“And we can act like we come from out of this world and leave the real one far behind.”

1 07 2014

Mark Cheathem has done me a great favor. He’s written the exact post that I would have written about this Junto interview about MOOCs with the historian Peter Onuf so that I don’t have to repeat myself. Indeed, Mark has provided plenty of links to this blog so that I can make those points myself without writing another word. And while I know Onuf primarily from his excellent work on the wonderful radio show BackStory, I can also second Mark’s respect for his obvious talent as an historian.

So what is there left for me to write here? There’s a part of that interview that can help me make a point that’s been bubbling around the back of my mind for about a week now. This is Onuf:

Let me talk a little about my dubiousness. As for any other self-respecting academic, this seemed suspiciously like a substitution for conventional lecturing. If this was the future it was a future that we looked at with mixed feelings—that this would reinforce the emerging inequality in higher education, which mirrors that of the nation as a whole, with some institutions monopolizing the airwaves, displacing lecturers and teachers, making places like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT the centers of a new era of pedagogy. And that sounded pretty ominous, particularly given that people were being asked to create these MOOCs in their spare or extra time. And you can imagine the scenarios that would play out: “Well, we don’t need you anymore! We got you on MOOC.”

Now that’s certainly exaggerated; it suggests a fundamental bad faith at the level of administration, and I’m not willing to go that far. But I just wanted to say I had mixed feelings.

[Emphasis added]

If I remember the way that the History Guys get introduced on the radio these days, Onuf is retired – or at least retired from regular teaching. [Indeed, he notes later in the interview that Alan Taylor is his successor at the University of Virginia.] This means the cost of his being wrong about the intentions of his administration is exactly zero. Indeed, if you remember, it’s not the administration in Charlottesville who’s faith anyone there should worry about, the problem is higher up. On second thought, even administrations with good faith will do bad things when pressured from above, so really people there have a right to stay worried about everybody.

And so do people elsewhere. Onuf makes a common mistake among superprofessors when he assumes that the people running universities who produce MOOCs are the only people who’s faith he needs to measure. Nobody among us MOOC skeptics is arguing that Alan Taylor is going to be replaced by old Peter Onuf tapes. The people we’re worried about are the community college professors down the street or across the country. If you make a MOOC you have a responsibility to be sure that it is used wisely. Simply letting the chips fall where they may clearly demonstrates that you’ve left the real world far behind – the world of MOOC consumers rather than the world of MOOC producers.

Sadly, you don’t have to be a superprofessor in order to adopt this attitude towards online education of all kinds. Here, in a Google+ posting inspired by my last Chronicle Vitae column, my favorite online instructor of all time, Laura Gibbs, makes the same mistake that Onuf does – since the situation in my department is excellent, everything will eventually work out great elsewhere too:

“[T]here is no reason at all to suppose that an online instructor is more or less likely to care to know their students (see quote below). I care. I care a lot, in fact. Meanwhile, I also know that plenty of face to face faculty don’t care. Which is their choice, a personal choice – not technological determinism.

I guess Jonathan is assuming that online faculty have higher teaching loads (“too many students”), but that’s not necessarily the case at all. For example: big lecture classes that take place face to face. I would contend that there is more distance in a big lecture hall than in any of my online classes. I teach appx. 100 students total per semester… not too many for me; it works fine. And I do care to know them – plus, teaching online, I have far more opportunities to get to know them than I ever did in a classroom.”

The problem, of course, is not with online or face-to-face faculty per se. The problem is the circumstances in which they teach. I am against giant, impersonal face-to-face classes. I am against giant, impersonal online classes. The question becomes how do we make it possible to assure that all students, online or face-to-face, learn under the best circumstances possible? Safety first!

Am I arguing that all administrators are inherently bad? Of course not. But some are, and if you don’t take steps to prevent abuse you’re practically giving the bad ones an invitation to do mischief. This goes for all aspects of academic life. However, if the tool you’re using to do a job is more dangerous than another, more safety measures are very much in order.

With great power comes great responsibility. And like it or not, the superprofessors of this world have a lot more power than the rest of us do. All we can do is remind them of their responsibility to use it wisely.

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3 responses

1 07 2014
Laura Gibbs

Thank you, Jonathan! I love being in a post with The Safety Dance, ha ha. And listen, I had to laugh here… my statement about how things work in my classes were exactly about that: my classes. I cannot even speak for my department because, uh, I don’t even have a department. Seriously. That’s how much of an oddity I am at my university: I am technically on the Dean’s staff in my college, and that is because when I was going to leave the university years ago, the (now former) Dean wanted to have me try teaching online to see how that would go. The experiment turned out wonderfully, and I’ve been teaching these fully online courses for over 10 years. But the doubts about and even hostility towards online instruction is so great at my school (and I suspect elsewhere) that no department wanted me, even with my salary paid for out of some administrative black box in the Dean’s office. So, I speak and write only on my own behalf, based on my own experiences — I have no department, and I am not really representative of my school in any way… I am just someone who believes in the possibilities of online education, and my only experience is with smallish classes, fully online. That’s what I can endorse; in fact, it’s about the only thing I can endorse. Well, along with a variety… a WIDE variety… of gins. Yes, your post appeared at the cocktail hour here in NC. Today I can recommend: Uncle Val’s.
But seriously, in terms of safety measures in the world of higher ed, I am a big fan of the OPEN SYLLABUS movement. Even if faculty, for whatever reasons, don’t want to put their course materials online, we at last need syllabuses, detailed syllabuses, just to find out what is going on out there. Just what are faculty asking their students to read and write and do? On what basis are they assigning grades? Just how are they interacting with students, and how are students interacting with each other, formally and informally, as part of a class? I am endlessly curious about what instructors do, but at least at my school, you cannot really find out much of anything. People publish their syllabuses not on the open Internet but inside our Desire2Learn LMS, which means only students enrolled in a class can see the syllabus, and that is AFTER they enroll and classes have started! So of course they go through registration just picking classes based on the reported average grade in a class, random reviews at RateMyProf, and word of mouth. Everybody, including students, would benefit from open syllabuses. My very detailed course info is here: http://onlinecourselady.pbworks.com/
Open syllabuses, at a minimum, would be a safety measure I’d be glad to see at my school and elsewhere. Not just for MOOCs, not just for online, but for all the classes we offer. I think we all (students, faculty, general public, everybody) could learn a lot that way.

1 07 2014
Jonathan Rees

I approve of open syllabi. That’s a good safety measure. So are shared governance and academic freedom.

With respect to your classes, Laura, the point is to get everybody who teaches online to the conditions under which you thrive so that they can thrive too. That would be the best safety measure of them all.

1 07 2014
Laura Gibbs

And it’s economically very do-able. I bring in as much overhead as a federal grant if you look at my salary+benefits v. tuition and fees. :-)

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