“Piggy in the Middle.”

30 07 2013

“[Frederick] Taylor and [his protégé Carl] Barth interpreted their responsibility as that of introducing certain technological and administrative changes at Watertown Arsenal. In fact they were doing much more than this: they were disrupting an established social system and trying to build a new one. Nothing they did was, in this respect, neutral; nothing was merely technological or administrative.”

- Hugh G.J. Aitken, Scientific Management in Action: Taylorism at Watertown Arsenal, 1908-1915, 1960, p. 135.

The aspect of Taylorism that skilled molders at the Watertown Arsenal objected to most was time studies: “efficiency experts” who stood behind them, measuring the duration of particular aspects of their jobs, and then telling them how to do it better. This led to a very brief strike which actually got Taylorism banned from US government facilities.

Now imagine if that efficiency expert stood not behind those skilled workers, but between them and their work. This is essentially the situation that Lisa Lane describes here:

It’s like making a movie. And I want to be Orson Welles – writer, director, actor. It’s my class. I write it when I create the syllabus and collect the materials. I direct it when I teach and assist students. I act when I’m lecturing or presenting.

But now that we’ve professionalized “instructional design” (and other aspects of education that used to be considered support rather than primary functions), I feel there’s a movement afoot to have me just act. Someone else has a degree that says they are more qualified than I am to design my class, in collaboration with me as the “content expert”. They want to do the writing, create the storyboard, tell me what the “best practices” are.

They are trying to turn me into Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Orson Welles. They want me to profess, to perform, to present, and that’s it. (They’ll record that, so my students can view it later. Others can set up a “course structure” around my performances.)

Well…that’s not OK. As a professor, I do not simply profess – I teach. All the decisions involved in teaching should be made by me. It’s not that I don’t understand the limitations (transferrability concerns, student learning outcomes), but beyond those limits the decisions about which materials to use, and how to use them, and what to have students do, and how to assess that, etc. etc. etc. should be mine. Doing those tasks are teaching.

She’s talking about online teaching in general, but this goes double for MOOCs in particular. Here’s Karen Head of Georgia Tech (who remains my hero for describing MOOC-making in such honest detail) describing the team for her composition MOOC:

I cannot imagine doing this alone. I’m joined by Rebecca Burnett, director of our Writing and Communication Program and the project’s co-principal investigator; Richard Utz, chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication; a group of 11 postdoctoral teaching fellows; plus several specialists in assessment, IT, intellectual-property law, and videography.

And that doesn’t count the representatives from Coursera! No superprofessor is going to be able to be Orson Wells in that environment. They’d be lucky to be Ed Wood.

Perhaps superprofessors are happy just being Leonardo DiCaprio. After all, Leonardo DiCaprio gets paid very, very well. However, all the money for those salaries has to come from somewhere. More importantly, the money for a price of the ticket to watch this blockbuster for credit won’t be going to the rest of us who aren’t part of this movie. This is from that no-bid contract expose that ran in IHE a while back:

San Jose State University, a high-profile hotbed of experimentation with MOOC providers, has a revenue-sharing agreement with Udacity to offer for-credit online classes. That arrangement was not publicly bid, San Jose spokeswoman Pat Harris said. The university signed a contract addendum in April. The university expects to receive $40 per student, though students paid $150 per class.

Leland Stanford, the original California entrepreneur, and his buddies didn’t get a deal that sweet.

In other words, MOOC providers are the piggy in the middle, sucking up tuition money that could be going back into the state universities that desperately need it. As Gerry Canavan explains it:

The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent, of the people hired on campus to design or implement MOOC-ification. Some of them really are extraordinarily smart, caring people who I consider to be among my online friends. Nevertheless, they have just as much self interest in promoting MOOC-ification as I do in promoting the self-interest of my colleagues in the professoriate. How come we never hear about that?

It’s not just bad publicity. It’s a power structure that favors technology over teaching, untenurable labor over the tenured kind and growth over dealing with the actual paying students that universities have now.

PS Holy moly! The entire Rutles “All You Need Is Cash” special is on YouTube! See you in about an hour.

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3 responses

30 07 2013
VanessaVaile

your post reminded me that I had bookmarked a number (fewer than expected)of pages about Taylorism in education…all pre-mooc that might interest you. 

http://collegiateway.org/news/2008-taylorism-fordism

http://mets2006.wordpress.com/2008/07/09/taylorism-and-the-new-cult-of-efficiency-treating-and-students-and-teachers-as-a-commodity/

Way  back in 2002-3 I came across dissertation about globalization in higher ed that mentioned Taylorism as part of the process ~ that was pre-cloud and several hard drives back. All I can remember is that it was from a Latin American university.

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31 07 2013
arobertsonh

Love the idea of introducing Taylorism to the MOOC debate. You know, until recently, Harvard also owned what’s left of the Watertown Arsenal complex.

31 07 2013
reader

Here’s another from the site in the first comment:

http://collegiateway.org/news/2008-gwot

“The global war on Taylorism”

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