“Some may argue that MOOCs are not a proper substitute for college, but Koller noted that she would prefer to focus on the potential for students from emerging economies to get access to classes. ”It’s about, do you have an education at all,” she said.”
- Liz Gannes, “MOOC Madness Continues: Coursera Raises $43M,” All Things D, July 1, 2013.
Of course Daphne Koller would “prefer” to focus on students from emerging economies who have no access to education. That makes her company look like a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. This tactic has already migrated down to the superprofessors who work for Coursera, as Mohamed Noor’s question here strongly suggests. In today’s IHE, MOLB reader Scott Newstok offers the perfect response to this tactic:
But to what are they being given access?
The answer to that question, of course, is educational content rather than an actual education. So if you want to educate the world, put your lectures up on YouTube and let Coursera/Pearson administer competency tests wherever those students happen to be. Don’t make a MOOC.
If you do make a MOOC, then you need to realize that there are serious repercussions to that act that affect many more people than just you and your students. I don’t expect Daphne Koller or any of her new backers to behave any differently than they’re already doing. She has obligations to her investors, and perhaps to her future stockholders as well. However, since anti-MOOC is now the hip thing to be, I’m warming towards a suggestion made by Benjamin Ginsberg:
Professors who lend their names and reputations to MOOCs should not be allowed to simply ignore how their lectures are used. Those willing to allow their lectures to replace real classes should be named, shamed and censured by their colleagues.
All this talk about access being the be-all and end-all of higher education at a time when one third of student loan borrowers don’t even earn a degree is beginning to make sick to my stomach. So here are my talking points for the shaming. Feel free to borrow, expand or add new ones in the comments or at your next annual meeting, no matter what your discipline happens to be.
I. To be a superprofessor is to stop teaching.
For sake of argument, let’s break teaching down to just two components: information provision and learning assistance. If you’re a superprofessor who records their lectures and sends them out in the world via MOOC, you probably flip your classroom, make students watch your lectures at night and have more time to provide learning assistance during class hours. What happens if your students don’t watch the lectures when they’re supposed to do so? This is what happened to my old superprofessor (scroll down) Jeremy Adelman:
He thought he was more present than ever in his Princeton students’ lives (“they see me on their laptops, they see me at the live dialogues, they get emails from me a lot more often”), but the student evaluations at the course’s end were “very mixed,” to which Adelman was unaccustomed.
“The one thing I learned about this experience is that the spinal cord of a conventional Princeton survey course like this one is the lectures,” Adelman says. “Once I took the spinal cord out, the course went quite gelatinous. It lost its structure. So I have to build it back in.” He also found that students fell behind watching the lectures in the week they were assigned for discussion in precepts. “That wasn’t good,” he says.
I would argue that this is the inevitable effect of unbundling yourself. You can’t build a spine back into a class if you’re not in the room when it’s supposed to happen. Dividing teaching into two tasks, let alone all the many tasks that might actually reflect absolutely everything we professors do all semester, is impossible because in reality we do many of those things at the same time. Just through the mere act of lecturing we provide content, evaluate learning by judging the response of our students, frame a class by deciding which content to provide and offer potential feedback by calling on people who may have questions about what we just said. To try to break those functions up into pieces is worse than pointless: It’s a disservice to the cause of real education.
That’s why anybody willing to do this should be called out. They’re cheating their students and not doing their jobs. It really is like the those old yellowed lecture notes, only more so. Students are smart enough to know what smells fishy and freezing your lectures in amber smells like a scam no matter how much attention you pay to some students in your class “breakout sessions.” There’s a reason Khan Academy started in secondary schools. Students won’t like paying a fortune in tuition to get their content from somewhere else, even if it is Harvard.
II. To be a superprofessor is to aid in the corporatization of higher education.
So Coursera got a lot more money. Where exactly does that money come from? Here’s the answer to that question in two tweets:
Seriously superprofessors, do you really want to work for these people? You know what, I’ll concede that Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller really do have the best interest of students at heart. Does Pearson? Does some Russian billionaire? [With the for-profit uni company I don't even have to ask.] Who’s gonna win if a power struggle breaks out?
So while superprofessors tell themselves they’re expanding the reach of knowledge out into the world, what they’re really doing is contributing to the corporatization of higher education. The profits these investors seek won’t come out of thin air. They’ll come from “efficiencies” that destroy jobs and often cost students money, particularly during startup. In short, being a superprofessor is helping people whose politics you probably deplore by allowing them to monetize what should never be monetized.
You’re also helping my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. I hadn’t realized until reading this last round of news stories that Penn actually has an equity stake in Coursera. Now, this is where I’d usually make a lot of noise about never giving them another cent, but I don’t have any money to give them anyway.
What I will note is this, if you don’t work for Penn (or Caltech, another equity investor) and you offer a MOOC through Coursera, you have a conflict of interest. If I went out and taught for the University of Phoenix online during the semester, I’d be violating the terms of my contract. Why should teaching a MOOC for the benefit of Penn and Caltech be any different? Your university is actually paying in order to help schools like Penn take money that could be making your campus a better place for superprofessors and non-superprofessors alike. That’s why Penn is drafting a non-competition agreement for all its faculty to sign. They may be predatory in West Philly, but they aren’t stupid. And I bet they’ve trained all their superprofessors to tell you in great detail about all the benefits of access.
III. To be a superprofessor is an attack on your colleagues and your grad students.
You’ve heard of professors on food stamps, right? Don’t assume they’re just adjuncts:
Public university professors don’t enter the profession to get rich. But some faculty are having trouble paying bills, and have even qualified for foods stamps, [Randy] Olson [professor of astronomy and chair of UE Stevens Point’s Faculty Senate] said. “For somebody to go five to seven years beyond college to obtain a Ph.D. degree and to realize that you are in need of federal assistance to make ends meet — and that’s for a tenure-track position –” is devastating.
Along similar lines, I found this post to be particularly heartbreaking as well.
Now explain to me how your MOOC is going to do anything to improve these situations. On the other hand, I can see a million ways that it will make it much – much worse. Screaming “access” at those of us who point to the fact that profs gotta eat is just another way of saying you don’t care. It tells the world that you’re fine with introducing the winner-take-all ethos into higher education because you think you’re going to be a winner. Perhaps you are, but ignoring the losers is a sign of your own moral bankruptcy.
What’s that? You say you have no sympathy for those loser professors teaching at Directional State U.? How about your own grad students? That’s right, the people you’re training are the perfect candidates for being replaced by your MOOC long after you’re retired or dead. You’ve unbundled yourself, and can put your job back together again at a moment’s notice. Your grad students, assuming they’re lucky enough to get any job at all, will be unbundled involuntarily. As the seriously brilliant anonymous author of 100 Reasons Not to Go to Grad School explained it in Reason #82:
“Because of the enormous oversupply of PhDs (see Reason 55), people who once envisioned themselves lecturing in front of classrooms are being squeezed into teaching jobs in which much (if not all) of the “teaching” involves sitting at a computer. Even those jobs are scarce, and may become scarcer in the future as technological advancements allow fewer professors to teach more students.”
By helping to legitimize MOOCs, you’re destroying the quality of life for professors of all kinds moving forward. After all, there are only so many MOOCs that our little world can hold. By shunning you now, perhaps the rest of us faculty can do more than just save ourselves. We can prevent a dystopian, all-MOOC future for most students from occurring in the first place.
Besides, it’s not too late to change your position and reject superprofessordom moving forward. If you do, I guarantee that you’ll enjoy your next annual meeting a lot more than you would otherwise. In fact, I bet you’ll be treated like a hero! And, if you happen to be an historian…cough…Jeremy…cough…I promise to buy you a beer.