Like that episode of Batman when the Penguin announced that he was now fighting crime.

10 06 2012

This article at ARS Technica is noteworthy because it features a long interview with me (the contents of which will surprise nobody who reads this blog regularly). It also features an interview with Andrew Ng of Coursera explaining why all my fears are misplaced:

But Andrew Ng doesn’t believe that the academy is facing an either/or choice. Ng, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Director of Artificial Intelligence Lab at Stanford University, is the co-founder of MMOC company, Coursera.

Ng believes a “flipped classroom” frees up the professor to engage in the very direct follow-up and face-to-face dialogue Rees worries about losing. A flipped classroom is one in which the lecture portion of the course is provided online and class time is used to facilitate discussion and interaction. Ng’s goal, and that of Coursera, is to “make professors even better at teaching and teaching more fun.”

He does not believe online coursework will replace professors, but augment them. In a flipped university, it will make professors freer and more engaged. Those who could otherwise never afford to attend a high-end university, or perhaps any university at all, can use companies like Coursera to garner an education they would otherwise have to do without.

So everyone gets to be a super-professor? Of course not. Otherwise it wouldn’t save anyone any money. In a flipped classroom situation, the professor becomes a teaching assistant, losing control of the curriculum and the opportunity to utilize much of the experience that made he or she a professor in the first place.

Give up these prerogatives voluntarily and you risk losing everything. After all, what’s to stop anyone’s administration from taking over your flipped classroom and putting in cheaper, less-experienced labor to provide all the personal touches?

If you trust the guy who stands to make a fortune off the corpse of your career to answer that question truthfully then maybe you aren’t smart enough to be teaching anybody.




5 responses

10 06 2012
Music for Deckchairs

I’ve recently been in a casual conversation with a senior university administrator who said brightly: “And then we could get academics in to do the grading!” Being a regular reader of The Bunk, the hairs on the back of my neck rose and I thought: this is it, he’s right. It’s like those 1950s movies where you’re the last person to admit that everyone in town has been cunningly substituted by a lifeless vegetable with mysteriously evangelical intent.

So I was about to sign up for the crusade, when I realised that I still … just … can’t. Because if this becomes the line we draw, far too many of the good, imaginative, equitable things will be on the outside.

Practical question: is it possible to draw the line more precisely? In other words, in the lingua franca of higher ed, is it possible to draft robust strategic and quality planning that creates defensible standards for working conditions and student experience, both?

(I’m sure you’ll think this is more internalised right wing etc. etc. etc. that you’ve come to expect from the charlatans, but you’ll just have to trust your earlier judgment that this is not my position.)

11 06 2012
Jonathan Rees


This deserves a post of its own, but the short answer to your question is shared governance. Education is always better when actual educators are actually involved.

The problem is, I think, that part of the reason that the race online has turned into a sprint is so that faculty won’t know what’s hit them until it’s too late.

11 06 2012
tom abeles

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

At one time academics had control of their programs. They gave that up in exchange for a sinecure where administrators recruited students and paid faculty. Like animals in a big zoological park who get fed every day, faculty think that they control the space and are all important.

Until the faculty regain control, but at the same time, assume the risks/responsibilities of the enterprise, all Rees’ fears will be realized. Like turkeys in a pen, you might realize that you aren’t in control when the morning before Thanksgiving there is no feed in the trough.

11 06 2012
Jonathan Rees

Gee Tom, thanks for agreeing with me…I think.

Whether I agree with you depends upon how you define “important.” I have no illusion of being an essential cog in the machine. They could bring in machines and trained monkeys to do my job easily.

Whether they should, however, is an entirely different question.

PS “Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo. I do believe it. I do believe it’s true.”

11 06 2012
tom abeles

Hi Jonathan,

As you pointed out, with flipping, the admin could replace the faculty with adjuncts or TA’s. Walk into Disney World. At least the actors realize that they have bounded latitude for their roles, get a pay check and have some form of a job security- They, like Cypher, in the Matrix, have chosen the artificial steak. Zoo animals may adapt and play to the audience on the other side of the fence. Turkeys in a barn exist in their own illusion. Faculty, at universities, except for a few stars, seek the security of Cypher, at least at the grades 13-16 level, though they still believe that they are more than stage act (called a department) at Disney World. One, like Cypher, can recognize that it is an illusion, but until they, like Neo and Morpheus, give up the security of the illusion, all the ululations about “The Administration” are part of the act on a Shakespearean stage- it is an expected part of the roll.

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