“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.





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.





Nothing is inevitable.

11 03 2014

One of the great things about blogging is that you literally have no idea who might stop by in the comments. When I first assumed my role as “Self-appointed Scourge of All MOOCs Everywhere,” somebody famous in MOOC circles might stop by and I wouldn’t have the foggiest clue who they are. Thanks to the famous Bady/Shirky debate of 2012, I know exactly who Clay Shirky is. While I’m still on Team @zunguzungu, I must say it’s quite an honor to have somebody with 301,000+ Twitter followers stop by the comments of this post and write enough material to merit a post of his own.

Another great thing about blogging is that you can move long conversations in the comments into a new post if you’re so inclined. I am so, here it is. Before I start getting into details though, let me just start by noting that I wasn’t trying to somehow summon Clay Shirky by writing, “Your Historical Analogies Are Bullshit.” If you notice, he wasn’t even first on my list of examples later in that paragraph. In fact, that point wasn’t even relevant to the news article that originally set me off.

What happened was that I had just been teaching Tom Sugrue’s classic Origins of the Urban Crisis for the first time, and rereading this passage (p. 11) reminded me that nothing is inevitable:

“The shape of the postwar city, I contend, is the result of political and economic decisions, of choices made and not made by various institutions, groups, and individuals. Industrial location policy is not solely the result of technological imperatives; it is the result of corporate policies to minimize union strength, to avoid taxes, and to exploit new markets.”

You don’t even have to change that many words in order to make that caution relevant to higher education. Nevertheless, MOOC-ology thrives because it assumes that we are already well down the path of progress to a techno-utopian future that nobody can ever stop.

Unlike most edtech reporters, Clay Shirky at least gives us a lot of analysis to go with this narrative. Here’s a big chunk of his first comment (please do go back and read the whole thing though if you are so inclined):

The point of the comparison is not that MOOCs are Teh Future — indeed, in my original post on the subject, I specifically assumed that MOOCs, as constituted, could fail outright, as Napster did.

Instead, I made the analogy in order to suggest that what happened to us in 2011 is like what happened to the recording industry in 2000, which is the collapse of the incumbents to convince the public that there is no alternative to the current way of doing business. So let me make a prediction based on that analogy: there will be more movement in state legislatures in the next 5 years on creation of the $10K BA than on the raising of state subsidy.

Even though faculty are all but unanimous on the idea that university costs and revenues need to be aligned through more generous revenues rather than by reduction in costs, I believe that The Year of the MOOC, already receding, has robbed us of our key asset in making that claim, which was the lack of a credible alternative.

This is, I believe, remarkably similar to the music industry, who achieved a rapid and total victory over Napster and nevertheless lost control of even legal distribution of music, because the public no longer operated in an environment of assumed consensus about how music distribution should work.

To me, this line of reasoning is what we used to call in high school debate “non-unique.” Much of the public is hostile to higher education for both cultural and economic reasons already. Had those nice Canadian people never conceived of MOOCs, we would right now be having a different debate in order to save higher education. You can’t claim that technology has conquered the savage beast when the savage beast is already taken several more-than-glancing blows from many different directions.

Here’s some of Clay’s response to my point (and this one is edited for brevity, so please do check the full comment here to see his ideas in their full context):

The core technology [of the MOOC] is the video lecture, already in its precursor forms with TED and Khan Academy videos; the innovation was to place enough structure around them that they came to feel to citizens like they should count in the same way that other kinds of classes (including online classes) count. The form of the famous 2011 MOOCs — a simplistic beads-on-a-string model of lectures and quizzes, with no social contact folded into the system — was wrong in many of the ways people have noted, but it was right in one big way: it sketched in a model of higher education where more people could complete a single class than attend most colleges, and they could do it for free….

To put it in its most reductionist terms, the 2011 MOOCs changed the world because they offered a compelling enough story for John Markoff to write about. That’s not the same as being the core innovation of any future educational landscape, but as with Napster, sometimes 2 years of counter-example is sometimes enough to destabilize a system.

As I’m sure regular readers are sick to death of refrigeration analogies, let me at least go into a different industry. While I’m not sure I ever footnoted it in my book, Richard John’s Network Nation is to me the model analysis of a dead industry. By all rights, the Post Office should have been dead for over a century now. First the telegraph, then the telephone (and certainly now e-mail), have provided easier, cheap (if not cheaper) and more convenient communication for just about any message you want to convey. Yet the American public has seen fit to subsidize this endeavor to keep the letters coming. Yes, my mail is mostly down to just junk mail these days, but even that serves a purpose that people who tell a long narrative of steady progress refuse to recognize.

While this too may just be an alternative bullshit historical analogy, I make it to highlight the importance of contingency. Clay Shirky offers us an extremely compelling narrative of progress, but progress is based on countless contingencies. Yes, all of the points in a historical analogy do not have to match, but they really should point to the same abstract processes. The only abstract process I see in the Napster analogy is inevitable defeat, which I refuse to believe is inevitable. In the end, the point of this analogy is to tell faculty like me to let the warm water wash over everybody, even if those waters are high enough that most of us will drown.

Call me naive, but I can see a different future. My future is still technologically-oriented but in my future it’s faculty, not administrators or private companies, that control the technology of higher education. How do we achieve my particular techno-utopian future? By asserting our pedagogical expertise rather than by farming out to untrained amateurs.





Groundhog Day.

7 03 2014

I think I know how Phil Connors felt. Or maybe it’s how Audrey Watters feels every day. The longer I keep reading stuff about MOOCs, the more I feel like I’m caught in some kind of bizarre time warp. For example, something about this article just drives me crazy:

Imagine the potential of MOOCs! they claimed—universally obtainable college classes taught to millions of learners by cream-of-the-crop professors for free or very low cost. The democratization of elite education! Some even predicted that MOOCs—now boasting more than 10 million students and thousands of classes—would do nothing less than revolutionize higher education, making residential colleges obsolete in the process.

But all that rises soon must fall.

Negative critiques began mounting—from longtime educators, faculty unions and watch guards of traditional pedagogy. Many said the MOOC phenomenon was, at its core, a threat to brick-and-mortar colleges and an affront to the traditional purveyors of higher education. After early data showed that some 90 percent of MOOC students drop out before completing courses, critics declared proof of failure. Just a few months ago, critics almost cheered when a study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education found that MOOC student engagement falls off an even steeper cliff shortly after each class begins, with course-completion rates averaging more like 4 percent. Meanwhile, it was also becoming clear that most of those who completed MOOCs were already highly educated, decidedly motivated. Slate published a blistering critique, NPR aired a negative take, and other headlines across the country took up a new pessimistic chant with: “Are MOOCs already over?” (The Washington Post), “Are MOOCS Really A Failure?” (Forbes), “All Hail MOOCs! Just Don’t Ask if They Actually Work” (Time).

Don’t get me wrong here: “MOOCs are up, MOOCs are down” is a lot better than “MOOCs are about to take over the world.” And certainly, I agree with everything Mark Brown (the designated anti-MOOC spokesperson for this article) says in the parts that I haven’t excerpted (and whose blog is the reason I saw it in the first place). I think my problem is that people have been doing these “Introduction to MOOCs” articles for at least two years! Can we pleez haz sum analysis now?

Therefore, in the spirit of helping reporters everywhere get over the learning curve and to prevent me from developing a need to rob a bank, commit suicide or punch Ned Ryerson in the face, I have developed the following six rules for anyone writing about MOOCs, whether they’re doing so for the first time or whether it’s their daily beat:

1. MOOCs and online learning are not the same thing. If you can’t tell the difference between a MOOC and a regular online class, you should go back to reworking Chamber of Commerce press releases for the local free paper distributed at the shopping center. Stop reading now. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. I don’t even want to talk to you, let alone try to explain stuff this obvious.

2. There is more than one kind of MOOC. Of course I’m referring to the difference between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, but really there’s even so many more kinds than that. There are corporate MOOCs and non-corporate MOOCs. There are MOOCs that last fourteen weeks and MOOCs that last six days. There are MOOCs that take themselves seriously and MOOCs (like that “Walking Dead” MOOC) that don’t. Writing as if all MOOCs are the same does a tremendous disservice to the different kinds of innovations that have been taken up under the term that all those nice Canadians coined originally to mean a very specific kind of class. I try very hard on this blog to be very specific about what kinds of MOOCs I’m criticizing (and very occasionally) what kind of MOOC I’m praising. Reporters should too.

3. Teaching computer science is not the same thing as teaching literature. Geez, this should go without saying, but it clearly doesn’t. Just because you flipped your pharmacy class successfully with MOOC lectures doesn’t mean that my history class can do the same thing. Indeed, just because you flipped your pharmacy class doesn’t mean that all pharmacy professors can achieve the goals that they want their students to meet by using MOOCs. I’m sick and tired of superprofessors getting up on their high horse and declaring that they’ve solved every educational problem for all time when the best they could possibly hope to achieve is to find an educational format that works for the unique circumstances facing them and their students.

4. Faculty attitudes towards MOOCs are best expressed by a spectrum, not by two warring factions. Do I hate MOOCs? No. As I’ve written elsewhere, “I’m not actually against everything.” Do I hate top down administrative control of technology and pedagogy? Yes. Do you know what I really love? Faculty autonomy. Really, we all just want the right and the resources to do our own thing. Let a professor make his own MOOC and implement it on his or her terms and you won’t hear a peep out of me (as long as you doing your own thing doesn’t impinge on others doing their own thing too).

5. Your historical analogies are bullshit. Higher ed is like the newspaper industry! Higher ed is like the early film industry! Higher ed is like the record industry! These are not objective musings that come as a result of historical research, but, as I wrote a long time ago now, these analogies are really just heavy-handed attempts to shut down discussions about the effects of technological change so that a select group of people can profit from it. This particular kind of technological determinism requires ignoring the very subjective ways that politics, power and culture shape changes in technology over time. In a way, I guess the point of all my MOOC blogging has been to do precisely the opposite in an edtech context because you aren’t ever going to read Clayton Christensen, Clay Shirky or Daphne Koller do anything of the sort.

6. The revolution will not be televised. The revolution will not be Chronicle-d. It will not be Inside Higher Education-ed. It will not be Techcrunch-ed. It will not be Pando Daily-ed. In fact, most technological revolutions happen at such slow speeds that nobody ever notices them.

Consider this bullshit historical analogy of my own: The electric household refrigerator first appeared in American homes during the early 1920s. A majority of American homes had a refrigerator in them sometime during WWII. Yet, while working on my book, plenty of people told me that their houses had iceboxes or that their houses had ice delivery men come to their door during the late-1950s and early-1960s. How could this be? Refrigerators were cheap, and so convenient! The answer is simple really: Markets are not perfectly efficient and plenty of people resist change for a wide variety of reasons, including ones that have nothing to do with money. In other words, my bullshit historical analogy demonstrates why all historical analogies are bullshit, at least in a technological context.

If you can think of another rule that I’ve forgotten, please leave it in the comments below.





MOOCs are in Joan Rivers, but they’re trying to get out.

22 10 2013

During the 1840s and early-1850s, American ice harvesters tried to sell their product in Great Britain for the first time. It was the technological marvel of its day – clear ice cut from lakes and ponds in New England shipped intact across the ocean. When you think about it, it’s still an impressive technological feat. Cut ice in regular blocks and pack it in a ship, the blocks separated with sawdust like mortar in a brick wall and 50-75% of the ice will still be intact when you take it to the other side of the world.

London had never seen anything like it. One supplier displayed a block in their window on the Strand. People would stop and gawk on it (not realizing that they would replace the block as it melted). That same supplier convinced Queen Victoria to endorse their product. Another brought over American bartenders to make “American” iced drinks. Unfortunately, the hype couldn’t sell enough of this novel product to keep the market afloat.

While natural ice was a sensation with the upper crust for a few seasons, the product never penetrated the middle or lower classes. Cost explains that result to some extent, but so does culture. The British just didn’t much care for iced drinks. For decades, the only place you could buy ice in England was at the fishmonger, where they used it to display their catch. It’s been seven years since the last time I was in England, but I remember it was next to impossible to get ice cubes there even then. Because I didn’t want to be an Ugly American i just stopped asking.

Why am I writing about ice cubes in what’s clearly a MOOC post? Well, there’s the fact that I’d much rather be promoting my book than going to this well yet again, but this piece really did make me think of the longstanding British distaste for ice cubes:

How do critics expect a MOOC to simply come in and present itself as a viable and legitimate replacement as a signal of student competence against some of our most revered and trusted institutions? Harvard, Yale, and Princeton opened their gates in 1636, 1701 and 1746. I daresay that it is asking a tad much of this nascent experiment to eclipse the prestige of these institutions after a meagre few years.

Harvard, Yale and Princeton, bless their hearts had paying students right from the beginning. MOOCs, alas for the techno-utopians among us, have no business model to speak of at all. American ice providers would have loved a few extra years in order to convince British people to consume cold drinks, but Mean Mr. Market didn’t give any to them. I think the same thing will be true for MOOCs, no matter how successful their experiment happens to be.

While I think we have enough evidence to pronounce MOOCs a pedagogical failure (if not a business one), the author of this piece has a much rosier view of education technology. If you’re stomach is strong enough to click this link, you’ll see that it’s response to Sarah Kendzior’s recent Aljazeera piece on MOOCs, “When MOOCs Profit, Who Pays?” Luckily for me, Sarah Kendzior is more than capable of taking care of herself so I have no need to violate my pledge not to rehash arguments from the “Year of the MOOC” that I’ve been over 1,000 times before in this space.

Nevertheless, there is something new and different here. The faith-based manner in which the author accepts arguments of the Masters of MOOC Creation is almost touching in its naiveté. That’s why a long excerpt is in order:

The very notion that MOOC providers are wedging income groups further and further apart is laughable after just a cursory read of the quixotic and lofty aims that their founders propagate. To say that MOOCs are an accomplice to the hardships suffered by students because of the tortured state of higher education is to fail to understand what one actually is and why the mode came into being.

Their founders talk of goals such as bringing the highest quality education to the remotest parts of the world, to offer students the same level and depth of instruction, irrespective of their financial or ethnic background. How can a concept so fundamentally egalitarian and open be accused of creating educational inequalities? MOOC providers can boast stories of their courses giving new leases on life to Syrians suffering the tolls of war and giving humanitarians new tools to inform their field work. Is this not the exact opposite of increasing inequality? And given that MOOC providers have not the ambition nor aspiration for their platforms replace the institutions of university, there is no immediately conceivable possibility of a two-tiered education system arising as a result of their existence.

This is pure faith-based education reform if I’ve ever seen it. The author sees the potential for helping suffering Syrians and therefore assumes that all of us must accept one and only version of the potential future so that those Syrians can get their MOOCs. If the people being helped can’t actually pay for their MOOCs, then American college students have a duty to propel this experiment forward.

If I see Elvis everywhere, does that mean we need to go to Graceland and dig up his body just to make sure he’s really dead? It reminds me of one of those charities that’s all smiles in their infomercials, but 95% of the donations go to the founder’s bank accounts. We’re helping because we say so. Period. End of story. Don’t follow the money or you’ll hurt the people we’re helping.

MOOCs, in short, have become all things to all people. For the naive techies of the world, they will end inequality. To investors in Udacity and Coursera, they will hopefully make enough to aggravate it. To superprofessors, they will bring quality learning to the masses. To the retired physics professors of the world who take every MOOC in sight, they’re more of an opportunity for entertainment that beats whatever is on television. All of this is a product of the fact that MOOC providers have absolutely no idea what their market even is. Unfortunately for them, they’ll have better luck bringing Elvis back from the dead than they will satisfying all these constituencies at once.





Why you should buy my book or the refrigeration blogging begins.

23 09 2013

During the 1990s, the fourth floor of the Engineering Library at the University of Wisconsin – Madison had shelves lined with old trade journals. When you got off the elevator, the volumes directly at eye level were called “Ice and Refrigeration.” I was working with unbelievably old copies of the journal “Iron Age” back then as my dissertion was about the steel industry. These were not quite so old, but they, like their subject, were almost untouched by human hands (which I knew because I had to separate many of the pages myself). What I found there seemed quite extraordinary.

Once upon time (c. 1900) there was an enormous ice industry in the United States. Huge plants running five-ton machinery would knock out sheets and blocks of ice the size of several people. This ice then got broken up and sold door-to-door by covered wagons in towns and cities across America. I had heard of the cutting of ice off lakes and rivers around New England before this. From there the ice got transported to and sold in places as far away as India. But this was something else entirely! Here was an enormous, historically-significant completely dead industry, untouched in the historiography. I started my research trying to explain why these plants seemed to burn down so much. After all, they were ice plants after all! Technology and Culture published that all the way back in 2005. Then I kept going.

From there, I started reading about all the different segments of this industry and decided I wanted to write a book about how one technology passed into another: natural ice to mechanical refrigeration to home refrigeration, iced refrigerator cars to mechanically refrigerated railway cars to refrigerated shipping containers, iceboxes to electric household refrigerators and many more. What I found was that “inferior” technologies you’d expect to go extinct quickly persisted longer than you might ever imagine. The ice delivery man, for example, survived into the 1950s. Ice harvesting with horses actually survived past World War I. This tendency, as you might imagine, has had a huge influence on my MOOC blogging.

The other reason you should read my book is because it’s really great food writing. No, it’s not why cod or the hamburger or the ice cube saved the world, but it covers all these things and more. Basically, if you want to research anything that deals with perishable food, you’re going to have to read this book. After all, the last scholarly publication on this subject was published in the early-1950s. I remain amazed that I spent thirteen years (off and on) writing up this project and nobody beat me to the punch.

So, have I peaked your interest? If so, you can visit the nice people at the Johns Hopkins University Press and get your copy of Refrigeration Nation faster than any online bookseller as theirs are in stock now. Even just recommending it to your local library would make me very happy.





The MOOC hype cycle is older than you think.

19 09 2013

“A critic of technological development is no more ‘anti-technology’ than a movie critic is ‘anti-movie.’”

- David Noble, Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), p. xii.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been going through a David Noble phase lately. You see, last week I was writing an article for a publication that is very close to my heart (which you should be reading after the first of the year) and I thought I’d go back to David Noble’s famous “Digital Diploma Mills” articles for a little historical perspective. While I had glanced at them back in the day and looked at them again recently because they came up on Twitter in some context, it suddenly hit me that I had never read his entire book. Therefore, I ordered it ILL and started reading it as soon as it arrived.

It became apparent almost instantly that while David Noble may be dead, his ideas in that book are more relevant than ever. This part of the first paragraph in Chapter Four (p. 50) actually gave me chills:

“Promoters of instructional technology and ‘distance learning’ advanced with ideological bravado as well as institutional power, the momentum of human progress allegedly behind them. They had merely to proclaim ‘it’s the future’ to throw skeptics on the defensive and convince seasoned educators that they belonged in the dustbin of history. The monotonal mantras about our inevitable wired destiny, the prepackaged palaver of silicon snake-oil salesmen, echoed through the halls of academe, replete with sophomoric allusions to historical precedent (the invention of writing and the printing press) and sound bites about the imminent demise of the ‘sage on the stage’ and ‘bricks and mortar institutions.’”

My first thought? David Noble = Nostradamus. Seriously, before reading that I would have bet money that Cathy Davidson had coined the term “sage on the stage.” What was once old is new again.

But then I got to the last line of that paragraph:

“Only a year or two later, however, the wind was out of their sails, their momentum broken, their confidence shaken.”

We now know that that didn’t last. Online education is now a major part of higher education. It is also a permanent part of higher education. What David Noble failed to foresee is that online education when done right can be very, very good. Indeed, as I’ve learned over the course of my posts on that subject on this blog, wonderful things can be done online that simply can’t be done in the face-to-face classroom. The real problem is not the act of taking education online, it’s the force of austerity and corporatization that turn something that can be wonderful into fodder for digital diploma mills.

So where does that leave MOOCs? Can we suppose that MOOCs will improve over time, just as online education has, and turn into something worthwhile? The new argument from the MOOC Messiah Squad seems to be, “Well, maybe we won’t change the world overnight, but MOOCs will get better in the future and maybe the revolution will happen then.” That seems to be the thinking of this piece in Pando Daily (which I only saw because it linked here):

There has been a plethora of articles and commentaries suggesting that the MOOCs were all just a bad dream, and we can go back to the chalkboard with a sigh of relief.

Experienced observers of technology will recognize this as a familiar stage in a cycle. This cycle is so commonplace, it not only has a name, but its name has been trademarked by a bunch of voracious consultants who are asserting ownership of what is really a natural phenomenon in the ecology of disruptive socioeconomic change. Nonetheless, to be fair, and to avoid litigation, we will introduce it by its proper name: the Gartner Hype Cycle (TM).

The Hype Cycle is pretty straightforward. It suggests that each new technology goes through five phases: a) the Technology Trigger, b) the Peak of Inflated Expectations, c) the Trough of Disillusionment, d) the Slope of Enlightenment, and finally e) the Plateau of Productivity.

While that author was making fun of my suggestion that anti-MOOC is new black, this entire scaling down of expectations strikes me as very important. When MOOC advocates start citing the Gartner Hype Cycle as a good thing, I think we’ve reached a watershed because it means they’re already thinking post-MOOC. The question now becomes what is this thing we now call a MOOC going to look like once the bubble completely deflates? Will it look somewhat like an xMOOC? Will it look more like a cMOOC? Will any of it even be recognizable as a MOOC at all?

The online education example may be demonstrative. When administrations have given faculty members the freedom to innovate and teach how they see fit, great things have happened. Where that hasn’t happened, David Noble’s digital diploma mills persist. What separates that first scenario from the second scenario is power. If anybody wants to nominate George Siemens for “International MOOC Dictator,” I would second it. Yet even his fascinating experiments can lead to bad results if they fall victim to the same forces that Noble described so long ago now.

The economics and politics of both online education and MOOCs are intimately related. Unfortunately, from where I stand nearly everyone who’s caught up in the MOOC hype cycle spends far too much time on the first thing there and not nearly enough on the second. David Noble’s work serves as an excellent reminder that bad politics makes for bad pedagogy, no matter how enthusiastic its practitioners may be.





Déjà vu.

18 09 2013

“The Massachusetts Institute of Technology will this fall package some of its online courses into more cohesive sequences, just as edX prepares to roll out certificates of completion using identity verification. Seen together, the two announcements may provide a glimpse at what the future holds for the massive open online course provider.

The “XSeries” sequences add a new layer of structure to MITx, the institution’s section of the edX platform. The first of seven courses in the Foundations of Computer Science XSeries will be offered this fall, with one or more new courses being rolled out each semester until the fall of 2015. The Supply Chain Management XSeries, consisting of three courses, will begin in the fall of 2014. The two sequences will target undergraduates and working professionals, respectively.

MIT officials deny that the XSeries sequences are a first step toward students one day being able to combine a set of sequences into something that may resemble a degree.”…

“Students have been asking for certificates that have more verification, more meaning behind them that they can add to their resumes,” the edX spokesman Dan O’Connell said.

Students will pay a fee for the verification service that varies depending on the length of the course. A course lasting only a few weeks that uses the service could cost $25, while a longer course could cost more than $100. Multiplied by however many students — thousands, tens of thousands — who enroll in a massive online course, the revenue generated from the verification service could be one piece of the puzzle toward a sustainable business model for MOOCs.”

- Carl Straumsheim, “Mini MOOC Minors,” Inside Higher Education, September 18, 2013.

“If Columbia’s correspondence courses were genuinely of ‘college grade’ and taught by ‘regular members of the staff,’ as Columbia advertised, then why was no academic credit given for them? If correspondence instruction was superior to that of the traditional classroom, then why did not Columbia sell off its expensive campus and teach all of its courses by mail? ‘The whole thing is business, not education,’ Flexner concluded. ‘Columbia, untaxed because it is an educational institution, is in business: it has education to sell [and] plays a purely commercial game of the merchant whose sole concern is profit.’ Likewise, he bemoaned as ‘scandalous’ the fact that ‘the prestide of the University of Chicago should be used to bamboozle well-meaning but untrained persons…by means of extravagant and misleading advertisements.’ Finally, Flexner pointed out that regular faculty in most institutions remained justifiably skeptical of correspondence and vocational instruction. The ‘administrative professoriate,’ he declared, ‘is a proletariat.’”

- David Noble, summarizing Abraham Flexner, the leading critic of correspondence schools c. 1930 in Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education, 2001, p. 17.





On the commodification of higher education.

17 09 2013

“Imagine an online document that’s iterative like a LinkedIn profile (and might even be part of the LinkedIn profile), but is administered by some master service that verifies the authenticity of its components. While you’d be the creator and primary keeper of this profile, you wouldn’t actually be able to add certifications yourself. Instead, this master service would do so, verifying information with the certification issuers, at your request, after you successfully completed a given curriculum.

Over time, this dynamic, networked diploma will contain an increasing number of icons or badges symbolizing specific certifications. It could also link to transcripts, test scores, and work examples from these curricula, and even evaluations from instructors, classmates, internship supervisors, and others who have interacted with you in your educational pursuits.

Ultimately the various certificates you earn could be bundled into higher-value certifications. If you earn five certificates in the realm of computer science, you might receive an icon or badge that symbolizes this higher level of experience and expertise. In this way, you could eventually assemble portfolios that reflect a similar breadth of experiences that you get when you pursue a traditional four-year degree.”

- Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, “Disrupting the Diploma,” September 16, 2013.

“The commodification of education requires the interruption of this fundamental educational process and the disintegration and distillation of the educational process into discrete, reified, and ultimately saleable things or packages of things….In the wake of this transformation, teachers become commodity producers and deliverers, subjects of the familiar regime of commodity production in any other industry, and students become consumers of yet more commodities. The relationship between teacher and student is thus reestablished, in an alienated mode, through the medium of the market, and the buying and selling of commodities takes on the appearance of education. But it is, in reality, only a shadow of education, an assemblage of pieces without the whole.”

- David Noble, Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), pp. 3-4.





“Video killed the radio star.”

29 07 2013

As you might imagine, I’ve been reading a lot of insufferable technological determinism aimed in my direction ever since that Slate article came out. Of course, there’s been, “How dare you resist progress?” and “Don’t you understand business history?,” or, my favorite…well, let’s just say it gets even worse from there. Since I only title blog posts in order to amuse Ian Petrie now, I’ve decided to call the belief system that motivates these kinds of arguments, “The Buggles Theory of the History of Technology.”

Under this system, progress marches on from one technology to another (like video killing the radio star), always getting better. Under this system, the people who lose out need to just stand aside and accept their obsolescence without making a peep since the dead are silent. No mention of political decisions (like chronically underfunding higher education) or power structures (cough…contingent faculty…cough) or even the actual history of technology will be tolerated! And God forbid you mention the self-interest of your own profession, because that will invalidate your argument immediately since it proves that you’re biased.

Of course, MTV no longer plays any videos anymore, but that just proves their point doesn’t it? After all, if the people want “Teen Wolf” or “Buckwild” or reruns of “Jersey Shore,” then the history of MTV proves that capitalism works. After all, I can still watch any video I want on YouTube (such as “Video Killed the Radio Star”) whenever I want to see it. I can even embed it in a blog post. Therefore, the people have spoken!

That’s all well and good, but how do we know that students actually want MOOCs? Sure, tens of thousands of people will sign up to access MOOCs for free, but what evidence do we have that anybody, especially college-age students, will actually pay for them? I’ve covered potential problems with the MOOC business model in this post. What I want to do here is expand on what was point #3 there: Whether paying college students will be willing to put up with being treated like faces in the crowd.

In just the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot more evidence that they won’t. For instance, here’s Rob Jenkins writing in the Chronicle:

It’s true that during the past decade, the number of students enrolled in online courses grew at a significant rate. But according to a recent study, that growth started leveling off in the fall of 2010, when about 31 percent of all postsecondary students were taking at least one online class. Researchers concluded that “the slower rate of growth … compared to previous years may be the first sign that the upward rise in online enrollments is approaching a plateau.”

Moreover, a survey conducted this year by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University found that students at two-year campuses, in particular, prefer face-to-face over online instruction, especially for courses they deem difficult.

So while some students want, need, and benefit from online classes, the argument that students in general are clamoring for them doesn’t exactly hold up.

This is just for online courses, the ones in which students can actually be treated as individuals. Student attitudes towards MOOCs inevitably have to be worse since they aren’t treated as individuals at all. [Don't worry, MOOC Messiah Squad, you can always just hold your hands over your ears and chant "access" until all the bad news goes away.]

Then there’s what happened in my own state. My friend, fellow cog in the CSU system machine and future debate partner Historiann reminds of this in her most recent post on MOOC Madness. Here she quotes an absolutely appalling op-ed from the Washington Post:

What about that experiment to offer dramatically reduced tuition for MOOCwork courses at Baa Ram U.? It’s even more hilarious than you can guess [Historiann's emphasis]:

Colorado State’s Global Campus advertised last year that it would give credit to enrolled students who passed a MOOC in computer science. This would cost students $89 instead of the $1,050 for a comparable course. There were no takers. Seven additional institutions are set to make similar offerings in the coming year. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, they expect only hundreds, not thousands, of takers.

But why are prospective students so reluctant to jump on the MOOC bandwagon when 10% of them stand to learn so much? Why is it only a few tenured edupreneurs at prestigious universities who are pushing MOOCs by reassuring us that they’re inevitable “for good or ill?” But why? Santy Claus, why? Why are you taking our Christmas tree? Why? Even the not-very-intelligent commenters at the Washington Post have called bull$hit on this advertorial: my favorite is the one that says “Yeah, and blow up dolls are a good substitute for a wife…”

I still think this is more an indictment of online education in general than MOOCs in particular, but students aren’t stupid. That’s why I wonder how much market research any of these schools are doing. What if “hundreds” turns out to be “a handful?” Where will that leave the Buggles Theory of the History of Technology?

Unfortunately, there’s one way that the Buggles Theory of the History of Technology can be rescued from the dustbin of horrible edtech punditry: Make sure that most students have no other option but MOOCs, and the people running the show can still make money even if many students do forego college in droves. However, that doesn’t have to happen.

It’s still early yet in the process of MOOC-ification. We can still rewind. We haven’t gone too far. Those of us who haven’t given themselves over to the Cult of MOOCs simply have to make sure that anti-MOOC remains the new black until the providers all come crashing down courtesy of their non-existent business plans. Cathy Davidson is right. If all the MOOCs went away tomorrow, higher ed would still be in a world of hurt, but at least those problems couldn’t get much, much worse much, much faster than anybody imagined before MOOC Mania began.








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