Dear MOOC Messiah Squad: You are expendable.

3 10 2013

Well, I’m not sure I can actually answer Evgeny Morozov’s really excellent question, but I can tell you this: When everybody learns to code, there will be a lot of downward pressure on wages and benefits for coding jobs. It’s a simple function of supply and demand. When skills become more common, they earn less compensation.

You can already see something like this happening in the digital humanities. While I’m hardly an expert on this sort of thing, I do feel safe quoting Richard Grusin’s epic MLA paper from earlier this year on the “Dark Side of the Digital Humanities” to help me make one narrow point:

The category of “digital humanities” covers a diverse and heterogeneous range of projects, including but in no means limited to publishing, pedagogy, editorial, creative, and critical work, ranging from close individual attention to single texts to the creation of games and other interactive formats to the mining of big data for patterns imperceptible to the individual scholar). Taken as a whole, however, digital humanities reproduces structurally both within itself and among the humanities writ large the proliferation of temporary, precarious labor that has marked late 20th and 21st century global capitalism. Substantive digital project often entail collaborations among tenured and tenure-track faculty, students, and more precarious technical and non-technical staff. To avoid becoming obsolete such projects will inevitably need ongoing or renewed support if they are to be updated or redone as new technologies continue to replace the technologies with which DH projects were initially created.

To put it bluntly, only one class of the participants that Grusin notes in these projects are tenured. As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun noted in that same session:

DH allows us to tread water: to survive, if not thrive (***think here of the ways in which so many DH projects and jobs depend on soft money and the ways in which DH projects are often—and very unfairly—not counted towards tenure or promotion***). It allows us to sustain ourselves and to justify our existence in an academy that is increasingly a sinking ship.

In other words, the digital humanities employment infrastructure is a new one, and in some ways it’s even more precarious than the regular academic employment structure that it supplements. As a result, administrators controlling the cash have a greater sway over its development than any other kind of scholarship inside a university. Don’t get me wrong: I think the digital humanities are extremely cool. The people doing it should be encouraged to do more, but to ignore the politics of this technological transformation would lead to disaster down the road for everyone involved.

The same is true for MOOCs. While the superprofessors get all the attention, MOOCs are a jobs program for a whole bunch of people who are technologically inclined. Let me quote Karen Head (again) to suggest the extent of this employment surge:

The preparation of a MOOC, unlike that of a traditional course, requires working with videographers, instructional designers, IT specialists, and platform specialists. For many MOOCs this means that an instructor and a teaching assistant must fill most of those support roles. In fact, one of my colleagues who taught a MOOC actually built a recording studio in the basement of his home. Even with our team of 19, we still needed several other people to provide support. We now also have an internal project manager to coordinate our videography needs.

Has somebody started tenuring instructional designers and IT specialists and nobody told me? I doubt it. yet in my experience it is precisely these people in IT or IT-related positions who are the most enthusiastic about MOOCs, even more so than the superprofessors that run them. Yet ironically, once any particular MOOC has been perfected (assuming such a thing is even possible), it is these jobs that will be the most unnecessary, even more so than those of the professors whose jobs those MOOCs might replace. After all, if the university has to keep shooting retakes, the MOOC won’t save anybody any money. “What about MOOC maintenance?,” you ask? That kind of routine IT work is the reason we have electronic outsourcing.

This is a common problem in the tech industry. Indeed, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, engineers in India can seamlessly replace engineers in America in just about any IT project. This is from p. 287 of Hedrick Smith’s recent book, Who Stole the American Dream? (which is very, very good):

“Even so, losses of solid middle-class jobs now ripple throughout the knowledge economy. Banks, airlines, hotels, retailers, investment banks, law firms, and even hospitals and American states have been shipping work offshore. In Madras, India, a Los Angeles Times reporter came across an offshore operation where ‘task by task, function by function, the American office is being hollowed out and reconstituted in places like this…’ He described a local shopping arcade where researchers, librarians, claims processors, proofreaders, accountants, and graphic designers were churning out work for U.S. tax accountants, insurance companies and law firms.”

What’s to stop these folks from doing IT design for Coursera, Udacity or any college with MOOCish aspirations? For all I know they already are.*

Regular face-to-face professorial positions, like traditional service jobs, are more connected to particular places, namely university campuses, unless we let the MOOC Messiah Squad convince administrators and the public otherwise. This doesn’t mean that MOOCs can’t be cool under some circumstances AS LONG AS THEY REMAIN UNDER FACULTY CONTROL. That requires preventing privatization and the inevitable race to the bottom that goes with it. This is important not just for employment purposes, but for quality control of the final result as a lousy online education is of no use to anybody. To ignore the politics of MOOCs in favor of some misguided technological solutionist agenda will just lead to all of us, including our students, meeting each other on the unemployment line.

* I want to make one thing abundantly clear: My problem here is not with the people of India, Ireland or anywhere else with a rising class of knowledge professionals. My problem is with the parasitic companies that create a global race to the bottom solely to expand their already fat profit margins. This hurts workers everywhere in the long run. Global solidarity is the only solution to this problem, but that explanation is for another blog at another time.

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7 10 2013
Let it be. | More or Less Bunk

[…] the MOOC Messiah Squad has played a big part in keeping this futile conversation going, but then there’s also a […]

7 10 2013
Links 10/7/13 | Mike the Mad Biologist

[…] Government Doesn’t Have to Borrow to Spend (must-read; short) The Age of Oversupply: Good Argument, Tough Sell Why Face-Saving Won’t Work Dems move to force Republicans to reopen the government On The Other Hand: They Are Just This Stupid. The Lonely War Of Marlin Stutzman If You Distrust Vaccines, You’re More Likely to Think NASA Faked the Moon Landings The Truth About Obamacare and How It Solves the Suffering of the Insured Republican who voted for shutdown: ‘I need my paycheck.’ Does she think Head Start teachers don’t? Some rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen The Shutdown in 10 Infuriating Sentences Meet Butch Matthews, A Republican Who Came To Love Obamacare After Realizing It Will Save Him $13,000 Why bets aren’t a good measure of beliefs Dear MOOC Messiah Squad: You are expendable. […]

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