Parasites and vultures.

14 04 2013

When you want to replace your sink, you call a plumber. When you want to replace higher education, on the other hand, everything appears to be DIY. Of course, you can always go to Lowe’s or Home Depot and get some advice, but the parasites and vultures determined to change higher ed for their own benefit don’t think they need any advice at all despite the fact that we faculty will have to live with the results of their work for the rest of our careers.

As if this wasn’t bad enough already, not only does the sink still leak, I would argue that it’s bloody obvious that the sink will eventually leak a lot more than it did before the changeover started because these interlopers and hangers on don’t know the first thing about teaching. [And no, this is NOT and asset.] To prove that point, just look at evidence from three different parts of the edtech universe:

I. Learning Management Systems

Before “The Year of the MOOC,” I spent most of my time on this blog attacking online education in general. In the same way that George W. Bush actually made me miss the Reagan Administration, MOOCs have made me look much more fondly upon online education too. After all, at least in non-massive online courses, students have access to the professor. More importantly, most of the online professors who I’ve met (both online and in person) care deeply about education. Experienced, well-trained professors can do some really neat things teaching online. Unfortunately, there are plenty of vultures and parasites in this space determined to prevent that from happening.

The bane of the online educator’s existence (and quite a few face-to-face professors too) is the learning management system (or LMS). While I’ve heard better things about some systems than others, my campus is cursed with what surely must be the worst one ever invented: Blackboard. I went through Blackboard training long before I ever developed any interest in education technology, and was immediately repulsed by it. So many unnecessary bells and whistles! So little opportunity to customize the platform! Every time our faculty listserve gets one of those “Blackboard is down” e-mails, which seems to happen constantly on my campus, I smile a little smile knowing that I made the right to decision to avoid Blackboard like the plague.

To my mind, the entire concept of an LMS is an unwarranted intrusion on the prerogatives of professors with respect to everything from course design to giving administrators the ability to “eavesdrop” on every conversation you have with your students. Of course, this problem extends beyond online education. Why do any faculty, particularly those of us teaching face-to-face, need an expensive LMS anyway? Last time I checked, almost nobody on my campus used most Blackboard features. When I started playing around with wikis last year, our tech people actually told me to use Wikispaces because the Blackboard wiki function was so awful.

What makes letting Blackboard or any other LMS provider suck the university’s life blood even more crazy is that there are so many good free (or at least much, much cheaper) professor-centered alternatives out there. The details of this subject are more than a bit over my head, but thanks to ProfHacker (which is also over my head a lot of the time) all my online class-related activities now go through WordPress. Indeed, thanks to the excellent example of one of my better-informed colleagues, I’ve even migrated all my syllabi there too.

This general strategy came in really handy when the Internet on my campus crashed during the middle of finals week last year. As I wrote here at that time:

Don’t keep all your eggs in the same basket. More importantly, maintain control of all of your baskets. Any LMS, almost by definition, threatens that kind of control.

Like farmers in the 1890s (who also make an appearance in that last link), I think we’re all being sold off to large corporations by people who haven’t the foggiest notion of what constitutes good educational practices, let alone good educational practices online.

II. E-Textbooks

I work for an online publisher. What separates that firm from just about every other textbook startup that I’ve ever encountered is that their business model depends upon getting professors to adopt their service, not by imposing themselves upon instructors by courting students or administrators first.

Yes, textbooks are too expensive. Yes, I want students to save money too. No, I will not assign your product unless I actually want to teach your material. Let’s pick on one of the big e-textbook publishers for just a minute: Inkling. This is from their educators page:

Textbooks, in many ways, shape how your students learn. Inkling was founded on the premise that if we can make textbooks better – more engaging, and more effective – we can actually improve learning outcomes for students. We work with publishers and authors directly to carefully rebuild their content to take full advantage of the learning potential of iOS devices and the web.

[emphasis added]

Where exactly do faculty fall in this business model? After all, we’re the ones who assign textbooks. Why don’t you want to work with us too? The fact these companies want to “disrupt” the textbook market is not in and of itself good reason to let any one of them do so, particularly if their real goal is simply to pick the carcass of the publishing industry.

That would explain why so many giant publishers are way out in front of actual students in making the transition to digital textbooks. And, inevitably, e-textbooks aren’t necessarily cheaper either. In exactly whose interest is this transition then?

Perhaps more importantly (at least in terms of the constituency for this blog), professors need to be able to make the decision about what kind of materials they even want in their classroom. Every tablet, laptop or similar device is also a portal to the entire WWW. That means there’s no way to tell whether students are staring at the assigned text as you go over it in class or are staring at their Facebook pages.

By now, we all probably have experience with this firsthand. I, for one, resent that this even has to be an issue. It’s my classroom, therefore it should be my choice what learning tools get used there. If I can make students put down their phones, I shouldn’t get any flack for making them buy paper. With the exception of survey textbooks (which I don’t even assign), history textbooks aren’t even all that expensive anyway.

Some of these new providers, like Courseload, are at least opt-in at the professor level. If they have e-textbooks that you actually want to assign and teach from then by all means assign them if you’re willing to put up with digital distractions. This way at least saves most of our prerogatives for now. The real problem will come when administrators and politicians start demanding e-textbooks solely in the name of cost savings, much the same way that they’re suggesting every public university must embrace MOOCs.

Speaking of which…

III. [You guessed it] MOOCs

MOOC providers are both vultures and parasites. They’re vultures because they market themselves to the most vulnerable systems in higher education, saddling them with added costs before any of the alleged cost-savings they promote ever have a chance to kick in. They’re picking the bones before all the meat’s gone because that’s the vulture’s way.

Their parasitic function comes when they partner with elite campuses who want to “extend their brand” and their revenue by getting at least some money that would be spent locally on campus sent elsewhere. [Kind of reminds me of Walmart, now that I think of it.] It’s elite university vs. non-elite faculty and the MOOC providers win either way.

This same kind of parasitic behavior even transcends MOOCs. In this case I’m borrowing Gerry Canavan’s characterization of the following quote from this article on the Minerva Project:

The idea is to scoop up those students who are being shut out, whether it’s a smart American kid who has to opt for a solid state school when they had their heart set on Brown, or the child of a well-to-do family in Beijing, by offering them a great education and a worldwide network of contacts. Minerva will admit applicants based on their academic chops alone — jocks need not apply — and students would live in urban dorms scattered across the globe’s great cities. They’ll take online courses designed by highly esteemed professors from other established institutions. Meanwhile, tuition would cost “less than half” the price of the standard Ivy League sticker price (so somewhere around $20,000 or below). That, anyway, is the plan.

[The emphasis is Canavan’s]

While not a MOOC, Minerva is like MOOCs in that they encourage the “best of the best” among faculty to perform the same function that faculty at other schools already fulfill. All told, it’s not really half the professoriate killing the other half for free. It’s more like 1% of the professoriate dropping a nuclear bomb on the rest of us. Then we pay the MOOC providers to rebuild on top of the debris.

For all the faults that I’ve ascribed to superprofessors in recent months, at least they presumably know something about teaching. Unfortunately, there are so many other people who have to be invited into the MOOCification process that whatever expertise they have will inevitably be diluted. As Karen Head, who’s building a composition MOOC at Georgia State, has explained:

The preparation of a MOOC, unlike that of a traditional course, requires working with videographers, instructional designers, IT specialists, and platform specialists. For many MOOCs this means that an instructor and a teaching assistant must fill most of those support roles. In fact, one of my colleagues who taught a MOOC actually built a recording studio in the basement of his home. Even with our team of 19, we still needed several other people to provide support.

Jeremy Adelman may just be being gracious here, but it’s still quite telling:

I had fabulous graduate assistants, invaluable help from our teaching and learning center, film editors, and an associate dean of the college upon whose shoulder I could weep. In the sciences, where more performed delivery goes on behind screens of equations and graphs, it is easier to produce videos. But if administrators do not put the capacity and resources behind their humanities teachers to produce discipline-appropriate courses for the web, planet MOOC will remain a haven for carnivores.

I hate to break it to Jeremy, but planet MOOC is full of cannibals. How encouraging faculty to eat other faculty is ever going to fix anything about higher education remains completely beyond me. After all, we’re the teaching experts while the parasites and vultures are just in it for the money.



6 responses

14 04 2013
‘Parasites and Vultures’ | Gerry Canavan

[…] Jonathan Rhees isn’t mincing words: Parasites and Vultures. […]

14 04 2013

not to put too fine a point on it (and representing only myself here) higher ed has been eating its young for some time, admin and not a few ten fac using graduate students and adjuncts as field hands and firewalls. this is just the next step. now you’re on the menu. I wonder if work is already underway on administrator 2.0

15 04 2013
Cooking with Clio

Ah, the wonderful world of the LMS…we migrated from Blackboard (where one could at least figure out how to post a reading, etc) to Moodle which is even less easy to use and less stable. I will read up on the options on ProfHacker and see if I can put my WordPress skills to better use. As for higher ed eating its young, while I do agree that tenure track faculty at some R1 institutions use their grad students poorly, and adjuncts are used poorly by many institutions, I should point out that most tenure track faculty do not have graduate students to use, nor do we have much control over how adjuncts are employed or deployed…

16 04 2013
Will the last non-super professor in academia please turn out the lights when they leave? | More or Less Bunk

[…] realize that I’ve been kind of shrill lately, but this kind of complacency just scares me to death. Yes, skilled iron and steel workers faced a […]

22 04 2013

Gives vultures a bad name

3 10 2013
Dear MOOC Messiah Squad: You are expendable. | More or Less Bunk

[…] jobs program for a whole bunch of people who are technologically inclined. Let me quote Karen Head (again) to suggest the extent of this employment […]

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