Branded online education

This morning my friend Mark Byrnes, the historian and professor, blogged his skepticism of journalistic hyperbole over online classes that are registering thousands at a time.

Mark suspects the benefits of massive online coursework accrue more to the knowledge (and vanity) of the lecturer than to the student. To put a sharper point on it, Mark may be saying that the efficiencies of online education are realized by marginalizing the student. (He does seem to concede that broadcast classes are better than no access to libraries or instruction.)

ClassroomAs he usually does when arguing, Mark looks for historical precedent. Radio and television, by turns, were in their early days heralded for their transformative pedagogical potential. The failure of those technological means to advance education, Mark says, suggests there is something more to education than means.

When Mark invokes this history, I can't help but recall Tim Wu's book, The Master Switch. Radio, and especially television, let civic society down because those technologies - with the able assistance of captured regulators - were co-opted by private, centralizing commercial interests.

Wu's lesson for us today is that the same sad fate could befall the internet, if netizens aren't sufficiently watchful. A corporate takeover might be realized in increments. For instance, the recording and music industries have a private compact with ISPs that require throttling bandwidth of individual users suspected of copyright infringement. Another example: will integrated media companies like Comcast/NBC be permitted to privilege (through pricing and bandwidth restrictions) their own content over the content of competitors?

It's interesting to me that the first tier universities - like Harvard and Stanford and Cornell - are at the vanguard of "MOOCs." Such institutions have massive goodwill pent up in their brands.

And what of the individual, renegade professor whose knowledge won't scale to be a university unto herself? Who will be the Louis CK of online education?

Mark, I'll take your online US History class if you offer one, and you won't even have to grade my papers!

Photo: "Authentic Learning Thursday," by Irmeli Aro / Flickr.

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