“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”
- Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Farewell Address,” 1961.
The other night, Audrey Watters and Kate Bowles were picking apart a new Sebastian Thrun interview on Twitter. While such activities are indeed highly amusing, I’ve been busy writing about refrigerators these last few days so I figured I would just let it go. But then Audrey linked to the job description of a Udacity Course Manager. Here’s my favorite part:
“A Course Manager is a teacher, mentor, and technical reviewer in one. You should take pride in ensuring that your students receive the best possible learning experience by motivating and working with them 1-on-1, mentoring them as they develop their portfolio, reviewing course materials, and giving insightful feedback to the Course Development Team.”
“Where I come from,” I tweeted, “they call course managers “professors.” But when I went back and looked at the ad again I noticed that no specific content knowledge is required to be a Udacity course manager at all.
Does anybody else see a problem with this?
If you’ve been paying attention to MOOCs for some length of time, you undoubtedly remember the infamous Sebastian Thrun Fast Company interview in which he basically called all of his company’s courses crap. It even gave birth to its own hashtag, #thrunpivot. In this new interview, he doubles down on that proposition:
The MOOC that we created at Udacity was our first attempt to democratize education and we learned from it. Like everyone, we made mistakes. We learned we can drastically boost learning outcomes by adding a service layer around MOOCs. It has a huge impact on completion rates and learning outcomes. Many people in the industry would say, ‘We told you so.’
What, pray tell, is a “service layer?” Living breathing human beings who will help guide students through the corridors of knowledge:
At the very beginning you do a Google Hangout and someone from Udacity talks to you. It’s our internal fleet of mentors [who provide coaching through the class]. When we make a class, we have a very different model from a classic MOOC. The team trains mentors specifically for the one class.
I was so troubled by our [former] completion rates. When I called a MOOC a lousy product I wasn’t kidding. [With this new model] we have literally gotten a [course] completion rate of 60 percent.
It would be interesting to know what the difference is between a course manager and a mentor. I’m guessing the course manager serves as the mentors’ boss. Yet some of those course managers are actually part time. Either way, if “the team trains specifically for one class,” who teaches the team? Certainly it can’t be the superprofessor, right? They’re too busy preparing the lectures and otherwise serving humanity. Do they just watch the same videos that everybody else does before they get released to the class?
No matter what, this whole set up is most decidedly not automated education. It’s cheap. It’s online. But it’s not automated. People who need to be trained require money for their labor and the source of that money has to be the students. That’s why Thrun says:
If you’re affluent, we can do a much better job with you, we can make magic happen.
Pardon me while I go vomit.
The New Profitable Non-Profit Model:
While it would be really interesting to contrast Thrun’s new model with a new Boston Globe article in which Clayton Christensen (and a co-author) restate his now very old ideas, I’d rather compare it to another article you may have seen, this one about the University of Southern New Hampshire because I think there’s very little daylight between this and the new Udacity. And Jesus, if this story doesn’t give the average college professor the chills, I don’t know what will:
Delilah Caldwell, a philosophy instructor at Southern New Hampshire University, may well represent the future of higher education’s teaching force.
As one of the first full-time faculty members at Southern New Hampshire’s online college, Ms. Caldwell taught 20 online courses last year: four at a time for five terms, each eight weeks long. The textbooks and syllabi were provided by the university; Ms. Caldwell’s job was to teach. She was told to grade and give feedback on all student work in 72 hours or less.
First of all, this:
Second of all, the 72 hours or less is my favorite part. Suppose you actually want to have a life AND write half-decent comments on your students’ papers. What do you do then? Stupid me, who’s actually going to be dumb enough to assign papers if they’re facing a 72 hour turnaround time on all student-submitted work?
Yes, the academic assembly line workers at the University of Southern New Hampshire get paid relatively well (compared to adjuncts), but I bet the course managers at Udacity do too. The problems here go well beyond that in both cases. No academic freedom. No research. Very little control over your own class. [In the case of MOOCs that goes for both the mentors and to some extent the superprofessor too.] These things aren’t just important to the faculty involved. They’re vitally important to the quality of the course. Happy, knowledgable teachers teach better than peons on an academic assembly line.
Technological enthusiasts may be asking me right now, “Where’s your study on this?” I don’t have one. Neither do the MOOC people. As a recent study I saw via George Siemens has suggested:
To date, there has been little evidence collected that would allow an assessment of whether MOOCs do indeed provide a cost-effective mechanism for producing desirable educational outcomes at scale.
Gee, you’d think somebody would actually bother to study that BEFORE they decided to disrupt higher education. So why do such courses exist then? Are faculty so desperate to be superprofessors that they’re willing to act now and ask questions later? Are students simply pining for them? What if disrupting higher education isn’t such a hot idea after all? I think the reason that both these online facsimiles of real college college courses exist is, to paraphrase Eisenhower, the MOOC/online education – administrative industrial complex.
“Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved”:
The beauty of the Military-Industrial Complex (if such a word is even appropriate for use with such an awful thing) was that all that defense spending offered the economic benefits of being on a permanent wartime footing, but only occasionally did anybody have to go out and kill anybody. After the Manhattan Project, all those incredibly expensive nuclear weapons were never used at all.
What made Eisenhower’s warning about the Military-Industrial Complex so powerful was that here was a guy who knew. The great regret of his presidency was that he hadn’t done enough to stop this reckless spending, and his warning was supposed to help prevent that spending from continuing too far into the future. But the forces that stood to gain the most from that spending, generals and defense contractors, thrust it upon a willing America anyway because it was in their interests, if not the interests of America at large.
I’m beginning to think that administrators and edtech providers of all stripes, MOOCs or otherwise, have an evil tacit bargain all their own. Move college online, the deal goes, not because it will do anything in particular for education, but because it will help backfill all the government funding you’ve been losing over the last few decades. As an added benefit, it will certainly help you cut labor costs as your formally highly-paid, influential teachers can be replaced by an online army of the under-employed, or worse yet, robots.
Meanwhile this revolution is being sold to students for reasons of cost and convenience. As an added benefit, administrators and their private sector clients can make it seem as if such courses will help make college more effective at solving the structural inequalities inherent in our modern economy than they really are. Here’s Christensen and co-author on precisely that point:
Education technology companies and alternative learning providers — not just MOOCs — are finding disruptive footholds by targeting these non-consumers. They note that graduates from even well regarded colleges are struggling to launch their careers, make it into the workforce, or transition between jobs. Innovators are, therefore, beginning to address this widening gap by identifying what employers need and building those skill sets into their curricula.
Why not just sell the college to Subway so that they can turn it into a sandwich university and just get it over with?
Yet if the MOOC you’re taking sucks, why would it make a difference if you’re learning the exact skills that employers want or not? After all, you wouldn’t be learning them particularly well. Even if the MOOC you’re taking didn’t suck, the fact that so many people can learn those skills at the same time will only drive down the wages that graduates would earn for having them. If those skills are best practiced online, our students would then be facing the same kind of job market that new Ph.D.s are, and that’s not good news for anybody.
In short, why would anybody pay to have “magic happen” if they’re never going to get a chance to make a decent living using the skills they learn? If there aren’t any journalists willing to ask Thrun that question, maybe his investors should.