Half the professoriate will kill the other half for free.

27 03 2013

“I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

Attributed to American financier Jay Gould, 1886.

One of the really awesome things about being an academic is that we all share information with each other about how to do our jobs better. Some call it mentoring. Some call it the scholarship of teaching and learning. I like to think of it as the natural side effect of not working with a bunch of assholes.

Cathy Davidson tries to do this all the time over at the HASTAC blog, including online peer review of the peer-grading assignment for what would be her first MOOC. Now, I’ve already explained my attitude toward peer-grading elsewhere so I won’t pick on her again here. Besides, what I find more interesting about this post is how she hints at the Coursera superprofessor selection process. Davidson begins the post with, “I’m a finalist for teaching a Coursera MOOC next year on “The History and Future of Higher Education.” It continues later with, “If Coursera accepts the course, it will run next Spring.” This kind of competition among the “best of the best” must feel like trying to get into Yale for grad school all over again.

One of the very rude questions I keep asking about MOOCs is, “How much do superprofessors get paid?” If the ability to run your own Coursera MOOC is indeed a competition, the answer to that question is almost certainly zero. Superprofessors could still receive financial incentives from their home campuses in order to teach MOOCs, but try bargaining with a private employer when there’s a line of people waiting to get the same job. They’d have more in common with Walmart workers than they do with other professors.

If superprofessors really do work for free, why isn’t Coursera having recruitment problems? In a word: ego. Margaret Soltan has stated this flat out. For added evidence, there’s this is from yesterday’s NYT:

“I’m 70, and frankly, at my age, to reach more students in one course than I have in decades is astonishing, and I love it,” Dr. Nagy said.

That’s from an article about Harvard asking its alumni to serve as unpaid teaching assistants for an edX MOOC on the Ancient Greek Hero.

Who benefits when the professor and the teaching assistants all work for free? The MOOC provider, of course. It’s digital sharecropping at its exploitive best. Who suffers when everyone in higher education works for free? A new study offers a possible answer:

Michael A. Cusumano, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., raises a different issue in an essay published this week: the economics of MOOCs and the implications.

His article appears in Communications of the ACM, the monthly magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery, and he had circulated a version of it earlier to his M.I.T. colleagues. After reading it, L. Rafael Rief, M.I.T.’s president, asked Mr. Cusumano to serve on a task force on the “residential university” of the future, including online initiatives.

“My fear is that we’re plunging forward with these massively free online education resources and we’re not thinking much about the economics,” Mr. Cusumano said in an interview.

The MOOC champions, Mr. Cusumano said, are well-intentioned people who “think it’s a social good to distribute education for free.”

But Mr. Cusumano questions that assumption. “Free is actually very elitist,” he said. The long-term future of university education along the MOOC path, he said, could be a “few large, well-off survivors” and a wasteland of casualties.

In other words, while a few already well-paid superprofessors get their egos stroked conducting experiments that are doomed to fail, “second- and third-tier universities and colleges, and community colleges” risk closing because Coursera and its ilk have sent higher education price expectations through the floor and systematically devalued everybody else’s work. And they get to do all this while dispensing a produuct that they know is inferior! Jay Gould would be proud.

In the meantime, thanks for nothing, superprofessors. I may not work with a bunch of assholes on my campus, but MOOCmania is starting to look like a pretty good test of whether Academia in general has enough assholes in it in order to destroy itself.

At least there’s still time for most of them to see the error of their ways.



41 responses

27 03 2013

My understanding is that it depends on the school, both for how courses are selected and how faculty and TAs are compensated. At my institution, faculty are being paid, by the university. Selection of courses is in-house, not by Coursera. Which in no way changes your point!

27 03 2013
Jonathan Rees


If I had to guess, I’d guess that there’s two competitions: on your campus and at Coursera. That would only make my point stronger.

BTW, isn’t it horrible that we have to guess? Privatization stinks.

27 03 2013
TW Andrews

What I love about this is how there’s no real thought about whether or not ultimate benefit accrues to the students, as thought the point of a university is to provide employment for academics.

With MOOCs, orders of magnitude more students can get lectures from professors at the very top of their fields at a much lower price than they would pay for attending a university. That’s bad for academics who aren’t at the top of their fields, but very good for students over all.

27 03 2013

Have you enrolled as a MOOC as a student? I have, a couple of times. For the most part, they’re worth every penny you pay for them.

27 03 2013
Michael Morse

“worth every penny,” are they? And you can of course explain to us what you learned, and how you learned it?

27 03 2013

going down the mooc route could be a dangerous gamble for students. moocs might make a college degree lose its value altogether. at the point this becomes evident, most real colleges would close, so students would be left with no options. then students from other countries (that still have real college) will come in to take all of the skilled jobs. employers will say “i dont want an employee that got an online degree with no teachers, and for all i know, he didn’t even take these courses himself.”

27 03 2013

“With MOOCs, orders of magnitude more students can get lectures from professors at the very top of their fields at a much lower price than they would pay for attending a university. That’s bad for academics who aren’t at the top of their fields, but very good for students over all.”

Note that ‘lectures from professors at the very top of their fields’ are generally available now; they’re called ‘books’, and probably run $100 (less if you buy last year’s ‘lectures’. Not free, but very affordable.

27 03 2013
TW Andrews

Some people learn well from reading books, others by listening to a lecture. One definitely does not preclude the other.

And using what’s probably the biggest racket in Academia–absurdly overpriced textbooks–as a defense, is pretty thin gruel.

27 03 2013

When you take this statement:

‘”I’m 70, and frankly, at my age, to reach more students in one course than I have in decades is astonishing, and I love it,” Dr. Nagy said.’

and attribute it completely to ego, and not altruism and a genuine desire to disseminate knowledge, the only thing I can think is “Your bias is showing”.

27 03 2013
Jonathan Dresner

I’m pretty good at my job, and I think my ideas are worth hearing. But we’re talking about a pretty-nearly zero-sum game here: Nagy’s ability to reach a wide audience in this fashion means that a lot of equally qualified people with equally interesting ideas don’t. There are other ways to reach wide audiences that don’t degrade the institution you’ve spend decades thriving in….

27 03 2013

Hmm. Well, I’m just not sure I’m seeing the problem – this is just a competition-type thing that exists in any of many professions. Sounds to me like MOOCs are just introducing that to academia, although the “publish or perish” thing seems like a close allegory…

For example, I’m in IT security, and I think I do pretty well at that too. But public pundit types like Bruce Schneier and Brian Krebs and Steve Gibson are definitely much more better-known than I am, and I don’t feel that I’m diminished (or threatened) in any way through their celebrity. If I wanted that type of role, I would work for it. In fact, I welcome their contributions, because they increase the general awareness of security.

Perhaps much like Dr. Nagy does for Greek history? You honestly think his actions “degrade the institution”? Really? If so, then frankly I think that makes clear that “the institution” was never about advancing and disseminating knowledge, and more about being a circle-jerk to keep some people employed. That would be sad to realize.

28 03 2013
Jonathan Dresner

Celebrity is not the problem. Replacing effective teaching with ineffective teaching due to misunderstandings about cost and value is the problem. The institution exists to teach: teaching requires attention, not just presentation; MOOCs degrade and devalue teaching by ignoring 2/3rds (or more) of the job.

31 03 2013
Another Halocene Human

So I’m missing the connection in your argument where a free online course destroys the value of traditional classroom instruction. One might have said the same of public television during its heyday.

Also, isn’t it possible that classroom instruction is being oversupplied, with too many kids herded into college and then taught in giant sections by demoralized grad students who don’t much care about the pass/fail rate? How does that long-standing, callously-repeated tradition serve anyone’s interests (except for profs who don’t want to be troubled with frosh intro calc questions)?

Has there been much study as to which skills colleges teach are relevant not just to future jobs but to the overall person and their social and political life? Because college makes such claims… yet I feel I learned more social skills in a blue collar profession than I did at college. Certainly I gained academic knowledge and critical thinking skills which I wouldn’t give up. But that was partially being lucky in my primary school system and then my choice of major. When you look at the attitudes, outlook, and outcome of the cohort “graduated college – bachelor’s only” you have to wonder what it is they’re learning.

If classroom instruction is valuable–and I certainly think it is–then it won’t lose its value just because a few highly motivated people can learn from free courses (back in the day we called that “reading ahead”) or because a large # of people want to feel academic-y by half-listening to some prerecorded lectures and flipping through slides. Like, so TED is not going to replace an MS degree except at one of those degree mills. I listen to TED at work when I’m doing something repetitive and brainless to keep my brain from exploding. (It works out nicely, because listening to most of those talks straight would probably make my brain explode too. (The celebrity speakers are the absolute worst.)) Sometimes I retain a bit or two. Like a newspaper article. Wevs.

27 03 2013
Wednesday Is Friday and the Living’s Easy | Gerry Canavan

[…] * Half the professoriate will kill the other half for free. […]

27 03 2013
Norm Matloff

Here is a job posting for Udacity: http://jobboard.women2.com/jobs/81
I read a couple of months ago that Udacity was paying professors a few thousand dollars per course, not a lot of money considering the time spent.

A “superprofessor” would probably get considerably more, I think, given that the MOOCs companies market their instructors as “world leaders in their fields,” presumably a big draw.

Note too that many of the professors in MOOCs require or recommend
students to buy their expensive textbooks. Udacity founder Thrun did
that for his AI course at Stanford. He had 80,000 students, and the book retails for $137. Normal royalty rates are 15% (he probably gets more). My guess that less than half the students did buy the book, but you can see he
made a lot of money just from the books alone.

27 03 2013

“Note too that many of the professors in MOOCs require or recommend
students to buy their expensive textbooks.”
And this of course means that the course is not Open, not in the sense of Open Education nor in the sense that Open was used when the term MOOC was coined. The requirement for expensive textbooks is a barrier to learning and if altruism is a motivation for academics to participate in MOOCs then they should also license their works with a Creative Commons or similar Open license.

27 03 2013
Morton Tenzer

For many years I have thought that higher education was pricing itself out of the market. Cost to send a student to an elite college today can run close to a quarter of a million dollars over four years. Other schools, both public and private have also had enormous increases in tuition, room and board, and other expenses. Faculties have ignored these wildly escalating charges for their services since they hardly benefitted from them. I never could estimate what might bring the whole higher education edifice down, But MOOCs seem to be the answer. In fifty years residential colleges will be a dim memory as students will earn their degrees, however watered down, from their home computers.

27 03 2013

I doubt moocs will replace college. They are just online videos with multiple choice tests. ZZZzzzzzzzzz….

And I wouldn’t jump to blame the faculty. I read that tuition has gone up while faculty salaries have stagnated. Tuition went up because of new gyms with climbing walls, sports teams, fancy cafeterias, giant pools – basically because someone decided it was more efficient to run colleges like businesses, and give the consumers what they want. Tuition also went up because of the rise of the administrator class (kinda like CEOs). Tuition at public schools also went up due to defunding of education, which moocs profiteers are thirsty for.

You might be happy with your watered down degree, and low student loans, but is it worth it if you are unemployable?

28 03 2013
Peter Shea (@pshea99)

This is a classic canard. Something like 80% of students attend public higher education whose costs are far more reasonable and only increasing for two reasons – loss of state support and an increasing administrative sector (which has grown for a variety of factors). Considering financial aid packages based on need, the $250,000 BA is not a price tag that anyone but the 1% pays for higher education. Is there any possibility that the over sized response to this admittedly enormous sum is a direct reflection of the over sized influence of this class of consumer…?

27 03 2013
An-Jen Tai

The right way to think about this, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t occured to anyone else in this discussion, is that what might be happening to education is roughly equivalent to what happend to the provisioning of music or performing arts in general with the onset of vinyl records and talking pictures. In line with that, the biggest winners will be the very best educators in a discipline, and consumers of education as a whole, though the benefits for each will be more modest obviously. The losers will be all the professors who are not quite good enough. This will all be terribly unfair of course since the margin between not quite good enough and the best is remarkably thin ……..

Just wail till this hits the market for secondary eduction.

27 03 2013

Wow, while I’m not in total agreement with the OP on all of this, I’m not sure you want to make the statement that the commercialization of music into mass distribution resulted in the cream always rising to the top.

Two words: Justin Bieber.

27 03 2013

Unfortunately the measure of ‘good’ normally refers to status which is accrued from research and publication or movement through the university hierarchy. It rarely is accrued from the ability to teach or educate well and so there is no corollary that Moocs using the ‘best’ professors will result in the best learning opportunities.

27 03 2013

I don’t think this is the “right” way to think about this, and that is probably why it hasn’t occurred in the discussion. Unlike the music industry, or newspaper industry, education is not simply about content delivery. If it was, then libraries/dvds/cds would have replaced schools years ago.

Here is a simple example: if I want to lose weight and get really fit, then which do you think will be more effective: (a) signing up at the gym with a personal trainer who knows my name, or (b) watching some online videos of some famous body builder at some famous gym? I can tell you that I tried both, and got nowhere with (b). With (a) I lost all the weight I wanted and I was buff (;

In case you don’t get it, (a) is like college, and (b) is like moocs. But education is far more complex than exercise, since it is a psychological, social, intellectual, and cultural process, among other things.

I also don’t agree that students will be the biggest winners. If governments defund education and encourage moocs instead, then eventually real colleges will disappear. Then college degrees will lose their value (no one will respect an online degree that did not even have real teachers – that is worse than university of phoenix). At this point, the only face to face colleges will be totally and completely out of reach (stanford, harvard). Then students will be trapped – no degree and no schools.

28 03 2013
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28 03 2013

“You might just consider the possibility that the 2500 year old educational scheme of a prof standing up and lecturing a few bleary eyed students may have been overcome by technological events.”

Nice comment- what you’re advocating to improve learning is that a professor make a video of a lecture and then make it available to 25,0000 bleary-eyed students. Sound like a hell of an improvement but you’re forgetting the real professors provide for collaborative learning, feedback, and even spontaneity.

28 03 2013
Peter Shea (@pshea99)

Lets not kid ourselves – we don’t need half – its more like the 1% of the professoriate…1%…gee where have I heard….

28 03 2013
Jonathan Rees


Audrey Watters suggested the same thing on twitter and you’re both right. While I think the number of professors who want to be superprofessors would drive up the number above 1%, I used “half” in the title here in order to make the allusion to the Jay Gould quote more obvious.

29 03 2013
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30 03 2013

I make a podcast. It is available for free. Do you think I ought to stop that? Am I really supposed to be sad that people are willing to share their knowledge widely?

31 03 2013
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31 03 2013
Dr. Marranci

All this focus on teaching, from teaching awards to this free (but yet corporartivistic) endeavour has a clear effect on academics. We have lost intellectuals. Less and less quality research (who has time), less quality writing (even less time), less real engagement and intellectual debate. Everything is today “teaching” and indeed this “free” courses ends in transforming what were supposed to be intellectuals in online smiling teachers, there to provide the sexed up version of the spoon feeding courses we are today forced to offer to over numbered classes.
The world needs teachers, fancy ones; intellectuals are useless in a society were, as one student told me “needs to learn not to think”.

31 03 2013
Another Halocene Human

I’m skeptical of the innate value of the ivory tower. Theory must be grounded by reality. I think Cornel West is right. If you can’t take it to the people–and take back as much as you give–you’re just masturbating to a small audience. If this shit is really transformative and valuable, prove it.

I have come to find out in life that academia is full of people hiding from life and people for whatever reason and academic has providing them with a welcoming cloister. And students’ frustration with this ineptitude is real.

Why, for example, in my last year at $expensive_private_edu in an advanced math class with three students, none of whom were math majors, was it okay for the instructor, $disgruntled_grad_student, to ignore our requests for further topics at the midterm and piggishly go ahead with covering topics that interested him and him alone? That wasn’t “collaborative”, it didn’t assist us academically, it was a blatant disrespect of our time and money, using the leverage of a bad grade to coerce us since it was too late to drop. I followed the material fine and did fine, but that shit wasn’t cool, man.

The cloister doesn’t aid the real world outside. It still burns me to know stuff that 99.99% of the public doesn’t know, the politicians don’t know, the government bureaucrats who make the decisions don’t know, and being the one person crying in the wilderness trying ineffectually to share what I know because there is a HUGE bias against engaging the public because they’re “cranks”, it’s a “waste of time and energy” because “pseudoscience doesn’t deserve a response”, etc. And meantime real decisions involving real money, resources, and human beings are being made on faulty information and theories.

5 04 2013

I agree with CIP on most points. And as a professor, I can’t wait for MOOCs to take over, especially for all the basic and intro courses that students needed to take before that even got in to college. College will be for really getting a personalized learning experience, at an intellectual level that has been diluted by remedial courses and unprepared students.

14 04 2013
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19 04 2013
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20 04 2013
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24 05 2013
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[…] But there is more substantial criticism I can also relate with: […]

27 06 2013
Udacity is not a charity. | More or Less Bunk

[…] short, Thrun is acting like he’s Benjamin Franklin when he’s actually being a lot more like Jay Gould. As Newfield (rather obviously) points […]

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