Harvard hates you (and Coursera isn’t all that fond of you either).

20 05 2013

Anybody familiar with my fondness for labor history, 19th century American folklore and sarcasm will understand why this is now my favorite tweet ever:

If you don’t know who “John Henry” was, The Boss will be delighted to sing you one version of the story. Or better yet, read the book by Scott Reynolds Nelson and learn a little bit about all of them. The key point here for understanding that tweet is that the steam hammer killed John Henry, leaving him no time to do other things at all. While MOOC enthusiasts like to claim that their babies will allow professors to get back to the way teaching is supposed to be, anybody who’s paying the least bit of attention to academic politics in this day and age knows that the bean counters will never let that happen. Economically, non-superprofessors will all be as dead as John Henry because killing our jobs is the primary reason that MOOCs exist in the first place.

My response to that tweet was so pathetic in its attempt at similar humor that I just deleted it before writing this. However, when breaking my brain in a failed attempt to be witty, I realized that the joke here actually understates the direness of our situation. John Henry was competing against the steam drill in a fair fight when his heart exploded. In our case, the steam drill is coming down directly upon our chests. What I mean by that is that MOOCs won’t be displacing us by accident. They’ll be replacing us by design.

You think I’m kidding? Here’s a paragraph from that New Yorker article on MOOCs that I didn’t quote last week:

[William] Bowen spent much of the seventies and eighties as the president of Princeton, after which he joined the Mellon Foundation. In a lecture series at Stanford last year, he argued that online education may provide a cure for the disease he diagnosed almost half a century ago. If overloaded institutions diverted their students to online education, it would reduce faculty, and associated expenses. Courses would become less jammed. Best of all, the élite and populist systems of higher education would finally begin to interlock gears and run as one: the best-endowed schools in the country could give something back to their nonexclusive cousins, streamlining their own teaching in the process. Struggling schools could use the online courses in their own programs, as San José State has, giving their students the benefit of a first-rate education. Everybody wins. At Harvard, I was told, repeatedly, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

[emphasis added]

As I mentioned before, I know Bill Bowen (even though I haven’t seen him in many years). While he is a very nice man, being both an economist and a former university administrator, I can easily believe that this is exactly what he meant.* The question becomes then: When Harvard people say “A rising tide lifts all boats” do they mean the same thing that Bowen does? Do they think faculty should be thrown over the side before that tide comes in?

I think they do.

Exhibit A: After the speech I gave in Connecticut last Friday, a Harvard Ph.D. in the audience slipped me an article. It’s from their Arts and Sciences graduate college alumni magazine. The new issue isn’t available online yet so you’re just going to have to trust me here:

“Thanks to technologies like HarvardX, [Grad Students Wen Yu] and [Ian] Miller suspect, there may be fewer professors in the academy in the future, but they will be much better teachers.”

That last sentiment is so perverse, I’m going to have to take it up in a post all its own, but for now just let the total lack of compassion there sink in for a moment. Sure, we’re going to screw over a lot of other grad students, but we’ll be fine! We’re from Harvard! With respect to there being fewer professors in the future, you just know they’re getting that from somewhere.

Exhibit B comes from former Harvard dean Harry Lewis (who talked to that New Yorker reporter, but was not quoted extensively). In this blog post, he absolves his employer for all blame for MOOC-induced professorial unemployment:

In the case of MOOCs (or other ways of chunking online instruction), Harvard could impose burdensome licensing rules in an effort to protect the scholarly professionals elsewhere. (Just as the Wall Street Journal is now Online but hardly Open.) But of course UC would then utilize someone else’s product, resulting in lower quality instruction at UC, perhaps at a higher price. Would we at Harvard then sleep better, knowing that if any philosophers had been laid off in California, it was not because of OUR MOOC?

Someone else is going to destroy your jobs, he’s arguing, so why shouldn’t it be Harvard? “You’re going to die someday anyway, so why don’t I just shoot you now?

In other words, my fellow faculty members who teach at universities with precarious balance sheets (which therefore makes them ripe for “disruption”), Harvard hates you. Not content to be the richest of the rich, they want to get even richer by making your jobs no longer economically viable.

What’s doubling infuriating about that line of argument is the way Lewis wraps Harvard’s selfish interest in the patina of a good cause, namely openness. That kind of argument is pretty common amongst the MOOC messiah corps. Just look at Coursera. As Irene Ogrizek writes:

Coursera is a for-profit entity. It, along with other for-profits, is being heralded as an example of corporate innovation that will bolster and transform the global education sector. But the bottom line is that Koller, her partner Andrew Ng, and their backers are in it to make money. Images of desperate South Africans might be useful for generating support, but eventually someone, most likely the South African government, will have to pay for the privilege of collaborating with Coursera. And the profits will go to shareholders and not back into an ailing system that can produce a stampede that can kill a mother who only wants what’s best for her son.

Of course, Sebastian Thrun has famously stated that in the future there will only be a need for ten universities worldwide. Therefore, he’s no pal of ours either. The only thing that separates MOOC providers from Harvard is that they want to destroy higher education top to bottom and rebuild it with nearly all the revenue flowing to them. Faculty will simply be collateral damage as whole universities disappear for the sake of investors, taking nearly everybody’s jobs – indeed whole college towns – with them. But at least we’ll still have Cambridge.

It’s as if the Stanford CS department is trying to build a vast infrastructure, suck as much money as possible out of it, then run it into the ground. Oddly enough, as the Stanford historian Richard White explains in his recent historiographic milestone of a book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, that’s what Leland Stanford and his buddies did to the American railway system over a century ago.

On second thought, maybe that John Henry analogy isn’t so far off at all.

* If you have more time than I do, you can listen to Bowen’s talk at Stanford last year and tell me if this summary is accurate. However, the New Yorker‘s fact checkers are so legendarily thorough, I’d be shocked if his ideas are being distorted here at all.




20 responses

20 05 2013

I think the John Henry reference is pretty close, including the detail you didn’t mention: he was trying to compete and was, if I recall correctly, briefly ahead!, but the effort burst his heart. And it will break ours too.

But the Bowen quotation put me in mind not so much of J.H. as of Rudyard Kipling and his poem of imperialism and colonialism: “The White Man’s Burden.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_White_Man%27s_Burden gives a quick summary of that, including the various points of view of it, ALL of which are mobilized in the MOOC debate. Ah, Harvard.

On another note, what a pleasure to meet you at the Connecticut event!

20 05 2013
Jonathan Rees

Ruth Anne,

The pleasure was all mine. The Connecticut AAUP rocks.

20 05 2013
Harry Lewis

First of all, nothing I say reflects an institutional position by Harvard; it has been hears since I was a dean, and I am not on any planning or governance committee that is charting the future of EdX. I simply have been involved in some faculty discussions and decided to reflect on them. So take everything I speculate with a grain of salt, as the lunatic speculations of one professor.

That said, I really am not sure what your alternative universe would look like. I can tell you mine: New and more forward-looking government policies reverse the underfunding of higher education so institutions that are already weakened can be restored to health, MOOCs or no MOOCs. Online education gets used to educate those to whom no other education is available. Alas, I can’t see that universe becoming real anytime soon. It seems equally unlikely that every institution, for profit and not for profit, will voluntarily refrain from Internet education because of the damage it might do to existing institutions, whatever good it might also do. Further, it would be unlawful for even two institutions to agree with each other not to pursue an innovation that might lower the costs and spread the benefits of higher education, on the basis that some peer institution might be hurt in the process. (The education business is not exempt from antitrust law. Anticompetitive agreements are frowned upon in the U.S.) Your extravagant analogies to Leland Stanford et al. suggest a degree of intentionality, and indeed a degree of predictability, for which I see no evidence. Lots of experiments are going to be tried, and as in every other industry affected by the information revolution, some will succeed, some will fail, and the world will not look the same after as it did before. Various bets are being made, but if (as I doubt) an apocalypse is coming, nothing that one institution does will either hasten or prevent it.

20 05 2013
Jonathan Rees


1) I never suggested that universities should refrain from online education. I’m saying they should refrain from becoming MOOC providers. Regular online courses offer contact with their professors. MOOCs don’t. The difference in student success rates is therefore considerable.

2). Antitrust? Seriously? That’s like saying that California Pizza Kitchen is legally obligated to sell frozen piea because some people can’t afford to eat there. Universities can always choose not to offer MOOCs for educational reasons rather than economic ones. Besides, if anybody should be prosecuted for antitrust violations it should be Harvard for deliberately trying to put other schools out of business.

PS The degree to which you’ve absorbed the mentality of the market is incredibly revealing.

20 05 2013
Harry Lewis

Ad (1), it’s probably a mistake to have called these things “courses,” because you are surely right that they don’t substitute for college courses. But they are also not nothing — a lot of people (if only a small percentage of those who signed up) learned a lot from CS50X, for example. Anyway, they will shortly morph into something else, so that MOOC term will probably be short-lived.

Ad (2), you seem to have missed what I said — that no two institutions could lawfully agree not to offer MOOCs or whatever, any more than (to use your metaphor) two pizza joints could agree not to sell lower-cost spaghetti, lest they undercut each other’s principal business. Of course any individual institution could stay out of the MOOC business, and I understand your position that MOOCs are inherently bad educationally and bad for academia and that quality places like Harvard should opt out for that reason. The problem I have with that argument is that CS50X is a good … something, surely not a regular course, but it’s certainly something from which a lot of people have learned a lot. (I also doubt, incidentally, that it has taken jobs away from anyone, the overdemand and undersupply of tech teachers being what they are.)

So while I recognize what you are worried about, I can’t accept the premise that things like CS50X are inherently bad educationally, and that places like Harvard have an obligation not to create them because such educational offerings may prove to have unhappy consequences for someone. Which gets us back the question of whether Harvard has an obligation to create restrictive licensing terms in order to prevent misuse, rather than adopting a more open posture as I advocated. You should be reassured that (as I said in my blog post) for various reasons, there is zero chance of Harvard adopting the open posture I am advocating.

20 05 2013
Jonathan Rees


I didn’t say MOOCs were inherently bad educationally, I’m saying that they’re inherently inferior. If your mild positive good leads to the closing coamunity colleges that could educate more people better, then that’s a net bad.

What drives me bonkers is the way so many folks act like you’re doing the world a favor when in fact you’ve got an incredibly narrow view of the effect of Harvard’s actions.

2 09 2013

“that no two institutions could lawfully agree not to offer MOOCs or whatever, any more than (to use your metaphor) two pizza joints could agree not to sell lower-cost spaghetti, lest they undercut each other’s principal business.”

Why not? It’s not as though they’re colluding to prevent a third party from offering the same. No university, or even small groups of universities, are large enough to form a monopoly. Especially not when we’re talking about MOOCs – a distributed system not tied to space.

2 09 2013
Harry Lewis

We need a lawyer to weigh in, and IANAL. But I am certain that, while any university is free to enter any new marketplace or not as it sees fit, to come to an agreement with another university not to enter a market because it would be better for both of them if neither of them did, would be anticompetitive collusion. There are exceptions (e.g., the agreement among the Ivies not to offer athletic scholarships), but I don’t think the principle has anything to do with whether the market is still open to third parties.

21 05 2013
Bad Boy Scientist

MOOCs are riding high on the Hype curve and are scaring many people. Some fear they’ll put many professors out of work – I doubt it. I think it is far more likely that MOOCs will crash, burn and fail to come close to keeping their (implied) promise. Consequently they’ll tarnish the reputation of all online education and hybrid & ‘flipped’ classrooms may never be given a fair shot.

Despite a few anecdotes, the trend is becoming clear that less individual attention leads to lower student achievement. Is anyone surprised that quality education depends on quality human interaction? (If you are surprised by that then how do you explain that Libraries didn’t replace Universities centuries ago?) Am I the only one to notice that the schools which are most optimistic about MOOCs (e.g. Stanford & Harvard) are the ones who carefully select a tiny population of students? Am I the only one to ask if the selection bias of Stanford and Harvard students makes it impossible to generalize their online success to the masses?

I wonder how many of advocates of MOOCs have taught both at an elite institution and a junior college? How many instructors have enough broad experience in teaching different academic demographics to have meaningful opinions on what would work for *all* students? (I know the answer to that: none).

From what I can see, MOOCs are basically Net Forums with a moderator holding a Ph.D. Online content & discussion is a very valuable resource for all who have computers but they can only replace true instruction for a select few – those who can self-teach. And those could do just as well at the library or the coffee house.

21 05 2013
Harry Lewis

HarvardX courses are not replacements for Harvard courses. You can’t take one and get credit toward a Harvard degree. Harvard hopes to learn something about pedagogy and learning and develop some tools that will be useful in Harvard College courses, but Harvard students are not the audience for HarvardX courses. Several of the ones we are offering are based on Harvard College courses that already exist, but they aren’t the same thing.

It is a fair question whether Harvard should prevent other universities from using these materials as part of their course programs. Some some of my colleagues think so; I don’t. And I don’t think this is a settled question for the university itself.

The most interesting uses (to the people I know at Harvard who are creating them, I can’t speak for the for-profit companies) are what Clay Christensen calls nonconsumptive uses, instruction of people who would otherwise get no instruction or very low quality instruction. 10% of the CS50x enrollment was from India; I bet that is largely nonconsumptive and no Indian tech academies are being hollowed out because Harvard made CS50x openly available. But like everything else, who is going to take these MOOCs or whatever they evolve into, how much they are going to learn from them–these are empirical questions to which we are just starting to learn the answers.

There is a range of possibilities in between nonconsumptive use and one-for-one replacement of a college course. For example, what if there is a 2-year waiting list to get into a college computer science course? Is the “right” thing to make sure the student waits to take the in-person course, or maybe changes to be an English major, because we know a priori that no online course could possibly be as good? These are all good, debatable questions. They do not have simple answers.

21 05 2013
Bad Boy Scientist

@Harry, I am not sure if your comment was supposed to be a reply to mine or not. It doesn’t seem very closely related to mine.

Ed research says more interaction makes for better education so MOOCs aren’t likely to succeed therefore Professors’ jobs probably won’t be in jeopardy.

BTW: I am skeptical that Harvard is the best place to create a system to educate the masses – it is kinda like asking Olympic coaches and athletes to develop a program for Weight Watcher’s(tm).

21 05 2013
Jonathan Rees


The problem is not students getting Harvard credit. It’ s students getting credit somewhere else.

Once Harvard puts these courses out in the world, they have no control over them? Suppose someone takes their Harvard edX certificate to their registrar and says I’d like credit for my “competency?” How would Harvard even know? If they did, do you think they’d sue? The edX people would probably just demand a cut. Why do you think Coursera offers corses on the “Signature Track?” Out of the goodness of their hearts?

With respect to the non-consumptive uses, the MOOC providers will never make any money off them. To use them to justify the whole enterprise is therefore a red herring.

21 05 2013
Harry Lewis

Replying to several comments here.

Whether Harvard has any control over the use of its materials depends on how those materials are licensed (that is, what waiver of copyright, if any, is attached to the materials). Anything is possible (and Harvard’s legal department is tough enough to enforce a very restrictive license if that is what it chooses to impose). My argument is that a less restrictive license would be better for everyone, but I don’t expect to win that argument, and I respect those who feel otherwise.

Bad Boy is probably right that there are better places than Harvard to produce mass-market content, though for some reason a lot of places that aren’t very much like Harvard use textbooks authored by Harvard professors. Anyway, as I said awhile back, my preference would be for society to put more resources into education of underserved populations. It is a disgrace how community colleges are treated. I just don’t see what that has to do with what kinds of online materials Harvard produces.

As for whether, say, the UC system accepts MOOCs for some kind of credit, in a democratic society isn’t that for the people of California to decide? Wouldn’t those who find Harvard arrogant think it a lot more arrogant if it were to withhold from a public university system something that the people, through their elected representatives, had decided they wanted?

21 05 2013
Jonathan Rees

1). 100,000 people signing up for a MOOC and 90,000 of them dropping out is not evidence that the public is demanding them.

2). Since when are any universities democratic institutions?

22 05 2013

I think (and hope) that BBS is right. Jonathan and I have been pointing out that universities have continued to exist after public libraries, phonographs, radio, TV, closed-circuit cable, etc.–all things that in their early days were promised to bring education to the masses at a low cost. (They never made any money on that, strangely enough–people are willing to pay for entertainment, but not for edutainment-lite. They’d rather save their time and effort for real education.)

MOOCs might be good promotional tools, and so will perhaps serve the bricks & mortar institutions in the way that other social media serve them. (Actually, it’s a pretty anti-social form of social media, compared to the other innovations of web 2.0). They may also serve as a kind of virtual “elderhostel,” which is how I think Harry and CIP are using MOOCs. That’s terrific–and perfectly legitimate. But thinking that MOOCs will work the same way for people who don’t already have bachelor’s degrees and/or years of maturity and experience is completely nutz.

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