The flipped classroom as MOOC waste product.

13 02 2014

This is a hard post for me to write. For one thing, I have an article coming out in the next Academe that covers some of this ground. For another thing, as my friend Phil Hill knows all too well, I have a #Slatepitch in for an essay on the evils of the flipped classroom. I think they’re going to take it (eventually – assuming the one and only Rebecca Schuman doesn’t do it first), so I don’t want to give away the whole store here.

But this paragraph is just way too much for me to bear:

The MOOC, in our view, is the ideal way to flip the classroom, replacing both the lecture and the textbook. Whether they build their own content or draw on an existing MOOC, professors can off-load content to on-line formats and spend face-to-face time interacting with students. Students will actively debate history -for instance–rather than transcribing the professor’s lecture. Universities will not be destroyed, only lectures, and in their demise better conversations will happen.

To make matters worse, I’ve met one of the co-authors of those words. Louis Hyman teaches at Cornell, his books on the history of debt are excellent and if I had all the time in the world I’d be taking his upcoming MOOC on the history of capitalism just for the sheer enjoyment of it. I’ll bet you anything that he’s a terrific lecturer, but if you think I’d let him or anybody else replace my own content on any subject you’ve got another thing coming.

Why not? I need to back up a little in order to explain that.

Let’s begin by considering the possibility that Hyman (and his co-author, Edward Baptist) raise with respect to “building your own content.” The vast majority of people in academia do not have their own MOOCs. Nothing is stopping them from recording their own lectures. However, anyone doing this really should understand the risks. Yes, it’s time to quote Leslie M-B writing about “lecture capture” again:

“I’m not sure what the policy is at my current institution, but I signed away a lot of intellectual property rights at my last one. In an age where people seem to think that education is just a matter of “delivering content” that translates into mad workplace skillz, I’m uneasy about providing the university with any multimedia content that could be aggregated into a enormous-enrollment course taught by a grossly underpaid and underinsured Ph.D.”

Are you a professor? Then providing content is an important part of your job. If you don’t want to do that duty every semester, somebody might just relieve you of that burden. I can hear the anti-professor catcalls now: “They’re too lazy to tailor their lectures to their audience! Why is tuition so darned expensive then!” Besides that, aren’t you ever going to change your lectures at some time in the future? If the answer to that question is “no,” why the heck did you bother to become a teacher in the first place?

Now let’s go to the other possibility that Hyman and Baptist raise: to “draw on an existing MOOC.” The unspoken assumption here – that most lectures are boring, but superprofessor lectures are all Grade A – is not only empirically wrong (as any wide-ranging MOOC student would readily attest to), it’s flat-out insulting to the rest of the professoriate. Not only are there plenty of people who do a fine job of lecturing outside of the MOOC limelight, even the less-gifted lecturers among us have the advantage over a recording in that they can actually tailor the content of their lectures to the goals of their individual courses.

Indeed, one of the reasons that the vast majority of the professoriate does research is that what we learn doing our research makes us better teachers. That’s how we keep our content fresh. Some of us even have undergraduates do research with us! Teach somebody else’s content and in this economic climate you can kiss that course off you get for research goodbye, if not your entire job with it.

What bugs me the most about this newfound enthusiasm for the flipped classroom is the sheer superfluity of it all. If I can thank Hyman and Baptist for anything it’s for making it abundantly clear that the rise of MOOCs and the sudden fad for the flipped classroom are intimately related. To borrow some inflammatory language from Marc Bousquet, the second is a waste product of the first. If the MOOC providers are like meatpackers, then the flipped classroom is how they’re going to get us to eat their offal.

Not making enough money from your MOOC? Sell the content to unsuspecting campuses without MOOCs of their own. Coursera has already started doing this. [That’s why the Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier quit his MOOC last year.] And Coursera isn’t offering MOOC content directly to professors. They’re marketing it to administrations who will need to find a financial justification for their very expensive MOOC content purchases.

So to all my caring colleagues out there who are flipping your own classes without any prodding: Thank your lucky stars you still have that freedom. Just remember though that your new educational silver bullet has already been co-opted. The more you flip freely, the more likely it is that somebody else will be flipped against their will in the future. You’re the people who gave the administrators of the world this idea. You’re the people who are currently in the process of legitimizing this idea. Denounce flipping other professors involuntarily all you want, but you are still partially responsible for that result. Just because you can unbundle and rebundle your job at will, doesn’t mean that the rest of your colleagues can.



14 responses

13 02 2014

“replacing both the lecture and the textbook. . . ” What, pray Dog, are we supposed to talk about in class if we permit MOOC lectures to replace not just our lectures but also any reading we assign? Are we supposed to just talk about how awesome the lectures by our superprofessors are?

(FTR, I never use textbooks but rather real historical writing and primary sources. I think this makes my classes more rigorous than classes that are run by textbook authors. But, clearly, rigor is not a part of MOOC design.)

13 02 2014

Telling faculty not to flip their classes because it may force others to do the same boils down to telling faculty not to teach the way they think is best. Surely the best approach is to defend academic freedom, tenure, and faculty rights. Let’s not go down the path of telling faculty what not to do while claiming to defend faculty rights.

13 02 2014
Jonathan Rees


There are two parts to this critique: One is based upon solidarity [Don’t teach that way because it will hurt others.]. The other is based upon the fact that it’s terrible pedagogy. [Historiann hints at that above and I agree with her, but I could say much more along these lines.] I don’t have the power to force anybody not to teach this way. Hopefully, though, I have the power of persuasion.

13 02 2014
Thursday Links! Guaranteed* Not to Bum You Out! | Gerry Canavan

[…] * The flipped classroom as MOOC waste product. […]

13 02 2014
Louis Hyman

@jhrees Thanks for engaging with the piece and for the very kind preface.
I wanted to reply with a few quick thoughts.
I guess I ALWAYS think that I am offloading content when I assign reading for my lectures. In my History of Consumption class, I assign Bushman so that I don’t need to spend a lot of time taking about refinement. In the lecture, I can talk more about how the working-class parlor became the saloon. For me, at least, I would like to offload that lecture online and then spend classtime discussing the reading and the lecture. Perhaps this is just personal preference. If somebody wants to lecture instead of flipping, I think that is fine. Ed and I aren’t trying to tell anybody how to run their classroom, just providing an option for it. MOOCs, I think, make small intimate seminars possible while teaching vast numbers of students. I am a decent lecturer, but even I were the best at it, the real advantage of a professor is being guided through the critical interrogation of texts. Perhaps we just disagree. I just think that anything that foregrounds the seminar over the lecture is a good thing.
In terms of controlling content: I would be surprised if we (or any historians) agreed on 100% of what I say. But I would be delighted to have students interrogate my assumptions and narratives like any other text. A professor using the MOOC should no more treat it as gospel than any other text. It should be a springboard to critical engagement.
But the real point of the piece was education outside of universities. The point is not to replace the university classroom, but create a spectrum of learning. The book club is not the same as an English class. Just so, a MOOC club will not be a history class. But does a book club and a MOOC club have their place? I think so. My hope is that it might even show people what “real history” looks like (as opposed to the History channel) and encourage them to take university-level history classes.

13 02 2014
Jonathan Rees


I will talk the history of capitalism with you anytime. I’ll even talk MOOCs, but I’d hope you’d try to understand two things first for the good of all of us: 1) The people distributing (Is that the right word?) your MOOC have different priorities than you do (yes, even edX) and 2) Conditions with respect to academic freedom and employment at most universities are not nearly as good as they are at Cornell. Once your MOOC is out in the world, you can no longer control the way it is consumed. This is why Princeton is switching MOOC platforms.

With respect to pedagogy, flipping your classroom and having it flipped for you are very different animals. Even the most enthusiastic superprofessors who I’ve met are more excited about the ability of MOOCs to build communities than they are as a tool for pedagogy. For most of us, laying our expertise aside in favor of that of distant superprofessors would be professional suicide.

13 02 2014
Louis Hyman


I hope that you will! I will be at OAH. We should talk more.

1. Of course they do. I completely agree. Many of these people are delusional technoutopians. Others are neolibs. My own position is that the MOOC won’t substitute for the classroom. At best it will augment it. Mostly I think it will be for people outside of universities (because of age, economic access, geography, work obligations, etc) and it is for those people that I am doing this. For us it is more about workers’ education for the 21st century. Our course is not the same as a credentialist, technocratic course (as one might imagine.)

2. I don’t know what a superprofessor is (except maybe Eric Foner), but I am certainly not advocating ANYONE laying their expertise aside. I think it is better to think of it having someone else do the scut work (me) so that other people (you) can hone in on the more interesting, engaging critical thinking that we both agree is the real purpose of history.

Or not. Just do your thing. That is cool too.

I am not even sure I would be able to carry out my flipped classroom agenda here in this extremely free job. The question of classroom hours still apply.

I do think that it is dangerous to think that the adjunctification of higher ed is being caused by MOOCs. Flexible labor regimes preceded all of this. MOOCs could either be a way to further that shift or it could be used to oppose it. Part of the reason I am writing stuff and doing a MOOC to try to fashion a counterpoint to the neoliberalization.

14 02 2014
Jonathan Rees


Yeah, I’m actually going to be at OAH for one day (Friday) and would huddle on any subject. Talking the history of capitalism would be more fun, but maybe a MOOC discussion would be more useful for both of us.

With respect to your responses, I understand how you feel. You want to experiment. They want to experiment. Unfortunately, when you lie down with dogs (not to say that every MOOC provider is a dog, but I can’t think of a better analogy) you sometimes wake up with fleas. I was tweeting with one superprofessor (i.e. professor with his own MOOC) the other day and he was arguing that MOOCs are great for building communities, not for teaching. Unfortunately, he’s had trouble convincing the people who run his platform that.

Ultimately, I think the decisions you make with respect to your MOOC affect far more people than you, other people at Cornell or even all the people who take your course. If you understand all the ramifications of that decision, I’m sure you’ll do the right thing.

13 02 2014

“My own position is that MOOCs won’t substitute for the classroom.”

Here’s a thing: what happens with MOOCs will not be determined by the intentions of people in well-funded institutions who make them, but by the economies that find a way to import them to reduce local content production costs.

The American motion picture industry never intended harm to local film production in their foreign markets either. All that happened was that the US studios were consistently able to leverage the advantage of their own large domestic market to recover profit at home, to increase the production budgets of their own movies, and to dump their content relatively cheaply abroad. Audiences in other places got a taste for things being done that way, and local producers only survived if they had some other kind of protection, whether from their government or from operating in a language other than English.

The result for content producers in small Anglophone economies like Australia’s was that it was never possible to develop the capacity to produce content that matched American quality; it just wasn’t cost effective. So as cinema tickets are sold at a flat rate irrespective of the cost to produce the movie, Hollywood movies therefore also came to represent better value. And the result is that about 5% of local domestic box office goes to Australian movies (and often much less); the rest goes back to Hollywood.

I’m not yet sure that I think this is a reason not to make MOOCs; as Jonathan knows, I’m really still figuring this out. But I do think the global history of content itself gives us all a reason to hope that the US will act with more consideration of the global educational ecosystem, which is where the impact on lives and work will be felt first.

14 02 2014
tom abeles

Kate’s observation is paralleled by those who study international development and the impact of the developed countries, particularly the United States on setting cultural and economic agendas not only in the larger society but specifically in education from the HEI’s down to pre-school. China’s rise within the academic community, particularly in STEM may further the concerns in the US academy as funds shift in that direction.

Perhaps its time to face history. First, in many ways, the Oxbridge model has many of these elements. Second, Many of these ideas were explored in the 1960’s forward. Many had public universities built around the elements of guided learning/student-faculty interaction, etc. The only effort approaching a MOOC were the mega-universities described in the writing of Sir John Daniels.

Next, if one stands above the fray, then one has to ask whether the exchanges here are similar in nature to that of the brakemen on trains when roller bearings came on the scene or that by flight engineers when electronics eliminated the third person in the cockpit of commercial airliners.

Finally, the Internet has changed the nature of how one can access information. The rise in or shift to competencies as opposed to seat time and the ability to gather information at will has changed how individuals learn or are willing to take responsibility rather than being “guided”. The fact that there are moves to make free transfer of credits across institutions further encourages individuals towards creating their own paths. There is a shifting nature of the learner and the HEI’s are finding that the entrants are not passive seekers to be molded at their or the State’s expense, especially in a global, knowledge, marketplace.

Looking at the HEI’s globally, one must remember that knowledge is fungible and transferable across geo/political boundaries as are conversations such as Facebook and other social media. With the number of individuals wanting HEI certification, there is not sufficient brick-space capacity. Few, in the near future, globally, will be able to access, much less afford, a hand-crafted educational experience. And, as many are finding, that knowedge moves on fiber and encapsulated in human biocomputers.

As has been noted, faculty, for all their claims of academic freedom gave up their rights to control or direct the university. As one SF author writes, “money decided that”. This has been pointed out by those who study the history of the HEI’s. And the discussion above reinforces this. It is essentially beating on the doors of the administration.

MOOC’s are the canary in the coal mine or the gas detecter in the Ivory Tower. Poe’s Masque of the Red Death comes to mind. Change is creeping under the doors.
Incidentally, I edit the academic journal, On the Horizon. We have posted a call on the HASTAC website and welcome creative essays and materials that need to be vetted for promotion and tenure. Also, there is a call, still open, for the issue on innovation and change.

14 02 2014

I can imagine using MOOC modules instead of a textbook, but not a lecture. The problem with the flipped classroom, as far as I can see, is that it assumes a clear distinction between providing information and teaching interpretive skills. Those are always interacting. When I lecture, it’s a conversation, and it’s never the same twice. A student asks a question, or I am following up on a question from the previous class. Sure, there is a skeleton, but it’s not just me telling students things.

15 02 2014
tom abeles

hi prof Susan, there are an increasing number of ph.d.’s teaching in secondary schools. Many of these schools often prefer to hire content experts and have a trained staff to educate how to handle process- these are public high schools in the US. Thus they have the content knowledge and are backed by a process team who have the same objectives as you cite. More of this is coming so that students are becoming better prepared and the secondary faculty are better equipped than most faculty in the HEI’s.

Many of these faculty have chosen the secondary schools deliberately, often eschewing the pub/perish path that arguably does not necessarily generate more content competence for pre-baccalaureate courses.

The argument of HEI faculty that they are not replaceable starts to wear thin. Think US ATC’s under Regan, think flight engineers in airliners, think….

As they say in Swahili, pole pole

19 02 2014
“Luxury” thy name is flipped classroom. | More or Less Bunk

[…] at all) pronto so that I can start living a life of leisure! I want to become a rentier (just like all those superprofessors)! I want to be an educational entrepreneur! If I start early maybe I can contract with some […]

9 02 2015
Jonathan Rees | coldhearted scientist وداد

[…] To borrow some inflammatory language from Marc Bousquet, the second is a waste product of the first.… […]

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