Like automating your wedding or the birth of your first child.

23 04 2013

The best line in that “Grading the MOOC University” piece that came out in the Times over the weekend was obviously the part about the superprofessor being:

“out of students’ reach, only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon.”

That line was also the most obvious.  Nobody had to take eleven MOOCs to figure that out as the entire point of MOOCs is to automate the educational process enough so that student/professor interaction becomes unnecessary. That’s an inevitable consequence of the number of students involved.

That’s why I find it so puzzling that the person who has famously stated that any professor who can be replaced by a computer screen should be wants to be a superprofessor. It’s as if Cathy Davidson wants to be replaced by a computer screen herself.

But, of course, her MOOC is going to be different.  “Personally,” Davidson writes:

“I’m skeptical of many MOOCs as they are structured now.  This is precisely why I am planning to teach one.”

I’ll bet that’s what the people running the first UK MOOC said to themselves before they started.  From the write-up in the Times of London:

“In contrast to the set up of many programs offered via Coursera, the developers of Edinbugh’s e-learning course opted against having the content driven by audiovisual footage of lectures delivered to camera, choosing instead to curate open-source online content, including YouTube footage and academic papers.

The decision proved unpopular with some students…as they had been expecting to see professors imparting knowledge as they would in a lecture theatre.”

As I’ve explained before, a class is not a commune.  Professorial authority is the glue that holds the whole educational enterprise together. Even if you manage to set up the perfect online learning community, students can only teach other students so much. And a college course that amounts to reading texts on the greater WWW and participating in a few discussions on gigantic message boards is destined to be extremely unsatisfying. Watching videotaped lectures would actually be an improvement.

So Cathy Davidson is already taping lectures for her MOOC that will probably land next year.*  She writes:

“And it is hard to imagine that, if you are fortunate enough in every way to attend a face to face university with real profs who listen to your ideas and respond to them passionately and personally, and who include you in their research and who help you on their way into a complicated world using all the best ideas and best methodologies and best tools and best theories available, that you would ever want to give up all that astonishing privileged luxury to take a class online with 160,000 others (even if 90% of them drop out during the term).  If your profs are able to offer the full range of classes you wish to take, if they have kept current in their field, if they use exciting new methods and respect your own ability to learn and contribute in new ways, then they are doing a great job and you are spending your money well. Why would you want to take a MOOC in that case?”

Why indeed?  But why on earth should you ever settle for anything less?  

Instead, superprofessors like Davidson are settling for you. In the name of increasing access to higher education, extremely well-meaning liberals are cooperating in destroying its quality. They’re sending a signal to the people who make higher education budgetary decisions that an automated education is henceforth and forever acceptable. You want to fight permanent austerity? Tough luck. Davidson has already raised the white flag of surrender on your behalf. [“If I had a magic wand…,” she repeats like a mantra, thereby implying that real change is impossible almost by definition.] She’s also raised the white flag on behalf of most of the world’s potential college students for generations to come.

Education is supposed to be an exceedingly personal enterprise.  This is why forcing students into MOOCs as a last resort is like automating your wedding or the birth of your first child.  You’re taking something that ought to depend upon the glorious unpredictability of human interaction and turning it into mass-produced, impersonal, disposable schlock.

I’ve read Now You See It, Now You Don’t. Therefore, I know that Davidson is a great teacher. However, given a choice between a Cathy Davidson who’s about as accessible as the pope or Thomas Pynchon and the vast majority of the dedicated people working adjunct jobs in academia (who could get a significant raise and still be cheaper than a wrap-around contract with Coursera), I’d take the adjuncts any day of the week.

And yes, I understand that people in underdeveloped countries need higher education too. However, privatizing our system of higher education so that we can export the mere essence of instruction is a favor to nobody. Everybody else on the planet deserves personal relationships with their professors just like American students do.

Maybe Coursera could start a MOOC about organizing the global proletariat in order to demand better educational choices than MOOCs.  I know that I’d finish that one.

*  Davidson’s post says Spring of 2013, but I think that’s a typo.



6 responses

23 04 2013

It says Spring 2014 at the bottom. I think that’s right.

23 04 2013
Music for Deckchairs

I agree — educational philanthropists seem so focused on developing solutions for underserved markets that they’re willing to overlook the risk to the integrity of locally-facing education everywhere. Concern about this isn’t just the tenured and privileged trying to protect their own jobs. It’s also about the value of students learning from teachers who know where they are, and thicken even generic and introductory curriculum with locally relevant references and ideas.

This will hit us in Australia, for example, where sudden and serious Federal budget cuts to higher education mean that administrators will come under pressure to cut operating costs. And, look! Here’s all this free stuff on the shelf from name brand companies! Why not? So just when it looked as though things couldn’t get worse for our casual academics, it does.

I’m enrolled in yet another MOOC, and again, although there’s an enormous amount that impresses me, we’re still all stuck with the normalising world view of a very small part of the United States, with all 14000 of us doing the work of translating and adapting this for ourselves. That’s what learning is, but if that’s what learning is all of the time, it becomes more serious.

I’m interested to know what sense of responsibility philanthropists feel for the overall cultural balance in the educational ecosystem.

23 04 2013
Spanish Prof

“And yes, I understand that people in underdeveloped countries need higher education too”

Is there any concrete data of how people in underdevelop countries benefit from MOOCs? Data broken down by socio-economic class, gender, etc. I only have very anecdotical evidence. I do know people in my home country (Argentina), who benefit from the MOOcs. But they tend to be middle class, highly educated and self motivated, and with access to higher education in their own country. Contrary to what some believe, it is actually pretty good AND free if you choose to go to a public school.

So the whole altruistic “let’s educate those unfortunate to live in developing countries with MOOcs” sounds suspicious and patronizing to me. That is not to say that many of those countries don’t have huge problems when it comes to education. But I highly doubt MOOCs are the solution.

24 04 2013

Excellent point, Spanish Prof. Another thing no one ever interrogates w/r/t the export of U.S. higher education is language. Instead, the MOOCs assume that all instruction will be conducted in the mother tongue of the global hegemon, in the name of bringing “free” education to all.

Jonathan, this is a great post. I think you sum up your life’s work as both a labor historian and as a blogger right here very succinctly. I don’t get what Davidson and others like her think they’re getting out of MOOCifying themselves, given the hazards faced by the rest of us. I guess part of the message is that mopes like us aren’t perceived by the SuperProfessors to be of the same species or working in the same fields they work in.

This reminds me of a story a friend of mine who works in finance told me. He was having a conversation with a lobbyist for Big Finance, who told him flat out that there’s a going rate for buying off both Democratic and Republican pols, and that Dems sell themselves too low. They could demand (and get) more, but they don’t–they’ll settle for peanuts, whereas the Republicans know their value and hold out for more $$$. The SuperProfessors collaborating with the MOOCs are like Dem pols–blow a little smoke up their skirts, flatter them a little bit, and they’re on board. Only, they’re selling out the whole profession, not just the price of their participation.

24 04 2013
Music for Deckchairs

I’ve been questioning the assumptions about the benevolence of global English for a while, and I agree that not many others are asking these questions. We know plenty about the risks and opportunities of the Anglophone internet in general for fragile languages, not to mention robust not-English languages.

MOOC forums often seem to me to reproduce the social disadvantages we see in both classroom and online settings in English-speaking university cultures where those who are working in their second (or third) language find it much harder to get a response from those who are fluent standard English writers. This is the engagement and inclusion data I’d really like to see: who is included, who is left alone?

26 04 2013
Daniel Allington

Spanish Prof’s point (‘I do know people in my home country (Argentina), who benefit from the MOOcs. But they tend to be middle class, highly educated and self motivated, and with access to higher education in their own country’) reminds me of Robin Goodfellow’s historical discussion of how the initially radical idea of part-time distance education came to be recuperated ( In the chapter linked to from that post, he argues that, in the UK, this resulted in the creation of an institution that primarily benefited ‘able, motivated, but insufficiently qualified students’, drawn to a great extent ‘from semi-professional occupations, especially teaching’: that is, middle-class people whose ‘exclusion [from conventional university study] was a function of the elitism of the British university system itself, not of fundamental inequalities in economic or social status.’ (p. 13) He could have gone on to mention another group that has historically done well at that institution: people who already hold equivalent level qualifications from conventional universities. These are exactly the groups that are likely to benefit most from MOOCs.

Now, before I go any further, I should say that the institution in question is Robin’s and my employer, and that in the last few years, it has made progress towards enrolling large numbers of people from genuinely disadvantaged social groups. But something it has found is that people from those groups typically require much more support than others if they are to complete the courses they have enrolled on. This adds another dimension to Music for Deckchairs’ question: ‘who is included, who is left alone?’

Making something ‘open’ does not make it equitable. We know this where I work and we expend a lot of energy trying to address the many problems involved. But it’s not something Coursera probably gives a damn about.

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