The Golden Age of Journalism and the Coming MOOC War

People walk on the Columbia University campus on July 1, 2013 in New York City.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

If you dislike annoying techno-utopian hype, you’re going to love Jonathan Rees’ anti-MOOC rant that Slate recently published. And I think it’s fair to say that Rees raises a number of very legitimate concerns that MOOC-timists are giving short shrift to the benefits of in-person education. At the same time, as Jonathan Chait points out a lot, of Rees’ piece also seems to consist of naked appeals to the class interests of college professors. There are some interesting dynamics around this because academia has long been a stronghold of left-wing political ideas, and many people have savored the irony that you’re more likely to hear the case for socialism from a professor or a graduate student than from an actual member of the working class. But there was a very recent interesting N+1 article making the case that the growing precarity of university labor means that it now does make sense to explicitly construct left-wing politics as the class politics of professors and intellectuals.

My own feelings about the MOOC boom are always complicated by the lack of a reliable way of measuring the state of the conventional wisdom. I sometimes feel like “everybody knows” that MOOCs are going to completely revolutionize higher education and create a new utopian horizon and they’re actually ignoring some very basic problems. Other times I feel like “everyone knows” that the only real answer to the college affordability crisis is a massive increase in direct government subsidies, and they’re actually ignoring the very real potential of technology to create a productivity boom in this field.

The bottom line, however, is what I came to in my piece about how we’re living through the glory days of American journalism. You’ve heard a lot over the past 10 to 15 years about the crisis of American journalism, but it’s actually been a crisis for American journalists. A lot of people have lost jobs. A lot of people have had to work harder, or work in ways they find less pleasant. Journalism has become more competitive and in some ways less prestigious. It’s simultaneously more ideological and more commercial than it used to be. There are a lot of reasons journalists gripe. But the journalism is fine. Not just fine, it’s fantastic. More people have easier and cheaper access to more great coverage than ever before. You can delve much deeper into issues than ever before, hear from a much wider range of people, and learn about news faster. There really has been an amazing explosion of journalistic productivity, and voracious readers are way better off than they’ve ever been. The fact that journalists may not like it is neither here nor there. If an explosion of higher education productivity occurs, the people who currently teach in colleges and universities will find it discomfiting and that should not be the relevant consideration.