What happens if you lose control of your own courses?

27 07 2014

“What’s happening right now is that xMOOCs are moving backwards into replicable content from the interaction and assessment pole while textbooks are  are moving forward into interaction and assessment from the replicable content pole.

The end result of this is not necessarily massive classes. It’s broadly used courseware — software that provides much of the skeleton of standard classes the way publisher texts do today. In other words, the best way to think of a MOOC isn’t really as a class brought to your doorstep — it’s more a textbook with ambitions.”

– Mike Caulfield, “Both MOOCs and Textbooks Will End Up Courseware,” January 28, 2013.

Whenever I get involved in one of those big publisher focus group thingies, I always make the same suggestion. Instead of being forced to enter their chosen universe, I ask for their services à la carte. I think this dates back to the early days of my career when I got sick of carting thirty-year-old maps into my classroom and started accumulating plastic overlays for the elmo. [If you don’t know what an elmo is, you can click here.  I’m shocked to see that there are any of these things still around.] I wanted maps and pictures that reflected what I talked about in class already, not what some publisher thought I should be discussing. Therefore, I had to accumulate overlays from a wide variety of U.S. History survey textbook publishers to create something essentially personalized to meet my needs.

The Internet has rendered that collection obsolete for me now. I can create my own PowerPoint slides (with very little text) faster and with a much greater selection of possible pictures than I ever could have imagined when I started out in this business. To me, this is what teaching with technology is all about. More choices. Better control of my own time. Three cheers for progress!!!

Unfortunately, the giant publishers and my own employer for that matter are either unwilling or unable to give more options unless I enter their particular technological universe. Time saving is invariably the incentive for making the move to any technology, but this seems especially true for moving any aspect of education online. This is from Anya Kamenetz, writing for NPR:

But instructor time remains the most expensive resource, and it’s often scarce and rationed, especially in the online realm.

[Andrew] Smith Lewis [of Cerego, an edtech startup], along with other ed-tech people I talked to, framed the next generation of computer enhanced learning as a way to free up professors to do what they do best — not to replace them.

Professor [Jeff] Hellmer [of U-T Austin], for one, was so taken with the Cerego platform that he decided to incorporate it into his live, in-person classes, starting this summer. He sees it as a labor-saving device: The machine will handle the shoveling in of facts, while he does the cultivating of the students’ mental gardens.

Pardon me if I’m not quite so trusting. I want to maintain control of the technology rather than let the technology control me because if my technology doesn’t reflect my own teaching priorities I might as well be signing my own unemployment compensation request form. No matter how often edtech entrepreneurs insist that they want to do things right,  there’s a class of administrators who have already shown time and again that they want to do things wrong. You know, the ones who brought us adjunct labor and huge executive salaries.

Of course nobody should trust these administrators to use MOOCs responsibly either. I’ve already discussed the prospects of the just-in-time professor here, but the idea of creating a MOOC-y textbook or a textbook-y MOOC raises the prospect of eliminating teachers entirely for those students who can’t afford a college education that includes them. If this sounds ludicrous to you, what exactly is a self-paced, on demand MOOC then? A video game with scholarly content.

Unlike the early days of this blog’s technological turn, my somewhat paranoid rantings are hardly alone anymore. As Andrew Leonard wrote in a little-noticed piece at Salon on Friday:

Early returns on MOOCs have confirmed what just about any teacher could have told you before Silicon Valley started believing it could “fix” education. Real human interaction and engagement are hugely important to delivering a quality education. Most crucially, hands-on interaction with teachers is vital for the students who are in most desperate need for an education — those with the least financial resources and the most challenging backgrounds.

Of course, it costs money to provide greater human interaction. You need bodies — ideally, bodies with some mastery of the subject material. But when you raise costs, you destroy the primary attraction of Silicon Valley’s “disruptive” model. The big tech success stories are all about avoiding the costs faced by the incumbents. Airbnb owns no hotels. Uber owns no taxis. The selling point of Coursera and Udacity is that they need own no universities.

“No more pencils. No more books. No more teacher’s dirty looks.” The whole thing has the feel of some kind of teenage revenge fantasy against educators everywhere, but it still makes perfect sense. If textbooks have ambitions to be courses and MOOCs have ambitions to be used like textbooks, what’s left for the professors to do then? If we faculty let this happen all in the name of our own convenience, then we have nobody but ourselves to blame.





The just-in-time professor.

23 07 2014

Have you noticed the new emerging consensus? MOOCs will no longer make faculty go the way of the dodo. It will be the technologies that enable MOOCs (presumably employed by people who know more about teaching than various current and ex-members of the Stanford Computer Science department) that will disrupt us all. Here, for example, is Bill Gates making something that sounds like that argument. This study of the effect of MOOCs on MBA programs argues essentially the same thing. I would argue that the emerging consensus around hybrid classrooms, that they are a way to have the “best of both worlds” (online and face-to-face instruction), as yet another way to make the same point. “Education,” writes Mark Guzdial in a post describing two more studies that also seem to me to support this new consensus, “is technology’s Afghanistan.”

So does that mean we faculty can relax now? After all, if we’re not extinct we’re alive (if not exactly thriving), and if we’re alive what is there to worry about? Afghanistan may be a permanent stalemate for all invaders, but unfortunately there are still casualties in stalemates. The thing to worry about now in the post-MOOC world is exactly what our jobs will be like when they are infused with technology. Will we faculty run the technology or will the technology run us? Experiences in other industries suggest the latter rather than the former.

One of the scariest things I learned about during my days as a Walmart blogger was their computerized scheduling system (which I wrote about on this blog here).  The NYT‘s labor reporter, Steven Greenhouse, recently did a story that validated this trend without really explaining the technology behind it.  You need to look to the British journalist Simon Head’s book Mindless to learn about computer business systems in their full glory. As Head explains, these powerful programs, pioneered by Walmart (p. 3):

“bring the disciplines of industrialism to an economic space that extends far beyond the factories and construction sites of the machine age: to wholesale and retail, financial services, secondary and higher education, healthcare, “customer relations management” and  “human resources management (HRM),” public administration, corporate management at all levels save the highest, and even the fighting of America’s wars.” 

If you’ve never worked at Walmart, the time that you most likely encountered one of these programs is when dealing with a customer service representative who was clearly going by the book. The computer IS their book scripting their every interaction with you the same way that the computer tells the company how many calls it gets in which hours, which then determines how many representatives to have waiting for calls at any particular time.

Unfortunately, Head does very little in his book with higher education, but it is easy to imagine a future in which power-hungry administrators attempt to use technology to dictate both how and when we all deal with our students. The students customers have a complaint? Handle it by the manual. If professors aren’t allowed to say anything controversial on social media, how can we ever expect to be able to do so in class – especially in online classes during which our every interaction with students can be monitored and searched?

Even more troublesome, however, is the prospect of the just-in-time professor. If MOOCish technologies really are used to unbundle us all, what exactly will they be paying us to do? Somebody has to greet the students on the first day of class, right? Make them feel at home. Somebody has to grade the final exams. But what are we all going to do in between? Press play for some superprofessor’s video-taped lectures? Our bosses certainly aren’t going to let us all sit back and do our research for the fourteen weeks until finals start.

This is exactly why that story about outsourcing the hiring of adjuncts in Michigan just scares me to death. For all the problems that adjuncts have (which are manifold), at least they are guaranteed work through the end of a semester. If their hiring can be broken up on an as-needed basis, what’s to stop schools from hiring them on an as-needed basis during the semester? Get more workers when you need them – like during finals. Don’t pay for them when you don’t. This is the logical end to which faculty unbundling will bring us all – tenured, tenure-track and adjunct alike.

Perhaps you scoff at this notion, but if the power relationship between faculty and administrations gets any more one-sided than it is right now we are all going to pine for the good old days like they are now at the University of Southern New Hampshire. As George Siemens explains:

When unbundling happens, it is only temporary. Unbundling leads to rebundling. And digital rebundling results in less players and less competition. What unbundling represents then is a power shift. Universities are today an integrated network of products and services. Many universities have started to work with partners like Pearson (ASU is among the most prominent) to expand capacity that is not evident in their existing system.

Rebundling is what happens when the pieces that are created as a sector moves online become reintegrated into a new network model. It is most fundamentally a power shift. The current integrated higher education system is being pulled apart by a range of companies and startups. Currently the university is in the drivers seat. Eventually, the unbundled pieces will be integrated into a new network model that has a new power structure. 

Perhaps most faculty won’t be unbundled and rebundled right out of their jobs, but after this process is completed nobody will want those jobs anymore. Equally importantly, what kind of education will it be if the human relationship between a student and professor is replaced by a business relationship between a student and a temporary worker who happens to have a Ph.D. (and perhaps more than a few that don’t)? The kind of education you get at a for-profit university now, but pleasantly housed inside a semi-public shell like at Arizona State University online.

I guess all this means that I hate the future. But as George suggests elsewhere in that same post:

The parts of a social system are less than the whole of a social system. 

Anybody who has the least bit of experience teaching can tell you that this rule applies to higher education in spades. Too bad nobody wants to listen to us. While we get called Luddites for sticking up for a sick system, the powers that be go off and kill the patient in the name of “progress,” which looks a lot more like profiteering to me.





You are not special.

20 07 2014

“The contradictions inherent in the movement of capitalist society impress themselves upon the practical bourgeois most strikingly in the changes of the periodic cycle, through which modern industry runs, and whose crowning point is the universal crisis. That crisis is once again approaching, although as yet but in its preliminary stage; and by the universality of its theatre and the intensity of its action it will drum dialectics even into the heads of the mushroom upstarts of the new, holy Prusso-German empire.”

- Karl Marx, Capital [Afterward to the Second German Edition], 1873.

“Why do established scholars, who speak openly about other social and economic injustices, refrain from allying themselves with those of us who are denied academic freedom by virtue of our identities as adjuncts?,” asks Lori Harrison Kahan in Vitae. “How are we to explain this silence?” Great questions, but if you really want to make this point stick in the minds of most tenured and tenure-track faculty, I’m not sure this line of argument is going to work. Instead, I’d explain how the adjunct problem really is every professor’s problem. Drum dialectics into the heads of these mushroom upstarts and we’ll all be better off together.

For this to happen, it’s essential to convince the people on the tenure track now that they aren’t as special as they think they are. The master at this line of argument is, of course, Rebecca Schuman. Unfortunately, king cannibal rats on a festering ghost ship are unlikely to lend a hand until the moment they realize that it’s time to swim to shore.

So now then is the time to point out that it might be time for all of us to paddle the burnt-out hulk that we all occupy a little closer to shore than we are right now. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves. Here’s Reason 55 from 100 Reasons NOT to go to Grad School:

In November 2010, the National Science Foundation reported that 49,562 people earned doctorates in the United States in 2009. This was the highest number ever recorded. Most of the increase over the previous decade occurred in the sciences and engineering, but the NSF’s report noted a particularly grim statistic for those who completed a PhD in the humanities: only 62.6 percent had a “definite commitment” for any kind of employment whatsoever. Remember that this is what faces those who have already survived programs with very high attrition rates; more than half of those who start PhD programs in the humanities do not complete them (see Reason 46). The PhD has been cheapened by its ubiquity.

Every one of those disposable academics in your field would gladly fill your tenure track job at substantially less pay than you’re making right now. And why shouldn’t they? You probably aren’t doing very much to help them, so why should they help you? Moreover, plenty of administrators would gladly fire you and replace you with an adjunct if they thought they could get away with it.

What’s that, you say? You write articles, do you? Too bad only three people read half of all articles. And most of those university press books we all write aren’t exactly setting the world on fire either. Adjuncts and people fresh out of grad school can do the exact same things that existing tenured faculty can do. They even have books published at the same university presses that you do! They’re also likely to perform all the functions that you perform for much, much less money.

At the same time (and you knew I was going to get to this at some point), MOOCs (or as these guys stress, the technologies that enable MOOCs) can do the same job you do rather badly for a lot less money in the long run. Therefore, university bosses who couldn’t care less about what books you’ve published will replace you with pre-recorded lectures and an interactive web site without blinking an eye.

Anybody with a basic understanding of organized labor knows the solution to all these problems. Join together. Help the people willing to do your job for less get the opportunity to do the job you do with you (not instead of you) for the money they deserve. Don’t be a mushroom upstart. Be an organizer. Be a truth teller. Be a fighter. And if your own liberal ideals aren’t enough to motivate you to do such things, just remember that you’ll be better off in the long run too.

You are not special. Neither are your adjunct colleagues, but they live with that fact every day. The point is that you need to learn that too if we are ever all going to save higher education together.





Why most MOOCs are boring for nearly everybody involved.

13 07 2014

“White-collar professionals, too, are subject to routinization and degradation, proceeding by the same logic that hit manual fabrication a hundred years ago: the cognitive elements of the job are appropriated from professionals, instantiated in a system or process, and then handed back to a new class of workers–clerks–who replace the professionals.”

- Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft, p. 44.

This post has more views than any other on the history of this blog. I have no idea why. OK, I think it’s because it shows up pretty high on the results list when somebody Googles “Coursera” or “Udacity,” because it gets about 100 hits a day these days, but why that post gets all the traffic as opposed to anything else that I’ve written about MOOCs is indeed a mystery to me. Even though I consider it to be a rather mild denunciation of inert MOOCs that students only absorb passively, it has attracted a fair number of hostile comments by now. I figure as long as passersby don’t insult me or write something that’s prima facie offensive, I’ll approve such comments for display.

Yet I can’t help but wonder what kind of people search the Internet for anti-MOOC blog posts that they can denounce their authors. My friend Vanessa has suggested in the comments to that post that MOOC providers have hired paid shills. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but there certainly are a fair number of people who are so excited by all the free content that they now have access to that they get very defensive on behalf of MOOCs and MOOC providers. Inevitably, these must be mostly people with college degrees already and therefore already know how to learn. While they certainly have a right to defend their technological baby, what they’re really saying in the comments to that post is, “All I care about is how this new technology affects me.”

Me? I’m worried abut everybody else. The professors who might potentially get displaced by MOOCs certainly includes me, but I’m also concerned about the students who don’t know how to learn yet and might end up left with no other option but MOOCs in our shiny online educational future. I’m even concerned about the poor superprofessors who had no idea what they were signing up for when edX or Coursera or whomever offered them the opportunity to become famous regardless of their actual merit as online teachers. While some students who had nothing before MOOCs may be happy about them, I would argue that the rest of these groups are mostly bored by the experience. Luckily, the evidence has begun to appear for me to actually prove this point.

I.  “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

Longtime readers know that I’ve continually made the distinction between MOOC producers and MOOC consumers. Harvard and MIT produce MOOCs. The University of Maryland system has recently begun consuming them, integrating MOOC content into a wide range of content across many campuses. Ithaka released a Gates Foundation-funded study on these test runs last week.

As you might imagine given the funding source, the results are generally positive. All but one of the of the instructors said that they would use MOOCs inside their own classes again if given the opportunity. However, there are plenty of warning signs even in this positive study. For example, from p. 18:

Finding and adapting online content to use for a hybrid course posed the greatest challenge for faculty partners. MOOCs illustrate the priorities of their creators, and these are not necessarily the same priorities that other faculty have for their individual students. Moreover, academic departments develop degree program curricula as a whole, making deliberate decisions about when and where certain content should be taught and competencies assessed within specific courses. To integrate a MOOC into an existing class is not necessarily a simple case of choosing what pieces to include or exclude. Even with online course materials that are a fairly close fit with the pedagogical approach of the instructor and needs of the students, the local instructor may need to re-conceptualize or restructure his or her existing course to fit with the online content.

If a MOOC-consuming professor has to fit a square peg into a round hole, which is going to change first: the MOOC or their class? Since the consuming professor can’t go back and change the superprofessor’s work, I think you know the answer to this question.

So why would anybody voluntarily subject themselves to that kind of de-skilling? Of course, there are incentives for professors who decide to farm out an important part of their job to superprofessors. This is from p. 26 of the study:

Based on the data we collected, the clearest potential for time savings appears to be in the amount of time instructors spent delivering courses. Those in the treatment sections spent just over half as much time in class as those teaching the control sections. In one large course designed by a single course coordinator, instructors in the MOOC-based sections told us they saved considerable time because they did not need to prepare content to teach and they spent less time in class. Once the initial investment is made in preparing the course, instructors may be able to spend less time planning what to teach and actually coming to class.

On the one hand, I’d certainly like to spend less time preparing and coming to class, but I also understand that what I bring to that process is part of the reason I get paid a living wage. Not being burnt out (at least not yet), finding interesting ways to deliver the content I spent seven years in graduate school studying (and more time since refreshing) is one of the most interesting aspects of my job.

More importantly, I understand these MOOCish developments as part of a broader effort to destroy faculty prerogatives across the board. Most faculty understand this. That’s why the executive summary of the study notes:

It was clear that administrative leadership was essential to stimulate faculty interest.

This leadership will, of course, include professional and monetary incentives.  A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, the medicine go down, medicine go down…

Don’t do it, kiddies! It’s a trap! Once you’re finally done cleaning up your room, Mary Poppins is going to kick you out on the street, and find a new set of less-whiny children who are less likely to make any demands upon her at all.

II.  Pity the poor superprofessor.

Yeah, I’m going to hit this whole #massivelearning thing one more time. I hadn’t planned to, but this post by Aposotolos K. includes the message that Coursera sent Paul-Oliver Dehaye’s students and it’s just too disturbing for me to ignore. Here’s a quote from AK’s excerpt:

Unfortunately, Prof. Dehaye had not previously informed Coursera of this part of his pedagocial approach: Deleting course material is not compatible with Coursera’s course concept, where students all over the globe decide when they want to watch a particular course video. Prof. Dehaye’s course included experimental teaching aspects which led to further confusion among students.

Coursera and the University of Zurich decided on Friday, July 3rd, to reinstall the course’s full content and paused editing privileges of the instructor until final clarification on the issue would be obtained.

[Emphasis added]

When I wrote a post entitled “Dear Superprofessors: Your MOOC Isn’t Yours,” I was only arguing that this kind of thing could happen in theory. Now we’ve seen that it has happened in fact. A superprofessor has been locked out of his own course. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: “Professor Dehaye had no business teaching a MOOC in the first place.” That may very well be true (in fact, I kind of argued that point here), but think about this in the abstract for a moment.

According to Coursera, Dehaye wanted to try something really innovative and Coursera shot him down. Think how boring life would be if you had to get a bunch of bureaucrats to approve every innovative teaching technique that you wanted to try. It would be like living in a corporate university with a pencil-pusher stationed right there in your classroom. Yet this is precisely what Coursera’s model appears to be. Here’s AK again, this time in his own words:

Coursera has a “concept” of what MOOC teaching and learning looks like, and they are packaging it with their LMS. I guess the only sanctioned way to design and teach on Coursera is the Coursera way. This to me is quite problematic from a pedagogical stance; and I am sure others have written about this before and will continue to write about it. 

If you consider Coursera to be just a platform, and a platform to be neutral (both problematic assumptions, if you ask me), then they shouldn’t care how Dehaye ran that MOOC. But Coursera, it seems, has a “course concept,” which suggests a certain structural uniformity across all of that company’s product. Break out of that norm and they can end your career as a superprofessor faster than you can say “self-paced learning environment.”

While superprofessors are the public face of the MOOC concept, the #massivelearning debacle demonstrates that the people  really holding the power in MOOC world are the clerks. What else did you expect when higher education gets treated as if it were nothing but a series of isolated, standardized content factories? It wouldn’t surprise me if Coursera started to time whoever ends up doing the dirty work that superprofessors abandon with stopwatches to make sure that they’re grading to the company’s universal standard of educational productivity.

III.  Happy talk.

I’m not sure I would have picked up Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft again if it weren’t for my recent obsession with American Pickers. Among the many kinds of antiques that Mike and Frank are obsessed with are motorcycles, and Crawford uses his motorcycle repair business as a metaphor for work in general. I’m going to use my growing interest in them as a metaphor for teaching.

Until recently, I couldn’t care less about motorcycles – even the old ones. What the guys from American Pickers have shown me is the link between the old motorcycle industry, the bicycle industry and even the automobile industry. While I couldn’t have cared less about bicycles either and only cared a little about old cars, the abstract connections they keep making continuously reminds me of my favorite history book of all time: From the American System to Mass Production, by David Hounshell. Now just because I called this my favorite history book of all time, I’m not recommending that you all go out and pick up a copy. It’s a slog. Yet in the hands of the right instructor, it can be a major eye-opener.

A few semesters ago, I taught a graduate course devoted entirely to industrialization. I assigned Hounshell, Bill Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis (against the explicit wishes of my department chair who had told me that it was unteachable), Richard White’s Railroaded, David G. Schuster’s vastly under-appreciated masterpiece Neurasthenic Nation and a few more such studies. While there may have been a couple of students who wanted to kill me by the end, the majority of the people sitting around that table told me how much they enjoyed the class even though they hadn’t expected to like it at all. My guess is that the difference here was my enthusiasm.

When I’m teaching a subject that I find interesting, my eyes light up and my normally-rapid speech naturally slows as I try to explain in great detail why something that I think is cool is, in fact, cool. I’ve actually taught Hounshell to undergraduates [Twice!], but I didn’t say go read Hounshell and come back with a five-page report in two weeks. I explained it as we talked about the text with the book open, adapting my spiel to the kinds of inevitable questions that I faced from the class.  The same way the American Pickers got me excited about motorcycles, I think I managed to get a lot of students excited about assembly lines.

Certainly, the people who leave me hostile comments on that post have that kind of enthusiasm for their MOOC content. However, I’d argue that this kind of teaching will only work in a MOOC setting on the kinds of students who are excited about the material already. The result for most students will be indifference and boredom. We can actually see this dynamic at work in that Ithaka study. This is from the Executive Summary again:

Despite the similar student outcomes produced by the two course formats, students in the hybrid sections reported considerably lower satisfaction with their experience. Many indicated that they would prefer to have more face-to-face time with instructors.

And that’s for MOOCs embedded inside regular face-to-face courses. Imagine how hostile most students would be if the MOOC is all they had. Actually, that’s easy to imagine as this would explain the 90% average dropout rate that most MOOCs have. Sure, a cMOOC would probably have a better track record with student satisfaction, but that’s not nearly as efficient as the passive xMOOCs that the Gates Foundation wants to test. The technology of austerity is not interactive because interactive costs time and money. This won’t work if you’re only measuring educational “efficiency.”

In summary, the only people who are happy by this kind of result are lifelong learners with no skin in the game and the clerks. Is it really worth disrupting everybody’s higher education to make just these two groups happy?





The worst of the best of the best.

8 07 2014

During the early 1870s, the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie championed something called the Bessemer process, a new way of making steel that was only about fifteen years old at that time. As a result he could make more steel at a cheaper price than any of his competitors. He then took the profits from his initial success and plowed it back into the business, investing in other cutting-edge technologies and buying out his rivals who didn’t fall out of the market naturally. By the early 1890s, he was the owner of the largest steel company in the world. I’d argue that the principle that made this story possible is the first-mover advantage.

That’s not a statement about making steel, which of course had been going on for centuries before Carnegie came along, but with respect to the Bessemer process. Building steel plants was expensive, but Carnegie (who actually made his initial money working for the Pennsylvania Railroad), had the money to invest in pricey new technologies while his competitors didn’t. His steel was cheaper, more abundant and actually of higher quality than the other steel available on the market at that time. No wonder he got so rich.

Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth is much harder to explain. I know there were other social networks before Facebook, but I’m not exactly sure what made Facebook the one network that people absolutely had to join. Certainly, at some point it reached a certain critical mass of people that newbies came to believe that they’d be missing out if they weren’t on it.  Unfortunately, to me the ultimate problem with Facebook is that it actually impedes meaningful interactions with your friends rather than helps it by doing crazy stuff like conducting experiments upon you without your knowledge. That’s why I collected the e-mails of all my friends that I didn’t have already and got out. Facebook has shot whatever first-mover advantage it had to Hell.

As anybody who’s studied MOOCs in the slightest can tell you, the Stanford Computer Science department did not invent them – those nice Canadians did. However, it was those Stanford people who first decided to treat MOOCs as a market rather than as an educational opportunity. I can’t remember which came first, Coursera or Udacity, but there’s no question that Coursera at the very least has gone to great lengths to take advantage of its opportunity to be an early mover, putting MOOCs up regardless of quality – essentially beta testing them in front of tens of thousands of people – because they care more about quantities of students than they do about the quality of the educational experience they were providing.

Think I’m being unfair? Sebastian “lousy product” Thrun essentially admitted this to Fast Company last year. With respect to Coursera, do you remember the Google Document that brought down that online learning MOOC? The superprofessor who quit his MOOC in the middle of the course? How about the “no right answers” guy? These were not, as the MOOC Messiah Squad always like to put it, “the best of the best.” The people running these MOOCs were the worst of the best of the best, which actually turns out to be pretty darn bad in some cases. Well, I hate to judge a situation solely through its news coverage, but it looks like we have a new entrant in this particular Hall of Shame. From the Chronicle:

A massive open online course on making sense of massive open online courses caused massive confusion when the course content was suddenly deleted and the professor started writing cryptic things on Twitter. The MOOC, called “Teaching Goes Massive: New Skills Required,” was taught by Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a lecturer at the University of Zurich. Offered through Coursera, the course had been conceived of as a meta-MOOC designed to help disoriented educators find their feet in the online landscape. The course “grew out of the author’s experiences as an early adopter and advocate of newer technologies (such as Coursera) for online teaching,” according to a description on Coursera’s website. So far, the course has produced chaos rather than clarity. All the videos, forums, and other course materials mysteriously vanished from the website last week. As students in the course grappled with the bizarre turn of events, Mr. Dehaye offered only vague, inscrutable tweets.

And here’s some of the IHE coverage, which begins to explain the reasons for this weirdness:

“[Dehaye] appears to be conducting a social media/MOOC experiment in the most unethical manner,” the student said in a post that is currently the most viewed on the forum. “In my opinion his behavior is discrediting the University of Zurich, as well as Coursera.”

As the mystery captivated the post-holiday weekend crowd on Twitter, more details about the potential experiment were unearthed. Kate Bowles, a senior lecturer at the University of Wollongong, found Dehaye’s name attached to a 2003 paper in which the authors calculated how 100 people could escape from imprisonment when their only means of communication was a lightbulb.

Bowles also found what appeared to be Dehaye’s contributions to the community blog MetaFilter.

“I would be interested to hear people’s opinions on the idea of using voluntariat work in MOOCs to further research (in mathematics, particularly),” Dehaye wrote in one post. “Would this be exploitative? What would be good reward systems? Fame, scientific paper, internship?” He later shared his plans to teach the MOOC, and in response to a thread about the Facebook experiment, wrote “it is hard to pass the message on [C]oursera that emotions are important in teaching but that expressing those emotions can lead to data collection.”

Picking on the superprofessor here seems very, very easy, so I’d rather wonder what responsibility Coursera has for this disaster. I’m sure they’d tell you that picking instructors is the job of their partner universities, but Coursera still has to approve the courses. What standards do they use to decide who really is the best of the best? Judging from the failures I’ve listed in this post, not too many.

Coursera, in its search to attract eyeballs, has forgotten that education is not like steel – or at least steel rail.*  Quality matters. Frankly, I’d take any adjunct professor with ten years experience and put them in front of 50,000 people before I’d do so with any star in their field. After all, adjuncts devote practically all their professional time to providing a better educational experience, in fact their continued employment often depends upon it. Many (but certainly not all) professors at elite universities are too busy doing their own research to care about what’s happening in their own classes. Commercial MOOCs are simply the logical extension of that kind of negligence.

Professors who really care about the quality of education don’t give a damn about the first mover advantage. They’d rather do their jobs well than become famous or conduct massive social experiments on their students without their consent, which probably means that they’d never in a million years work for Coursera.

* The quality of steel actually did matter for later steel products like structural steel for building skyscrapers and armor plate for battleships. I’m just talking about the 1870s here.

Update: I wrote this post so early this morning that I forgot two really important entries into the Coursera Hall of Shame: 1) What I like to think of as the MOOC Forum Circus incident and 2) the truly terrible UC-Santa Cruz MOOC that Jon Wiener described in this article.  And just in case you don’t read Wired Campus (and you should), here’s Steve Kolowich’s truly weird update on the story behind the truly terrible MOOC at hand.





Going, going…gone?

3 07 2014

Thanks to the great Sarah Kendzior, I picked up a copy of Gone Girl when I was in Target yesterday.  While I’ve barely started it, I can tell it’s going to be really, really good.  What I think made me do it was that until I read Sarah’s piece on the death of malls, I didn’t realize that the book had economic themes, like this quote from the beginning few pages:

“I’d arrived in New York in the late ’90s, the last gasp of the of the glory days, although no one knew it then.  New York was packed with writers, real writers, because there were magazines, real magazines, loads of them.  This was back when the Internet was still some exotic pet kept in the corner of the publishing world–throw some kibble at it, watch it dance on its little leash, oh quite cute, it definitely won’t kill us in the night.  Think about it: a time when newly graduated college kids could come to New York and get paid to write.  We had no clue that we were embarking on careers that would vanish within a decade.”

I love good magazine journalism.  I have an almost religious devotion to the New Yorker since my parents were subscribers.  Yet I also read the Huffington Post and give content away for free at this very blog.  Does that make me a bad person?

Of course, it’s easy to imagine some bitter magazine writer muttering to themselves, “You’re next, professor.”  That, at least, is what the disrupt higher education crowd would like everybody to believe.  Longtime readers know that I constantly go back on forth on the question of whether or not my profession will “vanish within a decade.”  Today, I’m definitely in “I will survive mode.”

What’s improved my mood is an op-ed at Inside Higher Education.  The author, Randy Best, is discussing the pricing model for online classes:

These days, two out of three students attending on-campus programs receive some form of generous subsidy or discount, while their online counterparts, generally ineligible for such assistance, foot the full sticker price even though they do not benefit from all the amenities of the revered campus life, do not take up parking spaces, inflict wear and tear on facilities, or take up as much instructor time. Instead of embracing these online learners who produce considerable incremental revenue for institutions, colleges and universities are penalizing them, which has troubling implications not only for students’ bank accounts, but also for universities’ own vaunted views of fairness. By introducing e-tuition, which is appropriately lower than the on-campus price tag, universities could easily capitalize on the scale, brand extension, and new revenue synonymous with online learning while maintaining far more equitable pricing for online students.

Never.  Gonna.  Happen.  How do I know?  The entire existence of online courses is predicated on the notion that they’re just as good as the courses on campus.  Because offering online courses cheaper than face-to-face courses strongly suggests that these courses are somehow inferior to the courses that are offered on campus, universities will do nothing to discredit their brands.* Besides that, many of them have undoubtedly already spent the money they expect to take in through online courses on new administrators and climbing walls in the gym.

Best’s example of a university that’s bucking this trend is the online computer science MA at Georgia Tech.  If you remember though, this is the MOOC-ish MA in which people spend most of their time watching video, with minimal outside help.  They’re only discounting the sticker price because they’re hoping to make it up in volume and, as Chris Newfield has argued persuasively, their revenue estimates are probably inflated.  That would make this an exception that proves the world.

The problem here is prestige.  A long time ago, when I was in another one of these “I will survive” moods, I wrote a post called “The Walmart of higher education will not be online”:

The assumption that college is too expensive is certainly correct. The problem with this article is that it assumes that online education is the way to solve that problem. As I’ve noted before, it is possible to do some really interesting things with education online. However, if you’re just doing it to save money so that your university can keep more money for other things, your online courses are going to be awful. As a result, nobody will learn anything and they’ll all end up unemployed. The negative feedback loop will then lead to a real crisis in higher education, brought on by the people who thought they were saving it.

Maybe this time I’ll stop changing my mind.  The future is a lot closer than it was when I first wrote that post, and the evidence of discounting still hasn’t surfaced.  What’s going to make them change their minds?

*  Of course, the good online courses aren’t inferior to the ones offered on campus, but if you discount them the market will still likely treat them that way.





You do not need an LMS in order to teach with technology.

28 06 2014

“…Silicon Valley’s reigning assumption: Anything that can be automated should be automated. If it’s possible to program a computer to do something a person can do, then the computer should do it. That way, the person will be “freed up” to do something “more valuable.” Completely absent from this view is any sense of what it actually means to be a human being.”

- Nick Carr, “An android dreams of automation,” Rough Type, June 26, 2014.

Who dropped the ball? It certainly wasn’t me. Was it you?

When I stopped taking graduate classes in 1993, people had barely heard of the Internet, let alone any kind of learning management system (or LMS). I had never even taken a class that used the Internet, let alone an LMS. I didn’t start teaching with any kind of technology until I got some professional development when I was working at what is now Missouri State University. My department chairman there mandated that all syllabi must be posted online (a really good idea that I still don’t think most universities bother to do). As a result, I learned what I think was then called Microsoft FrontPage and haven’t handed out a piece of paper in class since.

I also remember attending the first time my current employer offered BlackBoard classes. I thought it was mostly bells and whistles and refused to use it. In the same way I hated Moby Dick the first time I read it (actually, I still hate Moby Dick, but that’s the subject for a whole different blog), I gave Blackboard another chance a couple of years later. I came to the same conclusion and haven’t touched any LMS since

Yet while I was learning what technologies for teaching I like and eschewing others, a sea change was taking place in higher education. Learning Management Systems were quickly (if you call fifteen years or so quickly) going from a novelty to being the norm. At first, I was simply annoyed because my students kept asking me what their grade was during the semester (since they could always see it for most other classes in the LMS) and I had to keep telling them that I hadn’t done the calculations yet. Over time, however, LMSs have become a way for administrations and edtech companies to control the manner in which professors teach. Yes, you can still pick your content – I think – but many of the other decisions that professors used to be able to make by themselves (whether to tell students how they’re doing at every point during the semester, for example*) have been determined by the capabilities of learning management systems to process and present information.

What I’m wondering now is how this happened. I wasn’t really paying attention at the time and I haven’t done the research into this little piece of edtech history, but I do have some theories that I was hoping people better informed than I am might kick around:

1. It was the online instructors. They did it!!!

OK, maybe not the online instructors, but certainly online instruction is possibly to blame here. Imagine it’s the late-1990s. All these universities want to go into online instruction on the cheap so like IBM with the Windows, they outsource the operating system to companies that are dying to serve them. The universities themselves are so pleased with the ability to monitor classroom interactions, that they then go and encourage every other faculty member to use the LMS too. Pretty soon, scads of us can’t live without one.

2. Faculty were sold a bill of goods with respect to convenience.

Why would anybody first pick up the LMS habit? Time would be a great incentive. I still remember how amazed I was when I first learned Excel so that I could compute my grades on them. It literally saved me at least eight hours each semester at exactly the time of year when my time was most important! Gradebooks in any LMS would do the same thing. Such conveniences may have convinced lots of people to invite a guest to the party who decided to monetize the punchbowl. Pretty soon, who has time to learn any other system?

3. It started with the adjunct faculty.

The same way that adjunct faculty can’t pick their textbooks in many cases, perhaps they were the natural beta testers for learning management systems – particularly in online settings where the regular tenure track faculty was likely not paying attention. Once they became hooked on doing things through an intermediary, regular faculty joined along because that seemed like the right thing to do. I don’t know exactly how LMS contracts are structured, but imagine them all being on campus-wide licensing systems. Even if it costs more the more users you have, the later users are always cheaper than the earlier users and pretty soon the whole thing would have just snowballed.

Whether it’s all these things or none of these things, there’s still time to remember three very important points and begin to act upon them:

1. You do not need an LMS in order to teach.
2. You do not need an LMS in order to teach with technology.
3. The selection of educational technologies you can use outside the LMS are only getting better.**

If we forget these simple facts, we will all likely become victims of the reigning assumption of Silicon Valley sooner or later once the LMS takes over most of our jobs entirely. At least this will free us up to spend more time looking for better-paying work, while our students suffer from a chronic substandard education which just happens to be delivered with a few elements based upon the use of modern technology.

* I strongly suspect that those of you who actually teach with LMSs can come up with a better example than that one. Please do so and explain it in the comments below.

** Who remembers what happened to AOL? I certainly do.








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