I use a trick with co-workers when we’re trying to decide where to eat for lunch and no one has any ideas. I recommend McDonald’s. … Everyone unanimously agrees that we can’t possibly go to McDonald’s, and better lunch suggestions emerge. Magic!
It’s as if we’ve broken the ice with the worst possible idea, and now that the discussion has started, people suddenly get very creative. I call it the McDonald’s Theory: people are inspired to come up with good ideas to ward off bad ones.
Jon Bell, “McDonalds Theory“
Here’s my theory: the MOOCs we’ve got at the moment really are just a bad idea. This is awkward, because so much money has now been sunk into them, it feels defeating even to imagine their failure. But there’s a bright side: what if MOOCs are the icebreakingly bad idea, whose gift is to inspire us to come up with something better?
MOOCs wouldn’t be the first bad idea to be taken seriously and attract major capital investment, about which people later look back and wonder: what were we thinking? I once met the man who co-designed the Sinclair C5, an infamous battery-powered vehicle that was expected to transform the way people got around in crowded British cities in the 1980s. The design had been feted on news programs and TV shows, and the project had a major backer with serious money. But then the prototype was tried out on an actual road, and people noticed that the battery didn’t work in the rain and it was disturbing to change lanes on wet roads at 15mph in a low lying tricycle that barely reached the wheel arch of your average road haulage vehicle. Cartoonists had a field day.
Last month, the Sinclair c5 was voted the biggest innovation disaster of all time, topping a list of mostly entertainment technology formats or communication devices that failed, and pizza scissors.
Some of these had enjoyed brief success before being overhauled by a competitor or successor, but the C5 was distinguished by being panned from the moment it showed up on the road, when all the ideas that had seemed so convincing in prototype collided with the realities of scale and use. As Rodney Dale, who has written a loving history of the C5, noted sadly, the “seductive exhilaration which won everyone over to the C5 on the test track quickly evaporated by the feeling of vulnerability among real traffic.”
But the principles and the concerns behind the C5 didn’t evaporate. The problems it was attempting to address—and the commercial opportunity it was attempting to exploit—were real. Since 1984 we’ve found out more and more about the impact of excessive oil consumption on our environment and our global economy, and we’ve continued to explore alternatives to the ways in which we use and fuel private cars. It was a visionary idea, just a really awful design.
And this is where we are with higher education. Different systems all around the world are facing different problems, but the problems are real, and the systems we’re using to address them are underpowered and unimaginative. More lectures, bigger lecture theatres, overcrowded tutorials, staffing flexibilities that are appalling euphemisms for sustained and harmful exploitation of the academic precariat, standardised curriculum and unvarying assessment practices, inflexible approaches to student creativity, timed exams, grades and escalating student debt: all of these are the bad ideas we live with and defend. So let’s not romanticise our current situation just because the alternative that’s getting all the attention is an even bigger bad idea.
Where I work we’re now seriously asking the MOOC question: should we? why? with what? for whom? And what are the risks involved in us adapting those that are being made elsewhere? Wouldn’t it be good to have some Stanfordy things in our curriculum, especially when it comes to the foundational material in the disciplines that genuinely need their students to cover at least some of the same ground no matter where they study? Obviously, the situation’s trickier for the humanities, but don’t the world’s MOOCs give us access to new areas of curriculum that we can’t supply ourselves, in such a small educational economy?
Provided we put aside the daft and insulting conceit that we’re lucky to gain access to the world’s best professors all of whom naturally work at the world’s elite institutions, I think the answer to some of these questions has to be: well, yes. We all benefit when students access new and different curriculum, for the same reason that we gain when those who can afford it travel as part of their study program. And we all have something to share in return.
But first, we need to move beyond the bad bits of the idea: that massive enrolment is a cunning alternative to overcrowding; that volunteer tutoring is sustainable or just; that recorded lectures solve the problem of lectures; that institutional research brand is a guarantee of individual teaching excellence; that timed exams and peer-reviewed short answer papers are anything other than roll call; and that any of these services are going to remain philanthropic once the testing phase is over.
The good ideas trapped behind this wall of nonsense are starting to emerge. This week I had a lovely day sitting about with the people who design our rooms and choose our carpet tiles and light fittings, and make our award-winning outdoor spaces, which really are appreciated by everyone. Talking together we started to imagine how new kinds of campus spaces and educational technologies should work together to support international collaboration among students in ways we haven’t been able to offer before; about facilities where students could meet and create their own digital materials or remix ours; and about the need to reform our outdated business rules in relation to wireless access. It was exciting, and fun, and offered one of the best conversations I’ve listened to on the value of courage in institutional planning.
But a caveat, before we throw open all the doors and windows to the winds of change blowing from the global north: bad ideas don’t always move aside like the Sinclair C5 to make room for the better ones that follow. Here in Australia there’s a lesson from the history of imported innovations that have had long term environmental consequence: the cane toad. Cane toads were brought here in 1935 from Hawaii, in a well-intentioned effort to reduce crop damage without excessive use of pesticides, and we can recognise those principles as basically good. The scientist who arranged their introduction to Queensland wasn’t blinded by greed or lacking in awareness. It’s just that, as the Australian Dictionary of Biography puts it with heartbreaking understatement, “the toad proved less useful than had been hoped, and itself became a pest.”
Let’s just keep this in mind: whatever problems we’re trying to solve, and whatever ideas we think are good, we are taking care of a complex and fairly fragile educational ecosystem here. And if a toad doesn’t prove as useful as you hoped, you can’t always get it to go home again.