“Then who do we shoot?”

25 05 2012

When I was in Kansas City a few weeks ago, I heard David Wrobel of the University of Oklahoma talk about John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve been teaching that novel since graduate school (even though the majority of students still hate it), yet Wrobel taught me something I didn’t know.

Apparently, Steinbeck wrote an entirely different book about migrant farm workers called L’Affaire Lettuceburg. It was a rip-roaring denunciation of California growers and the corrupt political system that kept them in power. Steinbeck trashed the whole thing. Never published a word of it. Then he wrote The Grapes of Wrath instead. It was like he had to get the anger out of his system before he could focus on the people who deserved the most attention.

I recommend we do the same thing when considering the economic effects of MOOCs. Don’t focus on the growers. Don’t focus on the fruit. Focus on the people. Do you stand with the dispossessed or not? That’s the fundamental question here.

Who exactly are the dispossessed in this analogy? Potentially every faculty member everywhere (except the super-professors). Let me explain:

Here are two things I know about all online courses, MOOCs or the more ordinary kind:

1. The same way they increase the potential number of students, they increase the potential number of faculty. If the professor asks for more money, they can easily be replaced by someone wherever there’s an internet connection. This will drive down wages and benefits even lower than they are now for adjuncts and non-adjuncts alike (and they weren’t exactly all that high now).

This has nothing to do with the quality of the MOOC. It is a simple economic fact.

2. When professors toil away at their home computers, John Steinbeck or Dorothea Lange will have a hard time telling the story of these dispossessed people because they’ll have a hard time finding them. At least for the moment, professors don’t live in labor camps. Similarly, the NLRB won’t accept virtual signatures on union cards.

Again, it doesn’t matter how good the course in question is. Even if it’s good for students, working in isolation from your colleagues is bad for labor. It’s even worse for labor if the ordinary tasks of teaching have been automated out of existence.

So faced with this predicament, who do we shoot? Don’t shoot Margaret Soltan because if you do they’ll just find some other super-professor who has to feed their family (on champagne and caviar) to take her place. Don’t shoot the bankers because the people behind Udemy or Coursera will just find other bankers who’ll still try to make money off making you obsolete. Alas, just as it was for poor Muley Graves, shooting anyone won’t solve anything.

All you can do is yell at the top of your lungs for the sake of quality education and the sake of your own economic well-being. It’s not going to keep the tractor from plowing under your shack, but maybe at least then they’ll put you in a migrant labor camp with flush toilets.



29 responses

25 05 2012
Stephen Downes

A university education is priced beyond the means of most people in the world, and those who profit from reserving it and treating it as a social club for a moneyed elite, those professors with their six figure incomes and retirement packages, you call those the dispossessed.

Ah, well, you may well be, like the rest of us, unless you are willing to find a way to serve the greater mass of humanity, and not merely those of means. That’s what MOOCs are trying to do, and if you had any eye for justice and humanity, you would do more than defend the status quo.

25 05 2012


If you think most professors have six figure incomes and retirement packages you have a lot to learn about higher education.

26 05 2012
Jonathan Rees

I suspect the 75% of faculty at US schools working off the tenure track would be shocked to find out that they’re in citadel of privilege.

Personally, I’d be more likely to take one for the team or society at large if the university president, the football coach or any member of the one percent outside of academia took one first.

26 05 2012
Stephen Downes

I was thinking of Canadian academic salaries, where six figures for a full, professor is the norm – data from Statistics Canada: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/81-595-m/81-595-m2009076-eng.pdf

In the U.S., it appears that salaries in the high five figures for full professors is the norm. Data from US Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Education-Training-and-Library/Postsecondary-teachers.htm#earnings

These are incomes at the very top of salary scales and in both cases more than twice the median income in the country.

Those people who are off the tenure track, such as adjuncts, obviously make considerably less. But they are not the people harmed by the new models. They are the ones being harmed by the current model.

28 05 2012
Jonathan Rees


If people can take a course with 35,000 people, you’re going to hurt the poorly paid as well as the comparatively well paid. It’s inherent in the process of scaling up. Labor costs is the primary expense that online education can save. After all, if you can’t get the investment you make in tech back in other ways, why would you make it in the first place.

In fact, since there are so many more adjuncts in American higher education, you’re going to hurt MORE of them than you are people like me. We are paid differently, but we operate in the same labor market.

How can you not see this?

29 05 2012
Stephen Downes

OK, I take it you’re giving me my point about the salaries. Let’s now move on to the crux of the matter:

> If people can take a course with 35,000 people, you’re going to hurt the poorly paid as well as the comparatively well paid… How can you not see this?

An analogy:

There was a time about a hundred years ago when new technology allow the theatre to move from playhouses to electronic delivery via radio, film and television.

How could such a feat be managed – how could audiences grow from a few hundred to a few hundred thousand without impacting the salaries of those in the theatre? That’s like the question you’re asking me.

The answer, of course, is that MANY MORE PEOPLE could now access dramas, comedies and the rest of it. Whole new markets were created, such as sports and, more recently, reality television (ok, it’s not all gravy).

More importantly, disciplines and professions that did not even exist came into being and more than made up for the relatively smaller number of people actually acting on stage.

If you just think of higher ed offering the same number of seats to the same number of people before and after the deployment of the massive course, then your response is reasonable.

But nobody expects that. Already in MOOCs we find ourselves needing new skills in new roles (I actually did a paper and presentation summarizing these new roles). And – more importantly – we find ourselves reaching people far far removed from the traditional seat in the traditional classroom.

We’re offering the course to the same 24 people who would have taken it anyways, and 2400 who would not even have heard of it, much less taken it.

That’s why it’s so important for critics to start thinking of the broader objective of offering the best of learning to a wider population. To start thinking beyond the privileged population they currently serve and to start thinking about markets that can be counted in the billions.

A lot of people who had nothing more to look forward to beyond a decade or more of bouncing from one bad academic job to another waiting for professors to retire can now look at a variety of ways they can support much larger communities with modern methods and technologies at salaries as good as the old profs are getting or better.

I don’t see any of the current professoriate offering anything like the equivalent to young academics. Rather than trying to preserve ‘the theatre’ (you need to say ‘the theatre’ with just the right snooty accent) I – and they – are trying to open up learning to the rest of society.

29 05 2012
Jonathan Rees


I certainly don’t concede your point about salaries. Basically, I have a choice between sending my kid to college w/o debt or retiring someday. I am privileged compared to adjuncts, but dealing with the same financial problems that the rest of the working middle class is. To suggest that anyone in the humanities at a public institution is somehow elite is a serious misreading of basic class dynamics.

With regard to adjuncts, how many of them are going to be super-professors? Do you think they’ll all start their own MOOCs and become fabulously wealthy? What if they don’t want to spend their days staring at a computer screen?

More importantly, why can’t everyone go to the theatre? You could send every student in America to college for free for the cost of a single war or a moderately progressive tax hike, but no you want to let the rich off the hook.

I think that’s disgraceful.

30 05 2012
Stephen Downes

Actually if you were familiar with my work at all you would know that I do not in any way shape or form let the rich off the hook.

Indeed, your response to me – “well, I’m not *really* rich” – if one I’ve heard often by rich people wanting to be left off the hook.

True, you are not part of the American one-percent who truly do deserve condemnation (though you are part of the *global* one percent – the cut-off is around $US 34K http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/02/27/we_are_all_the_1_percent ).

But the system you are defending was designed specifically and continues to serve primarily that one percent. You are well rewarded for this by that elite with an above-average salary,

So I – as a long-time opponent of the one percent – fin d it interesting that the bulk of your response is “I’m not really rich” as opposed to a critique of my main point, which was (recall) “A university education is priced beyond the means of most people in the world.”

Your best response is “You could send every student in America to college for free for the cost of a single war or a moderately progressive tax hike.”

It takes only a slight analysis of that statement to unearth the elitism inherent in it. You talk about “every student” as opposed to every person. You talk about “America” as
opposed to the world as a whole.

Do you want to try educating every person in the world according to the model you advocate? At a cost of (roughly) $100K per person, that leaves us with a bill of $900 trillion dollars (if you quibble and say it’s only $50K per person, then we’re at $450 trillion dollars; and if we’re actually quibbling and including lost income and living expenses then it’s considerably more than $900 trillion).

I don’t think there’s that much money in the world. The U.S. budget is $3.6 trillion and the country’s GDP is $15 trillion. Even if the rest of the world accounts for ten times more, there is still not enough money in the world. The *model* is broken, and while you and others make a nice living off that model, it *depends* on this sort of education being available only to an elite few.

If you don’t get that, and continue to defend a model that supports and rewards the children of the richest people in the world, at the expense of all the rest, then either you *are* part of the one-percent, or you *serve* them, or both.

Now, what *I* want to do (if you would actually *look* at what I propose, given that I am the co-inventor of the MOOC and all) would *preserve* the incomes of those currently working in education, and *increase* the number of positions available, by dramatically reducing the cost of an education and making it much more widely available.

The cost of that approach – and it is a cost, I am not naive – is the sort of education that fosters and maintains the privileged status of those who can afford it. I know very well that the existing system is designed to give the already-wealthy advantages the less wealthy could never obtain by any means – much more than the content and the learning, it is about establishing a social network, creating cultural cues and customs, and effectively conferring privilege and status on the rich.

*Even if* we continue with the existing system, it still creates mechanisms of scarcity and privilege, as only *some* can attend Harvard, Yale and Princeton. The rest of us go to schools that people who do not wield power in society go to.

An education system designed for the people and not for the wealthy necessarily looks different from an education system designed for the wealthy. It also (for obvious reasons) costs a lot less. Individuals who make their livings catering to the wealthy perform different functions from those who provide education for the people as a whole.

30 05 2012
Jonathan Rees

I’m certainly not going to remain in the global one percent if you suceed in making my job obsolete. Yes, there will still be a Harvard and there will still be a Yale, but state regional comprehensive universities will dry up like dust when the government funding moves entirely online.

You seem to welcome that, Stephen. Do you expect the tens of thousands of people who depend on these kinds of universities and the comunities that depend on those universities to welcome that too? Going back to my first response, am I supposed to just sit quietly and take one for the team?

30 05 2012
Stephen Downes

I don’t expect you to sit there and take it, I expect you to do more to help people who cannot afford to attend your educational institution.

Right now I’m not very supportive of using public funds to pay professors salaries because they offer services only to those who can afford tuitions (or are lucky enough to get scholarships).

Saving your job *will* be a matter of being able to teach more than the 30-odd people in front of you in a classroom. How do you propose to do this? If you’re just going to say, “No, I’ll just keep teaching the most expensive way possible, without regard for the cost or for those who cannot afford it,” I have no time for you, and no desire to pay your salary.

You don’t like MOOCs? Fine (though it wouldn’t hurt to learn about them). But a society of elites is no longer an option. What will *you* do to address the educational needs of billions of people around the world? Don’t just tell me it’s someone else’s problem. *You* are the person we’ve hired to provide an education.

30 05 2012
Jonathan Rees


So I guess you expect me to sit there and take it.

You are unhappy that the world’s poor don’t have access to higher education so you want to put tens of thousands of people out of work in the process of giving it to them. At the same time, you want to degrade the quality of almost everyone’s else’s education by moving it all online.

The whole point of this post was to get people to focus on professors who risk being displaced from their job. I think this exchange has gone on long enough for everyone reading it to see that you simply don’t care.

26 05 2012

actually he IS a professor

26 05 2012
Guarding the well « Music for Deckchairs

[…] Something I learned in high school history has come back unexpectedly while I’ve been brooding about Jonathan Rees’ opposition to MOOCs and his views on what they threaten. […]

26 05 2012

Serving all learners and not merely those of means engages us in a complicated balance between making it sustainable to teach, and making it affordable to learn. This is how we’ve got to the odd point where some of the most radical initiatives are being driven by people with paid jobs in less-than-radical institutions. Somehow those traditional institutions are providing support for radical education, even if accidentally, indifferently and insufficiently.

It’s a delicate balance we might want to try to preserve, for the frankly practical reasons that Stephen Downes (who knows a great deal about higher education) brings up. The goal of widening educational opportunity needs labour and resources, and those are sometimes more readily able to be committed by people who aren’t themselves out trying to find work or to make ends meet every minute of the day.

So I’m not against labour sensitivity at all, nor do I think a concern with employment conditions (including for adjuncts, on whose behalf this blog has been vigorously engaged) is a thoughtless vote for the status quo.

But I do think we’re at risk of trivialising the larger issues of justice if all we’re doing with our secure employment is guarding the deep well of institutional privilege on behalf of those who really do profit from our labour.

27 05 2012

Well put Kate and in rejoinder to Mr. Downes, it is time we focus on those who profit the most from higher education to find the blame of the escalating costs and diminishing public funding. We also need to clearly distinguish between public universities and private and for-profit ones. Either way, it is almost never the faculty who are driving up the costs of education. For example, tuition has skyrocketed in the past 5 years at my public university and there have been NO RAISES for faculty – zero – during the same time and we have lost dozens of faculty lines and teach ever larger classes, online or otherwise. The theory that faculty salaries drive increasing tuition is such a joke that it is clearly a cynical ploy to deflect blame from where it actually lies. In a small town (and state) and its 3rd-tier public university (different than my present employer) that I am very familiar with it is the ties between local “bidness” leaders and the athletic department and patent-acquiring technological side of academics that needs attention. The bidness men get the university to provide tax-payer funded R&D that they then profit from, while making token donations to the sky boxes at the football stadium, along with the contracts to supply said athletic department all that it needs. A nice gig if you can operate without guilt in the required corrupt world such arrangements require. Corrupt Adminstrators and their ties to the business community are the first place to find misspent money.

26 05 2012

Having actually done manual, minimum wage agriculture labor (among full time, neither p/t nor summer jobs, some equally ill-paid and exploited) and taught as GTA and adjunct (a natural progression), including for online 4profits. One was a good experience, teaching autonomy, respect. I think the school went out of business. As for the rest, I’d rather sit on the RR track and eat nails than continue.

No problem, I got not rehired. Mostly, I suspect, because the operation, in throes of resisting a unionization attempt (pre-emptive union busting), ran searches on faculty and discovered the page I created for an AAUP chapter (now defunct) I helped organize. This last also explains taking up online, not teaching at the only cc within commuting distance and coming to the conclusion that un-supplemented social security was my best option.

This leaves me ample time to agitate, practice electronic civil disobedience (natural inclinations further developed by exposure to higher ed), use my skills to connect, inform and encourage adjuncts … and take real MOOCs (the ones mentioned here aren’t) so I don’t have to depend higher ed media for the information. Then again, maybe that makes me the real mook, taking one for the team, getting my head stepped on (good position from which to bite ankles) and still coming back.

From this perspective, The Grapes of Wrath comparison still seems a bit much, although, to be honest not the most excessive I’ve come across. To stretch it just a bit further, their descendants, literal and metaphoric, still struggling to make it are now crushed under student debt. Blame the 4profits (and, to be honest, self serving, seat filling student services at publics) but bear in mind that better utilized open access and the Ivory Silo™ being less of a citadel just might have helped spare them some of the burden as well as closing the access-deficit opening that let in the predators.

30 05 2012
Music for Deckchairs

OK, there’s a really basic reason we can’t send everyone to the theatre, or anything that involves presence in physical time and place: the intractabilities of time and distance build really fundamental inequities into our systems.

I think Australians are used to this as we have both a small population and very big country: one of the fundamentals of our political culture is that the “universal service obligation” that we place on our telecommunications and media providers can never actually reach the whole population, and when you look at this historically, they miss the same section of the population over and over and over.

Higher education tends to miss the same section, unless we learn how to supply and support education differently.

When you add to these the intractabilities of poverty it becomes clear that not everyone has access to higher education as a total system. Yesterday I heard the sobering statistic that 8% of adults in the urban area where I live don’t have bank accounts.

So whatever we can do to open it up educational opportunity bit by bit, including to people who simply can’t afford the time or cost of the whole package at this moment in their lives, makes sense to me. Education really is like water: controlling the infrastructure amounts to owning and being able to set a price on the rain that falls, but we shouldn’t think that we do actually own the rain.

30 05 2012
Jonathan Rees


We could give anyone who wants to go to the theatre a ticket and a bus pass. Or we could bring back vaudeville. What we can’t do is send everyone to the theatre at the same time.

But have you asked them all if they want to go?

And if anyone calls this position elitist I’m going to scream. I’m advocating open acess for everyone who’s qualified to the best personalized education possible, not taped lectures. Channel some of that wasteful spending into better aid packages, not expanding the infrastructure to target a market that we don’t whether it even exists.

30 05 2012
Digital sharecropping: Higher education edition. « More or Less Bunk

[…] again in the middle of an argument with Stephen Downes I’ve been having in the comments to this post. He sees a new MOOC-y world where today’s adjunct can be tomorrow’s superstar. I see a […]

30 05 2012
tom abeles

This conversation reminds me of two items:
a) Clayton Christensen’s model, best described in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma. The rise of alternative ways of learning or making knowledge accessible via a variety of electronic, including MOOC’s is emergent. How it will eventually mature is yet to be seen. In the meantime, the established system is reacting in two ways, pointing out all the reasons why this should not be and by adopting pieces along with other practices to counter without really understanding how change needs to take place. The Stephen/Jonathan exchange is all about why or why not the current model should stand while in the meantime, many are rushing into the field embracing the alternative model(s) It’s the Japanese car invasion of the US all over, again.

b) At one time the faculty were entrepreneurs. They had to scratch for students who would slip money in the pockets of the academic robes. The academics controlled their “academies”. Today those academies are like large zoological parks where one area, perhaps the herbivores or humanities scholars play and the engineers or carnivores are in a separate area. Like Cypher, in the Matrix, they may be conscious that they are in a selected world and like Cypher, they choose the system, unlike Morpheus and Neo who want to break down the walls. Academics have exchanged the freedom and the unstable income for a sinecure called tenure. Unlike the 60’s, there is little stomach to challenge the system Also, it’s safer to write scholarly articles about the issues, in true academic fashion. Besides, it counts on a resume.

Complexity theory says that if you create a model and run it to see what the results might be, the model itself has changed. It can only be run once. If you fish tuna out of a region and then let the population grow back, it is not the same. It is not like digging a hole and then filling it back to original form. The internet is here. E-learning is here. The past that “never was” can not be restored. The current model has changed. As Wordsworth said, “we will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind”. Let us pack up the straw men and embrace the future.

13 06 2012
Do You Fear Open Educational Resources? That’s Silly. « Billy Meinke's Blog

[…] interested in this at all, it’s worth a couple minutes to glance at the comments to this blog post.  Jonathan Rees (history professor at CSU) and Stephen Downes (co-inventor of the original MOOC) […]

19 07 2012
Divide and conquer: MOOC edition. « More or Less Bunk

[…] seen one MOOC enthusiast express much greater hostility to fellow professors in the comments to a post on this very blog. Nonetheless, if we don’t hang together we will all hang separately. If professors everywhere […]

3 08 2012
So you think it’s hard to find a tenure track job now? « More or Less Bunk

[…] institution. This was precisely the starting point for my argument with Stephen Downes back in May. He wrote: Those people who are off the tenure track, such as adjuncts, obviously make considerably […]

20 12 2012
What took everybody so long? « More or Less Bunk

[…] of you out there who have only begun to have visited this blog recently may have missed one of my favorite posts about this subject. I wrote it back in May. It has a “Grapes of Wrath” theme, and it somehow attracted the […]

25 03 2013
“You tell anyone and we’ll kill you.” | More or Less Bunk

[…] interests worth letting greedy administrators destroy higher education entirely? Stephen Downes (no friend of this blog) seems perfectly content to let them do this in the short […]

25 07 2013
“The MOOC Racket” | More or Less Bunk

[…] If you happen to be visiting here from Slate, welcome and feel free to look around. Some of my favorites MOOC posts at MOLB include this, this, this and this. […]

15 08 2013
An open letter to Stephen Downes. | More or Less Bunk

[…] post just as I’m sorta- kinda- trying to move beyond MOOC commentary, as I still remember our last discussion near the beginning of my long run of MOOC posts. Besides making me look up who you actually are, […]

16 08 2013

You should be working for free.

11 03 2014
Nothing is inevitable. | More or Less Bunk

[…] MOOCs Everywhere,” somebody famous in MOOC circles might stop by and I wouldn’t have the foggiest clue who were they are. Thanks to the famous Bady/Shirky debate of 2012, I know exactly who Clay Shirky is. While […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: