FrankenMOOCs and zombie profs.

20 02 2013

Aspiring food historian that I am, I’ve been reading Stephen Fried’s Appetite for America. It’s about Fred Harvey, who set up America’s first successful chain restaurant along the Santa Fe Railroad from Kansas to New Mexico during the last decades of the 19th Century.  When he passed on in 1901, his son Ford ran the business.  However, Ford never let on that Fred Harvey had actually died.  As the chain grew further, the railroad literature still said “Meals by Fred Harvey” because that was the name of the company, not because the original Fred Harvey actually had anything to do with the meals anymore.  Yet for decades people assumed that Fred Harvey was still alive.

When I first read this, it made me think of Betty Crocker (who would get letters from lesser-skilled housewives and sometimes their frustrated husbands) even though she was a fictional character.  Then I saw the news about the superprofessor from UC-Irvine leaving his MOOC in mid-run and thought of Fred Harvey again:

Mr. McKenzie’s microeconomics course, however, will continue—just without him. “The very able course managers have everything they need to post the remaining lectures, course assignments, and discussion problems, week by week, as scheduled,” the professor wrote. “However, I will not be involved.”

Now, it seems quite clear that this class had many problems, many of which were the fault of the superprofessor himself.  Nonetheless, there’s still two principles involved here that every professor who wants to receive a living wage really ought to defend.

The first is the idea that every course in a university curriculum needs to be updated regularly.  Obviously this guy will never be teaching a MOOC again, but the idea that your class can go on without you ought to strike fear in the hearts of professors everywhere, super- or otherwise.  While an Elvis impersonator can still play Elvis’s music after his death, the material that any professor teaches should reflect current scholarship.  As Gerry Canavan explained the other day in a post that is well worth reading in its entirety:

The pedagogical justification for MOOCs derives from a misunderstood belief in the surety and fixidity of current academic knowledge when, in fact, the entire point of the academy is discovery and dialogue. That is: the MOOC assumes we know what there is for us to know, and the only question now is how to package that knowledge in its best possible form for widest dissemination.

I think this point is particularly important for history classes since lay people tend to assume that since the past is past it therefore never changes.  Anybody who knows what the word “historiography” means knows that this is not true at all.  While Frederick Jackson Turner may have been the greatest historian of his era, having Zombie Frederick Jackson Turner teach today’s students would be a terrible disservice to everyone involved.

The other principle here concerns the right to control the fruits of your own work.  In the wake of this disaster, Derek Bruff (who’s facilitating the MOOCs coming soon to Vanderbilt) retweeted the link to something useful that he wrote last week:

Amy Collier, who supports online learning initiatives at Stanford, pointed out to me during the MROE workshop that an awful lot of people, including me, refer to these MOOCs as “Coursera courses” and not, say, “Georgia Tech courses” or “Vanderbilt courses.” I’ve used “Coursera course” as a shorthand to refer to the open online courses that Vanderbilt on the Coursera platform, but, thanks to Amy, I’m coming to see that such language is perhaps misleading.

I blogged earlier this month about the challenging design and production process required to launch one of these courses, a process undertaken largely by Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. Sure, Coursera assists with the course preparation and provides an online platform for the courses, but the heavy lifting is done by Vanderbilt. It’s also Vanderbilt that is responsible for setting the bar when it comes to the academic quality and rigor of these courses. We decide the content, design the assessments, and determine what merits a “Statement of Accomplishment.”

No disrespect to Derek (who is simply ruminating on the nature of his job), but in the old days nobody would ever refer to a course with a possessive other than an apostrophe “s” after that professor’s last name because nobody had any control over the content of that course but that professor.  Yes, in some ways this particular superprofessor is not the most admirable guy (although I certainly applaud his fondness for maintaining academic standards), but this could easily serve as an opening shot in an intellectual property war that faculty are likely to lose.

Regular online instructors would likely be the first targets of this effort, but they’ll come for the rest of us next.  When I sat in on a Moodle pitch once, their guy claimed that everything posted on Blackboard belongs to Blackboard.  I’ve never had that verified, but I can certainly imagine some campus claiming that everything posted on their LMS belongs to them.  Fred Harvey lived on because his family cultivated and benefited from that image. That’s not the same situation for faculty. After all, you’d have no control over whose brain they might insert into the carcass of your course.




9 responses

20 02 2013

I’m not sure if “zombie profs” is the right metaphor, but this UC Irvine MOOC should be an interesting example of a “zombie MOOC,” carrying on after its instructor is gone. Given what I can observer of the dynamic of the course, I wonder if the MOOC will work a little better with the professor gone. Certainly, there’s the possibility of more peer-to-peer learning within the course, leveraging the expertise of the more experienced students taking the course. One of the strengths of a MOOC is the incredibly diversity of experiences of students enrolled, although this example illustrates, I think, just how hard that diversity can be to leverage.

I’ll add that the language “Professor Smith’s course” can be problematic, too. I’ve worked with departments on curriculum redesign efforts which were impeded by professors who thought of their courses as “theirs”… and couldn’t think deeply about how “their” courses fit within, say, an undergraduate major experience. Our students don’t experience the courses they take in isolation, and so it’s important to think of how they fit together. Courses, on some level, “belong” to the curriculum.

20 02 2013

Yes, yes, and yes. You’re right that “the idea that your class can go on without you ought to strike fear in the hearts of professors everywhere.” One thing this means is that we should all be paying attention to things like our institutions’ intellectual property policies. Such policies should ensure your ability to be the only one who teaches any course you develop. It’s all well and good to discuss MOOCs and the like in the abstract, but much of the game will actually be played down in the bureaucratic trenches, in debates over things like these:

— Intellectual Property policy. If the university wants to continue making money offering a course you’ve developed, will it have to keep you on the payroll, or can it fire you and hand your course off to a drone?

— Credit for Prior Learning policy. This and similar policies, e.g., transfer credit and test-out policies, will determine how, if at all, students at your institution can get credit for things like MOOCs.

— Student Learning Outcomes (and how they’re assessed). The supposed equivalence of a MOOC to a real course will largely be justified using SLOs as the criteria. Of course, such justification is bogus; it’s a logical error (reductive fallacy) to say that the full range of pedagogical benefits a student gets from a course can be reduced to a list of a half dozen bullet points. Just because two courses do an equallly good job of “addressing” a set of SLOs does not mean they’re equally good courses; you can scale it down, but you can’t necessarily scale it back up. Unfortunately, this kind of reductive thinking is the very lifeblood of the “accountability” and “assessment” mania plaguing higher ed. (Ditto for K-12 “education reform.”)

So, are things happening in your courses that aren’t happening, or better yet, CAN’T happen in a MOOC? Then find a way to articulate those things in higher-ed bureaucratese and get them listed on the departmental or institutional syllabus as student learning outcomes. If things at your institution work anything like they do at mine, what’s likely to happen is something like this: sooner or later, someone will ask an advisor if they can get credit for a MOOC. The adviser will phone the Records Office and ask the transfer coordinator, who will kick it to a department chair, who will say, “Wait a minute, let me look at the institutional syllabus…. Nope, no can do. This course requires that students ‘demonstrate the ability to work collaboratively to describe a historical controversy and convey that knowledge to the public.’ In our classes, students do this by presenting their work in poster sessions during Student Scholar Days, but the MOOC doesn’t require students to do anything remotely like that. So, sorry. If the MOOC doesn’t address the SLOs, we just can’t award credit for it.”

There are all kinds of pedagogically wonderful activities that can be done F2F (or even in an online class of a dozen or two students) that are impossible to do in a MOOC. We need to get those things embedded into our courses and policies in all the places where the bureaucracy can see them, planting them in all the right places for the MOOCsters to trip over them later.

20 02 2013
Anne Corner

For once I agree with you absolutely. No course should be cast in stone and a course without a professor is ridiculous. We are back to high school textbooks (and we all know how enlightening they are) without professors.

20 02 2013
Jonathan Rees


Considering how much you disagree with me I’m touched that you’re still reading.

20 02 2013
Leslie Madsen-Brooks (@lesliemb)

Boise State claims copyright to online courses developed for Boise State, and faculty must get permission to offer the same course content elsewhere. Here’s the intellectual property policy.

20 02 2013

Looks to me like Section 4 could be strengthened. It says, “The course cannot be leased, sold, or transferred to a third party without written permission or license from each author of copyrighted works contained in the course.” OK, so the professor could easily make sure that the course contains required material to which she has the copyright, and that would give her the power to prevent the university from leasing, selling, or transferring the course to a third party, but it wouldn’t give her the power to prevent the university itself (the university not being a “third party”) from offering the course under another instructor.

20 02 2013
Today in MOOCs « Gerry Canavan

[…] * FrankenMOOCs and zombie profs. […]

22 02 2013
What if superprofessors aren’t really all that super? | More or Less Bunk

[…] professors at “A” institutions deserve to be treated differently? With two Coursera trainwrecks under our belts now, it seems pretty darned obvious that those two superprofessors at […]

19 03 2013
Superprofessors have a lot to learn. | More or Less Bunk

[…] is how you create FrankenMOOCs and zombie profs: Plug and chug any professor’s particular course details (grading preferences, subject […]

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