Nothing is inevitable.

11 03 2014

One of the great things about blogging is that you literally have no idea who might stop by in the comments. When I first assumed my role as “Self-appointed Scourge of All MOOCs Everywhere,” somebody famous in MOOC circles might stop by and I wouldn’t have the foggiest clue who they are. Thanks to the famous Bady/Shirky debate of 2012, I know exactly who Clay Shirky is. While I’m still on Team @zunguzungu, I must say it’s quite an honor to have somebody with 301,000+ Twitter followers stop by the comments of this post and write enough material to merit a post of his own.

Another great thing about blogging is that you can move long conversations in the comments into a new post if you’re so inclined. I am so, here it is. Before I start getting into details though, let me just start by noting that I wasn’t trying to somehow summon Clay Shirky by writing, “Your Historical Analogies Are Bullshit.” If you notice, he wasn’t even first on my list of examples later in that paragraph. In fact, that point wasn’t even relevant to the news article that originally set me off.

What happened was that I had just been teaching Tom Sugrue’s classic Origins of the Urban Crisis for the first time, and rereading this passage (p. 11) reminded me that nothing is inevitable:

“The shape of the postwar city, I contend, is the result of political and economic decisions, of choices made and not made by various institutions, groups, and individuals. Industrial location policy is not solely the result of technological imperatives; it is the result of corporate policies to minimize union strength, to avoid taxes, and to exploit new markets.”

You don’t even have to change that many words in order to make that caution relevant to higher education. Nevertheless, MOOC-ology thrives because it assumes that we are already well down the path of progress to a techno-utopian future that nobody can ever stop.

Unlike most edtech reporters, Clay Shirky at least gives us a lot of analysis to go with this narrative. Here’s a big chunk of his first comment (please do go back and read the whole thing though if you are so inclined):

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.

To me, this line of reasoning is what we used to call in high school debate “non-unique.” Much of the public is hostile to higher education for both cultural and economic reasons already. Had those nice Canadian people never conceived of MOOCs, we would right now be having a different debate in order to save higher education. You can’t claim that technology has conquered the savage beast when the savage beast is already taken several more-than-glancing blows from many different directions.

Here’s some of Clay’s response to my point (and this one is edited for brevity, so please do check the full comment here to see his ideas in their full context):

The core technology [of the MOOC] 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….

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.

As I’m sure regular readers are sick to death of refrigeration analogies, let me at least go into a different industry. While I’m not sure I ever footnoted it in my book, Richard John’s Network Nation is to me the model analysis of a dead industry. By all rights, the Post Office should have been dead for over a century now. First the telegraph, then the telephone (and certainly now e-mail), have provided easier, cheap (if not cheaper) and more convenient communication for just about any message you want to convey. Yet the American public has seen fit to subsidize this endeavor to keep the letters coming. Yes, my mail is mostly down to just junk mail these days, but even that serves a purpose that people who tell a long narrative of steady progress refuse to recognize.

While this too may just be an alternative bullshit historical analogy, I make it to highlight the importance of contingency. Clay Shirky offers us an extremely compelling narrative of progress, but progress is based on countless contingencies. Yes, all of the points in a historical analogy do not have to match, but they really should point to the same abstract processes. The only abstract process I see in the Napster analogy is inevitable defeat, which I refuse to believe is inevitable. In the end, the point of this analogy is to tell faculty like me to let the warm water wash over everybody, even if those waters are high enough that most of us will drown.

Call me naive, but I can see a different future. My future is still technologically-oriented but in my future it’s faculty, not administrators or private companies, that control the technology of higher education. How do we achieve my particular techno-utopian future? By asserting our pedagogical expertise rather than by farming out to untrained amateurs.

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11 responses

11 03 2014

The Post Office analogy is good, and I think I can make it better for the non-MOOC purpose. What the postal service has that no alternative has is a human being who actually visits every address and observes its various changes–not only people moving, but also that elderly person who hasn’t emptied the mailbox in several days, for instance, and might be in trouble inside the house. (Yes, I do know about the mummified lady who was just found in her garage, but everyone in the neighborhood knew she traveled a lot, and I suppose so did the mailman….) People who choose to come to the door when the mail deliverer arrives can have a few moments of chat, even gossip–and for people who live alone that human interaction can make a big difference in the quality of life. My mailman and I talk politics every few days, and his point of view is a good supplement/corrective to mine. As you’ve been saying, it’s the face-to-face human interaction that is missing from the MOOC model–and may be an essential component of, and stimulus to, learning. So…Save the Post Office!

11 03 2014

Reblogged this on MOOC Madness and commented:
keep repeating that—just remember that repetition alone won’t make it happen

11 03 2014

Where I come unstuck is this: neither faculty autonomy nor “the traditional university” are capable of addressing the most urgent problem facing mass public higher education: the reliance on casualised labour to make it through the working day. And what concerns me about MOOCs is that they’re actually proposing to make this problem worse, not better. It’s the volunteer grad students from privileged institutions propping the whole thing up that make me want to weep, because it’s a very short hop from there to the kind of call-centre tutoring that Smart Thinking represent.

So whether I lose control of my syllabus or not might matter intellectually and professionally to me, but it makes relatively little difference to the majority of university teachers who already lost that privilege and are doling out someone else’s syllabus on the casual dime. They’re already chronically underpaid for what they do; and MOOCs are proposing to push them further back into the warehouse, or to automate their work all together. So it’s a rapid slide from local bookshop to Amazon warehouse to vast and unstaffed warehouse where the customers serve themselves.

But control of syllabus raises the other big problem for those of us working outside the US, who are already painfully aware of the power of US textbook publishing corporations and their calculations about global market relevance, which render us as niche even though we’re not actually niche where we are. So that’s another strike against the current situation and its traditional institutions—but also another problem that MOOCs, astonishingly, will make worse.

I share your concern very much about the solutions being presented to us; but I can’t fall back on defence of a system that is failing so many who have placed their faith in it. To use Shirky’s other analogy: I find the authority of the church no longer convinces me.

11 03 2014
Clay Shirky (@cshirky)

Hey Jonathan, thanks for this.

Reading, it, I think you may be surprised at how much of what you write I agree with. (I started reading More or Less Bunk precisely because I like much of your outlook.) I too am skeptical about VC-funded educational organizations (and indeed of all commercial forms of education.)

Sebastien Thrun of Udacity and Daphne Koller of Coursera seem to be true believers in educational quality, but both organizations are one management change away from adopting the same scummy business practices as the University of Phoenix. Among the large-scale providers, I much prefer edX and the (recently accredited) University of the People.

And I too think that most of the interesting innovations are likely to be faculty driven; indeed, within NYU I have been an active promoter of subsidiarity, moving the unit of experimentation down from university or school to department and, ideally, individual professor.

Our areas of agreement, though, stop at organizational forms. There are many pressures on higher education, and the heart of our disagreement is that you think we will mostly resist those pressures while keeping our current model intact, while I don’t.

That disagreement risks getting lost in the various ways of interpreting technological change, though, so let me agree with two points in your post. First, you are right that my contention about the internet’s effect on education is “non-unique”, just as the forces leading to the dramatic spread of biblical translations in the 1400s were non-unique to the printing press.

Higher education has indeed been beset by difficulties for some time now (a theme I just posted about a few weeks ago

To agree with this doesn’t say anything about the nature of the proposed alternatives, though, and here I think the invention and re-invention of the MOOC (in their Candian/cMOOC and SiliValley/xMOOC forms) have given a unique shape to the imaginations of the people looking for those alternatives.

So I’m happy to concede that the internet has not _caused_ the current debate anymore than the press caused the spread of Protestant thought, even as I defend the thesis that the imagination of we infidels has been as thoroughly shaped by the events of 2011 as the Lutherans’ were by the availability of cheap books.

Prior to the Thrun and Norvig course, the insurgents were several tiny tribes. Now there is a broad center to our beliefs, methods, and goals. From my point of view, dividing the recent debate over higher education into pre- and post-”Intro to AI” periods is ‘directionally right’, to use a phrase I introduced in the comments.

And I also agree with Sugrue that there is no way to isolate technology from its practical applications. As I’ve written elsewhere, the function of a steam-driven wide-frame loom was not producing cloth — a millenia-old capability — but for reducing the cost of cloth. ( Like the loom, *any* adoption of high-scale education will, by definition, be a cost-lowering move, and it will lower the cost by producing more education per hour of a professor’s time.

This isn’t a side-effect — it’s what experiments in scale are _for_. We’ve had a few of these scaling events in the academy, as with our adoption of the microphone in the second half of the 20C, which allowed introductory lectures of 10x-20x their previous scale. Where the internet differs from the microphone is that we kept the cost savings from the microphone for ourselves, while here the cost savings are being passed along to the students.

The diminishment of the current model of faculty employment in favor of an industrialized model will be bad for the current monopolists (you and me and our tenured friends) and good for everyone else, just as cheap cloth was bad for weavers and good for everyone who needed a coat (which, in England, was pretty much everyone.)

All of this is pretty ‘Economics of Industrialization 101′ — when reduced cost creates new demand, it provides an advantage for the insurgents over the incumbents. The only thing that makes my analysis unusual is my role as both an incumbent — tenured faculty at an R1 institution — and as an insurgent, a public advocate for the very outcomes that will reduce the hold that we incumbents have over the current educational landscape.

So let me address the core point of your post. I am happy to accept that history is full of contingencies and that nothing is inevitable. I’m making a big public bet on what I think will happen, and, as is obvious with all such bets, I may be wrong. But I’ll ask you to accept a counter-proposition: the existence contingency does not transform any two alternatives into a 50/50 likelihood. Even where history can’t be perfectly predicted, some outcomes are more likely than others.

So let me try an alternate formulation that will, I hope, wring out the presumption of inevitability: Imagine a spectrum of outcomes by, say, 2020.

One is that the internet proves to be a sustaining revolution — existing institutions keep their current organizational form, and deliver better outcomes for current customers, while new institutions fail to have much effect. (To keep at my music analogy, this was the situation with LPs over 78s, and again with CDs over LPs.)

The other end of the spectrum is a disruptive outcome, where new entrants discomfit incumbents by adopting new forms of both education and credentialing, which usher in customers not well represented in the current system, who come not merely to adopt but to _expect_ behaviors the older institutions have a hard time adapting to. (As with Napster vs. the CD.)

If you were a betting man, would you bet on outcome a) or b) by 2020? My bet is very clearly b), and your writings make it clear you would _prefer_ outcome a), but desirability has always been a lousy proxy for likelihood. And if you think a) is likelier, given the headwinds against continuity, I wonder what you think the most important countervailing forces are?

11 03 2014
Jonathan Rees


Your note reminds me of the guy I worked with before the 1996 US presidential election. He was a self-described communist but he was going to vote for Bob Dole “in order to make the revolution come faster,” I prefer non-revolutionary change from within. Granted it’s easier for me to say that as a tenured faculty member than as a contingent, but to me this beats letting Bob Dole become President and hoping for the best.


If I were a betting man, I’d bet on absolute disaster befalling nearly all of us. In fact, if you’re reading my non-MOOC posts you know that I happen to be in the middle of a small-scale disaster myself here in Pueblo right the moment.

But here’s the thing: If higher ed is Napster or Betamax and faculty are Luddites or newspaper reporters then I might as well quit now and find another career. I don’t want to quit now and find another career. I want to fight for the career I have and the institutions that support it because I think they do a lot more good in the world than any MOOC possibly can. Don’t ask me and everybody in a similar position as me to roll over and die. Victory may be unlikely in the long run, but stranger things have happened. Moreover, even if we non-superprofessors are doomed to go the way of the dodo, we can still do a lot of good before we go extinct.

And when we’re dead, we’ll look fantastic stuffed and displayed in natural history museums around the world.

11 03 2014


Respectfully, surely we cannot be in this fight for the career we have now, when we know that it’s held at the cost of the already broken career hopes of the majority of those who teach in universities? You say that it’s easy for us to defend something that serves us well, and you’re right. But where are the adjunct voices defending it? *crickets*


There’s a difference between “producing more education per professor hour” and “more widely distributing information per professor hour”. MOOCs are transforming access to information, just as the internet itself does to far greater capacity. If I want to know how to prune a rose or unblock a drain or know what Zizek thinks about Heidegger, I no longer need to go to buy or borrow a book to find out. Universities are beginning to learn that they have lost both authority and monopoly on the distribution of expert knowledge, which is probably why we’ll all have to prize credentialing from their cold dead hands.

But I don’t think real educational change will be driven from the supply side, since both traditional education and MOOCs seem relatively uninterested in changing the standard models for delivering and assessing learning. The big nudge will come from employers who expand their willingness to engage with competency rather than qualification in graduate recruitment; what will be nudged, precisely, is college premium. And once that starts to dip, there may be catalysing disruption to the demand side. This may be more likely to happen outside the US, and it won’t happen evenly across all fields because, you know, surgeons and bridges. But in employment sectors that have typically valued a humanities education for the transferable soft skills that come with it, employers will have much more freedom to hire someone who can demonstrate those skills rather than produce the transcript that shows how they acquired them, mostly indirectly.

11 03 2014
Jonathan Rees

Oh Kate,

You know I’m right there with you on the evils of using contingent faculty, but like you wrote above MOOCs will only make that worse. I’m for maximizing the total amount of good in the world, even when that amount isn’t nearly as much as it should be.

11 03 2014

Here’s a question, given that we are in general shoulder to shoulder on both fronts. Looking at what we agree is broken, to the point of human harm, in the current situation, and looking at what we agree won’t fix it, then … what? I can’t sign up to perpetuate what we do now (and actually I agree with Clay that what you and I think should be perpetuated is a very small hill of beans in relation to the forces currently pressing on higher education), but I think we do have the ingenuity and will to try to imagine change differently.

11 03 2014
Clay Shirky (@cshirky)

Posting a short note here to say I’m reading this exchange in particular, and to suggest, Kate, that some of the dilemma you sketch out here has an echo in some of Rebecca Schuman’s recent writings (see, e.g.,

I’ve been in conversation with her about the economics of contingent labor, and have pointed her to this thread, especially concerning what happens if contingent faculty becomes a truly organized center of power and governance on campus. Can’t guarantee she’ll stop by, but she’s awfully interesting on the topic.

15 03 2014

This is a late reply, Clay, but I wanted to say thanks for the pointer. I’m familiar with Rebecca’s work, and in Australia many of us are watching the increased organisation of precarious university labour in the US with interest. Our situation (including our widespread unionisation) is different, as is our institution reporting of casualisation. But our dilemmas are essentially shared, and as US-based MOOCs are starting to twinkle as cost-saving measures here, the cost of maintaining a casualised workforce based on face to face teaching models will appear to some administrators as a negotiable overhead. When this happens, this church will really start to fail those whom it recruited with a vision of the priesthood. So I agree strongly with Rebecca that the next domino to fall will have to be the PhD program that recruits on the basis of the PhD as a qualification for an academic career.

12 03 2014

Clay, I’ll go ahead and put my money on a), or at least something like it.

Why? Because Oakeshotte. Well, OK, because higher education has a wider and deeper constituency than is generally acknowledged in these discussions. Colleges are social and cultural and economic institutions with a deep hold on the consciousness of their alumni, on the dreams of local children and their parents, on the economics of their local communities, etc. We tend not to see this until an actual college is on the brink of disruption. Only then are we reminded that the kids really do want to get out of the house and go to a real college, and that their parents want the same thing (they want their kids out of the house, they want their kids to enjoy the same experiences that they did, and they don’t want to gamble their kids’ futures on a new and untested form of education that might turn out to discounted in the workplace–parents are conservative in this way). Only then are we reminded that the local Chamber of Commerce, even though it mostly votes for the Republicans whose policies have pushed the local college to the brink, most definitely does not want to see 30 percent of the local consumer base pack up and move away. Only then do we see the latent support for the institution as a whole from that part of the community that previously supported only the football team. Etc.

It’s a little bit like that old saw: everyone thinks teachers are terrible–those who can’t do, teach, etc.–except of course for that nice Miss Olsen who teaches my fifth-grade daughter; she’s awesome. Everyone thinks public education is a failure–except of course for our schools here in Highlands Ranch.

People say things in the abstract that they don’t believe when the issue is up close and personal enough to actually THINK about it. Until the issue actually hits home, people tend to just parrot the prevailing bullsh*t.

If the internet is going to revolutionize higher education, it seems much more likely to do so by opening new markets (or better, serving new populations). Or maybe, if there is a genuine disruption, the victim will be the for-profit sector. One can certainly hope. Who’s more in need of a better model–the kid paying $5,000 a year for a traditional, F2F education (average class size of 17) here at Adams State, or someone paying twice that much for a sh*tty online education from Everest College?

In any event, the outcomes here–the winners and losers–will have little to do with MOOCs and everything to do with bare-knuckle politics, with lobbying, with strategic campaign contributions, with propaganda. You’re right to say (via your Napster analogy) that MOOCs will play a role in softening up the masses for a certain kind of propaganda, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that if we want to win we should not (or not only) be thinking and talking about technology, we should be doing politics.

And part of doing politics is reminding people that the future is not determined–that politics, as the shaping of our future, is still something we can do. We need an ed-tech discourse that keeps this reminder front and center.

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