Just say no to technological unemployment in higher education.

5 11 2012

I feel lucky that about a day after I added Mills Kelly’s blog to my rss feed, he blogged practically the entire George Mason Future of Higher Education conference. Sure, I saw some of the relevant Twitter feeds (thank you, Natalia), but Kelly just KILLED it as far as I’m concerned. My recommendation is that you just visit edwired, scroll down to post #1 and read back to the top.

Overall, the impression of the conference that Kelly conveys left me highly amused. George Mason, if you don’t know, is the home of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. These folks have been pretty much at the center of every major technological innovation in the practice of history scholarship and teaching for the last ten years. Yet apparently their university decided to bring in just about every edtech enthusiast around (snake oil salesman or otherwise) in order to pitch online learning and MOOCs at them. It seems that few of them were biting, especially Kelly.

Of all his excellent insights, this is the one that made me want to stand up and cheer:

Given the clear interest in pushing online education coming out of the rhetoric of this conference, universities like Mason are going to have to take a long, hard look at how we might implement these sorts of sweeping changes without a significant addition of staff to make it possible. Online is not even remotely frictionless, and staffing the effort will be very, very expensive.

Will we add staff? Or will we repurpose existing staff? We don’t have the money for the former, and if we do the latter, what things will those staff stop doing. This is a conversation we are not having at this conference and I’ll be interested to see if we do.

I hate to break it to you Mills, but they aren’t talking about it because they’ll be cutting staff instead of adding them.

I’d classify online education courses into two categories: those designed to reach new audiences and those designed to save labor costs. While those two categories are not mutually exclusive, my recommendation to any faculty member offered an online course at an institution primarily interested in the second reason is to head for the hills. All MOOCs fall into this category (even if some MOOC enthusiasts will only talk about category #1).

But suppose you still want to become a superprofessor because you have dreams of becoming a star. As Margaret Soltan of University Diaries fame explained when asked why she wanted to teach a MOOC (despite coining the term “Click-Thru U. on her blog some years earlier):

My ego also played a part. I was flattered to have been asked.

Or there’s this line from the second major MOOC piece of the weekend:

Some distinguished professors, he said, are fired up about the prospect of teaching 100,000 students instead of 20.

Do these elite proffies realize that people’s livelihoods are on the line? They may be dabbling, but their employers are dead serious. Why do you think all these universities are dead set on teaching 82,000 students at a time? When they can scale up, they expect their labor costs to go down because the MOOC machine will essentially run itself. In fact, the MOOC machine pretty much has to run itself in order to function. That’s what separates MOOCs from all other online courses, and that’s what makes them so dangerous to the careers of faculty members at all levels.

While lower labor costs may be excellent in terms of the bottom line, the ramifications of this set up for the quality of education are terrible. Here’s Kelly discussing one of my “favorite” edtech startups, StaighterLine:

Not knowing much about StraigherLine before today, I was very interested to learn that their courses are “tutor supported” rather than “instructor supported.” In other words, students taking their courses are not being taught by individuals with deep content knowledge, but rather than by “tutors” who are knowledgeable in how to guide students through the online models created by the company. It’s certainly a very cost-efficient model, but what happens if Student X has a question that we might call an example of “critical thinking”? How can one of those tutors, who knows a lot about how to help students complete the models in the curriculum, respond to such a question? Probably not very well.

But what if you’re a superprofessor with your own brand already? Don’t you have a right to cash in? Here’s Kelly describing that argument as made by Jeff Selingo of the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

Then he moved on to a discussion of my colleague Tyler Cowen’s MrUniversity and argued that there are professors all around the country who have “individual brands” that will make it possible for them to prosper in the MOOC space by following a “free agent model.”

If you’re smart enough to be a superprofessor, you should also be smart enough to realize that a market of free agents all bidding against each other for the “privilege” of having their own MOOCs will not work to your advantage in the long run. Today’s star is tomorrow’s has-been, especially if they no longer have a university to back them up. Superprofessors can be replaced just as easily as those of us teaching face-to-face classes can be. In fact, if all you do is lecture on tape and decide what the essay question that you won’t be grading is, you could be replaced even easier than a face-to-face professor can be.

We really are all in this together – adjunct, professor and superprofessor alike. The only people who win when technology replaces living, breathing, in-person faculty are the people selling that technology to gullible administrators. So if you get a chance to teach online, ask yourself: Will my actions make it easier for someone else to be fired? If you get a chance to teach a MOOC, ask yourself: How does this affect the rest of the people in my profession?

Don’t say no to technology. As the folks at Mason have proved time and time again, it can make you a more productive scholar and teacher (in the the sense that you can teach more things to the same number of students). Technological unemployment, on the other hand, may not be in your immediate future, but if you let it happen to someone else it’s just a matter of time before the wolf circles around to your door too.

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2 responses

6 12 2012
SymbolicComputation.com

Our governments should spend more of our tax-dollars on something we want. I’m for robotics that are owned by all of the citizens of a country. Lot’s of people want to cheer every time a robot puts someone out of work. Fully automated robotics factories, with self replicating robotic arms. Highly automated renewable energy, windmills or underwater water mills. Highly automated steel production. Highly automated chip manufacturing, and Linux. I’ve seen some automated building manufacturing companies starting up as well. Other prerequisite products can eventually be manufactured as well. All source code and blueprints have to be fully owned with rights to an infinite amount of use. All owned by the citizens of the country concerned. Small factories at first, with all of the bugs worked out, so that it largely builds itself in the end. It should be affordable, I’m an economic conservative. Eventually the complex can produce consumer goods besides steel, energy, chips, buildings, and robotics. Charities and the open source community can help as well. I support liberal licensing agreements of source code and blueprints, to allow infinite replication without cost(one time fee models).

SymbolicComputation.com

8 01 2013
The beatings will continue until morale improves. « More or Less Bunk

[...] I know the average DHer is more than smart enough to see this.  I’ve been particular heartened by the MOOC skepticism I see coming out of the Center for New Media and History from people like Mills Kelly. [...]

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