A Facebook education?

16 06 2014

A few days ago, my friend Jill suggested that I come up with a catchy acronym for my new position on MOOCs. She suggested:

While that’s not bad, the more I thought about it, the more I figured why fall into the same trap that the Antifederalists did? I’d rather be for something than anti- anything moving forward as I think I’d generate much better karma that way. Therefore, from this moment on, my new edtech position (since the problem remains more than MOOCs) is pro- faculty autonomy.

What does that mean? The term I’ve previously used in this respect is “professor-centered,” but somehow being pro-faculty autonomy seems more useful as a jumping off point for the kind of technological decisions that we professors increasingly face with each passing semester.

Suppose, for example, you’re forced to use an LMS because your university mandates it, or because you’re just too busy to design your own customized learning environment. As Groom and Lamb point out in that wonderful article which I cited the other day:

Instead of supporting “learning enhancement environments” on an enterprise level, colleges and universities implement and mandate the use of “learning management systems.” Thus, before we even begin to encounter the software itself, we privilege a mindset that views learning not as a life-affirming adventure but instead as a technological problem, one that requires a “system” to “manage” it. This mindset and its resulting values result in online architectures that prioritize user management, rigidly defined and restricted user roles, automated assessments, and hierarchical, top-down administration. Yes, creative and engaging learning can happen almost anywhere. But environments matter, and disturbingly often these systems promote formulaic and rigid instruction.

Faculty autonomy would at least mean that any system would have to be customizable enough to express a faculty-member’s individual teaching style. That’s good for professors and good for students.

Since building your own teaching domain is a daunting task to many folks, they should at least understand what kinds of systems they should avoid. My good friend and fellow Princeton, New Jersey native Jonathan Poritz from our math department has a name for this: a Facebook education. To describe what he means, Jonathan clued me in to the work of Columbia Law School’s Eben Moglen. Here Moglen is describing the problem with Facebook all the way back in 2010:

Facebook is the web with, ‘I keep all the logs, how do you feel about that.’ It’s a terrarium for what it feels like to live in a Panopticon built out of web parts. And it shouldn’t be allowed. That’s a very poor way to deliver those services. They are grossly overpriced at ‘spying all the time’, they are not technically innovative. They depend on an architecture subject to misuse and the business model that supports them is misuse. There isn’t any other business model for them. This is bad. I’m not suggesting it should be illegal. It should be obsolete. We’re technologists we should fix it.”

A Facebook education would be an education that operates under these same principles. Instead of setting up a learning environment that’s primarily directed towards promoting learning, it would set up an environment that promotes the interests of the learning management system providers and the administrators who contract with them. This more than anything else should be most of the incentive you need to learn this stuff and start innovating.

But the wonderful thing about the non-corporate edtech types who I’ve come to admire is that they’re working to create a world in which this process would be rather easy. Not only would faculty have autonomy over their classes, but students could have autonomy over their entire web presence. As Groom and Lamb put it,

The point is not that everything must be open source; rather, it’s that we need coherence, and right now, coherence is too often offered at the price of ownership and control, of working within someone else’s application.

That’s right, I’m pro coherence, and the first step towards coherence is regaining control over the teaching process. I’m also still anti- “the misuse of technology to destroy higher education by usurping faculty prerogatives. But I’m also pro- faculty using technology to TAKE BACK the prerogatives that we’ve already lost. How sweet would that be?

You technologists out there should go fix that for everybody.




2 responses

16 06 2014
tom abeles

Hi Jonathan,

Recall Regan’s words and rephrase them: Dr. X tear down that campus and all the persiflage adjacent to it. Destroy those limiting classrooms and lecture halls that members of SCUP have designed for you. Start “green field” just keep the student records to give to the registrar who will acknowledge fees paid and grades (hmm) submitted (or badges or certificates or….). Maybe you might settle for a virtual world where imagination can take flight. But, first of all kill all the planners who love steel, concrete and glass that bound your imagination.

I may be wrong but it was always my impression that it was the student who sought the master or the school. When the State and the Church created institutions with their imprint on what was taught, there was a shift. Now students with their smart phones, facebook and other tech and now that they are footing the costs (or a substantial portion) could they be embracing the tech and seeking those who can meet them in their space, bricks or clicks?

16 06 2014

Another example of the problem with “anti”: http://www.gocomics.com/doonesbury/1977/12/17/#.U5-lAy_p_Wg

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