To be a superprofessor is an act of aggression.

11 07 2013

“Some may argue that MOOCs are not a proper substitute for college, but Koller noted that she would prefer to focus on the potential for students from emerging economies to get access to classes. ”It’s about, do you have an education at all,” she said.”

– Liz Gannes, “MOOC Madness Continues: Coursera Raises $43M,” All Things D, July 1, 2013.

Of course Daphne Koller would “prefer” to focus on students from emerging economies who have no access to education. That makes her company look like a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. This tactic has already migrated down to the superprofessors who work for Coursera, as Mohamed Noor’s question here strongly suggests. In today’s IHE, MOLB reader Scott Newstok offers the perfect response to this tactic:

But to what are they being given access?

The answer to that question, of course, is educational content rather than an actual education. So if you want to educate the world, put your lectures up on YouTube and let Coursera/Pearson administer competency tests wherever those students happen to be. Don’t make a MOOC.

If you do make a MOOC, then you need to realize that there are serious repercussions to that act that affect many more people than just you and your students. I don’t expect Daphne Koller or any of her new backers to behave any differently than they’re already doing. She has obligations to her investors, and perhaps to her future stockholders as well. However, since anti-MOOC is now the hip thing to be, I’m warming towards a suggestion made by Benjamin Ginsberg:

Professors who lend their names and reputations to MOOCs should not be allowed to simply ignore how their lectures are used. Those willing to allow their lectures to replace real classes should be named, shamed and censured by their colleagues.

All this talk about access being the be-all and end-all of higher education at a time when one third of student loan borrowers don’t even earn a degree is beginning to make sick to my stomach. So here are my talking points for the shaming. Feel free to borrow, expand or add new ones in the comments or at your next annual meeting, no matter what your discipline happens to be.

I. To be a superprofessor is to stop teaching.

For sake of argument, let’s break teaching down to just two components: information provision and learning assistance. If you’re a superprofessor who records their lectures and sends them out in the world via MOOC, you probably flip your classroom, make students watch your lectures at night and have more time to provide learning assistance during class hours. What happens if your students don’t watch the lectures when they’re supposed to do so? This is what happened to my old superprofessor (scroll down) Jeremy Adelman:

He thought he was more present than ever in his Princeton students’ lives (“they see me on their laptops, they see me at the live dialogues, they get emails from me a lot more often”), but the student evaluations at the course’s end were “very mixed,” to which Adelman was unaccustomed.

“The one thing I learned about this experience is that the spinal cord of a conventional Princeton survey course like this one is the lectures,” Adelman says. “Once I took the spinal cord out, the course went quite gelatinous. It lost its structure. So I have to build it back in.” He also found that students fell behind watching the lectures in the week they were assigned for discussion in precepts. “That wasn’t good,” he says.

I would argue that this is the inevitable effect of unbundling yourself. You can’t build a spine back into a class if you’re not in the room when it’s supposed to happen. Dividing teaching into two tasks, let alone all the many tasks that might actually reflect absolutely everything we professors do all semester, is impossible because in reality we do many of those things at the same time. Just through the mere act of lecturing we provide content, evaluate learning by judging the response of our students, frame a class by deciding which content to provide and offer potential feedback by calling on people who may have questions about what we just said. To try to break those functions up into pieces is worse than pointless: It’s a disservice to the cause of real education.

That’s why anybody willing to do this should be called out. They’re cheating their students and not doing their jobs. It really is like the those old yellowed lecture notes, only more so. Students are smart enough to know what smells fishy and freezing your lectures in amber smells like a scam no matter how much attention you pay to some students in your class “breakout sessions.” There’s a reason Khan Academy started in secondary schools. Students won’t like paying a fortune in tuition to get their content from somewhere else, even if it is Harvard.

II. To be a superprofessor is to aid in the corporatization of higher education.

So Coursera got a lot more money. Where exactly does that money come from? Here’s the answer to that question in two tweets:

Seriously superprofessors, do you really want to work for these people? You know what, I’ll concede that Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller really do have the best interest of students at heart. Does Pearson? Does some Russian billionaire? [With the for-profit uni company I don’t even have to ask.] Who’s gonna win if a power struggle breaks out?

So while superprofessors tell themselves they’re expanding the reach of knowledge out into the world, what they’re really doing is contributing to the corporatization of higher education. The profits these investors seek won’t come out of thin air. They’ll come from “efficiencies” that destroy jobs and often cost students money, particularly during startup. In short, being a superprofessor is helping people whose politics you probably deplore by allowing them to monetize what should never be monetized.

You’re also helping my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. I hadn’t realized until reading this last round of news stories that Penn actually has an equity stake in Coursera. Now, this is where I’d usually make a lot of noise about never giving them another cent, but I don’t have any money to give them anyway.

What I will note is this, if you don’t work for Penn (or Caltech, another equity investor) and you offer a MOOC through Coursera, you have a conflict of interest. If I went out and taught for the University of Phoenix online during the semester, I’d be violating the terms of my contract. Why should teaching a MOOC for the benefit of Penn and Caltech be any different? Your university is actually paying in order to help schools like Penn take money that could be making your campus a better place for superprofessors and non-superprofessors alike. That’s why Penn is drafting a non-competition agreement for all its faculty to sign. They may be predatory in West Philly, but they aren’t stupid. And I bet they’ve trained all their superprofessors to tell you in great detail about all the benefits of access.

III. To be a superprofessor is an attack on your colleagues and your grad students.

You’ve heard of professors on food stamps, right? Don’t assume they’re just adjuncts:

Public university professors don’t enter the profession to get rich. But some faculty are having trouble paying bills, and have even qualified for foods stamps, [Randy] Olson [professor of astronomy and chair of UE Stevens Point’s Faculty Senate] said. “For somebody to go five to seven years beyond college to obtain a Ph.D. degree and to realize that you are in need of federal assistance to make ends meet — and that’s for a tenure-track position –” is devastating.

Along similar lines, I found this post to be particularly heartbreaking as well.

Now explain to me how your MOOC is going to do anything to improve these situations. On the other hand, I can see a million ways that it will make it much – much worse. Screaming “access” at those of us who point to the fact that profs gotta eat is just another way of saying you don’t care. It tells the world that you’re fine with introducing the winner-take-all ethos into higher education because you think you’re going to be a winner. Perhaps you are, but ignoring the losers is a sign of your own moral bankruptcy.

What’s that? You say you have no sympathy for those loser professors teaching at Directional State U.? How about your own grad students? That’s right, the people you’re training are the perfect candidates for being replaced by your MOOC long after you’re retired or dead. You’ve unbundled yourself, and can put your job back together again at a moment’s notice. Your grad students, assuming they’re lucky enough to get any job at all, will be unbundled involuntarily. As the seriously brilliant anonymous author of 100 Reasons Not to Go to Grad School explained it in Reason #82:

“Because of the enormous oversupply of PhDs (see Reason 55), people who once envisioned themselves lecturing in front of classrooms are being squeezed into teaching jobs in which much (if not all) of the “teaching” involves sitting at a computer. Even those jobs are scarce, and may become scarcer in the future as technological advancements allow fewer professors to teach more students.”

By helping to legitimize MOOCs, you’re destroying the quality of life for professors of all kinds moving forward. After all, there are only so many MOOCs that our little world can hold. By shunning you now, perhaps the rest of us faculty can do more than just save ourselves. We can prevent a dystopian, all-MOOC future for most students from occurring in the first place.

Besides, it’s not too late to change your position and reject superprofessordom moving forward. If you do, I guarantee that you’ll enjoy your next annual meeting a lot more than you would otherwise. In fact, I bet you’ll be treated like a hero! And, if you happen to be an historian…cough…Jeremy…cough…I promise to buy you a beer.




17 responses

11 07 2013
Audrey Watters (@audreywatters)

I am really interested in these Coursera relationships, particularly the financial and political ones, and I’m trying to collect data so that I can visually map them.

I’d like to do the same for Udacity too, particularly when I learned that one of its investors, Ben Horowitz of the famed Andreessen Horowitz VC firm, is the son of David Horowitz. Yes. That David Horowitz.

11 07 2013
Australian Academic

One thing that often gets missed in these discussion is the broader, international effects of the MOOC hype and the championing of super professors – it’s not just US jobs that may disappear.

The following excerpts from my university’s e-learning strategy paper provide a chilling picture of what my employers envision my future role to be:

“In the context of changing student characteristics and expectations, the role of the tertiary educator is also changing significantly. Indeed, the availability of open and free content and the advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) with their reliance on open source materials and on peer learning and assessment, has led to widespread challenging of the assumptions about where expertise lies in tertiary teaching and learning. There is now less emphasis on the notion of the educator as the ‘sage on the stage’ and more interest in the idea of him/her as the ‘guide on the side’. The notion of academics as the only holders and distributors of knowledge has been significantly challenged with recent digital developments.”

“A tertiary educator no longer has a single meaning, if it ever did. The academic role is being unbundled in tertiary institutions across the world. Specialists of various kinds in the teaching space have emerged and new specialists are continually emerging. Traditional so-called ‘content experts’ now work collaboratively with learning and/or educational designers, eLearning specialists, curriculum consultants, language and academic skills experts, library staff, information technology staff, space designers and others to create and deliver curriculum and learning environments and experiences.”

“eLearning offers the opportunity to use combinations of audio recordings, video recordings, web-based resources, graphics and animation and online communications forums, among other tools and the benefits of these to engage and motivate student learning should be exploited. Diversity in the manner in which information is presented maximises the opportunity for students to engage in ways appropriate to their learning styles and preferences. So too, the benefits of the accessibility of free digital resources should be exploited as part of the University’s eLearning strategy.”

The potential impact on Australian academics is perhaps made more clearly in this quote from one of our Government Ministers: “What is a lecture worth if the best lecturer in the world at MIT is online for free for all to access?” (

12 07 2013
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13 07 2013

I think one key point is raised by Australian Academic, and I would like to just ditto it, adding Russia and Bangladesh and … I have a real soft spot for small US towns, and given that schools and public libraries are often all of the public realm that really remains in those locations, I would hate to see them sucked up by . That having been said, I really fear the neo-imperialist move of an American take over of world education virtually. Right now, Bangladesh is plowing money into new universities, but I would say one canary in the coal mine would be if for some reason they pull the plug on this initiative, swapping real access for fake access. And in Russia, the academy has been under assault more or less since perestroika. It being rebuilt as a public good will be hugely influenced by whether neo-liberal rhetoric can provide intellectual cover for doing nothing. And the list can go on. It’s a big problem.

One other thing: I’m not surprised Adelman’s students didn’t watch the lectures, and the flipped model resulted in a chaotic learning experience (but not chaos = good). Here’s the problem with the flipped rhetoric in a nutshell, in my opinion: we’ve been doing it already. Students only have so much time. They can read. They can watch TV. They can write. Which of these activities do you really want them to do? Pick one. For my money, so far, in non-technical disiciplines, the ‘flipped classroom’ mostly means crowding out reading in favor of the power skimming of taped lectures.

15 07 2013
Contingent Cassandra

And to add to that last paragraph: Princeton students, on average, have much more time to spend on outside-of-class prep than the average American college student (thanks to Princeton’s ability to offer very generous financial aid). If they’re not listening to the lectures outside of class, the chances that students working 40 hours a week and raising a family and trying to go to college will do so are slim to none. While I’m not a huge fan of lectures in general (and am fully aware that students often skip in-person lectures), an in-person lecture is far more compelling (and far more likely to be recognized as a high-priority, use-it-or-lose-it opportunity) than one more set of video clips competing with all of youtube, etc. on the students’ screens.

14 07 2013
What do they know of education, who only education know? | Paraffinalia

[…] Or, in summary, “to what are they being given access?” […]

15 07 2013
In which higher education eats everything (including itself). | More or Less Bunk

[…] tell us a lot about the future of higher education. Most notably, to elaborate on a point I made last week, why is anybody worrying themselves to death about access to higher education in the rest of the […]

15 07 2013
Contingent Cassandra

Was that an altar call at the end? “Reject the MOOC monster under its many guises, and all its minions, and come into the light (or at least into the bar). ” I wonder if anyone has decided yet which of the apocalyptic beasts in Revelation (or Daniel) foretells the MOOC? Or maybe there’s some connection to the whole number of the beast/bar code thing?

More seriously, the eating-their-young (i.e. newer Ph.D.s) thing is very real. However, as I am wont to do, I would argue that MOOCs are only the extension of a phenomenon that has been going on for some time, as research-oriented professors acquiesce in more and more “efficient” ways of teaching basic undergrad courses in exchange for having time to do research, graduate classes to teach, and grad students to perform some of the least-pleasant scutwork/grading.

19 07 2013

Psssttt… Like there is a big difference between a talking head in the front of a lecture hall full of several hundred students and a talking head in the computer monitor? I am not so enthused that online learning is perfect, but neither is going to an impersonal mega-school like Colorado State. (At least the online version is more affordable.) I wonder how many students Professor Rees sports on his rosters to which he never can put a name to a face — and I am sure there are those who would prefer to weave wool rugs in rural England instead of allowing machines to do it.

This article is defensive in nature for the economic interests of professors (and professors-in-training), and that is “rich” coming from a professor from a school that is best known nationally for swilling beer and powerhouse sports teams.

Do society and students benefit from subsidizing this Colorado State status quo? (Or the parents and young adults who go into heavy debt to pay for this creaking system?) Or is time to allow the process by which technology changes how we learn to proceed and to bring us into the future? A future which will probably be a mix of in person and online learning — and at a price middle class America can afford. Maybe allowing college costs to become what they are is an act of aggression against college students and their parents? The higher ed business model is highly vulnerable.

25 07 2013
“The MOOC Racket” | More or Less Bunk

[…] after I published this post, the nice people at Slate e-mail and asked me to rework it for a general audience. You can read the […]

15 08 2013
Roundup July 29, 2013

[…] Jonathan Rees, writing in More or Less Bunk, has written the piece “To be a superprofessor is an act of aggression.” He writes that he is warming towards a suggestion made by Benjamin Ginsberg: “Professors who […]

6 03 2014
tenured historian of no distinction

Re: point III. You’re actually assuming thesis advisors at R1 programs care about their grad students?! Pardon me while I spend the next six hours laughing hysterically. I mean really… you’re just too funny.

1 07 2014
Peter Onuf on MOOCs |

[…] (See also Rees’ post on the ways in which superprofessors undermine the rest of academia.) […]

9 07 2014
Even superprofessors deserve academic freedom. | The Academe Blog

[…] the marquis that attracts tens of thousands of eyeballs to the course. While I am not a big fan of superprofessors in general, I am more than willing to defend their academic freedom in the […]

10 07 2014
Even superprofessors deserve academic freedom. %%sep%% World leading higher education information and services

[…] the marquis that attracts tens of thousands of eyeballs to the course. While I am not a big fan of superprofessors in general, I am more than willing to defend their academic freedom in the […]

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