Disruption disrupted.

17 06 2014

I never took a course in the history of technology. My dissertation (and very poorly read first book) were about labor relations in the American steel industry. While overdosing on industry trade journals, I quickly realized that how steelworkers labored depended upon how steel was made and that the best way to distinguish what I was writing from the many studies that had come before was to get the technological details right.

This proved to be a terrible strategy. While I’m quite sure that I did indeed get the technological details right, the people who read my manuscript never recognized this since they had all read or written books that got them wrong or never covered them at all. The worst comment I ever got (which, of course, I remember to this day) was “Rees knows nothing about the technology of the steel industry.” I begged to differ, but what could I do about it? Nothing.

I wrote Refrigeration Nation because I enjoyed reading old trade journals to get the details right and because I wanted to examine the technology of an industry that nobody else had written about. Surprisingly, when I picked my second book project that description included the refrigeration industry. Actually, refrigeration is not one technology, but many: ice harvesting equipment, large scale industrial refrigerating machines, electric household refrigerators and others. If you read the book (and I certainly hope you do), you’ll see I spill the most ink writing about the transitions between one technology and another.

These transitions can be painfully slow. Ice harvesting didn’t die until around World War I. The ice man still delivered machine-made ice door-to-door in New York City during the 1950s. Even today, you can still buy what is generally known as “artisan ice” for people who really want their drinks to be special. Perhaps this explains why I’ve always been so suspicious of Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation.” Everything I’ve ever studied that you’d expect to disappear in the blink of an eye when in competition with better technology always managed to hold on for decades.

By now, you’ve probably already read Jill Lepore’s absolutely devastating takedown of disruptive innovation in what I presume is this week’s New Yorker. [It appears rather late in my neck of Colorado. Thank goodness this one is outside the paywall!] If you still haven’t let’s just say that Lepore is unimpressed by the work of her Harvard colleague:

Disruptive innovation as a theory of change is meant to serve both as a chronicle of the past (this has happened) and as a model for the future (it will keep happening). The strength of a prediction made from a model depends on the quality of the historical evidence and on the reliability of the methods used to gather and interpret it. Historical analysis proceeds from certain conditions regarding proof. None of these conditions have been met.

And remember, there’s plenty of excellent evidence for the pace of technological change in countless American industries. You’ve never read an Alfred Chandler takedown because Chandler actually consulted this stuff. Christensen apparently not so much.

Since I don’t have a team of fact checkers at my disposal, I’m just going to concentrate here on the industry Lepore covers that I know best: steel. Here’s Lepore:

In his discussion of the steel industry, in which he argues that established companies were disrupted by the technology of minimilling (melting down scrap metal to make cheaper, lower-quality sheet metal), Christensen writes that U.S. Steel, founded in 1901, lowered the cost of steel production from “nine labor-hours per ton of steel produced in 1980 to just under three hours per ton in 1991,” which he attributes to the company’s “ferociously attacking the size of its workforce, paring it from more than 93,000 in 1980 to fewer than 23,000 in 1991,” in order to point out that even this accomplishment could not stop the coming disruption. Christensen tends to ignore factors that don’t support his theory. Factors having effects on both production and profitability that Christensen does not mention are that, between 1986 and 1987, twenty-two thousand workers at U.S. Steel did not go to work, as part of a labor action, and that U.S. Steel’s workers are unionized and have been for generations, while minimill manufacturers, with their newer workforces, are generally non-union. Christensen’s logic here seems to be that the industry’s labor arrangements can have played no role in U.S. Steel’s struggles—and are not even worth mentioning—because U.S. Steel’s struggles must be a function of its having failed to build minimills. U.S. Steel’s struggles have been and remain grave, but its failure is by no means a matter of historical record. Today, the largest U.S. producer of steel is—U.S. Steel.

Two other factors that Lepore doesn’t mention (which makes me think that Christensen didn’t either) are environmental regulation and foreign competition – the second being the more important of those two to the overall fate of the industry. The success of minimills also required a huge decrease in the price of scrap steel. What these other factors suggest is that any hard and fast rule of technological change will inevitably fall victim to the unpredictability of people. My old advisor used to call this the social system of production, and practically the entire subfield of the history of technology is predicated on this notion rather than Christensen’s brand of technological determinism

For example, if I remember right, Chandler’s last book (I get the titles mixed up) is about the various quirks in the path of industrialization across international borders. In my work, the most important factor determining the speed at which one refrigerating technology transitions to another is its reception by consumers and amazingly enough lots of refrigeration consumers just hate “progress.” Just to namecheck a great book that I happen to be reading right now, in Seeing Underground, Eric Nystrom describes the effect of political factors – especially lawsuits – on the quality of mine maps. In Butte, Montana, at least, the more lawsuits there were the more precious metals they eventually found.

Of course, my interest in Christensen comes from his pronouncements about higher education. Lepore does very little with them in her article, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from applying the same logic that I just did here. There is no scientific law of the jungle that fates universities to go entirely online or die off. If people value direct human contact and the educational advantages it brings, they should be willing to pay – or force their governments to pay – for universities to teach in face-to-face settings. Like I wrote in Inside Higher Education a really long time ago now, all this talk about inevitability is just a way to shut down discussion so that the educational traits that we once valued will be abandoned more easily.

The great service that Lepore has performed is to metaphorically take the fight over those values to the source of the attacks against them. Like MacArthur at Inchon, she has landed behind enemy lines and will hopefully force the enemy to pull back and defend ideological territory that they thought they had already conquered. Those of us currently at risk of becoming victims of creative destruction can only hope she succeeds.





“[A]nd the number of the counting shall be three.”

16 04 2014

While I was making my way home from Atlanta on Sunday, a whole bunch of my virtual and actual friends were still at the Organization of American Historians annual meeting discussing whether blogging is scholarship. While I’m sorely tempted to weigh in on this question myself, I think I’d rather follow Mike O’Malley’s example and consider exactly what scholarship is. Or to put it a slightly different way, what and who is scholarship for? Or maybe just why scholarship?

What’s sent me down this path before I even saw O’Malley’s post is this rather amazing article from Smithsonian (which I found via Rebecca Schuman, who’s probably still laughing her ass off about this days after she first read it):

“There are a lot of scientific papers out there. One estimate puts the count at 1.8 million articles published each year, in about 28,000 journals. Who actually reads those papers? According to one 2007 study, not many people: half of academic papers are read only by their authors and journal editors, the study’s authors write.

But not all academics accept that they have an audience of three. There’s a heated dispute around academic readership and citation—enough that there have been studies about reading studies going back for more than two decades.

In the 2007 study, the authors introduce their topic by noting that “as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.” They also claim that 90 percent of papers published are never cited.”

Of course, the flies in the ointment of this discussion are tenure and promotion standards. Early-career scholars with blogs want blogging to be scholarship because that will make tenure easier to attain. I know that sounds bad, but really what’s the use of running the normal academic peer review gauntlet if it’s likely that only three people will read the result?

Coincidentally, this discussion and this article happened at the same time that I have to worry about precisely this sort of thing once again. Yes, I’m a tenured full professor, but as anybody among the somewhat more than three people who read this blog regularly know our administration here at CSU-Pueblo is trying very hard to move the vast majority of professors at this institution from a 3-3 (or 9 credit) to a 4-4 (or 12 credit) teaching load. While I was once optimistic that there would be enough exceptions to that standard that most active scholars on campus would be able to avoid it and continue their research apace, I am not anymore.

Here’s why: A few weeks ago, our Provost published his new research standards at the back of a grant application form for a single semester of release time. To my knowledge, he did not consult our faculty senate or any faculty members whatsoever before doing so. Here is a selection from that document (no link because it was e-mail only, e-mail attachment only to be exact):

“At CSU-Pueblo, faculty are expected to teach 12 credit hours per semester (and engage in research/scholarly/creative activity, and perform service). I emphasize that regular scholarly activity is expected of faculty who teach a 12 cr hr teaching load per semester. Awarding equivalency time to conduct research/scholarly/creative activity, above and beyond the usual expectations that we have of faculty, requires careful justification – even moreso at a public institution, in an environment with significantly constrained resources.”

Here’s what it says about release time for scholarly activity in our faculty handbook:

“After consultation with the faculty and Chair of a department, the Dean shall recommend to the Provost all requests for release from teaching. Faculty members released from teaching assignments shall devote a minimum of three (3) clock hours per week for each semester hour of released time to tasks associated with such release….Release from teaching to engage in sponsored research, University supported scholarly or creative activity, University service or other approved activities may be authorized by the Provost dependent upon the availability of funds and program needs.”

In other words, we’re going from an environment in which the vast majority of faculty members received that one course release to an environment in which we all have to prove that we’re not ripping off the taxpayers of Colorado and we still might not get that course release anyway. Furthermore, there’s been no hint that the standards on our annual performance reviews will be amended at all to reflect this rather significant change in policy.

While I’m fortunate enough to have no need to submit this blog as proof of scholarship, other faculty members on campus might not be quite as productive as I’ve been lately. Here’s the gauntlet that we all have to run to get one of 20 or so release time “fellowships” to pay for our adjunct replacements (as described in that policy statement I referenced above):

“The Provost will not approve equivalency time for research/scholarly/creative activity for Fall 2014-Spring 2015 if there is not a demonstrable peer-reviewed work product within the previous 2 or 3 years, depending upon the amount of equivalency time requested.”

It so happens that I approve of the peer review process. In most cases it has significantly improved the work that I’ve published, but as anybody with actual experience in peer review knows this slows things down to an unimaginable degree. For example, I wrote on article to mark the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre for Labor during my sabbatical a year and a half ago in order to make the anniversary itself, which is this very week. It’s accepted, but won’t be published until the fall, months after the anniversary is over.

Will more than three people read that article? Labor is a very good journal so I think so. However, even before I read that Smithsonian article I had become increasingly convinced that most academic journals are utterly useless. The value of blogging (or God forbid practicing actual journalism) is that you’re almost instantly guaranteed a much wider audience than publication in even the most respected academic journals will ever give you. Shouldn’t the point of scholarship be to influence the way the world works? If so, how can anybody justify a narrow fixation on peer review if almost nobody reads the results?

What troubles me most, however, is my administration’s demand for a “demonstrable peer-reviewed work product” within a two to three year window. My last book took me (on and off) thirteen years. Nevertheless, I still want to write more books. Not only that, I want to write more books that people will actually read. I’m currently close to being under contract to write two more comparatively quick refrigeration related books using my surplus research. Both will be peer-reviewed (or at least extensively peer-edited). After that, however, my Harvey Wiley biography is going to take a huge amount of time for me to finish because his papers are all back East and that extra class I’ll be teaching starting this fall isn’t going to speed that process up any.

As you might imagine, this whole situation makes me incredibly sad. If the only solution to this problem is to write short, crappy, purely academic work that reads like the instructions for the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and only three people ever read it, I don’t know if I want to play this game anymore.





Higher education is not available à la carte.

24 02 2014

Perhaps you saw this piece of clickbait from NPR’s Planet Money team last week? It’s called, “Duke: $60,000 A Year For College Is Actually A Discount” and it follows a familiar format: some people say this, other people say that, but – this being a Planet Money piece – they’ll tell you what’s really going on at the end of the report.

For reasons I don’t really understand, the reporter became fixated on the costs of doing academic research in the sciences. I guess this might seem particularly shocking to those not in the know:

Jennifer West is a professor of bioengineering and materials science with a long list of publications, awards and titles. To hire West away from Rice University, money wasn’t enough. She came with an entourage. “I moved a whole entire research group with me, so I had to move a lot of people and then we had to move a lot of our equipment and rebuild our lab,” she says. “They actually sent architects to Rice who looked at our lab facilities there, then used that information to go back and design the facility that would work for us at Duke.”

West is not alone. Duke pays what it calls “startup costs” for a lot of professors, particularly in the sciences.

How much of that was paid for by government grants? How much of those costs were paid for by private companies? Certainly, with less support for higher education in general, a lot of what used to get paid for these ways is now being subsidized by tuition, but why is this a bad thing if the research is valuable to society?

The answer to that last question depends upon selfish individualism. Here’s the sound of the other shoe dropping:

Charles Schwartz, a retired professor from the University of California, Berkeley, who has been studying university finances for the past 20 years, takes issue with this way of accounting. He says it’s unfair to place the financial cost of professors like Jennifer West, who spend most of their time in the lab, on undergraduate students. “It’s just wrong to bundle all those costs together,” he says.

But how exactly are you going to pull those costs apart? If I were to underpay my taxes and write, “Please understand that the underpayment here is to avoid my having to pay for building those nuclear bombs that I don’t really support,” they’d lock me away. Or suppose I’m a racist. I don’t want to support African American Studies because I don’t believe it’s valuable. Can I withhold the portion of my tuition that goes to that? Of course not because, like government, higher education forces you to subsidize the whole hog because that’s the only way the whole thing works.

Don’t get me wrong. I think $60,000/year for a Duke education is ridiculously overpriced, but the implicit notion in that Planet Money report that students should be able to buy higher education à la carte is completely ridiculous. Why not do away with all graduation requirements then? After all, if I’m going to be a CS major why should I have to learn a foreign language? What good is a history requirement to a nursing major? A lot, of course, but this is the road down which this kind of consumerism will take us.

***

If I sound unduly sympathetic to Duke University’s ludicrously-high tuition, it’s probably because of a meeting with our Provost that I attended last Thursday. You might remember that during his first all-faculty meeting, our Provost joked that we faculty members only worked three days per week. This meeting went better than that one at first. For a while, it was actually valuable.

The first thing he did was report on the last meeting of our Board of Governors. Apparently, he told the assembled professors, they hate you all. Why? He wasn’t exactly sure, but he didn’t have to tell us. A copy of an e-mail from Chancellor Michael Martin to nobody in particular was circulating from faculty member to faculty member in the days leading up to the meeting. Here’s the part that contains the big tell:

“I would note that CSU-Pueblo students are currently paying fulltime faculty salaries for faculty not working fulltime…Participating in Denver South could relieve some of this unproductive burden on students.”

That’s why every last single professor on campus with out administrative duties or grant money has to teach an extra course starting next semester. We’re “unproductive.”

But, in fact, we’re not. You see, the only reason that faculty are not currently teaching the optimum number of courses by Chancellor Martin’s estimation is that policies exist in our handbook that allow faculty members to get release time for research. The vast majority of us (myself included) teach three courses each semester because we actually do research. Chancellor Martin wants to unbundle that function from our job description so that students won’t have top pay for it.

Unfortunately, even this financial justification for this policy doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. During our meeting with the provost, somebody (OK, it was me) pressed him about how exactly faculty losing their research release time actually saves money. The first thing he mentioned was that faculty with higher loads will replace the $290,000 worth of adjunct faculty that we’re in the process firing. Of course, that’s a pittance in the overall university budget. Nevertheless, my fellow tenured and tenure-track colleagues, never forget that the ability to hire someone to do the only part of their your job that an administrator cares about at a fraction of what you cost is a constant threat to your employment and your quality of life.

But the provost admitted that that small scrap of money wasn’t the real motive. During my portion of the conversation with the provost, I proposed the following scenario: Imagine two identical courses with the same professor teaching both, fifteen people in each of them, but the room holds thirty. Can we cancel one section and merge the class? After all, it wouldn’t cost any money. No, the provost said, because that would be political suicide. Yes, they’re making us teach a 4-4 because the Board of Governors of the Colorado State System doesn’t think we work hard enough, not because it does anything for the budget or anything for education. Still no word on whether they feel the same way about Fort Collins.

It’s enough to make you nihilistic, don’t you think?

***

Last week, Bob Casale of Devo died. Coincidentally, I was teaching Jeff Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive in my 1945-Present class. The book is about the death of the working class during the 1970s, and it’s quite wonderful in large part (but not exclusively) because of it’s many astute cultural references. While I was surprised that my students had never heard of Archie Bunker (who I had thought of as a kind of Mickey Mouse-style cultural icon), I knew that I was going to have to tell them about Devo. That’s right, Cowie explains the politics of Devo.

If you haven’t read the book, to save time I’ll just tell you that those politics revolve around nihilism. Yeah, I missed that too when I was in high school, but really the politics are there. Here’s the video I picked to illustrate Devo’s philosophy:

This is the key lyric, at least for me:

In ancient Rome there was a poem
About a dog who found two bones
He picked at one
He licked the other
He went in circles
He dropped dead

You just know that Mark Mothersbaugh had OD’ed on Milton Friedman by the time he wrote those words. In the video, there are two guys dressed as Caligula, one holding this dude in a cheap dog suit by a leash. To me, this sounds like the perfect metaphor for cheap higher education. Freedom of choice? In fact, when both choices are bad you get no real choice at all.

Why are both choices bad? That depends upon who exactly is holding the leash. Here’s Planet Money again (this was their snide little aside at the end of the story about which position you should actually believe):

If you’re engaged in research and capitalizing on your professors’ expertise, maybe you’re getting something that’s worth more than what you paid. If you’ve got a good financial aid package, you’re definitely getting a good deal. But if you’re a full-paying student, who’s not learning much from professors outside the classroom, it’s the university that’s getting the deal.

But rip faculty research out of the equation and the quality of the entire product will suffer. Take me, for instance. I teach a research methods class for both undergrads and graduate students. Don’t you think I’ll do that better if I actually have time to do research? More importantly, if Duke students are willing to pay $60,000/year to have access to faculty who do actual research, what does this tell you about the quality of higher education at an institution where professors don’t have time to do any research at all?

Any notion that higher education is available à la carte is a complete illusion. Behind Door #1 is austerity. Behind Door #2 is more austerity. There is no Door #3.

What too few of us understand is that faculty are facing the same rotten choices that our students now get. Faced with numerous vocal complaints about our pending 4-4, the provost told us that you make time to do what you love. That comment was met by the loudest series of groans I’ve ever heard from all over the room. Oddly enough, while workers during the 1970s may have forgotten their class consciousness, professors at CSU-Pueblo seem to be discovering theirs again.





MOOOOOOOOOCS!!!: #AHA2014 edition.

4 01 2014

So we did our panel yesterday. The nice people at the History News Network (aka David Austin Walsh) did indeed film it, but they say the tape won’t be online until next week. In the meantime, I thought I’d just dump my (probably not all that accurate) notes from the presentations online while I’m breakfasting at Starbucks on my way to the library again, with just a couple of introductory remarks of my own for each speaker:

1) Philip Zelikow

For those of you who may have seen any of his MOOC, Philip really is that poised. He says he did multiple takes while filming those lectures, but I’m telling you he couldn’t have needed all that many. I was so grateful to him for coming because (for reasons I’ll explain below) without him most of the session would have been like the sound of one hand clapping:

MOOCs different from regular online courses.
14 weeks (the length of both his and Jeremy’s course) is highly unusual.
UVA does MOOCs for outreach.
“These [meaning MOOCs] are not cheap” if you want to do them well.
Huge #s are meaningless. How many people actually try out the course?
His course had 94 separate video segments. If the narrative arc worked some were as long as 30 mins.
90,000 people signed up.
15,000 people gave the course the old college try.
10,000 stuck with it.
5,000 of those were online auditors (weren’t taking the tests).
2,500 more were downloading and watching the segments offline.
“Most gratifying teaching experience of my entire life.”
Someone even sent him flowers [Unsolicited, of course].
This was an overload. As a dean, he isn’t even supposed to be teaching at all.
Advantages of MOOCs:
1) Allows for more elaborate integration of media.
2) Students can freeze on maps.
3) Students can learn at different speeds.
4) His students get the follow-up explanation from him, not the TA.
“In a way, I’m doing the TA sections.”
TAs are doing history labs, something new that wouldn’t happen otherwise.
Students self-report that they work 50% harder in his flipped course.
Is the pure online material useful? Yes, students in and out of UVA said it was highly enriching.
Flipping class is highly satisfying for everyone involved.

2) Me

Well, of course I couldn’t take notes on my own paper and (as I explained earlier this week) I can’t post it yet. For now, I’ll just say this: labor historian at heart that I am, I made the “MOOCs as scientific management argument,” comparing the “unbundling” of the historian’s job in the classroom to having Frederick Taylor stand behind you with a stopwatch. Break up any job, and you can pay the people performing the component parts less – often much less. The folks who were livetweeting me seemed to think I was being combative, but I really do understand that nobody interested in MOOCs welcomes the virtual equivalent of academic Taylorization. My fear is that if we really do leave everything to the market, we’ll get this outcome nonetheless.

3) Ann Little

It really is a privilege to be able to hang with Historiann in the non-virtual world. For those of you who have never met her, she does indeed talk like she writes in the sense that she is both incredibly astute and hilarious at the same time. Funny story: I was going to avoid using the word “superprofessor” with two of them in the room because I thought it was too inflammatory, but Ann just dove right in. Therefore, I lapsed repeatedly by the end of the session too:

What MOOCs can’t do well:

1) MOOCs obscure the real work of teaching.
2) MOOCs make it difficult to teach controversial content.
3) Compares the upcoming MOOC and in-class version of Stephanie McCurry’s slavery class at U Penn. [The MOOC version is much easier.]

Professors face attacks on their politics first to soften us up for later budget attacks.
Quotes my Provost on us only working three days a week.
Will superprofessors be too afraid to cover race?
Students need to hear other people talking about controversial material.
Given a say in the matter, would students only pick Whiggish studies of progress?
Would polarization occur in a gender or sexuality class?
Would the discussion boards in a class like that look like the angriest corners of the Internet in general?
How will McCurry monitor the shocking nature of the material on the discussion board?
McCurry at Penn: Six books, primary sources and discussion section.
Her MOOC appears to have nothing but online primary sources.
Real education requires skin in the game from both sides, both the teacher and the student.

4) Jeremy Adelman:

Jeremy’s plan was to take Amtrak down from Princeton to DC in the morning, but there was that big snowstorm in the Northeast the night before. I was getting optimistic travel updates from him by e-mail the night before, but they kept getting more pessimistic as the reality of Amtrak under stress began to sink in. I was kidding him about making a dramatic entrance from the back of the room, and it turns out that’s exactly what he did – straight from Union Station, about 25 minutes before the end of the session. I don’t think he even took off his coat before he started talking:

“My attitude is experimental”
Starts with the fact that he doesn’t want to ban students taking notes on laptops.
Didn’t want to have an adversarial relationship with his students.
[This explains his interest in the flipped classroom.]
Interested in the promise of global learning.
His hope was the world could talk to itself.
Papers were the part of the MOOC that worked the least well.
Forums worked in the sense that there was global dialogue.
The problem was that there was less dialogue between Princeton students and the world.
Second version of his MOOC had Princeton students blogging for the global audience.
Princeton students didn’t want to go out and engage the planet.
From flipped classroom at Princeton, students got a lot out of lectures for the first time in 25 years.
Most MOOCs give certificates. We gave nothing. Going to change that.
Lifelong learners take relatively passive attitude toward learning.
Going through college without learning how to write is a problem.
Jeremy also announced (quite offhandedly) that he’s leaving Coursera.

That’s it for me for now. Hopefully, I’ll get some time to write something more reflective about this next week, but my semester starts a week from Monday and I still have syllabi to write (during those three days that I’m actually working).





Reading is fundamental.

10 12 2013

One of the great themes of the MOOC Research Initiative conference I went to last week was trying to define what exactly constitutes success for a MOOC. Is it the percentage of people who finish it? Is it the number of people who start it? Is it the number of people who report that they got whatever they wanted out of it? This explains why everyone there could learn that “MOOCs have relatively few active users with only a few persisting to course end” and not just pack it in and go home. MOOCs in the eyes of the earnest, well-meaning people who are creating them are a different animal than the regular college course. Therefore, they argue, the success or failure of MOOCs should be judged by a different standard than the courses that the rest of us teach.

Unfortunately, succeed or fail, the “lessons” that MOOCs teach us are still going to be applied to regular college courses whether those of us who teach them like it or not. That’s why Anant Agarwal of edX, the guy who thinks Matt Damon should teach a MOOC, writes about unbundling higher education here as if it’s both inevitable and good for everybody involved. For example, consider this paragraph about unbundling just the functions of a university in general:

Traditional, four-year higher education institutions do far more than provide an education. Universities are responsible for admissions, research, facilities management, housing, healthcare, credentialing, food service, athletic facilities, career guidance and placement and much more. Which of these items should be at the core of a university and add value to that experience? By partnering with other universities, or by enlisting third parties to manage some university functions, could schools liberate resources to focus on what they value most?

I doubt it, but even so tell that to the people whose jobs are outsourced. The university as some bizarre hybrid of General Motors and Walmart certainly isn’t a future that I relish.

However, as a teacher myself, the part of his op-ed I find most interesting is his description of how we would unbundle content. It’s based on a very common analogy among MOOC enthusiasts between MOOCs and textbooks:

This practice actually began with the textbook centuries ago when instructors started using course content written by other scholars. Instructors are generally comfortable using textbooks written by a publisher’s team of authors, which they sometimes supplement with their own notes and handouts and those of their colleagues.

Leave aside the fact that some of us don’t assign traditional textbooks at all, what’s most interesting to me here is that he’s treating video lectures and the written word as if they’re the same thing:

MOOC technology may provide a new resource in online content for professors to do more of this in the future. Professors will have a choice to use multiple sources of content — the key being “choice” — in their lectures and classrooms that best fit the topic or their teaching style, and the learning styles of their students.

This is a classic example of a product purveyor struggling to find a market. While this might work in some disciplines for which outcomes matter more than the processes by which you reach them, it won’t work in the humanities at all. Here’s why::

1) Texts (using that word in its traditional sense) require more interpretation than film.

I’m not a film studies guy and I know nothing about theory, but I do know a little bit about auteurship, the notion of film reflecting a director’s personal creative vision. By focusing your attention on different parts of the screen, they can control where you look and, to a great extent, what you think about the story after it’s done. It’s like when I saw that “I see dead people” movie, and proceeded to kick myself after it was done for not picking up on the surprising twist until that guy who hasn’t made a decent movie since wanted to me to see all the clues he dropped earlier.

Books, especially textbooks, can’t paint the whole picture for you so you’re left to fill in much of the gaps yourself. That’s why teaching from a textbook that compliments your class is so important.

Sure you can go back and watch a difficult part of a lecture again, but it’s even easier to go back and read the difficult parts of a book. Suppose you do exactly that and you still don’t get it and you need to ask your professor about the concept that you missed. Are you two going to go back and watch everything from 2 minutes, 34 seconds to 4 minutes, 5 seconds again during class time? Isn’t that going to disturb everybody else around you? Indeed, it is much harder to discuss a “text” (in the broad sense of that word) if that text isn’t written because it’s much harder to access and process the parts of it you need.

Writing has persisted for thousands of years for a reason. You can run a video lecture on x150 speed, but you can’t skim it.

2) Reading is a skill. Teaching that skill is why the humanities exist.

Reading trains your attention span. You can’t read and watch TV at the same time if you hope to retain anything. In a MOOC, you can open a new tab and check Facebook while you’re listening to the lecture because nobody is there to watch you (except maybe the NSA).

Even in the Internet age, jobs require lots of reading. You’re reading right now. Shockingly enough, I think it’s a good idea to develop the reading skills to deal with long texts while in college so that graduates can apply those skills to shorter texts once they leave.

Unfortunately, too few people read these days. Indeed, I believe this is the root of our educational crisis today. These statistics come from a book about e-readers called Burning the Page:

“We’re a nation of readers and nonreaders. According to these studies, 33 percent of high school graduates who do not go on to college never read another book for the rest of their lives, and 42 percent of college graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. Sadly, 80 percent of U.S. families didn’t buy or read any books last year.”*

Making more MOOC content available for professors won’t help this crisis one bit. That’s why “All reading is good reading” is my new mantra (but that’s a subject for another post).

3) Humanities or otherwise, choosing the content you teach yourself is a vital component of academic freedom.

Oh God, there he goes bringing academic freedom into it again! Well, it’s not just me really. Here’s part of a very recent report on the freedom to teach from the AAUP:

The freedom to teach includes the right of the faculty to select the materials, determine the approach to the subject, make the assignments, and assess student academic performance in teaching activities for which faculty members are individually responsible, without having their decisions subject to the veto of a department chair, dean, or other administrative officer.

Now read that sentence again in light of MOOCs. Yes, nobody has been forced to flip their classroom and use MOOCs – yet. But as is the case with learning management systems, the pressures to use one particular collection of recorded content as opposed to the textbook of your choice is going to be immense. What gets me is how MOOC providers know this, as evidenced by their decision to contract with administrations rather than marketing to individual professors and counting on them to decide if they’ve built a better mousetrap.

Let me end this long post where Anant Agarwal began. This is from the very beginning of his piece:

When massive open online courses (MOOCs) first launched early last year, we had no idea what to expect. And even today — with dozens of global institutions and millions of learners participating — we as an industry have so much more to learn as we puzzle out online education. One thing that both supporters and critics of online education agree on is that the MOOC movement has ignited a spirited conversation about the future of higher education.

I heard a lot of similar sentiments at the conference last week, especially about a new focus on the quality of online education in general, and I kind of agree. Why just “kind of?” Because if some people involved in that conversation don’t think reading is fundamental, then they have no business telling me what or how to teach.

* Since I read it on my Kindle (well worth the $1.99 I paid for it), I can’t include page numbers (sigh), but that passage is at Loc. 1740.





An automated education is a contradiction in terms.

18 11 2013

Yeah, I’m going to write about Sebastian Thrun’s pivot again. Why? Because every time I look at that story, I find something else worth writing about in it. In fact, with additional perspective, I’ve come to believe the most important part of that whole article is his use of the word “profound” here:

“I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial,” Professor Sebastian Thrun tells me when I visit his company, Udacity, in its Mountain View, California, headquarters this past October. “But the data was at odds with this idea.”…

“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product,” Thrun tells me.

The question then becomes what made Udacity’s courses a “lousy product?” Why couldn’t their courses be “profound?” I’d argue that it’s the lack of the human element. Appointing untrained “mentors” couldn’t get SJSU kids through introductory math. Likewise, turning math into a solo game or giving kids iPads on school trips won’t make a difference either because computers can’t give anyone a profound education. Only people can. Thrun wanted to create teaching machines, but it turns out his machines can’t do what they’re supposed to do with respect to the people who need a profound educational experience the most.

To be fair, this problem goes well beyond MOOCs. Education is an inherently labor-intensive process, which explains why everyone who’s trying to automate it will eventually have to come to the same conclusion that Thrun did. For the sake of variety, consider another subject that I’ve been meaning to get back to for a long time now: automated essay grading.

A while back, Elijah Mayfield of Lightside Labs, made a couple of really interesting appearances over at the tech blog e-Literate. Lightside Labs is working on using computers to assess essays. Notice my change of word there? They specifically state their goal is to help teachers deal with student writing in large volumes, not to do that job for them. Elijah was also incredibly clear that he wants to do this to make assigning writing more rather than less feasible. In short, these people are a lot more teacher-friendly than Sebastian Thrun is.

In order to make these noble intentions feasible, Lightside Labs needs actual teacher-graded essays in order to train the computer to recognize patterns. Do away with teachers and the whole program falls apart. Yet even with teachers playing a huge role in the machine-grading process, there are gigantic holes in what their program can grade well:

Longer reports, like a 10-page term paper, are probably not a good fit for automated assessment. When you start adding section headings, writing becomes less about good style and content, and more about the organization of a document and the flow of information. These aren’t a perfect fit for LightSide’s strengths.

LightSide isn’t going to check grammar. In fact, we don’t have any modules built in that test students’ pluralization, subject-verb agreement, or other textbook rules. If teachers give poor scores to writing that breaks particular rules, then LightSide will learn to do the same. Fundamentally, though, we don’t believe it’s our place to choose what rubric to grade on and what rules to prescribe. That should be up to the teacher; our intelligent software will learn from teacher grades.

Finally, remember that LightSide doesn’t fact-check. Our software learns to spot vocabulary and content that looks like high-quality answers. Sometimes, students will write coherent, well-formed, and on-topic essays that make inaccurate claims about the source material. Usually, our algorithms won’t be intelligent enough to spot well-written but untrue claims. It will, however, grade their writing quality, which is what we aim for.

What’s left isn’t exactly a profound educational experience, is it? I’d argue that’s it’s pretty much rote learning in order to please a computer, rather than the living, breathing person who assigns you a final grade. More importantly, the inability to fact check pretty much disqualifies their system from use in a history class right there. To be fair, I don’t think the Lightside Labs program is aimed at my discipline, but imagine a computer grading program that could be. Imagine that someone had created a program that can tap into all the published sources on the Internet so that it can tell that the War of 1812 actually began in 1812. Is that going to make a profound educational experience possible?

Of course not. History is no more about learning facts than baseball is about learning to hit the ball. History is full of countless subtleties and intricacies that defy immediate understanding. More importantly, there is a human element to both history and baseball that defies easy description. If college, as Thrun suggests, is really all about obtaining eventual employment, then grading by computer is a huge step backwards because no computer will ever be the boss of you. When your boss is a human being, they bring all the foibles that human beings bring to any position of power. Learning to follow the wishes of your professors, even the arbitrary ones, may be the best on the job training that you’ll ever have.

If I’m wrong and the computer will end up being your boss, then I’m afraid we’re all screwed already. Not only will all the cost savings associated with automation flow to the owners of capital, the quality of complicated services that computers provide will become less effective almost by definition. Here’s Nick Carr writing in the Atlantic:

Because automation alters how we act, how we learn, and what we know, it has an ethical dimension. The choices we make, or fail to make, about which tasks we hand off to machines shape our lives and the place we make for ourselves in the world. That has always been true, but in recent years, as the locus of labor-saving technology has shifted from machinery to software, automation has become ever more pervasive, even as its workings have become more hidden from us. Seeking convenience, speed, and efficiency, we rush to off-load work to computers without reflecting on what we might be sacrificing as a result.

That whole article is well worth the read in order to understand the implications of automation in many areas of modern life. It’s not really a Hal 9000 argument at all. Carr’s point seems to be that we’ll forget how to do things, or because these actions will become so systematic, only do them badly if we rely too much on automation to get essential jobs done. While the immediate effects of an automated education may not be plane crashes, to me there would still be an inevitable, obvious drop off in quality.

Last year, I proposed a Turing Test for judging the effectiveness of online education. If a student can’t tell whether they’re being taught by a computer or a person, then the computer is doing a teacher’s job as effectively as a teacher can. But I still don’t think we can ever reach that point.

Machines can teach you rules, but they can never teach you how to break them or especially when breaking the rules is the appropriate response to a particular situation. No wonder Sebastian Thrun wants to do corporate training now. The people most willing to paying for his services are perhaps the only people in society who want education to produce yes men who will never color outside the lines. Call that what you want, but it certainly isn’t a profound educational experience. No matter how powerful our future robot overlords eventually become, only other well-trained human beings can provide that.





The now obligatory post about writing for free.

31 10 2013

Last summer, I got an e-mail from Jeff Selingo of the Chronicle. They had started organizing this new project called Chronicle Vitae and they wanted to know if I would be one of the contributors. While I was pleasantly surprised that the Chronicle was interested in featuring the writing of somebody with my politics, I didn’t exactly jump at the chance. You see, I know some people of my political persuasion who’ve had bad experiences writing regularly for the Chronicle. Besides that, I wanted to know exactly what I was committing to and what exactly I’d be getting in return.

Yes, I was rude enough to ask the Chronicle about money. I did this well before getting paid for writing became all the rage because I don’t really want to write for free anymore. Yet I do anyway. Does this make me a bad person? Am I putting professional journalists out of work? Am I contributing to a system of naked exploitation?

I agree with what Derek Thompson wrote at the Atlantic: “It’s complicated.” While I’m not sure this is at all original, here’s my explanation of how I sort it out in my own mind:

Perhaps the greatest thing about having tenure is that I can write what I want for whomever I want to now. I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to spend seven years on a dissertation, five years on revision and have the final product sell a whopping total of 400 copies worldwide. This is not writing for a living or even the pittance of a living. It’s writing for tenure, and there are plenty of worthy presses out there who are more than willing to help you achieve that end – even if you have to buy 25% of those 400 copies yourself so that the press can at least break even.

Honestly, I’m beginning to feel the same way about academic journals. I’ve done my fair share of articles in my time, but I’ve never gotten even one ounce of feedback or encouragement from anybody who has ever read them after publication. Perhaps that’s because none of my articles have been any good, but I can’t shake the sneaking suspicion that it’s actually because almost nobody has ever read them. I spent five years [FIVE YEARS!!!] going back and forth with Technology and Culture to get this article published. While I love the result dearly, I have no idea why I bothered anymore. And, of course, I never made a dime off of it. But then again I didn’t expect to either.

Blogging has the decided advantage of being a lot more fun than writing for purely academic audiences. When nobody read this blog, I told myself that I was doing it for therapy. Now that people do read this blog, I tell myself that I’m doing it for my twin causes: faculty rights and faculty prerogatives for faculty at all levels of employment. To turn down the chance to bring those causes to an audience of professors and graduate students of all kinds would have been idiocy on my part.

Besides, as Jeff explained it to me, I actually like the idea. Chronicle Vitae is kind of like the academic LinkedIn, except academics won’t be all confused about why they joined up in the first place. It’s free to access and there’s even a place where grad students and young scholars can sign up for mentoring. What’s not to like? Besides, since I’ll eventually get around to plugging my book there it’s not exactly “free” labor in the Gary Becker sense of that word.

My first post for Chronicle Vitae is up now. You can find links to my future contributions in this space or just join up yourself and follow me once you’ve registered. Either way, I hope to see you there.








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