“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.
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?