Groundhog Day.

7 03 2014

I think I know how Phil Connors felt. Or maybe it’s how Audrey Watters feels every day. The longer I keep reading stuff about MOOCs, the more I feel like I’m caught in some kind of bizarre time warp. For example, something about this article just drives me crazy:

Imagine the potential of MOOCs! they claimed—universally obtainable college classes taught to millions of learners by cream-of-the-crop professors for free or very low cost. The democratization of elite education! Some even predicted that MOOCs—now boasting more than 10 million students and thousands of classes—would do nothing less than revolutionize higher education, making residential colleges obsolete in the process.

But all that rises soon must fall.

Negative critiques began mounting—from longtime educators, faculty unions and watch guards of traditional pedagogy. Many said the MOOC phenomenon was, at its core, a threat to brick-and-mortar colleges and an affront to the traditional purveyors of higher education. After early data showed that some 90 percent of MOOC students drop out before completing courses, critics declared proof of failure. Just a few months ago, critics almost cheered when a study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education found that MOOC student engagement falls off an even steeper cliff shortly after each class begins, with course-completion rates averaging more like 4 percent. Meanwhile, it was also becoming clear that most of those who completed MOOCs were already highly educated, decidedly motivated. Slate published a blistering critique, NPR aired a negative take, and other headlines across the country took up a new pessimistic chant with: “Are MOOCs already over?” (The Washington Post), “Are MOOCS Really A Failure?” (Forbes), “All Hail MOOCs! Just Don’t Ask if They Actually Work” (Time).

Don’t get me wrong here: “MOOCs are up, MOOCs are down” is a lot better than “MOOCs are about to take over the world.” And certainly, I agree with everything Mark Brown (the designated anti-MOOC spokesperson for this article) says in the parts that I haven’t excerpted (and whose blog is the reason I saw it in the first place). I think my problem is that people have been doing these “Introduction to MOOCs” articles for at least two years! Can we pleez haz sum analysis now?

Therefore, in the spirit of helping reporters everywhere get over the learning curve and to prevent me from developing a need to rob a bank, commit suicide or punch Ned Ryerson in the face, I have developed the following six rules for anyone writing about MOOCs, whether they’re doing so for the first time or whether it’s their daily beat:

1. MOOCs and online learning are not the same thing. If you can’t tell the difference between a MOOC and a regular online class, you should go back to reworking Chamber of Commerce press releases for the local free paper distributed at the shopping center. Stop reading now. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. I don’t even want to talk to you, let alone try to explain stuff this obvious.

2. There is more than one kind of MOOC. Of course I’m referring to the difference between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, but really there’s even so many more kinds than that. There are corporate MOOCs and non-corporate MOOCs. There are MOOCs that last fourteen weeks and MOOCs that last six days. There are MOOCs that take themselves seriously and MOOCs (like that “Walking Dead” MOOC) that don’t. Writing as if all MOOCs are the same does a tremendous disservice to the different kinds of innovations that have been taken up under the term that all those nice Canadians coined originally to mean a very specific kind of class. I try very hard on this blog to be very specific about what kinds of MOOCs I’m criticizing (and very occasionally) what kind of MOOC I’m praising. Reporters should too.

3. Teaching computer science is not the same thing as teaching literature. Geez, this should go without saying, but it clearly doesn’t. Just because you flipped your pharmacy class successfully with MOOC lectures doesn’t mean that my history class can do the same thing. Indeed, just because you flipped your pharmacy class doesn’t mean that all pharmacy professors can achieve the goals that they want their students to meet by using MOOCs. I’m sick and tired of superprofessors getting up on their high horse and declaring that they’ve solved every educational problem for all time when the best they could possibly hope to achieve is to find an educational format that works for the unique circumstances facing them and their students.

4. Faculty attitudes towards MOOCs are best expressed by a spectrum, not by two warring factions. Do I hate MOOCs? No. As I’ve written elsewhere, “I’m not actually against everything.” Do I hate top down administrative control of technology and pedagogy? Yes. Do you know what I really love? Faculty autonomy. Really, we all just want the right and the resources to do our own thing. Let a professor make his own MOOC and implement it on his or her terms and you won’t hear a peep out of me (as long as you doing your own thing doesn’t impinge on others doing their own thing too).

5. Your historical analogies are bullshit. Higher ed is like the newspaper industry! Higher ed is like the early film industry! Higher ed is like the record industry! These are not objective musings that come as a result of historical research, but, as I wrote a long time ago now, these analogies are really just heavy-handed attempts to shut down discussions about the effects of technological change so that a select group of people can profit from it. This particular kind of technological determinism requires ignoring the very subjective ways that politics, power and culture shape changes in technology over time. In a way, I guess the point of all my MOOC blogging has been to do precisely the opposite in an edtech context because you aren’t ever going to read Clayton Christensen, Clay Shirky or Daphne Koller do anything of the sort.

6. The revolution will not be televised. The revolution will not be Chronicle-d. It will not be Inside Higher Education-ed. It will not be Techcrunch-ed. It will not be Pando Daily-ed. In fact, most technological revolutions happen at such slow speeds that nobody ever notices them.

Consider this bullshit historical analogy of my own: The electric household refrigerator first appeared in American homes during the early 1920s. A majority of American homes had a refrigerator in them sometime during WWII. Yet, while working on my book, plenty of people told me that their houses had iceboxes or that their houses had ice delivery men come to their door during the late-1950s and early-1960s. How could this be? Refrigerators were cheap, and so convenient! The answer is simple really: Markets are not perfectly efficient and plenty of people resist change for a wide variety of reasons, including ones that have nothing to do with money. In other words, my bullshit historical analogy demonstrates why all historical analogies are bullshit, at least in a technological context.

If you can think of another rule that I’ve forgotten, please leave it in the comments below.

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18 responses

7 03 2014
Rolin Moe

What’s especially frustrating is that she had the chance. We talked for an hour about how the dominant narrative was specious and tired, and the discussion needs to move away from the “could it be…and naysayers!” to something more realistic and valuable. She said she’d look back over her work and talk to me again about a more robust article…and then two months later without another word this came out. Disappointing because the info is there for something to actually, you know, further the discussion rather than further the social marker w/o effort to bridge the knowledge gaps.

7 03 2014
Jonathan Rees

Congratulations on your defense, Dr. Moe! Now it’s time for you to use those letters after your name to break into more discussions and push them forward.

7 03 2014
Pat Lockley

Isn’t there the “This course had more students in one session than Harvard has ever had”

And there are more cat pics on than internet than the total number of cats that have ever lived. So we can get rid of cats, or something.

In 6 months though, rewrite this as “what 6 rules bad first journal articles about MOOC research need to avoid”

7 03 2014

Great post, but really — you can’t stop at just six rules. It’s not allowed. There are two kinds of people, four noble truths, seven habits of highly effective people, and twelve steps to success. So you need at least one more rule. I suggest this one:

7. History matters. This country has a long history of educational apartheid, and ed-tech should always be analyzed with this in mind. Of every fad we should ask, “Is this going to be the way things are done FOR the rich kids at Harvard, because it’s so pedagogically superior? Or is this how things are going to be done TO the poor kids at the community colleges, because it’s a cheaper way to educate the masses we don’t want to spend any money on anyway?

7 03 2014
Jonathan Rees

Yeah, I can endorse that. Who wants to go for eight?

7 03 2014
tom abeles

Hi Jonathan

A number of years ago Burks Smith created a service, Smart Thinking which was used by a number of universities. Basically, rather than hold hours where students could come in for problems with a class, the program offered question-solving “on demand” and universities were charged only for the actual time that the service was used.

Now, along comes “competency” based education where, as they say, time is the variable and knowledge acquisition is the constant. A student demonstrates this. There are variances on this theme.

Couple the two with access to knowledge via texts, experiential learning or MOOC’s, for example and we have, theoretically, the ability for a person to step thru hoops, collect “credits” and turn them in for a degree. No messy getting to campus, sitting in classes and long discussions in the local pub or dorm rooms. Gets rid of the persiflage surrounding a good old fashioned brick space experience and probably a fraction of the cost in time and treasure. It’s a Kia vs the hand-crafted Rolls-Royce for those who can afford the luxury and benefits. It further separates the fiscally disenfranchised from the elite.

Of course the administrators have out-clevered themselves. As students learn to follow this path it reduces the demand for brick and click based courses. Thus the administration can be handled by smart bots and automatic systems (press 1 for…) and presto, a lot of admins looking for work along with the faculty. There is always Amazon and Wal Mart.

Oh yes, Burks has another venture, Straighterline which offers low cost courses with national certification which are now accepted by a number of regionally accredited universities towards a degree on transfer.

How far are we from having a universal university “card” which stores credits in the cloud from a number of sources, including badges. This can now be taken to one of several institutions that will evaluate the portfolio for application for a recognized degree. Now a person in Djibouti can get a degree from a US university without all the hassle of applying for a visa and passing those Toefl exams and the costs of travel. Instead of the old traveling scholar wandering across the land, we have students traveling the web.

MOOC’s? Come on. They are just the canary in the mine.

8 03 2014
Mark Brown

It’s great for academics to talk with reporters, and a list of “rules” like this could be useful. It’s also worth trying to reframe the conversation into something more productive. But nobody should be surprised or frustrated about the need to repeat arguments over and over again. Or that it takes more than good arguments to win a debate. This isn’t an academic discussion. It’s politics!
Also, you’re right that historical analogies are bullshit when they’re used to shut down debate, but people aren’t going to stop making analogies. So if you don’t like someone else’s analogy, make one of your own. Make one that shows how political decisions shape technological change.

9 03 2014
Clay Shirky (@cshirky)

The acid test of a historical analogy is not whether the historical and present moments are aligned in every detail — historical analogies are first and foremost analogies, after all. The acid test is whether they have any predictive value.
So let me double down on the one analogy I’ve used in public, which is the analogy between university faculties today and music industry executives in the era of Napster. The point of the comparison is not that MOOCs are Teh Future — indeed, in my original post on the subject, I specifically assumed that MOOCs, as constituted, could fail outright, as Napster did.
Instead, I made the analogy in order to suggest that what happened to us in 2011 is like what happened to the recording industry in 2000, which is the collapse of the incumbents to convince the public that there is no alternative to the current way of doing business.
So let me make a prediction based on that analogy: there will be more movement in state legislatures in the next 5 years on creation of the $10K BA than on the raising of state subsidy.
Even though faculty are all but unanimous on the idea that university costs and revenues need to be aligned through more generous revenues rather than by reduction in costs, I believe that The Year of the MOOC, already receding, has robbed us of our key asset in making that claim, which was the lack of a credible alternative.
This is, I believe, remarkably similar to the music industry, who achieved a rapid and total victory over Napster and nevertheless lost control of even legal distribution of music, because the public no longer operated in an environment of assumed consensus about how music distribution should work.
In any historical comparison, it is always possible to say “It’s more complicated than that”, and these assertions are always, and by definition, correct. But those of us making analogies are also making a counter-assertion — for people who want to act in this debate, rather than merely understand it, it is often enough to be ‘directionally right’, as the strategists say.
In 2020, when we look back on what happened to American higher education in this decade, there will be a thousand ways in which higher education turned out to be unlike the music industry. However, I am willing to bet that in one big way — damage to the presumed centrality of our current organizational forms — the analogy will hold up.

9 03 2014
Jonathan Rees


Thanks for stopping by. While your prediction about higherc education could be right, I think it would be in spite of your historical analogy rather than because of it. Essentially, what you’re saying here is that cultural hostility towards universities will be the death of universities. That has nothing to do with the technology at hand.

11 03 2014
Clay Shirky (@cshirky)

I don’t think that we are looking at the death of universities. I think we are looking at the loss of universities’ presumed monopoly over certain kinds of credentials. We’ll survive, but in a reduced state of cultural importance (and a few of us, e.g. Stanford and Harvard, will increase in importance in coming years.)
And I don’t think you can separate a technology from the social effects it kicks off. To return to my core theme, the particular solution Napster adopted — centralize the directory of songs, but decentralize the storage and delivery — was a technological adaptation to a legal climate that existed for just 24 months, at the turn of the century. (When the legal argument that decentralizing the files would indemnify Napster collapsed, Napster collapsed.)
Not one contemporary music service, from Limewire to Spotify, has adopted anything like Napster’s architecture; if the only effect of technology was technological, one could correctly claim that Napster was a two-year blip, never to repeated.
But the effects of technology _aren’t_ only technological. Napster convinced a hundred million people, at more or less the same time, that the strictures of the recording industry, previously borne with only minor grumbling, had become intolerable. And every subsequent music service has relied on the change in outlook kicked off by Napster’s technology, even as that technology itself was abandoned.
So to MOOCs. The core technology is the video lecture, already in its precursor forms with TED and Khan Academy videos; the innovation was to place enough structure around them that they came to feel to citizens like they should count in the same way that other kinds of classes (including online classes) count.
The form of the famous 2011 MOOCs — a simplistic beads-on-a-string model of lectures and quizzes, with no social contact folded into the system — was wrong in many of the ways people have noted, but it was right in one big way: it sketched in a model of higher education where more people could complete a single class than attend most colleges, and they could do it for free.
And as with Napster, until you had a technology that could do that, any attempt to alter the public’s opinion about how higher education could work got much traction. After Intro to AI, though, millions of people not invested in the current system now believe that there is or could be or should a credible alternative that is considerably cheaper.
To put it in its most reductionist terms, the 2011 MOOCs changed the world because they offered a compelling enough story for John Markoff to write about. That’s not the same as being the core innovation of any future educational landscape, but as with Napster, sometimes 2 years of counter-example is sometimes enough to destabilize a system.

10 03 2014

Clay, if I understand you rightly, you are–

(1) predicting that we will be unable to successfully make the case for traditional higher ed, and that this is true because

(2) the public “no longer operate[s] in an environment of assumed consensus about how [higher ed] should work,” and that this is true because

(3) MOOCs, whether or not they are successful in themselves, have convinced the public that there are credible alternatives to traditional higher ed.

I’m not so sure. I think the jury is still out on (1), especially if we can stop talking about technology long enough to make a populist case for F2F higher ed as a superior form that should not be available only to the 1 percent. (E.g., we should ask people why Harvard offers MOOCs to the 99 percent but will probably never award its own students credit for them.)

I think (2) is very much true, but it’s not true because of (3). It’s true because the political right has succeeded in framing higher education as (first) a commodity and (second) as a private rather than a public good. The “assumed consensus” used to be that universal education makes a better world for us all, and thus that we should all help to pay for it. Now the assumption is that higher education is the individual increasing her lifetime earnings; ergo, the individual ought to bear the cost. (There was also an acknowledgement that bricks-and-mortar campuses provided important cultural and economic benefits to their communities; this consensus has been eroded by the idea that the virtual is just as good as the real, and also, of course, by the current hostility toward communitarian thinking in general.)

If we can frame things in social rather than technocratic terms, perhaps by getting rid of technocentric analogies, we might yet succeed in making the case that MOOCs, and other, less radical, forms of online education, do not offer a credible alternative to the existing model.

10 03 2014
Pat Lockley

I think it is important to see Napster / “music industry” (note not recording industry, music is recorded much the same as it ever was – bar some home break out stuff) as perhaps massively heterogeneous (indie, major) and so on. Atlantic started out to shift vinyl as it had a press, Sony needed to sell Walkmen, Philips CDs – and so on. I think the internet effectively shifted the distribution element away, and turned the music industry, into effectively the publishing industry (which was always the bigger player).

Label loyalty was to small indies, no one cared who Sony released really. Those small labels still exist. People care about going to Harvard, MIT, Oxford et al.

At the lower end, the authority is gone, but this was the end at which there was a public provision element and so the authority was at best limited. Where you get your degree from if you can’t afford to choose / or pay is a different question. Illegal music, is to the end user the same as legal music. A bad degree isn’t.

If I was comparing – online meds maybe?

9 03 2014
Clay Shirky (@cshirky)

Oops. That should have been “…collapse of the incumbents’ ABILITY to convince the public that there is no alternative to the current way of doing business.”

10 03 2014
Mark McGuire (@mark_mcguire)

8. If you want to change the world, change the language you use to describe the world. The rest will follow.
You make some excellent points, Jonathan. These are not binary alternatives. MOOCs are adding to the increasing number of responses to the wicked problem of how we fund higher education in an environment characterized by continuing financial austerity and rapid technological change. It won’t be (and never was) a one-size-fits all winner-takes-all single (or best) solution. We are likely to see an increasingly varied and complex future for HigherEd in which the various players are more deeply intertwingled than ever. However, the future is less likely to be determined by what we (and I’m speaking as someone who works in HigherEd) believe is best for our students and for our future; it is much more likely to be determined by those who have the money and the power to influence public opinion and public policy (and the former does not necessarily determine the latter — as the US government’s decision to invade Iraq showed).
Clay Shirky’s post, in which he presented the music analogy, was widely circulated amongst a group of academics at the university where I teach. Most believed that it was ‘directionally right’ (a colleague in Economics is particularly convinced). The formal response to MOOCs by my institution (and, I suspect, the unspoken hope of many senior managers in the system) is that MOOCs offer an inferior ‘product’ and have not managed to develop a workable business model and, therefore, can be dismissed as a failed experiment. Sebastian Thrun’s admission that Udacity’s low completion rates signaled a failure that required a significant shift in strategy was picked up by many who were waiting for their “I told you so” moment. This, despite the view that failure in business is like iteration in design — it’s the way you find the approach, model, and solution that works.
I think Mark Brown (above) is right — “It’s politics!”. I think we are fooling ourselves if we think that HigherEd is immune from the significant changes that have reshaped other sectors. And I think our expectations are way too low if we believe that it is best to leave well enough alone. We are not likely to be left alone. Change is gonna come. The question is whether it will come from within or from without, and whether it will serve the public interest or whether it will deliver yet another slice of the public sector to the maw of the market — one institution and one student at a time.

11 03 2014
Clay Shirky (@cshirky)

Following up Mark McGuire’s comments (which I co-sign), I want to highlight this observation of his:
“[The future] is much more likely to be determined by those who have the money and the power to influence public opinion and public policy”
This point is so essential.
Prior to the end of WWII, colleges and universities were much more likely to run ourselves with “our” money. Our revenues were tuition paid out of pocket plus any donations. What large subsidies there were often came in the form of founding grants (as in models from Cooper Union to the Land Grant colleges) and tax breaks.
In that era, we faculty came very close to controlling our own destiny. Our product was mainly directed at students whose families could pay for it; even senior professors at rich institutions did not earn that much; and our teaching loads were much higher. The cumulative effect of this meant that faculty could mostly administer our own affairs. A college was much closer in organizational logic to a church than to a corporation.
The end of WWII marked the end of that control. The GI Bill was the first of many sources of subsidy designed to help citizens who could not afford college attend it anyway, and it (and all subsequent such programs) was inherently political. (Indeed, the great subsequent reduction in the generosity of soldiers’ subsidy came about as a result of the end of the draft, not because of any change in higher education.)
At the same time, Vannevar Bush pioneered the expansion of the MIT model (academic research assumed to be of commercial or governmental value) across the country’s universities. And grant money, like tuition support, is inherently political, in the sense that the grantor decides who gets the money and why.
There’s nothing like lots of money to make church life seem a little dreary, and so we have re-imagined ourselves largely along corporate lines, including, most dramatically, a steady decrease in teaching load and steady increase in inflation-adjusted salary for those of us luck enough to have jobs for life.
But the big (and until now largely hidden) cost of this switch is that we can no longer run ourselves. Form follows funding, and whatever the advantages of Pell grants and the NSF (and the advantages are considerable), we are now longer in a position to insist that no one outside the faculty can interfere with the way we conduct our business. We’ve spent two generations, in fact, reconstructing ourselves as institutions purpose-fit to taking government money.
For the last decade and change, though, we have not been able to keep up our end of the bargain — we are the monopoly issuers of Bachelor’s degrees, which degrees produce incrementally less value in the workforce with every graduating cohort, while rising above inflation every year for the last forty years. As a result, much of the country hates us.
We could weather that hatred (as our forebears weathered the contempt heaped on the ‘college-educated’) if we were confident that we could go it alone, but we cannot, because we take so much of the public’s money, not as founding grants but as net present revenue, that when we insist that the world owes us a living, but that we must be allowed to run our own affairs without oversight, it is an empty claim.
Even Obama, a far greater champion (and beneficiary) of higher education than his predecessor, is pushing through changes in funding models that put observable metrics at the heart of Federal spending. We are, like all corporations, being made more legible to the state, as a result of the last 60 years of symbiosis with state funding and goals.

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