“Step into my parlor,” said the spider to the fly.

16 10 2012

Apparently, the University of Texas system thinks that its faculty are a bunch of idiots. Inside Higher Ed reports that UT is partnering with EdX in part in order to get through college faster and “for less money.” The article goes on to explain:

Texas faculty may worry that awarding credit for über-scalable MOOCs could be the first step toward eliminating local versions of those courses — and faculty jobs with them. “We have no intention of doing that,” said [Steve] Mintz [executive director of the Texas system’s Institute for Transformational Learning].

How else can they ever get to a $10,000 bachelor’s degree without firing people? [OK, they could fire administrators, but you and I both know that isn’t going to happen.] The math doesn’t add up otherwise.

I’m starting to think there are two kinds of online classes in this world: ones that run entirely by themselves, and ones that at least still use people to do the teaching. The whole appeal of MOOCs to the administrative class rests not on the technology, but in the possibility of the endless stream of money without having to employ faculty labor to make it flow.

In other words, it’s not the MOOC that’s the matter. It’s the attitude of the people implementing them. They seem to think faculty will just sit back and accept their own obsolescence and I can’t say that I blame them. Too many of us act as if any old computer program can do our job.

Can we embrace the medium, but fight the message?




One response

20 10 2012

“The whole appeal of MOOCs to the administrative class rests not on the technology, but in the possibility of the endless stream of money without having to employ faculty labor to make it flow. ”

Yep. At my own university, this is the basic appeal of distance-ed generally.

“Can we embrace the medium, but fight the message?”

I think we can, though I’m pretty sure we won’t, and even if we do, it might be too little too late. A lot of faculty are just kind of stupid when it comes to this stuff. A lot of faculty buy into a shallow, gee-whiz, techno-utopianism, but have little knowledge of labor history and don’t think critically about the conditions of their own labor. At my own institution, God bless it, naivete and all, I keep recommending to my distance-ed colleagues that they read three books that should be considered foundational to anyone involved with distance ed (which is to say, all of us): David Noble’s Digital Diploma Mills, Bob Seidensticker’s Future Hype, and, yes, Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works.

There are probably other books that could serve just as well to place distance ed in a broader historical and critical context; what gets me is that the entire online-ed enterprise, and the armies of faculty and staff now engaged in it, go about their work without much sense that there even IS such a broader historical and philosophical context. And when I suggest to administrators and distance-ed staff that they ought to know something about it, they look at me like I’m crazy — as if it’s silly of me to ask that they think the least bit critically about the revolution they are helping to bring about. As far as they’re concerned, technology and automation always result in social progress.

Anyway, how can we “embrace the medium but fight the message”? I think the best way is to use the technology to create courses that rely on professorial intelligence, expertise, and attention to provide students with an educational experience that is as intellectually rich as possible (and, not incidentally, that cannot be automated). If we’re going to compete against MOOCish courses that are inexpensive but inferior, our best defense will be a universe of courses that are demonstrably superior but cannot be taught without us.

I just had an interesting thought (prompted no doubt by the spirit of Karl Marx working like an un-Holy Spirit to corrupt my soul): On Monday, I think I’ll go have a talk with our distance-ed people. I’m going to ask that, in addition to teaching distance-ed faculty how to use Blackboard, they start requiring everyone to read Noble, Seidensticker, and Bousquet, as a regular part of distance-faculty training. I wonder what will happen? I wonder what the reaction will be to the idea that a faculty member should weigh in on the way the techies should go about training distance faculty? I wonder how people will react to the idea that a bit of grounding in the history and philosophy of distance ed should be required for all distance faculty?

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