If I could just talk about ice and MOOCs at the same time…

1 04 2014

This story about the history of the ice industry on last night’s Marketplace (American Public Media, nationally broadcast on most NPR stations) is built around an interview with me.

“No Ice, No Las Vegas,” is a half-hour interview with me on Nevada Public Radio about ice, iceboxes and all the other good stuff you’ll find in Refrigeration Nation.

Of course, I haven’t seen any reviews yet, but the direct academic feedback I’ve gotten has been beyond my wildest expectations. I’m also getting the first hints that the book is actually selling (which is kind of amazing considering how expensive it is). While I would never ask anybody to drop $40 on it unless they were already so inclined, please consider asking your local library to order it.


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.

How to do shared governance badly.

21 03 2014

Jonathan Rees:

What’s Going on at CSU-Pueblo, Part 10: A review, plus some news.

Originally posted on Academe Blog:

I’ve been meaning to visit here and tell the story of the difficult situation at my university, Colorado State University – Pueblo, for some time now, but I waited until now so that my story has a moral. You may have read about the problems that my friend Tim McGettigan has been having with his e-mail , but that incident was a direct result of sudden and unprecedented budget cuts announced last December during finals week. At that time, we were told that up to 50 positions, including those occupied by tenure track professors from across the university, might be eliminated unless we could figure out how to cut $3.3 million from the upcoming 2014-15 budget.

In an effort to limit the number of people who might be fired, a group of faculty leaders from across campus met extensively with CSU-Pueblo President Lesley Di Mare over Christmas Break. Those meetings…

View original 1,204 more words


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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,232 other followers

%d bloggers like this: