“Would you like to shoot me now or wait ’til you get home?”

16 05 2013

Has a backlash formed against MOOCs? Well, yes and know. Certainly non-stop MOOC-mania has started to become peppered with bad publicity for the first time. However, it’s important to remember an important distinction: There are universities that produce MOOCs now and universities that will consume MOOCs (mostly) later. If schools like Amherst reject being MOOC producers, that’s not a backlash. That’s Amherst being Amherst. If schools like Duke reject giving credit for MOOCs, that does not prevent them from continuing as MOOC producers.

Really, the only sure sign that I’ve seen of any institutional backlash from a potential MOOC consumer is that eloquent letter from the San Jose State Philosophy Department. Perhaps this explains why Michael Feldstein decided to attack it:

The collective effect of these rhetorical moves is to absolve the department of all responsibility for addressing the real problems the university is facing. By ignoring the scholarship of teaching, the department missed an opportunity to engage the MOOC question in a different way. Rather than thinking of MOOCs as products to be bought or rejected, they could have approached them as experiments in teaching methods that can be validated, refuted, or refined through the collective efforts of a scholarly community.

Seriously, you can’t learn more about education technology anywhere than you can over at Michael’s blog, e-Literate. However, that post is probably the clearest indiction that I have ever seen that faculty have to look out for their own interests rather than depend on friends in any other part of higher education to fight for them. After all, it’s not the San Jose State Philosophy Department’s fault that the California legislature won’t raise taxes. More importantly, it’s not Feldstein’s job that’s under threat of being unbundled. I’ll call this the “Wait ’til you get home” option because we all know what the outcome of this kind of dialogue will be: unbundling and unemployment.

On the other hand, there’s the “Shoot him now! Shoot him now!” option, which I warned about in my first Inside Higher Education piece almost a year ago. Sadly, things have only gotten worse since that time. Perhaps the best indication of that is the hysterical (in more than one way) Pearson-authored report, “An Avalanche Is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead.”

I must confess that I didn’t bother to actually read this report until I wanted to find new evidence to illustrate this way of thinking. You won’t be surprised to learn that it really is as bad as it sounds. “In the new world the learner will be in the driver’s seat,” the authors write at the end:

with a keen eye trained on value. For institutions, deciding to embrace this new world may turn out to be the only way to avoid the avalanche that is coming.

Of course, if the learner is in the driver’s seat, faculty aren’t. In fact, since you can literally pick up online instructors from anywhere on the planet with an internet connection, professors will have far less power in Pearson’s utopian future than they do even now. As the authors remind us:

For traditional universities, a dramatic rethink of how faculty use their time and how they interact with students will be central to future success.

Adapt or die. Nothing more. Nothing less. The fact that this report was published by what claims to be the UK’s “leading progressive think tank” literally makes me sick to my stomach.

Luckily, a third way of thinking about MOOCs is coalescing. I’ll call it the “End Duck Season altogether” option. From where I sit, it’s taking many forms. For example, you can humiliate Elmer for knowing absolutely nothing about hunting. I think Bob Meister did this very well in his recent open letter to Coursera’s Daphne Koller. It’s not like he’s saying, “Your MOOCs suck” (even if sometimes they do).

Then there’s a sort of arched eyebrow accompanying the question, “Have you people really thought through the implications of what you’re doing?,” approach. Aaron Bady’s masterpiece, delivered at UC-Irvine last week and published on his blog yesterday, will remain the gold standard in this genre for a very long time. By all means read the whole thing, but here’s my favorite part:

Things are moving so fast because if we stopped to think about what we are doing, we’d notice that MOOCs are both not the same thing as normal education, and are being positioned to replace “normal” education. But the pro-MOOC argument is always that it’s cheaper and almost never that it’s better; the most utopian MOOC-boosters will rarely claim that MOOCs are of equivalent educational value, and the most they’ll say is that someday it might be. This point is crucial to unpacking the hype: columnists, politicians, university administrators, educational entrepreneurs, and professors who are hoping to make their name by riding out this wave, they can all talk in such glowing terms about the onrushing future of higher education only because that future hasn’t actually happened yet: it’s still speculative in the sense that we’re all speculating about what it will look like. This means that the MOOC can be all things to all people because it is, literally, a speculation about what it might someday become.

So, for example, when Georgia Tech creates an entirely online master’s degree in computer science and charges $134/credit, it is no longer open. That means it is not a MOOC. It’s simply a cheap graduate degree with coursework graded by machine. The cloud of MOOC hype is designed to distract attention from the fact that the pedagogy involved here is actually a big step backwards.

Another way to prevent Elmer Fudd from shooting you in the beak is to attack the basic assumptions behind his weapon of choice. This guest post at Historiann’s place is particularly brilliant in that regard:

At the moment, the classism of the MOOCs is most clear in the central unexamined assumption – that the “best” teachers are at the “best” universities. Now, it is true that the most prominent scholars tend to teach at the most prominent universities, but the skills of teaching are widely distributed – and the difficult job market of the last thirty years has ensured that there are outstanding scholars at many colleges and universities around the country. Indeed, those who teach students who arrive at college or university with less preparation have often spent more time honing their pedagogical skills in order to engage their students and address the challenges that their diverse backgrounds, socio-economic levels, and intellectual strengths present. However, the high cost of developing MOOCS means that only faculty at America’s most elite universities have the opportunity to employ those technologies. The wealthy and powerful thus become the purveyors of knowledge and culture to those less privileged across America and around the world. MOOCs are not, in fact, cheap, but the money goes to technical staff at the elite university, rather than to instructors at less resourced ones.

[emphasis in original]

The authors also attack MOOCs along gender lines, an argument that I have been woefully bereft at developing here at this blog.

Whatever way you want to go about trying to end open season on college professors, you need to recognize that you’re going to get attacked for being uncivil. That doesn’t mean that you’re not being polite. All it means is that the MOOC enthusiasts are angry because you’ll no longer accept their monopoly on determining the parameters of the MOOC debate. If we can accomplish that change, then maybe we’ll have a real backlash against MOOCs on our hands.

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12 responses

16 05 2013
Thursday! | Gerry Canavan

[…] Jonathan Rees has been pounding the MOOC beat for weeks; here’s his latest roundup. […]

16 05 2013
sophylou

Jonathan, just a quick correction: it is Georgia Tech that is creating the online masters’ degree, not Georgia State. Both are part of the University System of Georgia, but they are different schools.

16 05 2013
Jonathan Rees

Thanks sophylou! Post now corrected.

16 05 2013
A shift in the MOOCmentum: coverage of and conversations around our open letter to Michael Sandel (part 3). | Adventures in Ethics and Science

[…] read the whole thing to see some of the sensible options for avoiding a beak full of […]

17 05 2013
The dream of the 90s! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

[…] ideas.  Play nice, and definitely let’s keep the conversation going in the previous post.  Jonathan Rees of More or Less Bunk has responded to Susan Amussen and Allyson Poska’s post, among other recent MOOC critiques, so stop by his […]

20 05 2013
Harvard hates you (and Coursera isn’t all that fond of you either). | More or Less Bunk

[…] Someone else is going to destroy your jobs, he’s arguing, so why shouldn’t it be Harvard? “You’re going to die someday anyway, so why don’t I just shoot you now?” […]

16 05 2013
David Golumbia

Thanks for saying that, as it reveals the true contempt you have for education and educators. The “power” to educate should structurally remain with educators, just as it should remain with others who have trained, studied, practiced, and been credentialed to do difficult jobs carefully. How professors choose to deal with forms of power imbalance in their classrooms should and must be up to them. In the world you imagine but are not fully thinking through, I would bet dollars to donuts that you would be the first to start complaining when school is ineffective and “teachers aren’t doing their jobs.”

16 05 2013
Aaron Bady

The assertion that students will actually get any power from the moocification of higher ed is precisely what’s at issue; faculty losing power does not actually mean that students gain what they lose. The reverse is the case: while MOOCs will make faculty less powerful relative to university managers, students will remain under the thumb of the university itself, only, instead of that university being run by teachers who interact with students on a daily basis, it will be run by bottom lined-minded administrators.

16 05 2013
Jonathan Rees

Of course, because we all know that the ability to learn at home in your pajamas is much more important than whether you actually learn anything.

17 05 2013
Mark Peterson

We have always had that “power,” well — since the invention of the printing press. One of the great mysteries of all this is how MOOCs are supposed to be better than, well, books. If I want to know what Michael Sandel thinks about Justice, shouldn’t I read his books on the subject, which come with footnotes and bibliographies, i.e.. the evidence of how and why he came to his views, rather than his canned lectures on the subject, which presumably don’t? What real classroom teaching, as opposed to canned lectures, does is to show students how to take material not from just one expert, but from lots of different ones, and assemble it into something more, and more flexible, and arguably better, than what any single professor, no matter how famous and spectacular, can do just by lecturing. I have taught the first half of the US History survey at least, I don’t know, fifteen times in my career, and each time I assign different readings, different writing assignments, my lectures change, the sections and their topics change, because the point of actual “courses” is for everyone, teacher(s) and students, to think through the material together so that they learn how to think about it, now and in the future.
Honestly, we need to think hard about what education is, and why people want it, not about the lowest price and most convenient way we can get something that sort of resembles it. That’s how we got “fast food.”

17 05 2013
Historiann

A-hahaha! Of course, David, it’s only teachers and proffies we expect to defer to the demands of the market. Just imagine a world in which physicians are instructed by their patients which treatments and therapies they’ll be delivering, or lawyers whose only function is effectively to permit the foolish client to represent himself. Because let us not forget, these physicians and attorneys are paid to serve their clients.

CIP doesn’t have a clue about the difference between universities and community colleges or high schools. Ze doesn’t understand (or has contempt for) the fact that proffies at 4-year universities aren’t just teachers, but also researchers and administrators. Ze doesn’t care that universities aren’t just places where people can take classes, but also generators of new knowledge. Unfortunately, the decision of 4-year universities and prominent R1s now to compete with Kaplan, Phoenix, and the community college down the road has contributed mightily to the confusion on display in CIP’s comments.

17 05 2013
Jonathan Rees

Sciences? Hello!!! Labs?

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