“Unbundle yourself!”

3 09 2013

As you might imagine, Mitchell Duneier is my new hero. In case you missed it when everyone on Twitter was sharing this story this morning, I’m quoting the Chronicle:

Mitchell Duneier once was a MOOC star. But today he’s more like a conscientious objector. Worried that the massive open online courses might lead legislators to cut state-university budgets, the Princeton University sociology professor has pulled out of the movement—at least for now.

After teaching introductory sociology through Coursera last year, Mr. Duneier extolled his experience in a Chronicle commentary. The New York Times featured him on its front page, and Thomas L. Friedman wrote about him in a column. One of Coursera’s founders, Daphne Koller, plugged his course in a TED talk.

But Mr. Duneier has now ceased teaching his sociology MOOC. The change of heart happened, he says, after Coursera approached him about licensing his course so other colleges could use the content in a blended format, meaning a mix of online and face-to-face instruction. That could save the colleges money.

“I’ve said no, because I think that it’s an excuse for state legislatures to cut funding to state universities,” Mr. Duneier says. “And I guess that I’m really uncomfortable being part of a movement that’s going to get its revenue in that way. And I also have serious doubts about whether or not using a course like mine in that way would be pedagogically effective.”

Now let’s get all the players straight here before we move on: Duneier created a MOOC at Princeton, the MOOC producer, for Coursera, the MOOC provider. Coursera wanted to license his content to two other schools, Maryland and Akron, (MOOC consumers) so that their professors could use parts of Duneier’s MOOC in their courses. Duneier is against this because 1) This might encourage state legislatures to cut funding to those schools and 2) He doesn’t think this is good pedagogy.

While it doesn’t come up once in the article directly, this is really an issue of flipped classrooms. While I don’t know if Professor Duneier did it at Princeton, but other superprofessors (including his Princeton colleague Jeremy Adelman, who’s quoted at length at the bottom of the article) have used their own lectures to flip themselves. Students watch videos of the professor’s own lectures, then discuss that material with the same professor in class.

You don’t need a MOOC provider to flip your own class. [See Jen Ebbeler’s blog if you want stories from an example.] However, MOOC providers stand to make a lot more money if you do this with their content rather than generating content of your own. This is where trouble could be brewing.

This really shouldn’t be controversial: Whether you flip and how your flip should be the choice of the professor, not administrators. And I’m not just talking academic freedom here, I’m talking professional survival. This, to me at least, was easily the most chilling part of that whole story:

William E. Kirwan, Maryland’s chancellor, told The Sun, in Baltimore, that “there are two things we’re seeking: new strategies that will improve learning outcomes, and lower costs.”

“We can’t have one without the other,” he said.

Where do you think the cost-savings will come from: Buying and operating the tech? I don’t think so. That’s practically a promise to use tech to slash labor costs in the future by separating educational content generation from the act of teaching it. And Kirwan doesn’t have to order faculty to unbundle themselves in order to make it happen – he can simply start new classes in which using MOOCs is a requirement of getting the job in the first place. At first, those will probably be the classes that will be taught by adjuncts. In the future, it’s just about anyone’s guess.

It’s time for more superprofessors to pay attention to what’s going on around them and act accordingly like Duneier has done. Hopefully the terms of their mostly secret contracts (assuming they even have contracts) will still make that possible.




3 responses

3 09 2013

Great post. I believe the tools to put courses online will eventually become as common as word processing. However, the proliferation of course development requires teachers to experiment on a mass scale. I wrote up some starting points:


1 05 2014
On-line courses: An excuse to cut education funding? | peakmemory

[…] “Unbundle yourself!” […]

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