The first time I watched the awful EPIC2020 videos I was so irked by everything about them that I never went back to look carefully at the details of their campaign to reform higher education. But now I have, and I’m beyond irked. I’ve been boosted into the realm of appalled fascination. They’re going to “shatter the paradigm that the future will be anything like the past as well as facilitate discussion and accelerate actions to bring about the transformation of the education of the world.” I can’t look away.
So now I know that EPIC stands for “The Evolving Personal Information Construct”, a kind of analytics-driven micromanagement of all aspects of our lives, monitoring and continuously improving our social and emotional networks, our physical health, and our career prospects. Happily, though, the EPIC dashboard will never give me information I cannot immediately understand, because it “will know everything that you know and understand everything that you need to know to optimize your life. EPIC will connect you with everything and everyone that is important to your success.”
Normally at this point, you’d be tiptoeing backwards out of the room. But what EPIC2020 are saying about the need for revolution in higher education is suddenly appearing all over the place; there’s a line up of people waiting to throw rocks at the very idea that stability in publically funded institutions could be a sign of responsible, capable governance.
So, reluctantly, I’m taking their crazy big picture thinking more seriously than it deserves, because they’re right on two points. The sudden partnership between venture-funded educational startups and traditional elite universities has thrown down a big challenge to less flexible models of higher education, especially outside the US. And the fact that we’ve typically bundled content, learning and accreditation under the broad heading “education” doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to keep them all contained in this way indefinitely.
What happens if we untangle them, and allow content production (and the consequent advantages of content ownership) to rest with those institutions that can afford the highest quality production values? Robert Bruner, Dean of the Darden School of Business at UVa, is one of the few to be candid about the costs involved:
The production of an online course is rapidly moving beyond the use of a stationary video recorder capturing a professor in a lecture hall. It is already clear that there is an arm’s race on the basis of quality. Look for three camera shoots and creative directors coming to campuses soon. You’ll need scripts, a production crew, interactive capabilities, and a sound studio.
Australia knows a thing or two about being left behind in the cinematic arms race; global free trade in media content has been an uneven experience for us. So we can see the risk to locally relevant educational content in this model. It will always be cheaper for us to import than to produce, just as it is for television. If we think education is a culturally significant environment, whose future lies in media production and broadcast rather than personal delivery, then protecting content diversity will become an urgent political priority in the education portfolio. We will need imaginative funding strategies and smart transnational partnerships to help local educational content stay viable, just as we do with transnational co-production treaties in film and television production.
I was thinking about all this because I’ve finally signed up to a Coursera MOOC. I did it partly because there’s a short course that interests me, led by someone I’m curious to know more about—but mostly because I want to know how it feels to be part of this borderless, classless, cashless education revolution.
In one way, I loved the zany spontaneity of it all. I didn’t have to fill out any forms, or find any of my professional paperwork, or fish out my credit card or even my PayPal password. Two or three clicks, and I’m in. Of course, there’s some small print in their terms of service. It’s mostly unexceptional stuff about copyright, and something called the Coursera Honor Code, which asks me not to sign up with more than one account—presumably because that will stuff the analytics.
In fact, the integrity of my singular identity is something they’re going to want to be sure of, because they’re reserving the right to do quite a bit with identifying data about me, particularly in relation to third parties and contractors. They’re also helping themselves to “fully transferable, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free and non-exclusive license” to use any content I might generate or upload, although my use of their content is significantly more restricted.
But still, it’s free. And so I wanted to know how this works for either the university involved, or the platform service provider. Jim Groom’s excellent post on the mysteries of the Coursera business model sent me rummaging through Jeff Young’s coverage for The Chronicle to the 42 page contract between Coursera and the University of Michigan. It looks like they can afford a wait-and-see approach, because if this succeeds, it’s going to succeed on a huge scale: mass education is an emerging media market everyone wants a piece of.
So here’s their fairly open-ended plan: among their eight potential strategies, listed as Schedule 1 to the contract, they reserve the opportunity to offer human teaching and grading services together with secure assessment facilities, and they might charge tuition. (To anyone working at a university, these horizons of possibility could ring a few bells.) They’re also looking into passing on student details to recruiters, and may undertake some employee screening and training themselves. And if that doesn’t bring it home, they’re also prepared to sell university-branded certificates “to the end user”. In other words, they’re not proposing entirely revolutionary ideas, so much as pushing public education onto a profitable, commercial footing.
And it’s when they say that they’re open to selling their audience to advertisers, via “appropriate and non-intrusive visual elements on the Course webpage”, that things start to feel really familiar. Put this together with course content that’s made up of “60% recorded lectures and 40% videoed interviews”, which amounts to 100% stuff to watch, and the basic model here isn’t education at all. It’s television.
So while I still think the person involved is someone I’d want to watch on TV, with 32,963 students currently enrolled, I’m not sure whether I joined a class or sat down on the couch. Let’s see.