Frankenstein’s monster.

22 06 2012

Upon finding out that the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia fired President Theresa Sullivan primarily because of her desire to take the leap into large-scale online education more slowly than they wanted, my first inclination was to start gloating. After all, I had just written that this kind of technology would be used as a weapon against faculty (and by extension then, anyone who supports their interests). On second thought, I realized that it doesn’t take genius to predict that a board made up of hedge fund managers and real estate developers would act like hedge fund managers and real estate developers in their continual search for strategic dynamism and creative destruction.

In the wake of the release of their e-mails which prove that point, various members of the Board have been the subject of well-deserved abuse on my Twitter and Google Reader feeds. Even supporters of MOOCs and the like have been merciless in condemning the ignorance of the people who sacked Sullivan, particularly when there were plenty of people on campus in Charlottesville who might have explained to them that going slow with this kind of change is probably a pretty good idea (no matter what David Brooks thinks). After all, the argument goes, these kinds of technologies need to be perfected and assessed. Otherwise, people might misuse them.

Other level heads argue that MOOCs may work well in some contexts, and not others. For instance, they don’t get more reasonable than Timothy Burke:

If you think about MOOCs in the right, very limited, way, they’re exciting. If you think about them the wrong way, check your wallet and your bank account. Guess which way the University of Virginia Board seems to have been thinking about them.

Unfortunately, with the current state of university governance in the United States, that’s practically a distinction without a difference. And with the current state of university governance in the United States, nobody is going to get the time to work out the kinks. Too many people who control universities today either don’t know the difference between a good course and a bad course, or, perhaps more likely, couldn’t care less. They simply see an opportunity to cut labor costs, and by gum they’re going to take it.

If you ever read my last blog, you’d know I have an incredibly low opinion of the American Enterprise Institute’s Richard Vedder. Unfortunately, in this case (as quoted by Remaking the University), he’s absolutely right:

[T]he “Faculty Senate’s reaction shows confusion about who runs the university. Legally, the faculty work for the board, not vice versa. But the faculty don’t consider the trustees their bosses. That demonstrates a major problem: a murky conception of property rights and governance. The faculty believe that, since they do all the teaching and research, they are the university.”

Don’t get me wrong. I think we should run the university, but all the power lies elsewhere. In the age of permanent austerity, all you have to do is follow the money if you want to know who really calls the shots. Since MOOCs have no revenue model yet, they’ll ultimately be controlled by their funders for the forseeable future.

This is where the moderates among you (that’s you, Kate) will likely be up in arms. Why do we have to throw the baby out with bathwater? Can’t we reason with these people? Isn’t there room for pedagogical experimentation? The problem with that position is that it assumes that professors can control what they create. Unfortunately, like Frankenstein’s monster, once a strategically dynamic idea like the MOOC is created, it kind of develops a mind of its own.

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6 responses

22 06 2012
Music for Deckchairs

OK, gotcha. But despite being your go-to gal for edtech moderates I’m also sitting watching this sequence of distressing events in horror. There really is no good way forward that I can see. Different heads can roll — vengeance can be exacted, in a Game of Thrones way. But heads that were lopped off can’t readily be restored, at least not without an awkward join.

The thing is (and Timothy Burke has already pointed this out) — in UVa’s awesomely muddled rationalisations we’re seeing online courses deployed as loss leaders and cost cutters both, and this is the familiar part. It’s not confined to UVa at all..

So the bit that really preoccupies me, having read all the same emails, is the lack of proper scrutiny applied to celebrity online courses, from people whose very tenure in advisory boards must surely rest on their capacity to judge business propositions with a shrewd eye.

When you add to this their really awful underestimation of social media, let alone media media, it’s genuinely surprising that this is a Board being framed as having forward-thinking business credentials of any kind. Oh, other than “Memo to self: pay PR firm to write memos.”

So I now think it will help us all immensely to lay the M-word to rest. MOOCs aren’t an agent of any kind in this situation. MOOC is just an acronym applied lazily to too many different phenomena. It’s not helping anyone that we graffiti onto the concept devil horns and a forked tongue — there still really is no such unified concept. It’s a catch-all for a bundle of different practices, some of which have massive as their mission, but others of which are simply and impressively open, in ways that I don’t think it’s at all moderate to defend.

Because open education principles are being harmed here in ways that will really affect vulnerable learners.

22 06 2012
Jonathan Rees

But that’s just it, Kate. You can’t put the cat back in the bag. People have been overselling online courses for so long now that the bean counters will use the term MOOC as their gold standard from now until higher education’s end of days.

The only way to stop the abuse is to stop collaborating with people who mean the professoriate no good at all.

22 06 2012
Jonathan Dresner

“Who owns the University?” and “Who is the University?” are VERY different questions.

24 06 2012
VanessaVaile

May I muddy the waters with an alternate or, depending on perspective, supplementary conspiracy theory? No, it’s not Josh’s about Sullivan leading an alien invasion (undeniably delightful as it is). Instead,I direct you to UVA alumna and fellow historian Anne Marie Angelo’s theory of what led to Sullivan’s ouster (tentative and in progress but well documented):

“The theory I have is that Goldman Sachs’s Education Management Corporation, a for-profit education provider, wanted to make or made a bid to offer online education through UVA. From this endeavor, EMC would invest profits back into the University, helping to heal some of the University’s fiscal woes. When Sullivan was reluctant or refused to agree to the venture, key members of the Board threatened litigation related to her performance as a fundraiser for the University.”

Then she lays out ~ with links ~ how she arrived at her theory. It makes more sense to my tired old brain than presumably intelligent (if wrong headed) and business savvy trustees swallowing a few NYT columns and higher ed news media pieces as investment advice gospel.

Then again, taking off from Kate’s Game of Thrones reference, could this be a reality show dress rehearsal for some highered/fantasy mashup, let’s call it, Game of Chairs? As an not entirely OT aside, turns out the recent Texas A&M San Antonio church/state separation (TJ is everywhere here) incident is also entangled with the corporate university, this time, Rick Perry’s higher ed and real estate development.

Back to the aliens… and thoughts of Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians”

9 07 2012
A Classic Case of Misplaced Belief in Market-Driven Educational “Solutions”

[...] sure to also check out Rees’s recent posts “Frankenstein’s Monster,”  “Why Stay in College?,” and “Are College Professors Working [...]

24 10 2012
The onus of education. « More or Less Bunk

[...] his Princeton course with his MOOC. However, lots of people like the Wall Street Journal and the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia obviously have other ideas. I don’t blame any super-professor for trying to teach the best [...]

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