Superprofessors have a lot to learn.

19 03 2013

I wanted to follow up my call for a superprofessor educational campaign with a post about something besides academic politics that the average superprofessor [Is that a contradiction in terms?] might not understand either, namely the pedagogical details of commercial MOOCs as currently constructed.

If there’s anything that you’ve been able to read on this site that you might not find elsewhere in the MOOC backlash blogosphere, that would probably be the details of what it’s like to take a MOOC and, to a lesser extent (because I will never teach one) what it’s like to be a superprofessor. Michael Feldstein makes an important distinction which anybody who wants to be a superprofessor will eventually have to face:

The distinction between a “course” and “courseware” is a blurry one, but basically, if you take the particular instructor out of the course, what you have left is the courseware. If the creator and teacher of a MOOC turns over the keys of the MOOC, with all its videos, assessments, and other materials, to another instructor, then what is being turned over is courseware. If a textbook vendor provides not only the book, but the slides, the lecture notes, and a set of machine-graded tests and homework assignments, organized in a way that a faculty member can adopt without having to modify or supplement it a whole lot, then the publisher is essentially providing courseware. It’s essentially a course in a box that can be used by local faculty to teach local students. And courseware, in turn, is nothing more than a productized course design.

This is how you create FrankenMOOCs and zombie profs: Plug and chug any professor’s particular course details (grading preferences, subject emphasis, etc.) into a pre-determined template or courseware model. Those of you who have taken more than one MOOC with the same provider (like me with Coursera now) recognize the similarities. That’s mostly because of that company’s MOOC model, not the decisions of any particular superprofessor.

In theory, this is supposed to make running a MOOC easier, but in fact it doesn’t always work out that way. As Kris Olds found out before his MOOC has even started, facing this template for the first time can be daunting with respect to even the most seemingly trivial matters:

To cut a long story short, the launch process involved providing a variety of forms of information about the course and the instructors to the CA-based firm. Coursera, however, signs contracts with individual universities and courses are listed by university name or subject. On launch day (20 February 2013) the platform implied Susan was a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor. After several hours of work Coursera’s engineers were eventually able to reconfigure the platform to recognize multi-institutional affiliations: this was not a surface edit of their website for an element of the entire platform had to be redesigned.

But suppose those matters aren’t trivial? And suppose the superprofessor and the MOOC provider can’t come to an agreement about how to resolve the problem? Bob Samuels offers up a particularly chilling detail from the UC contract with Coursera:

The faculty contract with Coursera states the following: “I hereby irrevocably grant the University the absolute right and permission to use, store, host, publicly broadcast, publicly display, public[sic] perform, distribute, reproduce and digitize any Content that I upload, share or otherwise provide in connection with the Course or my use of the Platform, including the full and absolute right to use my name, voice, image or likeness (whether still, photograph or video) in connection therewith, and to edit, modify, translate or adapt any such Content.” So UC is using Coursera to get faculty to sign over their courses, intellectual property, and their IDENTITIES. Forgive me for being paranoid, but does this mean that if a faculty member signs this deal, they no longer own their own name, face, or image?

Darn, that’s a good question. I can’t help but wonder if superprofessors rushing headlong into what they hope will be fame and fortune aren’t even bothering to ask such things. Hopefully by the time they find out it won’t be too late for us all.




6 responses

19 03 2013

“Forgive me for being paranoid, but does this mean that if a faculty member signs this deal, they no longer own their own name, face, or image?”

Sure looks that way. The Coursera contract is even worse than my own college’s distance-ed contract. Forgive me for being uncharitable to some of my colleagues, but isn’t anyone who signs such a contract being incredibly naive?

Suppose an American history prof signs such a contract and proceeds to create a MOOC with good content. Suppose that later (say, at the behest of some David Barton-esque dean eager to suck up to a wingnut donor or trustee) the university decides to “edit” and “modify” the course content and turn it into “Christian Nation” propaganda. The prof might then find their name and picture plastered all over a course with false and politically obnoxious content. Their “voice” could be edited in ways that make them sound like an idiot. They could start out by saying this…

“Jefferson unquestionably admired the precepts he considered to have been uttered by Jesus, but he snipped out everything else in order to create his own, Enlightenment-friendly version of the Christian Bible.”

…and later, after a bit of sound-editing, hear themselves proclaiming to the entire world that

“Jefferson unquestionably admired the precepts of the Bible.”

Why would anyone give their administration permission to do such a thing? (Ultimately, “the University” means “the Trustees.”) Why isn’t the immediate response of any academic presented with such contractual terms a hearty “F*ck you”?

19 03 2013

The MOOCs can be a convenient way to commodify certain professors. But even traditional online courses present the same problem. I have resisted creating online content to run my courses remotely because University administrators and legal advisors get very squirrelly when asked about the intellectual property rights of this material.

We can see the real economic mirage of value in the California rush to MOOC as cost-saving device and system savior. What, however, is the real pedagogical difference between the MOOC and old-fashioned correspondence courses?

(Unless of course we have the machines grading essays. And responding to student comments. and writing recommendations…)

19 03 2013
Jonathan Rees


Really, all kinds of educational technological bear the burden you describe. Does your university (or your LMS for that matter) own everything that you post upon it? I prefer not to take that chance and I prefer to have minimal interference in the way I choose to teach. That’s why I only use tech that I know I can control.

19 03 2013

I actually try to bypass the LMS altogether and use file sharing and open access tools. The LMS is a nightmare (and not very user friendly) and I want to keep control of my materials.

I actually have used wordpress as a central course space before with some success.

But I agree, it is better to maintain all the control you can.

20 03 2013

Reblogged this on Notanda.

9 07 2014
Even superprofessors deserve academic freedom. | The Academe Blog

[…] attracts tens of thousands of eyeballs to the course. While I am not a big fan of superprofessors in general, I am more than willing to defend their academic freedom in the […]

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