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?





A world without us.

25 06 2014

By now, you should have “met” John Kuhlman. My correspondence with him began after my office hours piece, and has only gotten more interesting over time. One of the things he’s suggested to me that I particularly like is the idea of measuring teaching effectiveness by the responses that professors receive from their students. I imagine this not simply as a question of counting the number of comments you get on your teaching evaluations, but looking anywhere (e-mails, LinkedIn requests, whatever) for active engagement with your pedagogy, both good or bad.

You say I’m a dreamer? Of course I am. The corporate types that have taken over most of higher ed will never let qualitative measures happen because this flies against everything that modern management philosophy represents. As Chris Newfield explains in his epic contextualization of the Christensen/Lepore grudge match:

In contrast to professional authority, which is grounded in expertise and expert communities, managerial authority flows from its ties to owners and is formally independent of expertise. Management obviously needs to be competent, but competence seems no longer to require either substantive expertise with the firm’s products or meaningful contact with employees. The absence of contact with and substantive knowledge of core activities, in managerial culture, function as an operational strength. In universities, faculty administrators lose effectiveness when they are seen as too close to the faculty to make tough decisions. In the well-known story that Prof. Lepore retold, the head of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors decided to fire the university president on the grounds that she would not push online tech innovation with the speed recommended by an admired Wall Street Journal article. The Christensen model does not favor university managers who understand what happens in the classroom and who bring students and faculty into the strategy process. For employees and customers are exactly the people who want to sustain and improve what they already have, which in disruptive capitalism is a loser’s game.

What universities already have is us – by which I mean the professoriate. Applying Christensen’s value-neutral philosophy of “progress” to higher education inevitably means getting rid of faculty entirely, no matter what kind of meaningful responses they can illicit from their students.

Perhaps a very brief history is in order. Starting around 1970, universities began to use adjunct faculty to spare themselves the cost of hiring tenure track faculty who demand crazy things like health benefits and academic freedom. People not in those positions mostly did not object to this development because they did not see that it affected them. Where are we now? As the anonymous genius behind “100 Reasons NOT to Go To Graduate School” noted in their first post in a really long time:

There are now nearly 3.5 million Americans with doctorates (see Reason 55) but only 1.3 million postsecondary teaching jobs (see Reason 29), and the oversupply of PhDs is becoming a crisis in the rest of the world as well. A Norwegian newspaper has called it the academic epidemic. Legions of graduate students spend years of their lives preparing to compete for jobs that are few in number and promise little opportunity for advancement. The academic world is one in which ambition is rewarded with disappointment millions of times over.

The real “disruption” in higher ed is the entirely understandable willingness of people at the wrong end of that numerical divide to undercut the wages and prerogatives of the faculty on the other in order to scrape out a living. Technology which allows anybody with an internet connection to teach anywhere makes this process ridiculously easy, while academic management types use the tuition checks that keep flowing in to hire more managers.

The obvious next step in this process is to cut out faculty entirely. Since you can’t survive without teaching entirely, then you unbundle it so much that almost nobody can make a living doing it. Here‘s Katherine Moos from Chronicle Vitae last year:

Private and public universities are pouring millions of dollars into MOOCs. Where will the savings be realized? An organization (in this case, a university) won’t invest in a new technology unless there’s a long-term labor cost advantage to doing so—hence the term “labor-saving technology.” Remember Adam Smith’s pin factory? Now picture one professor video-lecturing, another taking attendance, and yet a third grading assignments (perhaps from another country). Rather than producing original research and unique pedagogy, professors could quickly join the ranks of workers providing highly specialized and deskilled services.

I would suggest that this kind of de-skilling is so drastic that the word “faculty” is no longer appropriate. Indeed, just try to imagine someone receiving the kind of letters that John Kuhlman received simply by taking attendance really, really well. And while students might be listening to content from the most qualified content providers in the world, the whole idea of splintering the learning process into a million pieces is obviously an idea that only a manager (rather than an educator) could love.

Of course, I don’t want to blame this whole thing on MOOCs (as tempting as that might have been a couple of years ago). MOOCs, like any other educational tool, can be used responsibly or irresponsibly. The problem here (as it is with so much of higher education) is the dictatorial, top-down management philosophy that makes their misuse not just possible, but likely. If the practitioners of this management-centered higher ed philosophy can imagine a world without us, perhaps we can begin to imagine a world with a lot fewer of them – a world in which faculty prerogatives over the educational process can be re-established.





“I don’t need no beast of burden.”

11 06 2014

I have very eclectic interests. Labor history. The history of technology. The history of food. Monty Python. Ferris Bueller. The music of the Rolling Stones. The survival of higher education in America. All this makes the fact that I’ve stuck to one subject on this blog for so long really quite amazing.

The advantage of having these eclectic interests is that it makes it possible for me to draw some connections that other people might miss. So let me begin by briefly summarizing two rather amazing articles that I read this morning and then trying to pull them together. First, the distinguished Atrios guest poster alumni and Corrente blogger Lambert Strether published a higher education post over on Naked Capitalism that really is quite epic. I’m not sure there’s all that much here that I didn’t know already, but it is certainly very helpful to see it in one place.

He begins with a discussion of the actual privatizing of public universities, citing this Bloomberg piece:

After gaining greater independence, many public universities have increased tuition, raising fears that West Chester would follow suit.

“For any university that leaves the state system, tuition and fees will likely go up — creating an added burden for students and their families,” Frank Brogan, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, said in a statement opposing the bill when it was introduced.

The independence drive is analogous to the rise in K-12 education of charter schools… Like charters, breakaway universities want less red tape and more freedom to experiment with academic programs.

I had actually heard that the University of Alabama (of all places) actually increased faculty salaries after doing something similar, but anybody who puts their faith in the majority of college administrators (or even a significant minority) to do the same thing is deluding themselves. As Lambert goes on to point out, the usual effect of more revenue at a corporate university is for it to become even more corporate, despite the fact that their students still need to depend upon public assistance through student loans in order to attend there at all. Welfare is to Walmart as student loans are to the corporate university, especially the for-profit corporate university, but even the ones that you’d have thought were better than that too.

Skipping a lot (please do read the whole thing), Lambert concludes with an analogy to Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine:

It’s almost like there’s a neo-liberal playbook, isn’t there? No underpants gnomes, they! Defund, claim crisis, call for privatization… Profit! [ka-ching]. Congress underfunds the VA, then overloads it with Section 8 patients, a crisis occurs, and Obama’s first response is send patients to the private system. Congress imposes huge unheard-of, pension requirements on the Post Office, such that it operates at a loss, and it’s gradually cannibalized by private entities, whether for services or property. And charters are justified by a similar process.

Having read that book more than once now, what I want to point out here is that this Shock Doctrine-style privatization actually began a long time ago. No, you don’t have to get a charter to operate as if you were corporate, all you have to do is outsource large sections of your core mission to private companies, just like the U.S. government did in Iraq.

Consider, for example, education technology. This is where the second great article I read this morning comes into the picture. While I normally wouldn’t be caught dead reading the Educause Review (since David Noble called them out as corporate stooges about fifteen years ago), they might actually be getting better as they published this remarkable article by Jim Groom and Brian Lamb called “Reclaiming Innovation,” [h/t David Kernohan].

As you might imagine, my favorite part is where they go after the Learning Management System. For purposes of this post, the key argument of their five-point LMS condemnation is #4:

The expense of enterprise LMSs is an inexhaustible drain on institutional resources. Even when they are operating at optimal efficiency, the commitment required to maintain them represents an immense set of challenges. And any technologists who have been involved in a migration from one system to another, or in significant upgrades of the same system, can testify to how time-consuming and troublesome these processes will be.

In other words, all the techies you’re hiring to keep the thing operating could be going to keeping tuition low. More importantly for my audience here, all that money going to Blackboard could be going to raising faculty salaries or even just giving adjuncts a living wage. And the really insane thing is that none of these G.D. things make anybody (students or faculty) who uses them particularly happy!!! They are solutions that solve nothing. In fact, what they mostly do is create new problems.

Read the whole thing to see Groom and Lamb’s elegant solutions, but what I want to point out here to the education technology-inclined is that no matter how convincing you happen to be in your advocacy for open source anything, you’re still going to have to overcome the neo-liberal mindset that Lambert describes so well. You want to design something truly innovative and all they offer you is an electronic beast of burden. Worse yet, their ultimate neo-liberal wish is to use that beast of burden to put you out on the streets – to put you out, put you out, put you out of misery. Like the coal companies in Colorado one hundred years ago, they’re more interested in mules than people and that goes for students as well as faculty.





Every man his own superprofessor?

10 06 2014

In the spirit of my new anti- “the misuse of technology to destroy higher education by usurping faculty prerogatives” position, I want to discuss this Joshua Kim post about “the end of courses.” He gets into the subject by discussing George Siemens’ keynote at the edX Consortium #FutureEDU conference, and only takes issue with one of George’s points:

Where I take issue with George’s claims of what MOOCs are destroying derives from how I am seeing open online education at scale play out at my campus.

Faculty autonomy. No way. Faculty are more important than ever, and there is absolutely zero intent to influence what they will be teaching. (And I’d argue that the what, rather than the how, is the really important part of the autonomy equation. But we can debate).

I know George, and don’t know Joshua, but really that doesn’t matter because I think they’re both right. My contribution to the debate Joshua invites is going to be to explain why.

If you run your own MOOC, you are indeed more important than ever. You provide the content that something like twenty people have to present. You make the decisions about how learning is going to be evaluated. After all, the thing has your name on it. You want to be sure that everything runs smoothly. If you run your own online course, chances are you’re doing so through your school’s learning management system, but even the worst of those have tools that allow you to customize the platform to your course. That’s probably why everybody always says that it takes much more time to teach online well than it it does to teach in a face-to-face setting.

The problem is (and although I’m not sure this is what George was referring to as I haven’t seen the speech, but I wouldn’t be surprised) what happens to the professors who get left behind? Every man cannot be their own super professor. The world will run out of students first. And as online classes get scaled up and MOOCs get scaled down, all the rest of us will be left as ministers without portfolios. Faculty don’t have any autonomy if nobody will pay them to teach anything to anybody. If we do, our autonomy won’t prevent us from starving.

So if I have any criticism of Joshua’s column, it’s a fairly mild one. While he’s busy counting the number of times the basketball is being passed back and forth, the guy in the gorilla suit has just walked by and waved.

George sees the whole MOOC picture. So should everybody else.








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