In the article, Prof. Cowen asserts that the increasingly automated and always-accessibly-online means of production and transmission will not benefit all persons equally, but certain groups will do particularly well. Cowen lists the groups, explaining why and how each of those listed will find special benefit from the direction he sees matters going. The article is reported as an adaptation of material from a book, Average is Over, and it is perhaps one with the adaptation that the explanations are not as detailed as they perhaps could be to be truly informative.
And there is a problem in the worldview that seems to underlie Prof. Cowen's assertions. The article seems to take as given that the increasing mechanization of production of materials and information is a good thing; while I am happy to have access to diverse information and am on record as a supporter of work in the digital humanities (sometimes despite the words of far more senior scholars), I do not have quite so optimistic a view of the encroaching computerization of all things as Cowen seems to have. Indeed, I view what he asserts as being good things as dehumanizing--and as a scholar of the humanities, I do not know that I can endorse those things that tend to the excision of what is human, and potentially some of the best parts of what it is to *be* human.
For instance, Cowen comments on online coursework, using Coursera as his example (I focus on his comments about teaching and about evaluating writing because they are areas in which I may claim some expertise). While Cowen points out that the motivated will be those who benefit from such coursework, it may be argued that the presence of a professor in the classroom, of a living human being to whom one is accountable, does much to motivate people who might otherwise not be motivated and who, in finding such motivation, end up discovering a greater purpose for themselves than that of which they otherwise would have conceived. And it is also the case that those who have already proven themselves to be good students find it difficult to maintain motivation in online courses. Steven D. Krause reports himself as being one such in his contribution to the June 2013 issue of CCC. Presumably, as someone who holds a professorship and was therefore good at the thing called school, and who describes himself as interested in the course for several reasons (689), he would be one of the more motivated participants. Yet this was not the case; he reports that his interest wavered soon, and in large part because of the nature of the course itself (690-94). The same was true for Jeff Rice, who notes that "Even with eagerness to learn about MOOCs by doing them, even with an overall interest in music [the subject of the course], and even with the minimal requirement of two to three paragraphs per writing assignment and relative ease of watching video lectures created in advance, [he] failed to follow through on the course" (699). Again, someone with reasons to be motivated and a demonstrated past history of being a motivated student--for Rice is also among the professoriate--has difficulty maintaining motivation in the absence of actual human contact. Rice asserts that it is a lack of emotional involvement that drove his failure in the class (702)--and physical presence and direct connection between people, such as that within a well-run traditional classroom, fosters emotional involvement in a way that no more remote medium can. As Krause notes, "a textbook is not the same as a teacher," and education is not simply the provision of information (694); it is a series of interactions among people, and the removal of people makes those interactions less possible. Cowen's assertion that we will have the best education ever available because of the ease of content delivery, that teaching will be better for being less human and more digitized, is therefore not entirely sound, and I must wonder if the rest of his statements are similarly suspect.
Perhaps it is because I have read as much science fiction as I have in my life that I have the opinions I have regarding the values and dangers of thinking devices. I nearly cut my teeth on Asimov, and if I am going to be living in a world where the machines are doing most of the work of the mind, I want at the very least to see that those machines have something like the Three Laws, or their corollary Zeroth Law, built into them. And even with them in place, one only need look to the Spacers to see what an overreliance on the machines will foster...
- Cowen, Tyler. "Who Will Prosper in the New World." NYTimes.com. New York Times, 31 August 2013. Web. 31 August 2013.
- Krause, Steven D. "MOOC Response about 'Listening to World Music.'" CCC 64.6 (June 2013): 689-95. Print.
- Rice, Jeff. "What I Learned in MOOC." CCC 64.6 (June 2013): 695-703. Print.