“We owe it to you, our hardworking students…”

21 04 2014

“We owe it to you, our hard working students, that we do whatever we can to ensure your certificate is as valuable as possible.”

- Sebastian Thrun, “Phasing out certificates of free courseware completion,” Udacity Blog, Wednesday, April 16, 2014.

So explained Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun a few days ago, in a development that surprised absolutely nobody. Coursera has found its only reliable source of revenue charging for its Signature Track courses. It seems only natural that Udacity would eventually do the same.

Yet the way that Thrun phrased this development strikes me as incredibly interesting. “We owe it to you, our hardworking students…” – …to stop giving away our services for free… …to make you fill out more paperwork than before… …to subject you to the modern Internet-based security apparatus… No, actually…”[to] do whatever we can to ensure your certificate is as valuable as possible.”

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this here, but I think this announcement raises profound questions about what education actually is, or perhaps simply what it’s supposed to accomplish. Is higher education a good thing because of the skills it represents or is it a good thing because you have it and others don’t? As you might imagine, I’m in the former category. MOOC providers seem to be in the latter, which is kind of ironic when you consider the fact that their goal is to educate anyone and everyone.

How do I know? Here’s Thrun’s explanation for the change in that post:

Since its inception, Udacity has issued many tens of thousands of certificates. To get such a certificate, a student had to sign up and make it through the online courseware. Identity checking was never part of our certification. Neither were mentor-supervised projects, which we now offer for an increasing number of courses.

We have now heard from many students and employers alike that they would like to see more rigor in certifying actual accomplishments.

More rigor means fewer people. If more rigor meant the same number of people, then employers wouldn’t care. If so, they’d be able to play one Udacity “graduate” off against another and pay lower wages. Using Sebastian Thrun’s reasoning, the more people who opt for these verified credentials, the less valuable they’ll become.

Pin the average MOOC enthusiast up against the wall, and they’ll tell you that they support the idea of thinking creatively and outside the box. John Warner does this (metaphorically) to Tom Friedman here and much hilarity ensues:

“So, according to [Google's Laszlo] Bock and Friedman, the best way to succeed in the current economy is to challenge oneself intellectually and creatively and show differentiation from the herd.

This is why Thomas Friedman is a consistent critic of educational movements such as MOOCs or the Common Core State Standards, because the standardization of education threatens the ability of students to meet these goals, and indeed, they threaten the very soul of what makes our country great, American individualism.

Wait, what’s that? You’re saying that Thomas Friedman is a cheerleader for MOOCs and the CCSS? You’re telling me that he thinks that MOOCs are a “revolution” where the best and brightest super-professors can remotely teach us all?

I’m confused. What are people supposed to do? Should we be herding students into homogenized online courses and preparing our students to do well on a battery of standardized tests, or should we be developing independent thinkers and problem solvers?”

I would respectfully suggest that we owe it to our hardworking students to actually give them the best education possible, one that trains them to think creatively and differently because nobody can take that away from them and nobody will think creatively exactly same way. I would also suggest that whether you pay for a certificate or not at the end of your extremely rigorous MOOC (with no required reading) has no bearing on whether you learned anything from it or not. It does, however, have an extraordinary bearing on whether or not MOOC providers will eventually sink into an abyss of red ink from which they will never emerge again.

Perhaps what this suggests most of all then is why for-profit education is a contradiction in terms.





“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.





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.





Reinventing the wheel.

27 03 2014

What’s old is new again in edtech land. While that’s always been true to some extent, what’s new now is that this constant effort at reinvention has begun to take MOOCs as the status quo to be contrasted against rather than what they once were, namely the bright, shiny new thing that will save us all.

You say you want evidence for this trend? The folks who produce one particular online program tweeted this at me last week, presumably because the author used my Slate article as a jumping off point:

As a social phenomenon, access to education in this way – that is available for everyone, for free – is unprecedented and changing the way we live, work and learn. No one wants to move away from that or undo the huge steps forward we have made. But, as we have seen, it is not a perfect system. Something needs to change to utilise this power to its best advantage, to take what we have learned and move it a step further. Students need interaction with their teachers and fellow students. They need support. What we have seen so far is that MOOCs fail to address the need for communication as a learning tool.

Their solution? “[A] combination of online learning and personal interaction.” Don’t get me wrong: That’s certainly an improvement over MOOCs, but something like that’s been available for about twenty years now. They’re called online classes. You know…the non-massive ones. Certainly online classes are not all the same, particularly since the more student/teacher interaction they foster the better. However, to claim that personal attention is somehow an exclusive selling point of this one provider requires a rather selective reading of edtech history.

Nevertheless, others have actually invented their own new acronym for doing what some people have been doing for ages now. My much-valued commenter and online friend Contingent Cassandra sent me this link:

Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs) on the other hand, are purposely focusing on class size as a sort of opposite of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). A University Business article emphasizes that this isn’t a new model, but one that may be finding a broader audience as school and corporate partners offer specialized curricula to small groups of (17-20) learners. These numbers mean that the kinds of support often missing in MOOCs and other large classes – such as personalized feedback and coaching, and opportunities for real-world experience – are more readily available.

That sound you hear is a whole slew of dedicated online instructors hitting their heads against their desks over and over again. Certainly offering online students this kind of personal attention beats what they’d get in MOOCs, but when you get right down to it that’s not a very high standard, is it? The other important question is how long can these Small Private Online Courses can stay small. When will the profit motive that even public universities now express regularly get the best of any instructor’s best intentions?

Leaving the substantial minority of people who do really innovative teaching online aside, the question then becomes how should we judge online education as a whole. What does online education get right that we can’t do in face-to-face classes? What does it get wrong? More importantly, why does it get what it gets wrong wrong? New UC Chancellor Janet Napalitano (of all people) may have hit the nail on the head here:

“There’s a developing consensus that online learning is a tool for the toolbox, but it’s harder than it looks and if you do it right, it doesn’t save all that much money,” Napolitano told about 500 policy and education experts at a speaker series sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California….

Online courses may indeed prove to be useful, she said, but more as a way to augment upper-division work for students who are already deeply engaged in their subject matter.

Let the people who have already learned how to learn learn online. Give all the students who don’t know how to learn yet the attention they deserve. More importantly, let them get all the attention that they can get in a classroom setting before you give them the option of entering the brave old world of online education. When online education at all levels of instruction becomes the only option for the vast majority of students, higher education will have failed us all.

Reinventing the wheel here is hardly a pedagogical imperative. It’s not even a financial imperative, since (as Napolitano points out) online education doesn’t really save universities all that much money. Just because you can teach students online doesn’t mean you should teach students online, especially in massive open online courses that offer no individual attention at all unless students win a lottery or beg for it.

When all is said and done it’s not the teacher/student relationship that’s broken. What’s broken is the political economy of higher education that has convinced some people to consider even the worst forms of online education an imperative in the first place.





“You never give me your money.”

25 03 2014

When is a business not a business? When it’s in the edtech business! How do I know? This quote from the new Coursera CEO, former Yale President Richard Levin talking to the Chronicle is typical of a whole genre of similar sentiments:

The company has disbursed some payments to its university partners from revenue generated by its Signature Track program, which offers “verified” certificates to MOOC students in exchange for fees. But so far, the returns for Coursera’s partners have been largely intangible.

Mr. Levin said he was not too worried about that. “Intangible returns are, in fact, the kinds of returns that we, at universities, are in the business to provide,” he told The Chronicle.

[Emphasis added]

Yet if you read all the business-oriented coverage of Levin’s hiring, you’d see them discuss very little else besides the possibility of Coursera’s tangible returns. Here’s Anya Kamenetz (of all people) hassling them because students never give them their money:

The money problem is a big one. Coursera’s growth so far has been funded by investment. They have been experimenting with different ways to attract revenue. Advertising, the most obvious choice, would likely be off-putting to students and university partners. At the end of 2012, Coursera announced a recruitment service, where employers would pay for access to users. But this didn’t get much traction.

A little over a year ago, they introduced a ”Signature Track,” which provides learners verification of their identity and course completion for a fee. Nine months later they announced $1 million in revenue from Signature Track. But that compares to $85 million in investment that the company has already taken on, from venture capitalists who expect large returns. It also translates into a 4/10 of one percent adoption rate, with just 25,000 of 7 million users opting to pay. Successful “freemium” companies, which offer some services for free and others for pay, typically have 2 to 4 percent paying users–five to ten times more than Coursera is reporting. In order to be sustainable, Coursera needs a lot more paying customers.

But wait!!! I thought Coursera’s mission was to bring education to the people who couldn’t afford it? Remember all those geniuses in lesser-developed countries? That argument is for TED talks and the New York Times. Can you imagine if Coursera’s VCs complained that the company never gave them its money and Richard Levin told them that they should be satisfied with “intangible returns?” Since the Chronicle told us that he’s being compensated with an ownership stake in the company, I think that scenario is by definition impossible.

Then there’s the question of paying students in developed countries. Here’s Ray Schroeder in the WSJ talking about other potential revenue streams:

“Coursera has huge potential,” Mr. Schroeder said. “The roadblock has always been accreditation.”

He estimates that with accreditation the company could charge in the neighborhood of $300 for a course and still undercut the cost of most other accredited courses by several hundred or even several thousand dollars.

I hate to point out the obvious, but charge $300 a course and Coursera’s initial sign up numbers are going to plummet. Their MOOCs would also cease to be actual MOOCs. Take out the massive and take out the open and you’re left with online courses, or OCs. If they’re automated, they won’t be particularly good online courses either.

While I’ve been picking on the stupidity of the phrase “intangible returns,” I should also note how stupid it is to suggest that universities are simply in the business of providing them too. It’s the determination of the modern university administrator to run their institutions like businesses that have already made so many online courses unrelentingly awful. In other words, Levin isn’t just fibbing on behalf of his new company. He’s fibbing on behalf of his new company’s clients too.

When all is said and done then, ed tech businesses are in fact businesses. It’s just that edtech businesses are less honest about it than those in other industries.





Storytelling.

18 03 2014

I’ve been writing about stories lately. Certainly, MOOCs have stories, but so does online education in general. One of the virtues of reading the higher education coverage in Forbes is that you can read the stories that entrepreneurs tell each other rather than just cover stories that they tell the general public. I find this one particularly horrifying:

Academic Partnerships helps colleges move some of their degree programs–usually those with a professional or vocational slant–online. The company spends an average of $2 million per school (it currently has 40 U.S. campuses and 17 international ones) to acquire online students, digitize lessons, set up back-end administrative and technical support, and tutor professors in the ABCs of the virtual classroom.

In return it takes a 50% cut of the tuition, which at some schools can be as costly as a traditional degree. The company says it has so far recruited 82,000 students, with an 85% retention rate. When they graduate, those students are granted transcripts and diplomas that are indistinguishable from ones earned the old-fashioned way.

Faced with biting criticism from a professor at Arkansas State (one of the schools that outsourced its masters degree programs), Academic Partnerships Founder and CEO has a storyline for public consumption:

“The whole idea of exclusiveness, as if it’s some kind of virtue to turn down large numbers of students, seems like a moral dilemma for a public institution, doesn’t it?” he asks, eyebrows arched. “They do consider it a virtue. But turning students away, historically, was based on a limited number of seats. You wanted the best students for those seats. Today, thanks to the Internet, you have unlimited seats. Exclusiveness is going to lead some universities to extinction. Inclusiveness is the future.”

High volume. Low quality. While this may be a virtue for selling manufactured products, education is not a manufactured product. Writing for the Chronicle, David M. Perry of Dominican University explains why an education is different from ordinary consumer exchanges very well:

Tell faculty members that they are obligated to treat students like customers, and the instructors will either eschew rigor in favor of making satisfaction guaranteed or work defensively lest they be harangued by the irate customer. Tell students that they are consumers, and they will act like consumers but ultimately learn less and perhaps not even receive the credential that they think they are buying.

Of course he’s right, but we can tell this story until we’re blue in the face and the people who control university budgets will just pat us all on the head, say “That’s a nice story,” and then continue to outsource the classes we all teach to outfits like Academic Partnerships anyway. We need to have a better story than that in order for the vast majority of us to keep our jobs.

Cathy Davidson has a story. Having just finished her MOOC about higher education, and argues:

We at Hastac wanted to see if the 18,000-plus participants who ended up registering for the course could help galvanize a movement on behalf of educational changes that any professor, department, or school could begin to carry out today. The short answer (surprise, surprise!) is that it takes infrastructure, planning, and human labor to make real change. I believe parts of this could be replicated by anyone wishing to create a real-world movement from a MOOC.

The idea of a mass movement to change higher education is also a nice story. While I agree that such a thing is possible, what’s going to prevent the people who control university budgets from simply patting us all on the head, saying “That’s a nice story,” and then continue to outsource the classes we all teach to outfits like Academic Partnerships anyway? If everyone in search of change in higher ed is all telling a different story, it will be easier for the people in power to ignore us all.

While I have yet to develop the sublime version of a professor-centered, technologically-enhanced higher education system of the future, I know it involves some combination of professorial craft knowledge, faculty organization and student/faculty coalitions. Their story involves disruption. My story involves using technology to preserve the human interaction that’s essential for real learning while eliminating the threat of automation that will only benefit the edu-preneurs of the world while doing nothing for our students.





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.





“I walk the line.”

4 03 2014

Here’s a little-known fact about me: I used to be a Walmart blogger. That blog is still updated occasionally by my friend Jeff in Cleveland, but a few years back I came to the decision that I could do more to help my own profession through blogging than I could the Walmart workers of the world (although they all still have my general support). Yet that experience was hardly a total bust. For one thing, it explains why I’m a vegetarian. It also explains why I once talked on the phone with the British journalist Simon Head.

I don’t remember exactly why he contacted me. I think I had written something about Walmart that implied that I knew more than I really did. What he ended up doing is schooling me on the evils of Walmart’s computerized scheduling system. The long and short of it is that Walmart schedules its workers on the basis of when its computer system predicts that customers will be in the store. If there aren’t enough people there to justify paying you, then you stay home. To make matters worse, Walmart demands that its employees be on call for work at any shift, any time, thereby making other jobs (or even going to school) that much more difficult. Since Head first wrote about that system, it’s become absolutely commonplace in workplaces of all kinds. It’s one very important reason why so many cheap employers today can employ all part-time workers and not be understaffed.

Head has a new book out now, Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Humans Dumber. You may have seen an excerpt from it about Amazon in Salon last month. I’ve read the whole thing now, and I can tell you it’s almost certainly going to be the most important book I’ll read all year. In essence, it is an update on Head’s earlier work on Walmart. Rather than just use the computer to dictate when your employer needs you to work, technology is now powerful enough for management to use it to dictate exactly how workers do their jobs. For example, here’s a bit from that excerpt about what Amazon warehouse workers do all day:

Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. In a fine piece of investigative reporting for the London Financial Times, economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.

All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences. At Amazon’s depot in Allentown, Pennsylvania (of which more later), Kate Salasky worked shifts of up to eleven hours a day, mostly spent walking the length and breadth of the warehouse. In March 2011 she received a warning message from her manager, saying that she had been found unproductive during several minutes of her shift, and she was eventually fired. This employee tagging is now in operation at Amazon centers worldwide.

If you read Head’s entire book, you’ll see that these same principles are now being applied to white-collar jobs of all kinds. Work with a computer, you may be subject to this kind of Taylorism no matter what your particular income level happens to be.

In the book, Head notes the effect of this kind of management system on British universities. Unfortunately, he does not go the extra step of reporting (or even just predicting) the effect that these kinds of programs might have upon teachers involved in online education. Nevertheless, the implications should be obvious. Teach online and your every interaction – heck your every keystroke – is subject to scrutiny if you use a system that your employer controls. I’m not saying this is happening now everywhere, but it is easy to imagine that this will be happening somewhere soon. Even the best online educators will be subject to this kind of scrutiny if their employers care more about efficiency than they do about education.

Can this really happen? Well, look at MOOCs. Here’s Jim Groom, reviewing some recent history in that area:

MOOCs, as Siemens and Downes imagined them, are one of the few sources of true innovation you can point to in educational technology in recent history, and it was born from a higher ed/government relationship. Yet, within a couple of years the MOOC movement had become increasingly denatured and over-run by corporate boosterism that was redirecting the logic of experimentation and possibility to a rhetoric of how broken higher education is, and how Silicon Valley (poaching superstar faculty from Stanford with the allure of million of dollars) has come to its rescue. What was remarkable to me as I watched the MOOC experiment transform into a corporate takeover was how quickly and completely the alien pods took over the experimentation before it could breath. before it could even develop it was already a fully formed disruptive solution to a moribund institution. Innovation lost.

As I know I once read Marc Bousquet write somewhere, many universities admire the for-profit online approach and have rushed into it not to improve education, but to improve their own bottom lines. You may be convinced your online class is the best online class that can be given online (and it might very well be better than a lot of in-person lecture-only classes at giant state universities), but how long will your employer let you keep teaching it in the inefficient way that you’re teaching it now? I’m not saying this disaster is going to befall every online instructor, but it will certainly befall some of them as budgets grow tighter in higher education worldwide. The question then becomes, “Where will the line between the lucky and the unlucky get drawn?”

I’ve started to feel as if I walk that line every day. Our recent troubles here with our research downloads has reminded me that nothing lasts forever. This is particularly true for those of us who work at universities with administrations that do not value what skilled faculty bring to the educational table. If I am not swept up in a wave of digitization that will allow my job to be Taylorized, the CSU-System could still simply invest its resources in creating new campuses where a surveillance state can be constructed at birth.

As longtime readers know, I keep a close watch on this job of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time. But what happens if this kind of vigilance makes no difference?








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