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.





No really, I am a labor historian. Honest!

20 04 2014

I’m one of two panelists discussing the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre (which is today, 4/20) here at the Real News Network:





Random bullet points (more personal than usual).

8 04 2014

* I spent much of last week in New York City at the Roger Smith Food and Technology Conference. I shared my panel with a food scientist and the last artisan salami maker left in NYC. I can’t tell you how cool that experience was.

* I’ll be spending much of the rest of this week at the Organization of American Historians convention in Atlanta. I would never do two conferences in two weeks if it weren’t for 1) My willingness to spend my own resources on professional development and 2) My ability to offer online assignments via class blog posts in my absence. And you thought I was a Luddite.

* My next Chronicle Vitae piece is scheduled to appear about the time I get on my plane Wednesday. It’s called, “What the Heck Am I Supposed To Do With My LinkedIn Account?” Be sure to look for it on 4/9/14. [When I have the chance once it's out I'll link to it from here.]

* After I get back next week is when we here in Southern Colorado begin to mark the 100th anniversary of the infamous Ludlow Massacre. I’m actually Vice President of Governor Hickenlooper’s Ludlow Massacre Commission. If you’d like to learn more about the Ludlow Massacre, read some of the books mentioned here or buy a book offered here (which includes mine) or listen to this hourlong interview of me and Bob Butero of the United Mine Workers from a small Boulder radio station. Believe it or not, I’m actually the conservative in that discussion.

* As you might imagine, all of this has left me very busy. [And I'm only teaching three classes this semester! Imagine what happens when they make me teach four!] Therefore, posting here will likely be rather spotty for quite some time. So please Masters of the MOOC Universe, no important MOOC news when I’m otherwise engaged!





“Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.”

7 04 2014

Good news everybody!  Robots will only replace SOME us at our jobs by 2034, not all of us.  Who’ll be safe?  As the Huffington Post explains part of it:

Human social intelligence is critical for those professions that involve negotiation, persuasion, leadership or high touch care. Those positions demanding high social intelligence tasks might include public relations specialists, event planners, psychologists and CEOs.

Does that include university professors? You’d hope so, but that would force the people in control of universities to actually respect the quality of the education they produce and I’m not sure we can trust most of them to do that. The corporatization of higher education over the last forty years strongly suggests that most of them would rather treat education like any other manufactured product.

If education were a real factory problem this transition might actually be an improvement. It’s not just that robot arms never get tired or ask for a pay raise. They can work with greater precision than even the best skilled craftsmen. I’ve toured the steel mill on the south side of Pueblo, Colorado many times now. While 10,000 people used to work there during WWII, fourteen people can handle a shift in a building the size of several football fields rather easily now. [And even then, a few of them are just waiting around in case something goes wrong.] Foreign competition, pensions, environmental regulations aside – the payroll in that plant would have gone down over the last fifty years just because of automation. Furthermore, the steel they produce there might actually be better as a result.

Can you say the same thing with a MOOC? The New York Times Magazine makes an argument for the effects of automation on workers in general that reminds me a lot of the argument for MOOCs:

Man invents a machine to make life easier, and then that machine reduces the need for man’s work. Ultimately, it’s a virtuous cycle, because it frees humans up to work on higher-value tasks.

Flip your classroom with the latest MOOC, spend more time in class teaching one-on-one. Everybody wins, right? Only if you completely ignore the class politics that surround labor-saving machinery of all kinds. Nick Carr, explains this point here far better than I ever could:

The language that the purveyors of the endless-ladder myth use is fascinating. They attribute to technology a beneficent volition. The technology itself “frees us up for higher-value tasks” and “propels us into more fulfilling work” and “helps us to expand ourselves.” We just need to “allow” the technology to aid us. Much is obscured by such verbs. Technology doesn’t free us or propel us or help us. Technology doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us. It couldn’t care less whether we have a great job, a crappy job, or no job at all. It’s people who have volition. And the people who design and deploy technologies of production are rarely motivated by a desire to create jobs or make jobs more interesting or expand human potential. Jobs are a byproduct of the market’s invisible hand, not its aim.

If you think most administrators give a rat’s ass about whether there’s a human being or a robot at the front of the classroom then you haven’t been paying attention.





A libertarian commune is a contradiction in terms.

13 01 2014

Like so many things these days, I first heard of Black Mountain SOLE on Twitter. My tweeps were debating whether or not it was a hoax. It is not a hoax. Repeat: It is not a hoax. SOLE stands for “self-organized learning environment,” which includes, as its founders describe it, every education reform buzzword wrapped up into one:

We saw not only serious flaws in the current system but also tremendous opportunity. We’re joining the revolution – alongside new paradigms like DIY education and unschooling, new technology and content like MOOCs, and new blended learning programs – to offer a new education pathway.

And while Black Mountain SOLE is apparently a 501(c)(3), it is hardly free.

I had no reliable confirmation that Black Mountain SOLE actually existed until an article about it appeared in the New Republic shortly before Christmas. You should be able to see my interest immediately from just this exxcerpt:

At Black Mountain, much hangs on this brand of team-building exercise, because community is the program’s chief selling point. The other selling point is, basically, access to the Internet. It’s both an offshoot and an indicator of the recent boom in online education, especially the rapid growth of MOOCs, which have made lecture courses from a wide range of universities available for free online. Though traditional colleges are increasingly rounding out their curricula with online courses, Black Mountain claims to be the first experiment in assembling an entire campus around MOOCs.

Alas, it seems, things weren’t really going well at the cutting edge of the revolution. Read the whole article to learn about all the problems, but this was by far my favorite part:

Accordingly, most of the SOLEmates are more interested in crafting a business proposal than in pursuing some version of a liberal arts curriculum—barely any are taking MOOCs. Tara Byrne, an 18-year-old who told me about a business plan to monetize YouTube, explained, “I’m currently in social psychology on Coursera”—one of the leading MOOC platforms—“so that I can actually use it in day-to-day life. I won’t pick up a MOOC unless I know that I’m going to be using it. It makes me more picky … because I could be making money” by working on her business ideas instead.

So here we have some of the most self-motivated young people in the world, living in what is in essence a commune in North Carolina trying to educate themselves, and the MOOCs that this community were supposed to be organized around have already fallen by the wayside.

Do you see a problem here?

***

One of the strange rabbit holes my obsession with MOOCs has brought me down is the strange relationship between the counterculture of the 1960s and modern-day Silicon Valley. How, to put it as crudely as possible, did a group of well-meaning stoners gradually evolve into the libertarian technological utopians of today? I’ve read Markhoff and I’ve read Turner now and I’ve read Morozov on the subject, yet this relationship still kind of eludes me.

That’s why I have to fall back on the history of the Sixties that I tend to teach in my U.S. survey class here. Imagine that the Sixties Left falls into two factions: the political Left and the cultural Left. Some of the political left wrote the Port Huron Statement. Some of it went “Clean for Gene.” The cultural left, on the other hand, tuned in, turned on and dropped out. These are the people who not only freaked out their parents, they freaked out America. If you don’t believe me, watch this:

But apparently a few of these cultural leftists had real political aspirations, at least in the broader sense of that word.

Fred Turner points to a group that he calls the “New Communalists,” cultural Leftists who expressed their politics through a number of different experiments in communal living that tended to be short lived, as most utopian experiments tend to be. The jump that Turner makes, which just seems impossible for me to describe, is from living in a commune somewhere near Taos or Trinidad, to participating in a community online. If we couldn’t save the world by example, those people essentially said, then we’ll bring everybody together online to do the same kind of reorganization there.

That effort started with The Well, and has only grown bigger in the last twenty odd years. Unfortunately, thanks to companies like Facebook, these newer, bigger efforts have been highly commercialized. Can you serve the interests of your members and still make money? Let’s just say that I quit Facebook as soon as I realized that they’d be using my image to sell crap to my friends. If you’re still on Facebook and you’re over age 16, you’re essentially working against their efforts to monetize your good name, not with them.

***

Read that description of Black Mountain SOLE in the New Republic and you can really see how what came around then has come around again with a vengeance. This time, however, the politics are a lot more self-interested than they were back in the day:

From the first, Dobias envisioned Black Mountain as a haven for young entrepreneurs like himself, and to the extent there are guiding structures in place, that’s the group they serve. Dobias and Hanna share their experience in business; Cleary worked in PR; Adams can teach programming. When they hold workshops, the topics are “how to build a landing page” (Adams) and “how to woo a mentor” (Dobias) and “how to write a press release” (Cleary, who resigned from the operations team in November but is still a “coach” at the SOLE). When I asked Dobias about this, he was firm that he and the staff “don’t want this to be just a business incubator. What makes this place awesome is the exchange of all these different groups mixing together.”

I bet the “Meditation room with backjacks and cushions,” the outdoor swimming pool and the 18-hole disc golf course are lovely, but they’re not exactly conducive to collaboration, let alone learning. Live communally, make a million? It doesn’t hold water. No wonder the whole thing is falling apart already.

Learning, like teaching, is actually a lot harder than it looks. This post is an oldie but goodie which I first read in the early days of my online learning fixation:

E-books + Youtube Videos + tweets x anywhere= learning. It’s just so simple. Yet flawed. It reminds me of that Forbes blog post,a couple of month ago, where that old white guy talked about how he would get out of poverty if he was black, just read stuff online. Real learning is much more than that.

Trying to make money out that arrangement is even harder than succeeding at your stated goal. Coursera and Udacity are finding that out right about now. Even though they have a larger cash cushion than Black Mountain SOLE, I predict they’ll all end up in the exact same place: bankrupt.

***

Why do I predict that? All of these experiments in higher education face the same insurmountable problem: Too much customer service. Students don’t want to read books? Coursera won’t assign them. Students don’t want to watch MOOC lectures? Black Mountain SOLE won’t make them. After all, the learning is self-organized, not top-down.

One of the earliest and most famous communes in America was at Brook Farm, where all those Transcendentalists hung out for at least a while. The goals of that community were:

To insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possible, in the same individual; to guarantee the highest mental freedom, by providing all with labor, adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry; so to do away with the necessity of menial services, by opening the benefits of education and the profits of labor to all; and thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions.

Sounds great in theory, but somebody has to do the drudgery, right? That commune went bankrupt after only six years. If your society is as small as one of Fourier’s phalanxes, maybe you can get by without a leader for a while but that will never work in even the smallest classrooms. Education is top-down almost by definition. [I actually have a fondness for problem-based learning but even that works better under the guidance of trained professionals.]

In education, it is exceedingly difficult to farm out the drudgery to anybody. Send your MOOC to every corner of the planet, but if you don’t follow it there your students will not learn as much if you are not there to help them. On the other side of the equation, you will not learn nearly as much if you don’t do the reading than if you do all the assigned reading yourself. Allow students to plan their own classes, and nearly all your classes will be held out on the lawn faster than you can shake a stick. Somebody has to be the authority figure. Somebody has to be around to say, “No.”

Which brings us back to the 1960s. Rebelling against “The Man” is all well and good, but in education it can only get you so far. It used to be that people entered higher education because they actually wanted to learn something. Now too many people enter higher education only because they want a job. If your degree is nothing but a pedigree, then it doesn’t matter whether you actually learned something in college or not. You’ll get that job anyways when you’re done. To my mind, MOOC providers have not only bought into this mentality, their business model actively encourages it because they know that they’ll never be able to have someone watching every student to make sure that they’re actually learning. They just give out certificates to people who can make a claim to having completed a bunch of multiple choice tests.

Professors are, like it or not, authority figures. They are authorities on their given subjects and they are also authorities in their classrooms. Disrupting them may seem like a revolutionary act, but it’s about as helpful for the cause of actual higher education as blowing up the Army Math building in Madison was for ending the war in Vietnam.

Sometimes creative destruction is just destruction, and it’s sad that we all have to re-learn the lessons of the 1960s in order to realize that fact.





The soft bigotry of low expectations.

25 11 2013

“We’re moving into a world where knowledge, base content, is a commodity, which allows anyone who is smart and motivated and passionate to make something of themselves and open doors to opportunity. But at the same time, the much deeper cognitive skills that are taught in the face-to-face interaction—they’re still going to be a differentiator. The best place to acquire those is by coming and getting an education at the best universities.”

– Daphne Koller of Coursera, WSJ, November 24, 2013.

“Coursera founder speaks the truth,” is the way that Gianpiero Petriglieri described that quote on Twitter this morning, and of course that’s right. You can only get those deeper cognitive skills through face-to-face interaction, which means (by implication) you can’t get those skills through a MOOC. So why then is yet another MOOC maven acknowledging the inadequacy of their product?

To borrow a phrase from the Bush years, I think it’s the soft bigotry of low expectations. While that particular piece of education reform sloganeering arose as a racial argument, I use here to refer to class bias. All the worthy hard-working MOOC students who can’t afford real college can make a name for themselves in Coursera’s numerous lotteries of opportunities in search of a golden ticket. The rest of them will at least get to watch some interesting lectures as they go about their humdrum lives of quiet desperation.

To be fair, Koller isn’t the only person practicing this kind of class discrimination. It’s been part of the DNA of the MOOC Messiah Squad from the very beginning. The title of this post actually popped into my head last week when I read some poor MOOC-ophile argue in the Atlantic last week that MOOC pass rates are actually a lot better than the tiny fractions that even bother to participate at all in the easiest of MOOCs. He sees lots of other denominators with which we could judge success or failure of that particular educational spectacle.

But would any face-to-face or even online class associated with any university campus get to be judged by simpler standards like “took any quiz” or “watched any lecture?” Of course not. The implicit assumption is that MOOCs are so special that they deserve to judged by different criteria so that they can be allowed to innovate their way into acceptability.

Unfortunately, giving MOOCs a pass on retention rates is absolutely the worst thing that higher education could possibly do. As Christian and Calvin Exoo explained in Salon last month:

The crisis in U.S. higher education is not a crisis of access — it’s one of retention. More U.S. students than ever before are starting college. The problem is that our students aren’t finishing college. Six-year graduation rates vary from 51 percent at private institutions, all the way down to 21 percent at state schools. This is the real crisis, and it is one that MOOCs are singularly ill-equipped to address.

Want to know how ill-equipped MOOCs are to solve the crisis of retention? They’re so watered-down that course on great ideas of the Twentieth Century can be devoid of required reading and a Coursera class in World History can have no writing assignments or required reading, yet the completion rates of MOOCs like these remain anemic across the board.

Nevertheless, we are still talking about MOOCs because MOOC providers and the academic neoliberals running elite institutions of higher learning that keep them afloat are willing to deny working class students the professorial attention they deserve in the name of extending their university’s brands. MIT is at least willing to put its money where its mouth is and give its own students the same experience they’re marketing to others. Since MIT students smart and probably self-motivated, that school will undoubtedly survive this ill-advised fad. But what happens to college students outside of MIT who are drug along for the edX experiment? MIT doesn’t care.

Coursera has no such pretensions towards intellectual consistency. Today it appears that Daphne Koller knows what real education actually is, yet she’s still willing to provide a cheap and inadequate substitute to people who can’t afford the real thing. This is worse than tilting at windmills because it will make it much harder for real reformers to convince Americans to provide everyone the education they deserve at an affordable price.

So pardon me if I’m less than impressed by Koller’s new-found defense of face-to-face interaction between professors and students. Say what you will about Sebastian Thrun. At least his company will soon only be shortchanging customers who won’t be wiped out by the experience.





Dear Superprofessors: Your MOOC isn’t yours.

9 09 2013

Dear Superprofessors:

Have you been reading Karen Head’s MOOC posts on Wired Campus? Her last one described the results of her composition MOOC and it’s really quite a stunner. I have a feeling most of you know this part already, but I’m still going to quote it because this point is so important:

Too often we found our pedagogical choices hindered by the course-delivery platform we were required to use, when we felt that the platform should serve the pedagogical requirements. Too many decisions about platform functionality seem to be arbitrary, or made by people who may be excellent programmers but, I suspect, have never been teachers.

This is true to a certain extent in face-to-face classes and explains why everybody and their uncle hates Blackboard. However, in the same way that nobody has to teach a course with Blackboard, nobody has to teach a MOOC with a private, for-profit MOOC provider like Udacity or Coursera. You folks all could have created your own MOOC with lots of interesting interactive high-tech components, but that takes work and your university was impatient to bring on the future. Besides, Udacity/Coursera offered a quick way to fame, if not necessarily fortune.

Perhaps more importantly, by agreeing to go down this path, you had to invite a twenty person team to make your course with you. What do they know about teaching? It doesn’t matter. They know everything they need to know about breaking your course down into little bits so that those bits can be measured and eventually commodified. Perhaps you bargained yourself a good contract and stand to make a pretty penny when students take your MOOC instead of the existing survey courses at someone else’s university. You’ll never meet the professors that your MOOC replaces. Besides, you’ll be in the rentier class so you won’t care.

What’s that you say? You say you do care? Well, if you think your MOOC won’t replace face-to-face classes anywhere else because you have absolute control over your own intellectual property, you better read your own contract. Chris Newfield has read somebody’s*, and it paints a rather surprising picture:

The commercial value of the individual intellectual property exists only in the context of the Coursera business ecology. This is considered normal in a knowledge economy.

This issue becomes clear in the next paragraph, on the Platform:

All right, title, and interest in and to the Platform, related documentation, the Company Website and all updates, modifications, enhancements, improvements, upgrades or corrections thereof, including any assessment features added thereto, and all related Intellectual Property Rights will be exclusively owned by the Company.

Although the University will retain sole ownership of ‘any software, interfaces or assessment features created or developed solely by University or an Instructor, and the Intellectual Property Rights thereto’, the paragraph goes on to grant Coursera a ‘royalty-free and non-exclusive license’ to use any of these University or Instructor-authored elements. You have your property, but we, Coursera, can use it free of charge. Coursera has set up the course IP as though it were non-rivalrous, in solid open source fashion. It will then commercialize this IP in its own financial interest.

[Emphasis added]

Have some of the smartest people in academia had the wool pulled over their eyes by two Silicon Valley startups? That would be funny if this only affected the parties to these contracts. Instead, it affects both superprofessors and the lumpenprofessoriate alike. Some of the rest of us are simply interested in retaining rights to our intellectual property. Others of us are interested in keeping our jobs.

Either way, please keep us all posted. Your business is our business too.

TTFN,

Jonathan

* And if you don’t actually have a contract, I’m afraid the cookie has already crumbled. At least Charlottesville is really pretty this time of year.








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