free and are taken for credit toward a degree.

Traversing the New Landscape

In the end, we have a clash of two stories and a clash of two cultures. Both have their wisdom and both have their blind spots. To fail to admit that would be churlish, disingenuous, or unreflexive on either side.

So, let me be clear. I recognize that not all schools are great and not all students end up with a good education. In some cases that has more to do with the student exercising their freedom than the school, but there are schools that go bad. While it does yoeman’s service educating millions of people a year, higher ed. is slow to change and generally lags behind trends in culture. The tech world has some great ideas about education, and are doing a great job reminding us that there are lots of ways for people to learn throughout their lives. The academy has much to learn from the tech world.

Likewise, with its experimental modus operandi, the tech world is as prone to failure as it is to success. When this is bound up with money, it leads to frequent bouts of irrational exuberance that often lead to technical failure, market oblivion, and economic loss. While it brings great successes, it is not an industry that one turns to for stability. The academy has some great ideas about how to build reliable systems that survive market fluctuations and that can adapt to a wide variety of “users”. The tech world has some things to learn from the academy as well.

Clearly, states need to develop plans for how to deal with online and MOOC educational programs. They aren’t going away. Tech folks developing new digital platforms need to figure out how they can work with the robust and complex systems and institutions that have been developed to protect learners/consumers.

Ideally, we could develop a centralized credentialling system that would enable educators or educational institutions that offer MOOCs to register their course and receive clearance for credit. That would require that states let go of a little control and accept that what measures up in another state is good enough for your own. That would also require MOOC companies to recognize that they are not lone wolves serving lone wolves, but one stakeholder in a broad effort to enhance our whole community.

Without this sort of thing, my guess is things won’t go well when students want to apply MOOC credits in a degree granting institution. The burden will fall on administrators and faculty to figure out what classes can be admitted for credit. Students will likely suffer because many courses will not be accepted. (I mean, not all MOOC classes make the grade.) We are in for a long, slow world of hurt if tradition and new educational systems don’t learn from each other and figure out how to work with each other.

Innovating is good. So is protecting people from untested or potentially dangerous products. So is efficiency. Let’s see if we can’t figure out how to do both.

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(1) My university has been educating for more than a century and has a charter with the state of Pennsylvania that allows us to offer new programs when we would like. (In some states, states have to approve new programs, even if you already offer other degrees.) We were recently collaborating with a group across the river in Camden, NJ to perhaps offer some courses at their site. In order to do that, though, we will need to file an application with the State for approval—despite our long history as successful educators. It will be a long process, through which they will assess our ability at provide the education. Interestingly, other institutions in NJ will have veto power if they don’t want us offering the degree, even if we are qualified!

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