What’s the point of academic research?

19/04/2013 § 9 Comments

I’m still thinking about MOOCs. A university is supposed to be involved in research and teaching, and MOOCs potentially cut into the teaching side of the business. Even if they aren’t as good, they may still take a big chunk of market share. One can buy hand-sewn shirts, but mass-produced shirts are much more common.

So that leaves the research side of the university. What’s the point? Is it to be ‘critic and conscience of society’, which is the New Zealand job description for an academic? Is it to advance knowledge and understanding?

What got me thinking about the topic was this profile of Noam Chomsky by Glen Greenwald. Greenwald, a journalist, has been a relentless critic of the security state that the US has put in place over the last two presidencies. Chomsky, an academic, has been a critic of American hegemony for decades. It is likely that academic tenure has helped Chomsky speak his mind. That is, the economic security of his job allowed him to have ‘a room of one’s own’ (Virginia Woolf) and be a critic of society.

University research, then, might be about providing an environment in which individuals and teams can pursue research, whether that research is criticising society or supporting it. The university buffers researchers from that same society — providing them time for the research to come to fruition, shielding them from reactions when their opinions or findings are unpopular. The uneasy bargain is that society pledges resources to the university — even when it bites the hand that feeds it — because of a belief that ultimately it will be for the social good.

But is it? Or, more precisely, is it at the margin?

And that question takes me to findings like those discussed here:

Consider this tally from Science two decades ago: Only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals were cited within the first five years after publication. In recent years, the figure seems to have dropped further. In a 2009 article in Online Information Review, Péter Jacsó found that 40.6 percent of the articles published in the top science and social-science journals (the figures do not include the humanities) were cited in the period 2002 to 2006.

So it seems that much university research isn’t even of value to researchers themselves.

There is also discussion of the ‘need’ for academics to contribute more, be more engaged with society, adopt more of a public intellectual stance. Those discussions suggest that society — government, business, the chatterati — might feel that academics aren’t pulling their weight.

Where I’m getting to is this: if MOOCs call into question the near-monopoly of universities for delivering advanced education, then universities will have to lean more heavily on the research function to justify their existence. But, the research side seems anemic, at least at the margin. The additional contribution of the extra dollar of spend seems to deliver little in the way of engagement or criticism. Oddly, the crisis in teaching raises the title question: what’s the point of research?

Mass-produced education

12/04/2013 § 2 Comments

MOOCs — Massive open online courses — are the latest Next Big Thing in education. Technology has made it cheap to reproduce and transmit information. The hope is that it can spread education far and wide.

The discussion of MOOCs reminds me of other technology discussions. Back in the early days of Web commercialisation, there was a lot of jostling and experimentation to try to figure out how to use the Web and make money from it. Some models boomed, some failed, and some limped. MOOCs look like the same sort of process — trying to figure out how to make a profitable mass education business model.

They also remind me of MP3. The analogue proponents say that compressed digital music doesn’t provide the quality that vinyl can. Listening to poor-quality songs from my smartphone, I know they are right. But then, I can’t carry around 1,568 songs on vinyl in my pocket. The criticism that MOOCs are providing poorer quality education — which is likely to be accurate — ignores that there are other considerations. Some people in some situations are willing to trade quality for convenience.

The criticisms of MOOCs seem to revolve around their commercial focus, which is just the latest fight over commercialisation of universities. This Lawyers Guns and Money post on US and UK universities discusses MOOCs  as part of a larger discussion of

the commercialisation of academia and the erosion of academic freedom [which] are tightly interwoven.

In particular, critics are concerned about profiteering by the course providers and the rise of superprofessors —  seeing MOOCs as ways to stroke the egos of people who are already successful while creating profits only for the companies involved.

These courses are revealing an important split in the role of universities — the production of new knowledge, which is expensive and time-consuming, and the dissemination of knowledge, which needn’t be. And that suggests the possibility of greater division of labour, which has historically made things less expensive and more available. These changes don’t tend to be (are never?) unequivocally good (or Pareto improving). This was Rousseau’s critique, as it was Marcuse’s, but people continue to buy the newer, cheaper stuff.

I am in the middle of some lecturing. I have two sections of about 250-300 students each. I pace about at the front of the lecture halls — purpose-built to have that many students — and talk them through basic statistics. I get the occasional comment or chuckle as feedback, but I’m not interacting with the students in any meaningful way. I could be performing in front of 300 or 3,000. They could be watching me in person or on-line.

These large lecture halls show that universities already recognise the efficiencies to be had in transmitting information. Universities are already mass-producing education, and students’ experiences are already inferior to mine of 25 years ago. MOOCs are not just a new technology that breaks with the past; they are also a continuation of it.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with MOOCs at Groping towards Bethlehem.