Breakin’ up is hard to do.

19 11 2012

In her continuing quest to find a revenue source for Coursera, Daphne Koller has found a new straw for her company to grasp:

The Antioch model reflects a third paradigm, in which one institution uses courses produced by another as the basis for a credit-bearing class. In this model, the online content is generally “ wrapped” with some face-to-face class time by a local instructor, who can facilitate discussion, answer questions, ensure that students are making progress, and possibly augment the course with additional content and/or assessments.

She then goes on to point out the supposed wonderfulness of this arrangement:

Most small institutions do not have the staff or the expertise to offer all of these classes; indeed, no institution (even large ones) can offer the same breadth of curriculum that one can derive from multiple institutions contributing their best courses. By sharing these outstanding educational resources, institutions can provide a much richer and broader curriculum to their students, which may better support their specific interests or open up new career opportunities. Local instructors can still be used to help students traverse the material, but considerably less manpower and expertise are required to facilitate a class than to prepare the curriculum from scratch.

In the business world, this is called outsourcing. Perhaps the colleges that utilize this model never would have hired anyone to teach those courses in the first place. Perhaps not. What we can be certain of though is that as long as this option is available, these small colleges will never be fully funded again. To borrow a phrase from Christopher Newfield, this setup would allow colleges to continue running on empty perpetually. It is a solution to a resource problem that only an administrator could love.

Unfortunately, that is not even the most disturbing part of Koller’s article. This is:

With an online course, students get the benefit of having constant interaction with the material, as well as learning at their own pace; in-class time is then freed up to give students more opportunities for interaction with their instructor. Online courses also help educators improve the quality of their instruction, allowing them to devote more time to the task that they are uniquely qualified for: understanding and supporting the needs of their students.

While some critics might say this model turns instructors into glorified Teaching Assistants, the reality is that it actually allows instructors to move away from orating, and go back to teaching, the way it was meant to be.

Black is white. Up is down. Jefferson was the Antichrist and online learning is actually the traditionalist approach. It’s not. The model that she’s proposing breaks up college instruction into two component parts: content providing and individual guidance. The content would come from Coursera’s superprofessors. The individual guidance would come from the local, less-than-super talent that a client university would provide.

Outside of academia they call this de-skilling. It’s de-skilling inside of academia too, whether it works well or not. She’s assuming that administrators are going to act responsibly. For those of us on the front lines of higher education that’s a terrible bet.

I don’t know about you, but I got absolutely zero guidance in the art of teaching when I was in graduate school. They threw me to the wolves as a TA during my second year, and I survived by doing the opposite of everything my own undergraduate TAs did because they obviously had no instruction in instruction either.

What I know about teaching comes from experience, both as a content provider and from providing individual guidance. I would still be able to use my individual guidance skills if I no longer had the chance to provide content, but it’s my content knowledge that makes me most qualified to teach college. That knowledge, along with the disciplinary skills used to develop it, is what my employer is primarily paying for when they hire me in exchange for my low (but still living) wage. Even if I didn’t have to become a TA in Koller’s world, I could easily be replaced by one which would only force my wages down further than they already are.

The great irony here is that Koller praises the on campus experience at the same time that she’s trying to destroy it:

Higher education institutions are integral to our society; they continue to be focal point for serendipitous interactions that lead to innovative new ideas. As these schools struggle with reduced budget and increasing enrollments, it is more important than ever that they provide an excellent on-campus experience.

Silly me, I thought highly-qualified professors were integral to that on-campus experience. Without us, college is just a four-year stay at an expensive resort hotel with weekly football games every fall.



9 responses

19 11 2012

So, serendipitous interactions that lead to innovative new ideas as we traverse the quad and the material, eh? Beats the hell out of those innovative OLD ideas that used to be developed in the process of focused, shaped, and supported explorations of bodies of information and opinion within disciplinary parameters and sociohistorical contexts.
My favorite passage is “While some critics might say this model turns instructors into glorified Teaching Assistants, the reality is that it actually allows instructors to move away from orating, and go back to teaching, the way it was meant to be.” Reminds me quite a bit of a sentence a student of mine wrote once upon a time, a sentence that was supposedly the “opposition paragraph” presenting and exploring a point of view contrary to the author’s thesis. Here it is, in its entirety: “Some people may disagree with me, but they are wrong.”
Is this the kind of rigorous thinking we can all look forward to in the cowardly new world of superprofs, administrators, and local support facilitators?

19 11 2012

Why do you assume the professor will facilitate the class exactly as presented?

20 11 2012
Jonathan Rees

Because the more easy it is to replace you, the less academic freedom you have.

19 11 2012

Koller is not only dead wrong that we won’t be turned into Glorified Teaching Assistants; she undercuts this ridiculously unsupported claim in the midst of her cheerleading: “Local instructors can still be used to help students traverse the material, but considerably less manpower and expertise are required to facilitate a class than to prepare the curriculum from scratch.” Less manpower and expertise = we don’t need professors. Didn’t she read her own essay?

20 11 2012

The implication is sort of that once the superprofessor prepares the curriculum it stays pretty much in place. You just rerun the lecture series again and again.

But real education involves creating new curricula, questioning old knowledge, rethinking, trying out ideas. And those things require not babysitters, but engaged minds with a lot of knowledge and a variety of experiences.

21 11 2012
Contingent Cassandra

Amen to everything above. From my disciplinary perspective (writing/English lit.), classes are designed at least as much to teach skills as content, and I often choose specific content (usually readings) because it lends itself to an exercise, activity, etc. that will allow students to develop a particular skill. I also often choose a certain percentage of fairly to very obscure texts because some students are not able to resist the temptation to look up the “right answer” if any criticism on the text is available, and doing so will short-circuit the development of their own analytical skills. Obviously, this also means that I change some of my selections fairly frequently, so that the obscure texts will still be obscure, even on my campus. And even more obviously, none of this work with a MOOC that repeated even once without at least some of the content being refreshed.

I really don’t think the proponents of MOOCs as substitutes for traditional college classes, despite the fact that some of them hold Ph.D.s and really ought to know better (and despite their giving lip service to the value of hands-on work by both teachers and students) understand that education is far more than information transfer. Especially at a time when knowledge in many fields is changing rapidly, developing skills has to be at least as important a goal, and choosing materials and designing and updating assignments, activities, exercises etc. that will develop those skills one of the professor’s core tasks. One could, indeed, use MOOC lectures as part of the mix, but the labor-intensive part is still best done locally (and, if it were done at the MOOC level, would need to be updated quarterly/semesterly, which would considerably increase the workload of the MOOC-creators).

Nor have I seen (still) a satisfactory explanation of how a set of MOOC lectures is different, except in method of information from a textbook (or any book). Koller seems to assume that college professors don’t regularly teach outside their areas of expertise. That’s simply wrong; we often do so, by doing just what she imagines with MOOCs, but with books: choosing work on the subject produced by people who have spent more time on the subject, and learning ahead of, and alongside, our students. A teacher who knows what (s)he is doing will conduct such a class differently than one in which (s)he is a subject-matter expert, being upfront about what (s)he does and doesn’t know, and making the class an opportunity to model for students how to approach an unfamiliar subject. The one thing (s)he won’t do is pick a textbook (or a MOOC) and just follow it through, step by step, assigning chapters, exercises, etc., verbatim. Such an approach would, indeed, be glorified TAing (and not very good TAing at that). Anything more — i.e. the process of making the course the professor’s own through making innovative, individualized use of the materials in the book, or the MOOC — will make for a much better course, but will also erase the supposed productivity gains from MOOCs.

29 11 2012
The professoriate is the worst guild ever. « More or Less Bunk

[…] president of the Association of the American Colleges and Universities. If you think I’m tough on Daphne Koller of Coursera, read Mazel on Sebastian Thrun of Udacity in the comments […]

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[…] mentioned recently on this blog that I got absolutely no guidance in graduate school about teaching. At least I didn’t get a […]

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So I signed up for another MOOC… « More or Less Bunk

[…] campus because picking what they teach is what makes the job fun. Besides, as I’ve explained before, content knowledge is what makes Ph.D.s worth our salaries. Without it, we’d all be paid like […]

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