Going, going…gone?

3 07 2014

Thanks to the great Sarah Kendzior, I picked up a copy of Gone Girl when I was in Target yesterday.  While I’ve barely started it, I can tell it’s going to be really, really good.  What I think made me do it was that until I read Sarah’s piece on the death of malls, I didn’t realize that the book had economic themes, like this quote from the beginning few pages:

“I’d arrived in New York in the late ’90s, the last gasp of the of the glory days, although no one knew it then.  New York was packed with writers, real writers, because there were magazines, real magazines, loads of them.  This was back when the Internet was still some exotic pet kept in the corner of the publishing world–throw some kibble at it, watch it dance on its little leash, oh quite cute, it definitely won’t kill us in the night.  Think about it: a time when newly graduated college kids could come to New York and get paid to write.  We had no clue that we were embarking on careers that would vanish within a decade.”

I love good magazine journalism.  I have an almost religious devotion to the New Yorker since my parents were subscribers.  Yet I also read the Huffington Post and give content away for free at this very blog.  Does that make me a bad person?

Of course, it’s easy to imagine some bitter magazine writer muttering to themselves, “You’re next, professor.”  That, at least, is what the disrupt higher education crowd would like everybody to believe.  Longtime readers know that I constantly go back on forth on the question of whether or not my profession will “vanish within a decade.”  Today, I’m definitely in “I will survive mode.”

What’s improved my mood is an op-ed at Inside Higher Education.  The author, Randy Best, is discussing the pricing model for online classes:

These days, two out of three students attending on-campus programs receive some form of generous subsidy or discount, while their online counterparts, generally ineligible for such assistance, foot the full sticker price even though they do not benefit from all the amenities of the revered campus life, do not take up parking spaces, inflict wear and tear on facilities, or take up as much instructor time. Instead of embracing these online learners who produce considerable incremental revenue for institutions, colleges and universities are penalizing them, which has troubling implications not only for students’ bank accounts, but also for universities’ own vaunted views of fairness. By introducing e-tuition, which is appropriately lower than the on-campus price tag, universities could easily capitalize on the scale, brand extension, and new revenue synonymous with online learning while maintaining far more equitable pricing for online students.

Never.  Gonna.  Happen.  How do I know?  The entire existence of online courses is predicated on the notion that they’re just as good as the courses on campus.  Because offering online courses cheaper than face-to-face courses strongly suggests that these courses are somehow inferior to the courses that are offered on campus, universities will do nothing to discredit their brands.* Besides that, many of them have undoubtedly already spent the money they expect to take in through online courses on new administrators and climbing walls in the gym.

Best’s example of a university that’s bucking this trend is the online computer science MA at Georgia Tech.  If you remember though, this is the MOOC-ish MA in which people spend most of their time watching video, with minimal outside help.  They’re only discounting the sticker price because they’re hoping to make it up in volume and, as Chris Newfield has argued persuasively, their revenue estimates are probably inflated.  That would make this an exception that proves the world.

The problem here is prestige.  A long time ago, when I was in another one of these “I will survive” moods, I wrote a post called “The Walmart of higher education will not be online”:

The assumption that college is too expensive is certainly correct. The problem with this article is that it assumes that online education is the way to solve that problem. As I’ve noted before, it is possible to do some really interesting things with education online. However, if you’re just doing it to save money so that your university can keep more money for other things, your online courses are going to be awful. As a result, nobody will learn anything and they’ll all end up unemployed. The negative feedback loop will then lead to a real crisis in higher education, brought on by the people who thought they were saving it.

Maybe this time I’ll stop changing my mind.  The future is a lot closer than it was when I first wrote that post, and the evidence of discounting still hasn’t surfaced.  What’s going to make them change their minds?

*  Of course, the good online courses aren’t inferior to the ones offered on campus, but if you discount them the market will still likely treat them that way.





“And we can act like we come from out of this world and leave the real one far behind.”

1 07 2014

Mark Cheathem has done me a great favor. He’s written the exact post that I would have written about this Junto interview about MOOCs with the historian Peter Onuf so that I don’t have to repeat myself. Indeed, Mark has provided plenty of links to this blog so that I can make those points myself without writing another word. And while I know Onuf primarily from his excellent work on the wonderful radio show BackStory, I can also second Mark’s respect for his obvious talent as an historian.

So what is there left for me to write here? There’s a part of that interview that can help me make a point that’s been bubbling around the back of my mind for about a week now. This is Onuf:

Let me talk a little about my dubiousness. As for any other self-respecting academic, this seemed suspiciously like a substitution for conventional lecturing. If this was the future it was a future that we looked at with mixed feelings—that this would reinforce the emerging inequality in higher education, which mirrors that of the nation as a whole, with some institutions monopolizing the airwaves, displacing lecturers and teachers, making places like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT the centers of a new era of pedagogy. And that sounded pretty ominous, particularly given that people were being asked to create these MOOCs in their spare or extra time. And you can imagine the scenarios that would play out: “Well, we don’t need you anymore! We got you on MOOC.”

Now that’s certainly exaggerated; it suggests a fundamental bad faith at the level of administration, and I’m not willing to go that far. But I just wanted to say I had mixed feelings.

[Emphasis added]

If I remember the way that the History Guys get introduced on the radio these days, Onuf is retired – or at least retired from regular teaching. [Indeed, he notes later in the interview that Alan Taylor is his successor at the University of Virginia.] This means the cost of his being wrong about the intentions of his administration is exactly zero. Indeed, if you remember, it’s not the administration in Charlottesville who’s faith anyone there should worry about, the problem is higher up. On second thought, even administrations with good faith will do bad things when pressured from above, so really people there have a right to stay worried about everybody.

And so do people elsewhere. Onuf makes a common mistake among superprofessors when he assumes that the people running universities who produce MOOCs are the only people who’s faith he needs to measure. Nobody among us MOOC skeptics is arguing that Alan Taylor is going to be replaced by old Peter Onuf tapes. The people we’re worried about are the community college professors down the street or across the country. If you make a MOOC you have a responsibility to be sure that it is used wisely. Simply letting the chips fall where they may clearly demonstrates that you’ve left the real world far behind – the world of MOOC consumers rather than the world of MOOC producers.

Sadly, you don’t have to be a superprofessor in order to adopt this attitude towards online education of all kinds. Here, in a Google+ posting inspired by my last Chronicle Vitae column, my favorite online instructor of all time, Laura Gibbs, makes the same mistake that Onuf does – since the situation in my department is excellent, everything will eventually work out great elsewhere too:

“[T]here is no reason at all to suppose that an online instructor is more or less likely to care to know their students (see quote below). I care. I care a lot, in fact. Meanwhile, I also know that plenty of face to face faculty don’t care. Which is their choice, a personal choice – not technological determinism.

I guess Jonathan is assuming that online faculty have higher teaching loads (“too many students”), but that’s not necessarily the case at all. For example: big lecture classes that take place face to face. I would contend that there is more distance in a big lecture hall than in any of my online classes. I teach appx. 100 students total per semester… not too many for me; it works fine. And I do care to know them – plus, teaching online, I have far more opportunities to get to know them than I ever did in a classroom.”

The problem, of course, is not with online or face-to-face faculty per se. The problem is the circumstances in which they teach. I am against giant, impersonal face-to-face classes. I am against giant, impersonal online classes. The question becomes how do we make it possible to assure that all students, online or face-to-face, learn under the best circumstances possible? Safety first!

Am I arguing that all administrators are inherently bad? Of course not. But some are, and if you don’t take steps to prevent abuse you’re practically giving the bad ones an invitation to do mischief. This goes for all aspects of academic life. However, if the tool you’re using to do a job is more dangerous than another, more safety measures are very much in order.

With great power comes great responsibility. And like it or not, the superprofessors of this world have a lot more power than the rest of us do. All we can do is remind them of their responsibility to use it wisely.





You do not need an LMS in order to teach with technology.

28 06 2014

“…Silicon Valley’s reigning assumption: Anything that can be automated should be automated. If it’s possible to program a computer to do something a person can do, then the computer should do it. That way, the person will be “freed up” to do something “more valuable.” Completely absent from this view is any sense of what it actually means to be a human being.”

- Nick Carr, “An android dreams of automation,” Rough Type, June 26, 2014.

Who dropped the ball? It certainly wasn’t me. Was it you?

When I stopped taking graduate classes in 1993, people had barely heard of the Internet, let alone any kind of learning management system (or LMS). I had never even taken a class that used the Internet, let alone an LMS. I didn’t start teaching with any kind of technology until I got some professional development when I was working at what is now Missouri State University. My department chairman there mandated that all syllabi must be posted online (a really good idea that I still don’t think most universities bother to do). As a result, I learned what I think was then called Microsoft FrontPage and haven’t handed out a piece of paper in class since.

I also remember attending the first time my current employer offered BlackBoard classes. I thought it was mostly bells and whistles and refused to use it. In the same way I hated Moby Dick the first time I read it (actually, I still hate Moby Dick, but that’s the subject for a whole different blog), I gave Blackboard another chance a couple of years later. I came to the same conclusion and haven’t touched any LMS since

Yet while I was learning what technologies for teaching I like and eschewing others, a sea change was taking place in higher education. Learning Management Systems were quickly (if you call fifteen years or so quickly) going from a novelty to being the norm. At first, I was simply annoyed because my students kept asking me what their grade was during the semester (since they could always see it for most other classes in the LMS) and I had to keep telling them that I hadn’t done the calculations yet. Over time, however, LMSs have become a way for administrations and edtech companies to control the manner in which professors teach. Yes, you can still pick your content – I think – but many of the other decisions that professors used to be able to make by themselves (whether to tell students how they’re doing at every point during the semester, for example*) have been determined by the capabilities of learning management systems to process and present information.

What I’m wondering now is how this happened. I wasn’t really paying attention at the time and I haven’t done the research into this little piece of edtech history, but I do have some theories that I was hoping people better informed than I am might kick around:

1. It was the online instructors. They did it!!!

OK, maybe not the online instructors, but certainly online instruction is possibly to blame here. Imagine it’s the late-1990s. All these universities want to go into online instruction on the cheap so like IBM with the Windows, they outsource the operating system to companies that are dying to serve them. The universities themselves are so pleased with the ability to monitor classroom interactions, that they then go and encourage every other faculty member to use the LMS too. Pretty soon, scads of us can’t live without one.

2. Faculty were sold a bill of goods with respect to convenience.

Why would anybody first pick up the LMS habit? Time would be a great incentive. I still remember how amazed I was when I first learned Excel so that I could compute my grades on them. It literally saved me at least eight hours each semester at exactly the time of year when my time was most important! Gradebooks in any LMS would do the same thing. Such conveniences may have convinced lots of people to invite a guest to the party who decided to monetize the punchbowl. Pretty soon, who has time to learn any other system?

3. It started with the adjunct faculty.

The same way that adjunct faculty can’t pick their textbooks in many cases, perhaps they were the natural beta testers for learning management systems – particularly in online settings where the regular tenure track faculty was likely not paying attention. Once they became hooked on doing things through an intermediary, regular faculty joined along because that seemed like the right thing to do. I don’t know exactly how LMS contracts are structured, but imagine them all being on campus-wide licensing systems. Even if it costs more the more users you have, the later users are always cheaper than the earlier users and pretty soon the whole thing would have just snowballed.

Whether it’s all these things or none of these things, there’s still time to remember three very important points and begin to act upon them:

1. You do not need an LMS in order to teach.
2. You do not need an LMS in order to teach with technology.
3. The selection of educational technologies you can use outside the LMS are only getting better.**

If we forget these simple facts, we will all likely become victims of the reigning assumption of Silicon Valley sooner or later once the LMS takes over most of our jobs entirely. At least this will free us up to spend more time looking for better-paying work, while our students suffer from a chronic substandard education which just happens to be delivered with a few elements based upon the use of modern technology.

* I strongly suspect that those of you who actually teach with LMSs can come up with a better example than that one. Please do so and explain it in the comments below.

** Who remembers what happened to AOL? I certainly do.





Every man his own superprofessor?

10 06 2014

In the spirit of my new anti- “the misuse of technology to destroy higher education by usurping faculty prerogatives” position, I want to discuss this Joshua Kim post about “the end of courses.” He gets into the subject by discussing George Siemens’ keynote at the edX Consortium #FutureEDU conference, and only takes issue with one of George’s points:

Where I take issue with George’s claims of what MOOCs are destroying derives from how I am seeing open online education at scale play out at my campus.

Faculty autonomy. No way. Faculty are more important than ever, and there is absolutely zero intent to influence what they will be teaching. (And I’d argue that the what, rather than the how, is the really important part of the autonomy equation. But we can debate).

I know George, and don’t know Joshua, but really that doesn’t matter because I think they’re both right. My contribution to the debate Joshua invites is going to be to explain why.

If you run your own MOOC, you are indeed more important than ever. You provide the content that something like twenty people have to present. You make the decisions about how learning is going to be evaluated. After all, the thing has your name on it. You want to be sure that everything runs smoothly. If you run your own online course, chances are you’re doing so through your school’s learning management system, but even the worst of those have tools that allow you to customize the platform to your course. That’s probably why everybody always says that it takes much more time to teach online well than it it does to teach in a face-to-face setting.

The problem is (and although I’m not sure this is what George was referring to as I haven’t seen the speech, but I wouldn’t be surprised) what happens to the professors who get left behind? Every man cannot be their own super professor. The world will run out of students first. And as online classes get scaled up and MOOCs get scaled down, all the rest of us will be left as ministers without portfolios. Faculty don’t have any autonomy if nobody will pay them to teach anything to anybody. If we do, our autonomy won’t prevent us from starving.

So if I have any criticism of Joshua’s column, it’s a fairly mild one. While he’s busy counting the number of times the basketball is being passed back and forth, the guy in the gorilla suit has just walked by and waved.

George sees the whole MOOC picture. So should everybody else.





Welcome to my nightmare.

3 06 2014

So I’ve been reading Piketty. For an economist, he writes really well. While some of the math is a little over my head, it’s still pretty easy to find lots of points with which I agree. While I’m not done with the book yet, I can already tell that David Graeber is right when he explains that the overall argument in Piketty’s Capital is a lot tamer than Marx’s:

Piketty…begins his book by denouncing “the lazy rhetoric of anti-capitalism”. He has nothing against capitalism itself – or even, for that matter, inequality. He just wishes to provide a check on capitalism’s tendency to create a useless class of parasitical rentiers.

“Parasitical rentiers?” Hmmm……What industry does that remind me of? Give me a minute! I have it at the tip of my tongue…

I. “How American Universities Turned Into Corporations”

There was a TIME Magazine article a little ways back by the guy who did that “Ivory Tower” documentary that tries to explain how American universities turned into corporations. There’s not really anything in it with which I disagree, but it nonetheless makes me uncomfortable.

No, I do not feel tacitly responsible for ripping off my students: Exactly the opposite. The article treats colleges and universities as if they’re monolithic entities when, in fact, they’re filled with factions: Administrators, faculty, staff, students. Focusing simply on the faculty administrative divide: Everybody’s administration does plenty of things that they absolutely hate. Did the faculty request that new climbing wall in the gym? No. Did the faculty suggest the last thirty deanlets that the administration hired? Of course not. Did the faculty request that the university start hiring adjuncts? The vast majority of us weren’t even around when that started, but we get blamed for it anyways.

Want to know how universities turned into corporations? Corporations decided they wanted to stop paying taxes. In response, governments cut back on funding universities and administrators started behaving like corporate executives in order to make up for the shortfalls. Of course, corporate executives expect everyone to take the fall for their bad decisions so that they can go merrily along, falling upwards into their next high-paying job.

Here’s a cautionary tale out of my university that explains how this principle plays out in real life. Last December, the system decided that our budget needed a three million dollar haircut. The President announced that fifty faculty positions, including tenure-track positions, would be cut. A bunch of my friends in our campus AAUP chapter went into long meetings with the President to see if those cuts could be directed elsewhere. The cuts went down to twenty-one non-tenure track people, but the President then raised the teaching load of most of the faculty (except those with “administrative duties”) to a four-four. Of course, my friends supported no such thing, but the President claimed that the AAUP had supported her plan. What they did was accept the assumption that the three million haircut was inevitable, and since a university is not a democracy, this was the result.

That’s how academic capitalism works. Administrators may consult with a wide range of people on campus, but the decision is always theirs. Yet in the press, everybody on campus gets the blame. Blaming the faculty for the corporate university is like blaming gas station attendants for Exxon’s record on global warming. The culpability is not shared equally.

II. Academic capitalism is not very good at academics or capitalism.

Staying in the Colorado State University System, the edtech-obsessed among you may have seen some really interesting news over at e-Literate that my friends Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein have broken. Apparently, a whole bunch of public universities are developing their own online education consortium. I was kind of surprised to see that Colorado State University in Fort Collins is involved because we kind of have our own online education arm already, but who am I to argue with “progress?”

This all goes back to that really glib e-mail that Historiann posted a few weeks back. As Michael explains it language only slightly less obscure:

Indiana University has been the driving force behind the creation of a new organization to develop a “learning ecosystem”. At least ten schools are being quietly asked to contribute $1 million each over a three-year period to join the consortium. The details of what that $1 million buys are unclear at this point. The centerpiece for the short-term appears to be a contract with Instructure for use of the Canvas LMS. But there are also hints of ambitious plans regarding learning object repositories and learning analytics.

Frankly, I have no idea what a learning object repository is, but I do know that $1 million is a lot of money, particularly when my own school, CSU-Pueblo, was just asked to cut $3 million from its budget. Not only that, the folks up north also want to build a new football stadium in downtown Fort Collins and the system wants to build a new campus in South Denver. Is this really a good time to start a giant online endeavor WHEN YOUR SYSTEM ALREADY HAS ONE? If universities are businesses and students are our customers, shouldn’t we do something more to help our existing customers first? That’s not exactly good capitalism.

It’s not good academics either. As Michael explained in another part of that first post I quoted:

At the recorded CSU meeting, one of the presenters—it’s impossible to tell which is the speaker from the recording we have—acknowledges that the meetings were largely conducted in secret when challenged by a faculty member on the lack of faculty involvement. He cited sensitive negotiations among the ten universities and Instructure as the reason.

Similarly, here’s Phil explaining the risks to shared governance inherent in this project, which is called “Unizin”:

In the Unizin content repository case, what would be more natural is for the provosts to first help define what learning content should be shared – learning objects, courseware, courses, textbooks – and under what conditions. After defining goals it would be appropriate to describe how a software platform would facilitate this content sharing, with CIOs taking a more active role in determining whether certain scenarios are feasible and which platforms are the best fit. Throughout the process faculty would ideally have the opportunity to give input on needs, to give feedback on proposed solutions, and to have visibility in the decision process.

Whether this type of open, collaborative decision process is happening behind closed doors is not known, but the apparent need to keep the process quiet raises the risk of pushback on the consortium decision.

Fearless executives don’t ask permission of their faculty or their students. Unfortunately, it’s the faculty that are supposed to provide a check on the excesses of academic capitalism, yet the vast majority of us have been effectively silenced because we’re either too scared or too compromised to say what we really think about what’s going on around us. Of course, I think that stinks, but it’s also a really terrible strategy for surviving into the long run.

III. Welcome to my nightmare.

So why would the universities involved in Unizin feel the need to keep things quiet from their own faculty? I would suggest that the answer to this question is because they know how faculty feel about a really important part of this project and they want to keep that information from them – namely MOOCs. Yes, it appears that I will soon be working in the same system as a MOOC provider, or at least a provider of something that looks awfully MOOC-ish to me.

While this argument is not featured in any of Phil or Michael’s Unizin’s posts, I wrote Phil and asked him to lay out his case that this thing at CSU-Fort Collins will look MOOC-ish for me. Here’s how he responded:

1. Fort Collins already has one MOOC. They seem quite proud of it.

2. Phil wrote me that:

“For Unizin in general, we have heard from several sources that heard pitches to CIC schools that MOOCs were core part of mission,” then he noted that MOOCs are listed on this slide as part of Unizin’s core mission, alongside flipped classes and badges. In other words, everything I love is available in one place!

3. He also noted that a white paper from the provosts involved has statement about MOOCs.

While I haven’t cleared this analysis through either Phil and Michael, it looks to me that once you open up a learning management system to admit more people and close off a MOOC to restrict it to paying people, you have something that looks like the average Provost’s wet dream: Scores of paying students with very few of those nasty faculty there to muck up the revenue stream by demanding nasty things like a living wage and health benefits.

Is any of this a direct assault on my job? No, but it is an indirect assault on my university. As I suggested in my Academe article, when administrations get deeply involved in edtech decisions it becomes really easy for them to direct resources from the jobs of living breathing professors to technology designed to scale up the education process beyond recognition. While tenured people like me might not be on the cut list anytime soon, if every school demands its own MOOC (or MOOC-ish) endeavor we may not have any students left to teach before too long.

To those of you who suggest that this is a good thing because it will save students money, I’d urge you to spend some time with a typical corporate-minded college administrator to realize that you’re barking up the wrong tree. As Piketty understands, corporate capitalists do not check themselves. It’s up to the political system to check them on everybody’s behalf. Since we don’t get to vote for our college presidents, shared governance is all we have left. If that’s too inconvenient, then my ultimate nightmare will likely ensue sooner rather than later.





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.








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