MOOCtopia: history and the futcha of higher ed

schools at war

After exchanging messages back and forth for the last year or so on the use and abuse of history in discussion about the future of higher education, via the great open-source think tank/churn machine that is Twitter, we made the slightly rash pact to enrol on Cathy Davidson’s History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education Coursera MOOC.

The language in which MOOCs are presented, both by their founders and proponents, and in media reports, seemed to us to be particularly replete with temporal imagery. Hailed by their champions as the education of the future, MOOCs are frequently positioned against a certain construction of the past.

Davidson’s MOOC seemed a good place to consider this trend, because it explicitly purported to tell us (mostly) about the history and future of Higher Education. We saw this as an opportunity to engage with an example of the ongoing construction of the past (and future) in ed-tech rhetoric.

You can get a flavour of what we were expecting here in the course description and in the introductory video.

In the framing of the course higher education is cast as something whose features ‘were designed specifically to prepare workers and leaders of the Industrial Age’ – the Fordist era of the Model T.  But since public access to the internet was made available in 1993 (on April 22 to be precise) everything – so we learn – about ‘our lives, our work, our occupations, our culture and our entertainments’ has changed. Our education, it is suggested, needs to catch up.

Now there seems a lot to take issue with here. But even if we set aside the minor quibble that the Fordist era of the Model T is not quite the same thing as the ‘Industrial Age’; even if we hesitate to point out that workers in the Fordist era rarely undertook higher education so it’s hard to see how its practices were designed specifically for them;  and even if we pass over the conflation of various kinds of 19thC primary, secondary and higher education, the claim that a revolution occurred on 22 April 1993 seems somewhat far fetched. Although the internet has brought huge changes to certain sectors of life and created whole new fields of economic, cultural and social activity, it strikes us that the jury is still out on whether it has upset the structures of economic and political power that condition our lives or merely re-enforced them. The shock of the old still remains.

Unfortunately the first week’s lectures did not really address these issues.

Instead we learnt that the kind of history we will be doing is called “purposive history”. History, Davidson tells us, is never static, and we remember certain details of the past in order to change our present.

Cathy Davidson might call this an ‘activist’ view of history, but most historians would simply call it bad history.

We are not for a second going to claim that we are not selective about the pasts we choose to remember, or that the questions we ask of the past and its actors are not informed by our concerns and occupations in the present.  If we did that historians of the last 40 years would rise up as one and slaughter us. The pasts we remember and the pasts we write are always the work of memory and of power.

But to imply – as Davidson does – that we should mine the past for certain details in order to change the present; that we should selectively remember for the purposes of change; or that we should transpose the past into the conditions of the present, is not only fundamentally ahistorical. It also does a disservice to people in the past who fought for change, as well as to historians who have thought long and hard about these questions and developed tools to acknowledge and accommodate them.

And then there’s the question of power. The premise of Davidson’s notion of ‘purposive history’ seems to be that, given history is always selective, we should choose together what history we want and then shape the future in the light of that image. But the question of who “we” is, and how much agency “we” really have in this process is elided in the MOOC’s rhetoric of inclusiveness, openness, and DIY. Considering that Davidson is calling this a “movement” and uses the word “activism”, the lack of attention to power relations, and to how these have shaped the nature of the university, undermines the attempt.

There is, moreover, a kind of purposive agency and teleology attributed to past actors. Was mass schooling really designed as a response to industrialisation, or did it evolve, as some have argued, from a collection of existing practices brought together – as a convenient “assemblage” rather than the deliberate crafting of an institution?

Bad history, we will acknowledge, is the stuff of politics. This is perhaps all well and good if you are an activist or a crusading policy maker or a business or an institution trying to shore up its status and power (which is exactly what many champions of the MOOC are), but it is not ok if you are an historian or a scholar. We would do well to remember this when we consider education futures and those who champion them.

This is not – of course – to say that thinking about the history of education is not useful or pertinent to current questions about the changing role of the university. But let us ask better questions – questions about the role that university has filled in society, about how it has changed, and the product that it sells. Let us as about the social and economic conditions of its survival, of the work that pedagogic practices have performed, how they have changed, and – yes – how educationalists in the past have dreamed of its future.