“‘That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.”

24 05 2013

Superprofessors are very happy about being superprofessors. And why shouldn’t they be? After all, they won’t have to repeat the same tired old lectures ever again, the students that do pay attention to them are highly motivated and most seem to have hundreds of (if not a few thousand) adoring fans. Sure, there’s all that work that goes into setting up a MOOC, but the point of a MOOC is to get it so that the machine can run itself. Once it’s perfected, any additional work is supposed be minimal.

So you can imagine that superprofessors might get a little testy when a MOOC backlash comes along and threatens their cushy new lives. “MOOC Professors Claim No Responsibility for How Courses Are Used,” explained the Chronicle‘s Wired Campus blog a few days ago. The point guy in that story was Duke biology professor, Mohamed A. Noor:

Mr. Noor says he believes dismantling departments and replacing them with MOOCs would be “reckless.” But the Duke professor also believes that, in such a case, “the fault lies with the reckless administration,” and not the professor who furnished the MOOC to the vendor that furnished the MOOC to the administration.

“I don’t see it as particularly my business how people use the stuff once I put it out there,” Mr. Noor says—though he adds that if dismantling departments were all a MOOC was being used for, “then I’d stop.”

If you want to see some serious superprofessor-bashing, just read the comments to that Chronicle post. They may be the clearest indication of a MOOC backlash that I’ve ever seen. For now, the worst thing I’ll accuse Noor of being is tone deaf. While his system obviously works well for him, Noor appears to lack any understanding of how education works outside of biology and, perhaps more importantly, outside of places like Duke.

Noor is an advocate for the flipped classroom. He describes how he flipped it on his blog, but let’s get this straight from the beginning: Noor is both a MOOC producer and a MOOC consumer. He provides content on tape for Coursera, then teaches that content in his Duke course. That means that his job is not being unbundled. This fact is vital if you want to understand why superprofessors like Noor love MOOCs and ordinary professors are fighting back.

Whenever I hear somebody suggest that I flip my classroom, I always ask one thing: When are students going to have time to do the reading I assign? Noor describes how some of his Duke students protested the extra work associated with watching lectures in advance. How are professors with students who have two jobs or families to go home to going to solve that problem? They won’t. All students will have left is the MOOC, which almost certainly means that some administrations will wonder why they should pay for faculty to be in the room at all.

On Twitter a few days ago, Aaron Bady noted that any pro-MOOC argument must start with an attack on everybody else’s teaching. Noor offers a textbook case of this on his blog to justify what he’s doing and the way he’s doing it:

Our courses need to go beyond fact dissemination– we need to engage students both individually and in groups to assess how well they are interpreting and applying the concepts we’re presenting them. The flipped class is one means of achieving this goal– students get the primary content in some way outside the class period, and their understanding is assessed. This assessment step is critical– students learn what elements of the material they didn’t correctly interpret or apply the first time, and faculty receive feedback to correct frequent student misinterpretations and misapplications in their presentations. The faculty then spend the class period clarifying areas of confusion directly in response to the student feedback, and then reinforcing true understanding of the material with new problems, applications, and engaging discussions. The format forces faculty and students to interact bidirectionally in the learning process, and this bidirectionality has obvious benefits both to student understanding and faculty teaching strategies. It’s also personally satisfying for both parties, as faculty become less “lecturers” and more “facilitators” in the classroom, they work with the humanity of students rather than treating students as consumers of prepackaged products.

Speaking for myself, I go beyond fact dissemination in every single class I teach. It’s a little easier for me to do so because I haven’t had a course with over 40 students in it since I moved to Colorado. However, even unfortunate professors with hundreds of students in class can goose participation without flipping their classrooms. Nobody needs MOOCs in order to be bi-directional.

In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that MOOCs are going to make education worse for the vast majority of students in flipped classrooms. If you remember the whole San Jose State letter, the administration there moved Sandel’s justice MOOC out of philosophy and into the English Department. They could do this because the act of unbundling makes it possible to have in-class teachers who don’t really know the material. This, in turn, is an open invitation to pay them less or get rid of them altogether. Of course, as superprofessor and professor all in one, this is not a problem for Noor. And since Duke seems to have a pretty good shared governance structure, this problem is unlikely to arise for him at any time in the future.

The same can not be said for the rest of us. It’s clear from that Chronicle article that even Noor recognizes this fact:

“Ultimately, faculty at individual colleges need to be the driving force behind what students at their campuses are using,” he says.

“And if that’s not the case” at San Jose State, says Mr. Noor, then MOOCs are “the least of the faculty’s problems.”

Unfortunately, providing administrations with a tool they can use to beat shared governance to death isn’t going to help that situation.

Read those Chronicle comments and you can see that a bunch of people make an analogy between MOOCs and the atomic bomb. While that’s far-fetched in the sense that MOOCs will never kill tens of thousands of people, the ethics involved with how your creations are used are exactly the same. I think JeffRogers142 got this ethical problem absolutely right by quoting the great Tom Lehrer:

“‘Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down?
‘That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.”

In this case, hundreds if not thousands of Noor’s colleagues all across academia care where and how those MOOCs come down. As long as superprofessors continue to show this kind of gross indifference to the welfare of nearly everyone else in their profession, they shouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they’re no longer treated with much collegiality anymore.



14 responses

24 05 2013

Once again, aptly chosen cultural reference!
I’ve been wondering if MOOCs can constructively be compared with textbooks. A professor writes a textbook (complete, perhaps, with review questions, exercises, and suggestions for further reading), and then it goes its merry way—into classes where it’s appropriate, into classes where it’s not particularly appropriate, perhaps into libraries, perhaps into Remaindered bins. Who assigns the text isn’t the author’s concern; who buys the text isn’t the author’s concern; who actually reads the book (and does the exercises, perhaps) isn’t the author’s concern; who learns anything isn’t the author’s concern. Someone passing that Remaindered bin, or that library shelf, thinks the title sounds interesting, or likes the author’s picture, or is impressed that the author is a professor at, say, Duke, and buys it or checks it out. Or a professor assigns the book as a text and does or does not use it in full, does or does not discuss it, does or does not test on it, does or does not invite questions. Perhaps the “professor” is a part-time faculty member who has been assigned a class for which the text is required, even if the faculty member hasn’t actually read it yet or doesn’t really like it. NONE OF THIS is the author’s concern.
Can we say that acquisition of the book is a learning experience? Reading it all on one’s own is a learning experience? Even doing the exercises all on one’s own, or getting together at Starbucks to talk about it with somebody else who has read it? EVEN more or less reading the assigned pages and then discussing them with a faculty member who isn’t fully familiar with, or engaged with, or in pedagogical or disciplinary harmony with it?
The book is not the course. And the MOOC is not the course. And an institution that tried to claim otherwise would be in trouble. If the writers of MOOCs want to tout them, then they should tout them as a SUPPLEMENT to an actual classroom with an actual professor, not a SUBSTITUTE for it.
Of course, just as a university saves nothing when faculty choose one text instead of another, it should save nothing when faculty choose to include a MOOC rather than a textbook, as one more instructional material. So there goes the administration’s incentive for pushing the things. The faculty’s choice would actually be free choice.
Well, this is an analogy I’ve been playing with in those spells just before sleep, since last week’s meeting. Is it useful at all?

24 05 2013
Jonathan Rees

Ruth Anne,

I understand the MOOC as textbook analogy. It’s useful in the sense that it suggests a way that MOOCs could be useful. Unfortunately, because of the existing power structure in most of higher ed, I’m afraid that that idea will become a distraction to get people’s eyes off the ball. “Oh, we don’t have to worry about MOOCs. They’re just like textbooks,” they’ll say, as administrations continue to use them as course replacements.

As I now keep saying, it really is the power structure, not the MOOCs that are the problem. That’s why as long as superprofessors ignore the fact that their work is being used in places with broken power structures, it’s our duty to explain otherwise. If they ignore those explanations, then we’ll have to figure out what stronger measures we can take.

24 05 2013

Well done, Jonathan. Your post today points to one of the issues I have with the Lords of MOOC Creation, namely, that some of their most high profile superprofessors are in STEM fields & not the humanities. Science proffies are some of the least pedagogically innovative proffies out there, so this is why mooks like Noor think they are on the cutting edge of teaching by suggesting “flipping” the classroom. They are utterly ignorant of the innovations of feminist and humanist pedagogy in the past forty years. They don’t know anything about what anyone else is doing in their classrooms, so they’re perfect spokesmodels for the hyped MOOC claims of innovation and excellence. They can make these claims with a straight face in way that Jeremy Adelman & the University Diaries woman never could.

24 05 2013

I can’t disagree with you on this post like I did before: it’s very wrong for scientists to ignore what the direct (as in Marie Curie isn’t responsible for the atom bomb although her work was used for building it unlike Fermi who directly worked in the Manhattan Project) repercussions of their study is- just as anybody, including those who advocate MOOC’s, you relate, should not ignore what they are doing.

But where do you say that this is just a gross misconduct? Surely, it is not the norm for a professor to fail nine-tenths of their class- let alone be happy about it. These seem to be individualized cases: for the majority of MOOC’s, just as I am taking one now, there is a teacher who is actively communicating with a group of 20-30 students who, while doing/watching automated and preset work and instructions, are given customized and personalized work as well.

I liked the Tom Lehrer video by the way ;)

25 05 2013
Music for Deckchairs

Hey CIP, it’s not just about protecting jobs, it’s also about ensuring that there’s some diversity in what and how students learn. There are plenty of ordinary professors and adjuncts around the world who are really wary of the way MOOCs are propagating US educational models, assumptions and contexts into a global standard for content and way of teaching. Education is a cultural good, and the regional cultural diversity of educational practices isn’t something that market models will naturally support. So while it may be great that a Superprof from Stanford is willing to beam their content and their discussions with their students into your classroom for free, the end result is much the same as Ellen rebroadcasting globally her interactions with her local studio audience, while the rest of us watch. It’s entertainment, but it’s also seeking to persuade us that what’s local to the US is local to us all. We all need to think about this.

26 05 2013
Music for Deckchairs

Well, hmm, Big Mac = high quality education. I’m not sure there’s much I could add to this.

27 05 2013
Susan Davis

Great post, Jonathan –thank you. And the discussion is clarifying. If Big Macs are quality education , indeed, where are we?

27 05 2013
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[…] from the blog “More or Less Bunk” by Jonathan […]

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[…] a symbol for academic elitism after a terrible interview with the Chronicle a little while back. My contribution to that effort helped lead to a really helpful response on his blog. I’ve linked to that […]

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