Thursday, March 17, 2016

Ivory Tower

Thanks to the Utah Film Center and all its generous supporters, I just saw a free screening of Ivory Tower, the 2014 documentary about the problems facing American higher education.

For the most part I thought the film was excellent. It focused on the crisis of rising tuition and student loan debt, and touched on most of the reasons why this crisis has arisen: growing enrollments, shrinking state subsidies, and increased overhead costs for bloated administrations and frivolous amenities. The film also explored a variety of innovative variations on higher education, ranging from massive open online courses to the tiny Deep Springs College. It came down heavily against impersonal, one-size-fits-all solutions, and emphasized the importance of one-on-one human interaction.

The film fell short, though, in its inadequate attention to profit motives. It didn’t even mention the for-profit college sector, which has played a disproportionate role in the student debt crisis. It seemed to blame the federal government for pushing loans on students, when in fact it’s private banks and investors who are profiting from those loans. And although it highlighted the for-profit MOOC startups Udacity and Coursera (and the much-publicized collaboration between Udacity and San Jose State University), it failed to mention the lower-profile infiltration of software for canned courses that’s coming from traditional textbook publishers.

To get to the bottom of a scandal, you need to follow the money.


  1. tell us Danno about those "canned courses" and how the higher education administrators are responding to them? Are they hiring adjuncts to deliver the canned courses?

    1. Did you follow the link (behind "canned courses") to the Slate article? That's a good place to start. Yes, I'm sure these canned courses are much more attractive when you're using adjunct instructors. I don't really know to what extent it's happening at WSU, except in the Developmental Math program (and even there my knowledge is out of date).

  2. I taught a few canned courses (sophomore/junior level) in math, stat, and computer/IT.

    Love teaching to death, great to talk ideas and work with eager minds.

    Pay is an utter abomination; i had a day job that paid far far more per hour, and schools are largely certification, money, label mills, and secondarily "institutions of higher learning".

    Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be: Maybe we should pay for our certification and little university labels, so we can "play" with the other reindeer in Santa's games. Maybe there should be a financial, temporal, and administrative energy barrier to learning math, physics, computer (over & above their inherent difficulty, i..e...)

    But it sure takes the piss of out of learning.

    Every year that passes (and I still love math, physics, engineering, heck all of it...) i feel worse and worse about "education" writ large.

    That's an overbroad evaluation, of course. There are pearls amidst the swine gruel out there. But (on average, now) the goal of an integrated, creative, practically useful, and coherent forward-thinking education seems to be held as more irrelevant every year, while the snappy, "I'll just google it", and fast-talking, trend-following, look at my new gee-gaw culture grows ever stronger.


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