The MOOC/Online Education Industrial Complex.

14 05 2014

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”

– Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Farewell Address,” 1961.

The other night, Audrey Watters and Kate Bowles were picking apart a new Sebastian Thrun interview on Twitter. While such activities are indeed highly amusing, I’ve been busy writing about refrigerators these last few days so I figured I would just let it go. But then Audrey linked to the job description of a Udacity Course Manager. Here’s my favorite part:

“A Course Manager is a teacher, mentor, and technical reviewer in one. You should take pride in ensuring that your students receive the best possible learning experience by motivating and working with them 1-on-1, mentoring them as they develop their portfolio, reviewing course materials, and giving insightful feedback to the Course Development Team.”

“Where I come from,” I tweeted, “they call course managers “professors.” But when I went back and looked at the ad again I noticed that no specific content knowledge is required to be a Udacity course manager at all.

Does anybody else see a problem with this?

Udacity, Post-Pivot:

If you’ve been paying attention to MOOCs for some length of time, you undoubtedly remember the infamous Sebastian Thrun Fast Company interview in which he basically called all of his company’s courses crap. It even gave birth to its own hashtag, #thrunpivot. In this new interview, he doubles down on that proposition:

The MOOC that we created at Udacity was our first attempt to democratize education and we learned from it. Like everyone, we made mistakes. We learned we can drastically boost learning outcomes by adding a service layer around MOOCs. It has a huge impact on completion rates and learning outcomes. Many people in the industry would say, ‘We told you so.’

What, pray tell, is a “service layer?” Living breathing human beings who will help guide students through the corridors of knowledge:

At the very beginning you do a Google Hangout and someone from Udacity talks to you. It’s our internal fleet of mentors [who provide coaching through the class]. When we make a class, we have a very different model from a classic MOOC. The team trains mentors specifically for the one class.

I was so troubled by our [former] completion rates. When I called a MOOC a lousy product I wasn’t kidding. [With this new model] we have literally gotten a [course] completion rate of 60 percent.

It would be interesting to know what the difference is between a course manager and a mentor. I’m guessing the course manager serves as the mentors’ boss. Yet some of those course managers are actually part time. Either way, if “the team trains specifically for one class,” who teaches the team? Certainly it can’t be the superprofessor, right? They’re too busy preparing the lectures and otherwise serving humanity. Do they just watch the same videos that everybody else does before they get released to the class?

No matter what, this whole set up is most decidedly not automated education. It’s cheap. It’s online. But it’s not automated. People who need to be trained require money for their labor and the source of that money has to be the students. That’s why Thrun says:

If you’re affluent, we can do a much better job with you, we can make magic happen.

Pardon me while I go vomit.

The New Profitable Non-Profit Model:

While it would be really interesting to contrast Thrun’s new model with a new Boston Globe article in which Clayton Christensen (and a co-author) restate his now very old ideas, I’d rather compare it to another article you may have seen, this one about the University of Southern New Hampshire because I think there’s very little daylight between this and the new Udacity. And Jesus, if this story doesn’t give the average college professor the chills, I don’t know what will:

Delilah Caldwell, a philosophy instructor at Southern New Hampshire University, may well represent the future of higher education’s teaching force.

As one of the first full-time faculty members at Southern New Hampshire’s online college, Ms. Caldwell taught 20 online courses last year: four at a time for five terms, each eight weeks long. The textbooks and syllabi were provided by the university; Ms. Caldwell’s job was to teach. She was told to grade and give feedback on all student work in 72 hours or less.

First of all, this:

Second of all, the 72 hours or less is my favorite part. Suppose you actually want to have a life AND write half-decent comments on your students’ papers. What do you do then? Stupid me, who’s actually going to be dumb enough to assign papers if they’re facing a 72 hour turnaround time on all student-submitted work?

Yes, the academic assembly line workers at the University of Southern New Hampshire get paid relatively well (compared to adjuncts), but I bet the course managers at Udacity do too. The problems here go well beyond that in both cases. No academic freedom. No research. Very little control over your own class. [In the case of MOOCs that goes for both the mentors and to some extent the superprofessor too.] These things aren’t just important to the faculty involved. They’re vitally important to the quality of the course. Happy, knowledgable teachers teach better than peons on an academic assembly line.

Technological enthusiasts may be asking me right now, “Where’s your study on this?” I don’t have one. Neither do the MOOC people. As a recent study I saw via George Siemens has suggested:

To date, there has been little evidence collected that would allow an assessment of whether MOOCs do indeed provide a cost-effective mechanism for producing desirable educational outcomes at scale.

Gee, you’d think somebody would actually bother to study that BEFORE they decided to disrupt higher education. So why do such courses exist then? Are faculty so desperate to be superprofessors that they’re willing to act now and ask questions later? Are students simply pining for them? What if disrupting higher education isn’t such a hot idea after all? I think the reason that both these online facsimiles of real college college courses exist is, to paraphrase Eisenhower, the MOOC/online education – administrative industrial complex.

“Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved”:

The beauty of the Military-Industrial Complex (if such a word is even appropriate for use with such an awful thing) was that all that defense spending offered the economic benefits of being on a permanent wartime footing, but only occasionally did anybody have to go out and kill anybody. After the Manhattan Project, all those incredibly expensive nuclear weapons were never used at all.

What made Eisenhower’s warning about the Military-Industrial Complex so powerful was that here was a guy who knew. The great regret of his presidency was that he hadn’t done enough to stop this reckless spending, and his warning was supposed to help prevent that spending from continuing too far into the future. But the forces that stood to gain the most from that spending, generals and defense contractors, thrust it upon a willing America anyway because it was in their interests, if not the interests of America at large.

I’m beginning to think that administrators and edtech providers of all stripes, MOOCs or otherwise, have an evil tacit bargain all their own. Move college online, the deal goes, not because it will do anything in particular for education, but because it will help backfill all the government funding you’ve been losing over the last few decades. As an added benefit, it will certainly help you cut labor costs as your formally highly-paid, influential teachers can be replaced by an online army of the under-employed, or worse yet, robots.

Meanwhile this revolution is being sold to students for reasons of cost and convenience. As an added benefit, administrators and their private sector clients can make it seem as if such courses will help make college more effective at solving the structural inequalities inherent in our modern economy than they really are. Here’s Christensen and co-author on precisely that point:

Education technology companies and alternative learning providers — not just MOOCs — are finding disruptive footholds by targeting these non-consumers. They note that graduates from even well regarded colleges are struggling to launch their careers, make it into the workforce, or transition between jobs. Innovators are, therefore, beginning to address this widening gap by identifying what employers need and building those skill sets into their curricula.

Why not just sell the college to Subway so that they can turn it into a sandwich university and just get it over with?

Yet if the MOOC you’re taking sucks, why would it make a difference if you’re learning the exact skills that employers want or not? After all, you wouldn’t be learning them particularly well. Even if the MOOC you’re taking didn’t suck, the fact that so many people can learn those skills at the same time will only drive down the wages that graduates would earn for having them. If those skills are best practiced online, our students would then be facing the same kind of job market that new Ph.D.s are, and that’s not good news for anybody.

In short, why would anybody pay to have “magic happen” if they’re never going to get a chance to make a decent living using the skills they learn? If there aren’t any journalists willing to ask Thrun that question, maybe his investors should.



14 responses

14 05 2014
Julie Tardy

Really enjoyed this article since you expose my doubts about MOOCs, moreover while this massive disruptive wave hit France and every university wants its own. It just seems the ones with the money enforce the use of hype tools, and not pedagogy or content.
Sanity and common sense vanished in technology…

14 05 2014
Laura Gibbs

Jonathan, you failed to mention that this job was much better than the job Caldwell held before, adjuncting for traditional universities. (“During her nonteaching term, Ms. Caldwell worked on developing a course of her own, in environmental ethics. She did all of that work from her home office in Virginia. She was paid $55,000 plus benefits. It was a modest salary compared with those of professors at many other universities, but certainly a step up from the $2,200 per course she was making as an adjunct”). So, while I know you are not unaware of how colleges and universities have built their programs on the backs of exploited adjuncts, it bears pointing out, and I would say kudos to SNHU for having opted for full-time teaching staff rather than going the route of part-time adjuncts as so many schools have done. At least in terms of how it has treated its own teaching staff, universities and colleges for the most part do not have a lot to be proud of. They have set a standard for exploitation and abuse lower than which it would be hard to go (i.e. $2200 for a course, no benefits, etc.)
And BTW it sounds like Caldwell is creating a new course for the New Hampshire program, so it does sound like there is some teaching development as part of the job, although the article was not clear on that. In particular, it was not clear what the “non-teaching term” is exactly, but if she is being paid her regularly salary for developing courses, that is better than the deal I have at my school as a full-time teaching instructor where there is no provision for any non-teaching term to devote to course development; my school offers no sabbaticals for the mere teachers among us (and at over 10 years, that “sabbath” has come and gone for me without a break).

14 05 2014
Jonathan Rees


You see the glass half full. I see it half empty, with no prospect of ever being full again.

14 05 2014
Laura Gibbs

Well, if you think the only way to fill the glass is with tenure-track positions, sure. But I think we need a conversation now about teaching positions, separate from research, separate from service, so that we can figure out the best ways to provide that teaching. I believe that full-time teaching jobs, with or without lifetime tenure, are a good solution to that problem. So, I disagree with people who insist that the only way to go forward is to go back to a time of tenure for jobs that were not 100% teaching, indeed, where people could be hired and promoted without any particular regard for their qualifications as teachers. There are better and worse types of teaching positions (full-time is better than part-time, freedom to design your own courses is better than administering someone else’s courses, etc.). So, I am willing to commend SNHU for some of the choices they are making here (esp. their decision to employ people full-time) because, sad to say, that’s better than the choices being made right now by colleges and universities who are continuing to employ/exploit grossly underpaid part-time adjuncts to do the work of teaching students.

14 05 2014
Contingent Cassandra

I agree that this sounds better than many online teaching jobs, especially because time for developing courses is apparently allowed for, and compensated. The next (and crucial) question: how and how often will courses be reviewed, revised, and/or updated, and by whom? While many administrators of online programs seem to see course “development” as a one-time (or maybe once-a-decade) thing, those of us with full freedom to design and teach our own courses know that it’s an ongoing process, with at least minor changes every semester (and sometimes during the semester and/or for a particular section). Because student populations change very rapidly (because K-12 change is rapid and ongoing; because we’re talking about people whose habits of reading, writing, thinking, etc. have been formed almost entirely by the past 10 years of technology, culture, et al.), high-quality education requires regular updating of courses. But if one is looking at a spreadsheet, even those willing to invest in course development are going to want to amortize that expense over as many terms as possible. That either leaves professors doing no updates (because they’re uncompensated), or doing them on their own dime/time (the usual practice already, if you figure that most of us, contingent or tenure-track, do much of our updating work over the winter and summer “vacations” anyway).

I’d be very curious to see how the long-term budget in the New Hampshire program incorporates ongoing course development/revision. I have a sneaking suspicion that course development is considered a start-up cost rather than a recurring expense.

14 05 2014
Laura Gibbs

Agreed, Cassandra! I poked around the SNHU/College-for-America site to see what more I could learn, and there was not a lot there. I will say that it is exactly the kind of scenario that the anonymous commenter here describes: the “courses” are not really courses in a traditional sense at all, but instead a kind of pre-professional project laboratory where the students are not covering content so much as practicing skills. I think that could a viable way to provide one type of college education (not all colleges could or should be the same after all). Moreover, as someone who teaches writing, I can see the potential of teaching writing in the context of practical student projects, just as I can also see the potential for teaching writing in a more traditional college setting. But, sad to say, colleges by and large do not do a very good job of teaching writing to their students right now (writing in college classes is usually a stand-in for an exam, rather than an occasion for the actual teaching of writing itself, with revision, detailed and frequent feedback, etc.; most college professors are really not trained to teach writing and, being good writers themselves, they often have no idea how to help their students who are not good writers already). I would welcome some comparison of the written work by the students in the SNHU/College-for-America program and the written work of graduates from traditional colleges who crank out the obligatory end-of-term papers written in haste the night before the deadline… which program will turn out the better writers? Will SNHU do a better job with the actual teaching of writing, or will their students suffer the same benign writing neglect that so many (most?) college students now experience at traditional schools?

17 05 2014
Mark R. Cheathem

As of 2008 (when I left SNHU’ s on-ground campus), course development was a one-time payment, and that course and its content became property of the university. Things may have changed in six years, but if memory serves me correctly, the idea as presented in one committee meeting was that anyone, not just the original creator, could modify the course when needed since it was SNHU intellectual property.

14 05 2014

[…] history professor Jonathan Rees delicately puts it, “Pardon me while I go […]

14 05 2014

So much of the MOOC rhetoric is playground bully stuff, an assault on other people whose first move is to make them feel bad about themselves, in order to create an opportunity for market share.


“Innovators are, therefore, beginning to address this widening gap by identifying what employers need and building those skill sets into their curricula.”

This story asks us to enter the game by buying the big lie that unemployment stems from a skills mismatch, rather than in an economy that concentrates wealth in the hands of a few. Our students in humanities already get the big picture skills employers say they want (critical thinking, writing, communication, people skills, etc.) from a college education. Employers themselves recognize that more specific pragmatic skills are best taught in house or as needed (i.e. “How to Operate Excel” in a company needs to be taught in a company).

So, no, the problem isn’t that employers aren’t hiring because students don’t have the right skills. The problem is that employers aren’t hiring because they’ve created a race to the bottom in the labor market, while using politics to protect capital gains at the top. We can rejigger curricula all we want — slowly squeezing intellect out of it in the name of endless outcome exercises and skill-oriented badge checklists — and it’s not creating any more jobs. I use the skills language in my classes, and I try to connect the dots, but I’m not converting history into corporate office lab. That would impoverish their experience intellectually without improving their economic prospects.

14 05 2014
The MOOC/Online Education Industrial Complex. | More or Less Bunk | Area Delvino

[…] The MOOC/Online Education Industrial Complex. | More or Less Bunk […]

16 05 2014
16 05 2014
Jonathan Rees

I have. It’s good. Wasn’t thinking of it when the Ike quote floated into my mind, but it does fit.

16 05 2014
The MOOC/Online Education Industrial Complex. | More or Less Bunk

[…] See on […]

12 02 2015
Online College Courses for Military - Colleges & Universities

[…] The MOOC/Online Education Industrial Complex. | More or … […]

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