The (edtech) hippie revolt.

23 04 2014

One of the strangest rabbit holes I’ve gone down as a result of all this edtech blogging is the association between early developments in computing and the counterculture of the 1960s. While I’m not going to try to explain it here, you can read a really good summary of those links in John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said from 2006. I actually assigned that book this semester and am currently pursuing those links with students in my 1945-Present class for the first time.

My students final paper assignment asks them to compare Markoff’s book to Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing and look for continuities between the 1960s and the 1990s. Much to my amazement, we found at least nine or ten of them while exploring possible paper theses the other day. I think it helps that Lewis’ book is now just as dated as the history that Markoff covers (which actually makes it better for use in history classes than when I first started assigning it!).

If you’re wondering whether I might have brought this paper topic up to the present, the answer is “no.” Every last inkling of the Hippie Revolt has dissipated from Silicon Valley. How do I know? Check out this note which my friend Historiann got from her administration up in Fort Collins the other day:

This seminar will provide information about the university’s involvement in a national consortium that promises to enhance learning and teaching. The consortium, which includes several leading research universities, is exploring new directions in the use of instructional technologies. The intent is to facilitate and accelerate digital learning using the best integrated digital systems available that make it easy for faculty and enhance learning. The ecosystem consists of three components: a digital content repository/reflector, a service delivery platform, and a learning analytics service. The digital content repository/reflector will allow us to regain control over our digital learning objectives, allow faculty to choose to share/reuse digital content easily and seamlessly while preserving their digital rights. The service delivery platform is Canvas by Instructure, and has the characteristics of easier use by faculty and faster development of courses in it. The best learning analytics will be deployed and evolve apace as this area develops.

Historiann was rightfully flustered by this terrific example of edtech gobbledy gook. [My favorite word in it is "ecosystem." What's yours?] I’d try to translate for her, but what’s the point? That would be playing the game on their home field in a struggle that we faculty are bound to lose.

Instead, let me suggest an alternative strategy: Think outside the box. If administrators and for-profit edtech concerns want to colonize our educational turf, then move the playing field. The easiest way to do that is what I’m pretty sure Historiann’s response is going to be: Don’t use their commercial learning management system and don’t teach online.

But even people interested in using more online tools than Historiann don’t have to surrender control of their classrooms to “The Man.” As I wrote in the Chronicle Vitae piece linked to above, Jim Groom, who blogs at Bava Tuesdays and who remains my hero, is working on a project to facilitate and teach faculty members to control their own domains, Reclaim Hosting. I, for one, want to learn how to use technology to teach history better, but I HAVE TO BE THE ONE WHO DECIDES WHAT CONSTITUTES “BETTER.” After all, I’m the one with all that teaching experience, not our administrators and not the techies who work for our LMS provider.

Does this position make me a hippie? Good. [Insert obligatory legal weed in Colorado joke here.] I think educational technology could use a lot more hippie and a lot less revolt – at least revolts of the unnecessarily disruptive kind. Don’t you?





Successful parasites never kill their hosts.

31 03 2014

“I think this really makes clear that we are not out to put universities out of business — have never been out to do that.”

Coursera’s Daphne Koller said this to Marketplace last week after hiring ex-Yale President Richard Levin as CEO. My immediate response was, “Who ever said Coursera wanted to put universities out of business?” They partner with universities to produce MOOCs and have just started to contract with other, less-prestigious universities to consume them. Tuition, after all, is where the money is. It reminds me of why Willie Sutton robbed banks. As Chris Newfield put it last night:

“Universities may have a cost disease, but they now have a privatization disease that is even worse.”

Successful parasites never kill their hosts. They just slowly suck the lifeforce out of them.

The real criticism against Coursera from MOOC skeptics like me is not that they want to put universities out of business, but that they want to put faculty at non-elite universities on the unemployment line. Too many university administrators dream at night of faculty at Point A, students at countless point Bs and themselves at Point C simply cashing the tuition checks. Coursera’s MOOCs offer these administrators the opportunity to cut out point A almost entirely, making sure that they don’t have to pay the glorified TAs tending to MOOC administration a living wage or give them anything that even faintly resembles tenure.

Perhaps this future awaits me. Perhaps not. Nevertheless, of all the responses that I get to my MOOC skepticism, it’s the people who like to point out my self interest who drive me more than a little bonkers. Don’t get me wrong: I am indeed self-interested when it comes to MOOCs. I like my job (or at least my profession) and want to keep earning a living wage doing what I do now. What makes me crazy is the notion that my bias somehow makes me wrong by definition. “Oh, teachers can’t critique MOOCs on grounds of pedagogy,” the counter-critics are implicitly saying, without noting that all of us potential professorial dinosaurs have a lot more experience with actual teaching than the vast majority of MOOC enthusiasts do. Professors are the check built into the system to make sure that any technological innovation maintains higher education’s academic integrity. Sell your faculty down the river and your students to the highest bidder and there’s likely going to be very little academic integrity left in the system that results.

My arguments here is really simple: Destroy professorial jobs and education will suffer because we professors do it better. That’s not just because Stephen Greenblatt will not take questions. It’s that we’re all right there every step of the way to monitor progress and provide the kinds of personalized guidance that students can only get from other human beings, and that’s true even for the largest classes. While people who know nothing about education seem to think that education can somehow be automated, the professoriate understands that teachers matter and that the more qualified the human being at the front of the classroom the better.

Unable to articulate a coherent educational vision of their own, the MOOC enthusiasts are forced to rely on the incredibly lame argument the way people learn now has to be changed just because it’s old. Perhaps it’s old because it actually works? Here’s a business proffie from Columbia who should really know better getting in on what is now a very tired schtick:

Further, the exact problem that MOOCs are designed to address remains unclear. They call to mind the earliest movies; in possession of new technology, no one was quite sure what to do with it, so they filmed theatrical productions! Only with time did it become clear that “moving pictures” could do things that stage productions could not, at which point the medium came into its own. MOOCs are very similar, filming professors talking in classrooms, essentially tying the technology to a pedagogical approach that harks back to the age of Socrates!

That Socrates, what did he know about learning? The Socratic Method, you say? What has the Socratic Method ever done for us? How big was its IPO?

We professors shouldn’t have to be the ones to tell the world that waving a few videos in front of people’s faces does not equal an education*, but it appears that somebody has to before the parasites and their profit motive redefine education out of existence.

* No, giving students multiple-choice tests after they’re done watching those videos doesn’t make it an education either.





MOOC sublime.

15 03 2014

“The steamboat sublime took expropriation and extermination and renamed them ‘time’ and ‘technology.’ From the vista of the steamboat deck, Indians were consigned to prehistory, the dead-end time before history really began, represented by the monuments of ‘remote antiquity’ that lined the river’s bank.

The confrontation of steamboat and wilderness, of civilization and savagery, of relentless direction with boundless desolation, was called ‘Progress.’”

- Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 76-77.

Barbara Hahn of Texas Tech University is one of my very favorite people in all of Academia. We not only share similar interests and the same publisher, she is also a very, very good historian. As proof, I offer this from a new AHA Perspectives article intended to introduce other historians to the history of technology as a sub-field:

[A] difficult-to-shake belief in technological determinism—the idea that tools and inventions drive change, rather than humans—is widespread. When apps download on their own, or when cellphones appear to inspire texting over talking, it certainly feels as if technology changes and humans simply react. But most research into the history of technology undermines this widespread assumption. Technology itself has causes—human causes. If it didn’t, it would have no history. So the field by its very existence fights common misconceptions about technology.

Of course, the first thing I did after reading this article was to apply its lessons to MOOCs. Did MOOCs emerge fully grown out of Sebastian Thrun’s head? Of course not. They have both a history and a pre-history. While I’m not qualified to explore either of those subjects in any depth, I do want to explore the question of what a MOOC actually is from a technological standpoint so that others might have an easier time explaining that history.

Again, Barbara’s article can help. “What is technology?,” she asks:

Even experts struggle to fix its boundaries, but a modest definition will suffice to begin inquiry: technology is the systematic, purposeful, human manipulation of the physical world by means of some machine or tool. In this definition, technology becomes a process, rather than the artifact that process employs.

MOOCs, of course, employ a variety of technologies to achieve their goals, and since no MOOC is exactly alike (see Rule #2), the kinds of technology they use will be different. Video recording is one MOOC technology. A forum is another one. Some MOOCs use Google Hangouts. Others don’t. What they all have in common is the Internet as their base infrastructure, but since so many other things depend upon the Internet for their existence these days, I’d argue that that similarity obscures more than it illuminates.

As a student of the history of technology myself, I’d argue that what every MOOC has in common is a story to hold the diverse technologies that it employs together. Daphne Koller’s story involves bringing education to the undeveloped areas of the world. The story that all those nice Canadians tell involves students helping other students learn. The best I can tell, the story behind DS106 involves barely controlled anarchy (which might explain why it’s my favorite MOOC out there by far).

Listen to enough of these stories and you begin to detect patterns. What their proponents emphasize tell you what they think is important, but the opposite of that thought is true as well. What their proponents leave out tell you what narratives of MOOC progress discount or ignore altogether. Here’s a summary of a paper called, “Do professors matter?: using an a/b test to evaluate the impact of instructor involvement on MOOC student outcomes,” which I’m pulling from the blog Virtual Canuck:

The study concluded that teacher presence had no significant relation to course completion, most badges awarded, intent to register in subsequent MOOCs or course satisfaction. This is of course bad news for teacher’s unions and those convinced that a live teacher must be present in order for significant learning to occur.

Well let’s kill all the teachers then!!! What’s that you say? Probably not a good idea? I happen to agree, but if all you’re measuring is badges, course completion and MOOC satisfaction then this kind of conclusion makes perfect sense. Learning, or at the very least the learning process, has been obliterated by the structural sacrifices that MOOC creation entails.

Another part of the learning process that disappears in the xMOOC story is the direct interaction between the professor and the student. You just knew I was going to get to this particular MOOC news nugget eventually, didn’t you?:

An English professor at Harvard University turned heads last month when she instructed students in her poetry class to refrain from asking questions during lectures so as not to disrupt recordings being made for the MOOC version of the course.

Elisa New, a professor of American literature, instituted the policy at the behest of technicians from HarvardX, the university’s online arm, according to The Harvard Crimson, which first reported the news. The video technicians reportedly told her they wanted to record a continuous lecture, with no back-and-forth with students.

Of course, professors play an oversized role in the xMOOC story, but what this wonderfully symbolic anecdote shows us is that the process of teaching doesn’t. If anybody fails to understand this superprofessor’s lectures, in class or in the MOOC, they are just S.O.L. This shows that what we used to think of as teaching is being replaced by mere content provision in this new narrative, which I think I’m going to start calling the MOOC sublime.

In Walter Johnson’s version of steamboat sublime, “Progress” rendered Native Americans invisible. In the MOOC sublime, the people who disappear are the faculty members who choose to cling to the outmoded, inefficient mode of instruction that so many MOOCs aim to replace. Who cares if we use actual technology ourselves? As long as we fail to board the MOOC train before it leaves the station we are expendable.

How do you fight this kind of passive/aggressive, often self-interested narrative attack? I think we alleged Luddites need to come up with a story of our own in order to help us resist the fate that the edtech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley have in store for us. I guess this post is my shot at doing so. Any additional details in the comments below would be much appreciated. After all, so many of our jobs may depend upon how well we can all tell it.





“I see dead people.”

26 02 2014

“When I speak with [Al] Filreis [of the University of Pennsylvania], a charismatic bearded professor, he complains that people criticize MOOCs without differentiating between those that are done well and those that are not. He is sitting at a computer and clicks between discussion boards, Facebook posts, and live “office hour” chats led by teaching assistants who discuss poems in the video lectures (the TAs have become ModPo celebrities, too).”

- Laura Pappano, “How colleges are finding tomorrow’s prodigies,” Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 2014.

No Al, you’ve got it all wrong. People who criticize MOOCs are perfectly capable of differentiating between MOOCs that are done well from those that aren’t. The problem is that even the best MOOC in the world is nowhere near as good as the average community college course. The reason is obvious: access to the professor.

I’ve gone the rounds with Al (and many other MOOC enthusiasts) on Twitter a few times so I can easily predict the response to this point: People who want to find me can find me in the forums, or in a Google Hangout or through whatever technological doo-dad they’ve invented to stimulate simulated interaction. Unfortunately, for the average student – rather than the prodigies that the Christian Science Monitor (like so many other gullible media outlets) prefers to discuss – they either won’t or can’t make use of that access. In fact, if most students actually did try to make use of that access the technological infrastructure behind the MOOC platform would collapse.

It’s simple math, really. Even superprofessors only have so much time in their days. This way, they can interact with only the brightest, most dedicated students from around the planet. What teacher wouldn’t love this arrangement? All the other students who are left waiting by the wayside. The ones who need lots of help that isn’t available or who need the kind of help that is simply too awkward to be made available over the Internet. Sadly, the Masters of MOOC Creation don’t care because real education is not profitable. Giving people certificates for watching videos and answering multiple choice questions about them (supposedly) is.

While the average community college instructor may not be a superprofessor, at least they’re accessible. That’s why MOOC enthusiasts are continually waging a deliberate campaign to belittle the contributions of non-superprofessors everywhere. This particular example is from the Economist:

Caroline Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University, argues that MOOCs threaten different universities in different ways. Less selective institutions are close substitutes for MOOCs. Course content is often standardised and interaction with professors is limited in order to keep costs down.

Really? I know there are large intro classes in many institutions, but even those professors have TAs and office hours and writing centers and early warning systems if you’re failing the course. And, of course, practically the whole point of the non-vocational aspects of community colleges is to prevent those situations from happening, to make sure that students get a user-friendly introduction to academic life and be a success when they transfer elsewhere. It’s as if all the dedicated teachers who help make that happen are dead to her.

Then there’s this (Thank you, Vanessa), “A Colorado Software Firm Is Programming Your Next Professor:”

“MOOCs and online schools have not fully thrown the student-teacher ratio out the window, but they seem to be heading in that direction. As education costs increase, it’s not unreasonable to think that professors, teachers, adjuncts, and tutors could at least be partially replaced by a $7,000 programmable character who never sleeps or unionizes, or emotionally overreacts to student behavior.”

Jesus, and I get called paranoid and delusional for suggesting that anyone is even contemplating such a thing. Never underestimate how little college administrators don’t know about education. Any university that replaces their professors with a dancing paper clip deserves the fate that awaits it. It’s not that we can’t be replaced by a dancing paper clip. We obviously can. It’s whether or not we SHOULD be replaced by $7000 avatars that is the question. If we’re all dead to them, then this process becomes much easier as students are left with essentially no other choice.

Well, I see dead people. So do students. I only hope that we all don’t end up like Bruce Willis and discover that we’re all dead already.*

* So I spoiled the end of a fifteen year-old movie. Well, I think it’s your fault if you haven’t seen “The Sixth Sense” yet, not mine.





The flipped classroom as MOOC waste product.

13 02 2014

This is a hard post for me to write. For one thing, I have an article coming out in the next Academe that covers some of this ground. For another thing, as my friend Phil Hill knows all too well, I have a #Slatepitch in for an essay on the evils of the flipped classroom. I think they’re going to take it (eventually – assuming the one and only Rebecca Schuman doesn’t do it first), so I don’t want to give away the whole store here.

But this paragraph is just way too much for me to bear:

The MOOC, in our view, is the ideal way to flip the classroom, replacing both the lecture and the textbook. Whether they build their own content or draw on an existing MOOC, professors can off-load content to on-line formats and spend face-to-face time interacting with students. Students will actively debate history -for instance–rather than transcribing the professor’s lecture. Universities will not be destroyed, only lectures, and in their demise better conversations will happen.

To make matters worse, I’ve met one of the co-authors of those words. Louis Hyman teaches at Cornell, his books on the history of debt are excellent and if I had all the time in the world I’d be taking his upcoming MOOC on the history of capitalism just for the sheer enjoyment of it. I’ll bet you anything that he’s a terrific lecturer, but if you think I’d let him or anybody else replace my own content on any subject you’ve got another thing coming.

Why not? I need to back up a little in order to explain that.

Let’s begin by considering the possibility that Hyman (and his co-author, Edward Baptist) raise with respect to “building your own content.” The vast majority of people in academia do not have their own MOOCs. Nothing is stopping them from recording their own lectures. However, anyone doing this really should understand the risks. Yes, it’s time to quote Leslie M-B writing about “lecture capture” again:

“I’m not sure what the policy is at my current institution, but I signed away a lot of intellectual property rights at my last one. In an age where people seem to think that education is just a matter of “delivering content” that translates into mad workplace skillz, I’m uneasy about providing the university with any multimedia content that could be aggregated into a enormous-enrollment course taught by a grossly underpaid and underinsured Ph.D.”

Are you a professor? Then providing content is an important part of your job. If you don’t want to do that duty every semester, somebody might just relieve you of that burden. I can hear the anti-professor catcalls now: “They’re too lazy to tailor their lectures to their audience! Why is tuition so darned expensive then!” Besides that, aren’t you ever going to change your lectures at some time in the future? If the answer to that question is “no,” why the heck did you bother to become a teacher in the first place?

Now let’s go to the other possibility that Hyman and Baptist raise: to “draw on an existing MOOC.” The unspoken assumption here – that most lectures are boring, but superprofessor lectures are all Grade A – is not only empirically wrong (as any wide-ranging MOOC student would readily attest to), it’s flat-out insulting to the rest of the professoriate. Not only are there plenty of people who do a fine job of lecturing outside of the MOOC limelight, even the less-gifted lecturers among us have the advantage over a recording in that they can actually tailor the content of their lectures to the goals of their individual courses.

Indeed, one of the reasons that the vast majority of the professoriate does research is that what we learn doing our research makes us better teachers. That’s how we keep our content fresh. Some of us even have undergraduates do research with us! Teach somebody else’s content and in this economic climate you can kiss that course off you get for research goodbye, if not your entire job with it.

What bugs me the most about this newfound enthusiasm for the flipped classroom is the sheer superfluity of it all. If I can thank Hyman and Baptist for anything it’s for making it abundantly clear that the rise of MOOCs and the sudden fad for the flipped classroom are intimately related. To borrow some inflammatory language from Marc Bousquet, the second is a waste product of the first. If the MOOC providers are like meatpackers, then the flipped classroom is how they’re going to get us to eat their offal.

Not making enough money from your MOOC? Sell the content to unsuspecting campuses without MOOCs of their own. Coursera has already started doing this. [That's why the Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier quit his MOOC last year.] And Coursera isn’t offering MOOC content directly to professors. They’re marketing it to administrations who will need to find a financial justification for their very expensive MOOC content purchases.

So to all my caring colleagues out there who are flipping your own classes without any prodding: Thank your lucky stars you still have that freedom. Just remember though that your new educational silver bullet has already been co-opted. The more you flip freely, the more likely it is that somebody else will be flipped against their will in the future. You’re the people who gave the administrators of the world this idea. You’re the people who are currently in the process of legitimizing this idea. Denounce flipping other professors involuntarily all you want, but you are still partially responsible for that result. Just because you can unbundle and rebundle your job at will, doesn’t mean that the rest of your colleagues can.





MOOC-surfing.

6 02 2014

All of the papers from our MOOC forum at the American Historical Association about a month ago are now online at AHA Perspectives. Mine is here. This seems like a good place to thank David Mazel, Ian Petrie and especially Perspectives Editor Allen Mikaelian for helping make that essay the best it could be. However, it is no different than the version you may have already heard by playing the tape of the session.

The same thing is not true of Jeremy Adelman’s paper. You may remember, Jeremy got caught in Amtrak hell during an East Coast snowstorm and didn’t arrive at the room until very late in the program. Since he didn’t have time to deliver a full paper, this is the first place I’ve seen his written remarks.

Most of the essay explains the changes he made between the first version (the one I took) and the second version of his World History MOOC. Some things went better. Some things went worse. What I find extraordinary, however, is his theory as to why one important aspect of his MOOC got worse in version 2.0:

There are now 108 partners and almost 600 courses. There is a tendency to study (if you can use that word) extensively, not intensively.

This has changed the learning ecology because students online are less engaged in the active learning components than they once were when there were fewer courses. The online forum discussions, where Russians spoke with Brazilians, Americans with Indians, were once a vibrant and exciting component, but they’ve lost their energy. Whereas I once feared the forums would be Babelian, with many different voices talking past each other, my fear now is silence. Version 2.0 was, as far as student interactivity is concerned, a shadow of version 1.0.

[Emphasis added]

Honestly, I didn’t think Version 1.0 was all that interactive in the first place, but that’s not why I find this theory so interesting.

Jeremy is reminding us that no MOOC is really free. Students pay with their time (and, trust me, Jeremy’s class takes an enormous amount of time to even complete in a half-assed manner). With MOOCs of all kinds competing for the attention of the mostly white, male retired physics professors of the world, anybody expecting to rack up tens of thousands of eyeballs can’t ask too much of their students. Nobody wants to feel like a shirker, so thousands of students will undoubtedly rather enroll in the easy MOOC with no reading or writing requirements that they know they can complete than the hard MOOC that they’ll just surf through occasionally on the way to greener pastures.

Of course, since students pay for MOOCs with their time, they have to be the kind of students who have time to give. If Daphne Koller had her way, we’d all imagine the typical MOOC student as some impoverished under-schooled 18-year old with no access to schooling. In fact, those are precisely the kinds of people who would be least likely to afford the time, let alone the Internet connection to watch superprofessors do their thing. That’s why the typical active MOOC student is highly-educated and career-oriented. They have the time and especially the incentive to take advantage of everything that MOOCs have to offer. Lack these incentives and you’ll either a) Never watch a lecture to begin with or b) Give the next MOOC over a shot at keeping your attention.

I think Ann Little’s point about the problem of teaching controversial subjects in MOOCs also plays into this overall argument. While I covered it in my initial notes from the session, here’s the explanation in her prepared text:

The demands of the MOOC—particularly its massiveness—work against introducing students to the latest, cutting-­edge research and conversations happening in our profession because MOOC professors will be asked to offer only the broadest and most inoffensive courses out of fear that courses on certain subjects—­slavery or genocide; gender and sexual minorities; nonwhite people in general—won’t sell.

These are also the kinds of courses that are the most difficult to teach, even on a face-­to-­face scale, because of the various political views and life experiences of our students. As someone who teaches courses on women’s history, gender, and the history of sexuality, I have serious doubts about how much breadth and complexity MOOC history courses can offer.

Sexism? Too depressing. Change the channel. Racism? Too depressing. Change the channel. Genocide? Are you kidding me? I only want to take happy MOOCs! After all, life’s too short to spend the whole time bummed-out by history. Of course, the happy/sad dichotomy will more likely work itself out as a slow slide into banality as pressure from providers or university administrators to attract more possibly monetizable eyeballs leads superprofessors into injecting more and more of the MOOC equivalent of T&A into their classes.

Come to think of it, how long will it be until MOOC providers begin to inject actual T&A into their MOOCs? After all, if we’ve learned one sure lesson here in the early history of the Internet, the only way anyone can be certain to make money in this new medium is to sell pornography. Hopefully most of the superprofessors of today will quit long before that moment arrives. Unfortunately, I strongly suspect a few of them will go off and start their own edtech companies.





The “outer limits” of online education.

24 01 2014

“Sitting in on part of Wednesday’s meeting, [California Governor Jerry] Brown challenged regents to develop classes that require no “human intervention” and might expand the system’s reach beyond its student body.

“If this university can probe into” black holes, he said, “can’t somebody create a course — Spanish, calculus, whatever — totally online? That seems to me less complicated than that telescope you were talking about,” referring to an earlier agenda item.

After receiving pushback from UC provost Aimée Dorr, who delivered the presentation, that students are “less happy and less engaged” without human interaction, Brown said those measurements were too soft and he wanted empirical results.”

“Jerry Brown pushes UC to find ‘outer limits’ of online education,” Sacramento Bee, January 23, 2014.

Let me summarize the last two and a half years or so of this blog: 1) I get concerned about the quality of online education. 2) Lots of people (mostly Kate) convince me that online education can be done well if it’s done by caring people for the right reasons. 3) I grow concerned that the administrators leading these efforts don’t care whether online education is done well or not. 4) “The Year of the MOOC” only deepens those fears. 5) Lots of those same online instructors concerned about quality (including Kate) begin to share those fears.

Obviously, Jerry Brown calling for online courses that are totally automated only justifies this fear even more. At almost the same time that Daphne Koller is re-iterating her claim that she doesn’t want to replace real higher education with MOOCs, Brown is saying exactly the opposite. While I shouldn’t have to go through all the reasons why pushing the outer limits of online education is a bad idea, it feels like it’s been a long time since I’ve done any MOOC blogging so I’m going to do it just for fun:

1) Students will never know whether their answers are right or not unless the answer is always “11.” Essays, in other words, are dead out. Yes, computers can grade for grammar and for sentence structure, but (as I’ve explained before) they can’t do anything with respect to ideas let alone the moral judgments that come with complex topics in history or literature. So we might as well write off the humanities in Jerry Brown’s world. Of course, that might actually be the point.

2) Students will be learning alone in their rooms, entirely by themselves. But what about forums, you ask? Surely students can form online groups and learn together, right? Did you see this article from IHE yesterday?:

A professor’s plan to let students in his Coursera massive open online course moderate themselves went awry over the holidays as the conversation, in his words, “very quickly disintegrated into a snakepit of personal venom, religious bigotry and thinly disguised calls for violence.”

In other words, large groups of people can’t be left to their own devices. They need authority figures, i.e. teachers, to steer the discussion, or else anarchy will break out quickly. If they don’t interact with each other, it’s not teaching. It’s broadcasting. You might as well go back to the “College of the Airwaves” then and skip MOOCs entirely. The whole notion of MOOCs without group interaction defeats the entire reason that all those nice Canadian people came up with MOOCs in the first place!!! Do you really want to make George Siemens cry?

3) The wrong motives. Did you notice the part in that above quote where Jerry Brown was getting pushback from a provost? A PROVOST!!!??? You know you’ve gone too far if something like that’s happening.

For all my carping about administrators not caring about the quality of education, at least they’re almost all willing to still pay lip service to that idea. Heck, even Sebastian Thrun famously derided his own product on the grounds that it didn’t maintain his commitment to educational quality. There is no other reason to completely automate higher education besides the naked desire to pinch pennies. Find me one study that says that students – any students at any level – do better without teachers. Find me one educator who thinks students will learn more if they sit completely on the sidelines and not communicate with the people they’re teaching at all. They don’t exist, and if they do exist then they’ve obviously been so compromised by the potential payout of building an acceptable “teaching machine” [cue Audrey Watters] that they’re no longer worth listening to at all.

4) Treated as nothing more than a commodity, students will run for the exits. Is anybody gonna pay for an all-MOOC higher education when they can learn the same thing from reading a bunch of books or just watching a bunch of video tapes? Seriously, I thought people paid all that tuition money to avoid having to do that.

They control the vertical. They control the horizontal. However, students can still always turn off their TVs.

PS I seem to remember liking the old Jerry Brown much better than this one.





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.





Overexposure?

9 01 2014

This morning I did a half hour interview with Linda Pelaccio about Refrigeration Nation on the Internet radio show “A Taste of the Past.” You can listen to it here if you’re so inclined. I’m not sure I’m entirely coherent as I wanted to talk about seventeen things at once, but I’m told it went well. Discussing MOOCs is much easier because outrage keeps me focused.

I’m also interviewed on the same subject in a sidebar to this article about refrigeration at Modern Farmer. It’s quite an honor that the author of the main article is the great Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography fame.

Now back to my syllabi. If anybody wants to talk about MOOCs or refrigeration, it’s gonna have to wait ’til next week.





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).








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