Anybody familiar with my fondness for labor history, 19th century American folklore and sarcasm will understand why this is now my favorite tweet ever:
The steam powered hammer freed John Henry for other activities.—
Sunny Stalter (@slstalter) May 16, 2013
If you don’t know who “John Henry” was, The Boss will be delighted to sing you one version of the story. Or better yet, read the book by Scott Reynolds Nelson and learn a little bit about all of them. The key point here for understanding that tweet is that the steam hammer killed John Henry, leaving him no time to do other things at all. While MOOC enthusiasts like to claim that their babies will allow professors to get back to the way teaching is supposed to be, anybody who’s paying the least bit of attention to academic politics in this day and age knows that the bean counters will never let that happen. Economically, non-superprofessors will all be as dead as John Henry because killing our jobs is the primary reason that MOOCs exist in the first place.
My response to that tweet was so pathetic in its attempt at similar humor that I just deleted it before writing this. However, when breaking my brain in a failed attempt to be witty, I realized that the joke here actually understates the direness of our situation. John Henry was competing against the steam drill in a fair fight when his heart exploded. In our case, the steam drill is coming down directly upon our chests. What I mean by that is that MOOCs won’t be displacing us by accident. They’ll be replacing us by design.
[William] Bowen spent much of the seventies and eighties as the president of Princeton, after which he joined the Mellon Foundation. In a lecture series at Stanford last year, he argued that online education may provide a cure for the disease he diagnosed almost half a century ago. If overloaded institutions diverted their students to online education, it would reduce faculty, and associated expenses. Courses would become less jammed. Best of all, the élite and populist systems of higher education would finally begin to interlock gears and run as one: the best-endowed schools in the country could give something back to their nonexclusive cousins, streamlining their own teaching in the process. Struggling schools could use the online courses in their own programs, as San José State has, giving their students the benefit of a first-rate education. Everybody wins. At Harvard, I was told, repeatedly, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
As I mentioned before, I know Bill Bowen (even though I haven’t seen him in many years). While he is a very nice man, being both an economist and a former university administrator, I can easily believe that this is exactly what he meant.* The question becomes then: When Harvard people say “A rising tide lifts all boats” do they mean the same thing that Bowen does? Do they think faculty should be thrown over the side before that tide comes in?
I think they do.
Exhibit A: After the speech I gave in Connecticut last Friday, a Harvard Ph.D. in the audience slipped me an article. It’s from their Arts and Sciences graduate college alumni magazine. The new issue isn’t available online yet so you’re just going to have to trust me here:
“Thanks to technologies like HarvardX, [Grad Students Wen Yu] and [Ian] Miller suspect, there may be fewer professors in the academy in the future, but they will be much better teachers.”
That last sentiment is so perverse, I’m going to have to take it up in a post all its own, but for now just let the total lack of compassion there sink in for a moment. Sure, we’re going to screw over a lot of other grad students, but we’ll be fine! We’re from Harvard! With respect to there being fewer professors in the future, you just know they’re getting that from somewhere.
Exhibit B comes from former Harvard dean Harry Lewis (who talked to that New Yorker reporter, but was not quoted extensively). In this blog post, he absolves his employer for all blame for MOOC-induced professorial unemployment:
In the case of MOOCs (or other ways of chunking online instruction), Harvard could impose burdensome licensing rules in an effort to protect the scholarly professionals elsewhere. (Just as the Wall Street Journal is now Online but hardly Open.) But of course UC would then utilize someone else’s product, resulting in lower quality instruction at UC, perhaps at a higher price. Would we at Harvard then sleep better, knowing that if any philosophers had been laid off in California, it was not because of OUR MOOC?
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?”
In other words, my fellow faculty members who teach at universities with precarious balance sheets (which therefore makes them ripe for “disruption”), Harvard hates you. Not content to be the richest of the rich, they want to get even richer by making your jobs no longer economically viable.
What’s doubling infuriating about that line of argument is the way Lewis wraps Harvard’s selfish interest in the patina of a good cause, namely openness. That kind of argument is pretty common amongst the MOOC messiah corps. Just look at Coursera. As Irene Ogrizek writes:
Coursera is a for-profit entity. It, along with other for-profits, is being heralded as an example of corporate innovation that will bolster and transform the global education sector. But the bottom line is that Koller, her partner Andrew Ng, and their backers are in it to make money. Images of desperate South Africans might be useful for generating support, but eventually someone, most likely the South African government, will have to pay for the privilege of collaborating with Coursera. And the profits will go to shareholders and not back into an ailing system that can produce a stampede that can kill a mother who only wants what’s best for her son.
Of course, Sebastian Thrun has famously stated that in the future there will only be a need for ten universities worldwide. Therefore, he’s no pal of ours either. The only thing that separates MOOC providers from Harvard is that they want to destroy higher education top to bottom and rebuild it with nearly all the revenue flowing to them. Faculty will simply be collateral damage as whole universities disappear for the sake of investors, taking nearly everybody’s jobs – indeed whole college towns – with them. But at least we’ll still have Cambridge.
It’s as if the Stanford CS department is trying to build a vast infrastructure, suck as much money as possible out of it, then run it into the ground. Oddly enough, as the Stanford historian Richard White explains in his recent historiographic milestone of a book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, that’s what Leland Stanford and his buddies did to the American railway system over a century ago.
On second thought, maybe that John Henry analogy isn’t so far off at all.
* If you have more time than I do, you can listen to Bowen’s talk at Stanford last year and tell me if this summary is accurate. However, the New Yorker‘s fact checkers are so legendarily thorough, I’d be shocked if his ideas are being distorted here at all.