What happens if you lose control of your own courses?

27 07 2014

“What’s happening right now is that xMOOCs are moving backwards into replicable content from the interaction and assessment pole while textbooks are  are moving forward into interaction and assessment from the replicable content pole.

The end result of this is not necessarily massive classes. It’s broadly used courseware — software that provides much of the skeleton of standard classes the way publisher texts do today. In other words, the best way to think of a MOOC isn’t really as a class brought to your doorstep — it’s more a textbook with ambitions.”

– Mike Caulfield, “Both MOOCs and Textbooks Will End Up Courseware,” January 28, 2013.

Whenever I get involved in one of those big publisher focus group thingies, I always make the same suggestion. Instead of being forced to enter their chosen universe, I ask for their services à la carte. I think this dates back to the early days of my career when I got sick of carting thirty-year-old maps into my classroom and started accumulating plastic overlays for the elmo. [If you don’t know what an elmo is, you can click here.  I’m shocked to see that there are any of these things still around.] I wanted maps and pictures that reflected what I talked about in class already, not what some publisher thought I should be discussing. Therefore, I had to accumulate overlays from a wide variety of U.S. History survey textbook publishers to create something essentially personalized to meet my needs.

The Internet has rendered that collection obsolete for me now. I can create my own PowerPoint slides (with very little text) faster and with a much greater selection of possible pictures than I ever could have imagined when I started out in this business. To me, this is what teaching with technology is all about. More choices. Better control of my own time. Three cheers for progress!!!

Unfortunately, the giant publishers and my own employer for that matter are either unwilling or unable to give more options unless I enter their particular technological universe. Time saving is invariably the incentive for making the move to any technology, but this seems especially true for moving any aspect of education online. This is from Anya Kamenetz, writing for NPR:

But instructor time remains the most expensive resource, and it’s often scarce and rationed, especially in the online realm.

[Andrew] Smith Lewis [of Cerego, an edtech startup], along with other ed-tech people I talked to, framed the next generation of computer enhanced learning as a way to free up professors to do what they do best — not to replace them.

Professor [Jeff] Hellmer [of U-T Austin], for one, was so taken with the Cerego platform that he decided to incorporate it into his live, in-person classes, starting this summer. He sees it as a labor-saving device: The machine will handle the shoveling in of facts, while he does the cultivating of the students’ mental gardens.

Pardon me if I’m not quite so trusting. I want to maintain control of the technology rather than let the technology control me because if my technology doesn’t reflect my own teaching priorities I might as well be signing my own unemployment compensation request form. No matter how often edtech entrepreneurs insist that they want to do things right,  there’s a class of administrators who have already shown time and again that they want to do things wrong. You know, the ones who brought us adjunct labor and huge executive salaries.

Of course nobody should trust these administrators to use MOOCs responsibly either. I’ve already discussed the prospects of the just-in-time professor here, but the idea of creating a MOOC-y textbook or a textbook-y MOOC raises the prospect of eliminating teachers entirely for those students who can’t afford a college education that includes them. If this sounds ludicrous to you, what exactly is a self-paced, on demand MOOC then? A video game with scholarly content.

Unlike the early days of this blog’s technological turn, my somewhat paranoid rantings are hardly alone anymore. As Andrew Leonard wrote in a little-noticed piece at Salon on Friday:

Early returns on MOOCs have confirmed what just about any teacher could have told you before Silicon Valley started believing it could “fix” education. Real human interaction and engagement are hugely important to delivering a quality education. Most crucially, hands-on interaction with teachers is vital for the students who are in most desperate need for an education — those with the least financial resources and the most challenging backgrounds.

Of course, it costs money to provide greater human interaction. You need bodies — ideally, bodies with some mastery of the subject material. But when you raise costs, you destroy the primary attraction of Silicon Valley’s “disruptive” model. The big tech success stories are all about avoiding the costs faced by the incumbents. Airbnb owns no hotels. Uber owns no taxis. The selling point of Coursera and Udacity is that they need own no universities.

“No more pencils. No more books. No more teacher’s dirty looks.” The whole thing has the feel of some kind of teenage revenge fantasy against educators everywhere, but it still makes perfect sense. If textbooks have ambitions to be courses and MOOCs have ambitions to be used like textbooks, what’s left for the professors to do then? If we faculty let this happen all in the name of our own convenience, then we have nobody but ourselves to blame.




4 responses

27 07 2014
tom abeles

Hi Jonathan

I am surprised that it has taken folks so long to recognize this was happening. There is more important issue:

Back in the good old days, there was a smaller and more selective community of students. Today, with the push for increased education the population has increased to include many students who have left secondary school unprepared for post secondary institutions.

The rub is that those students have supposedly had the benefit of faculty who have had to spend many hours in getting a teaching certificate to deal with the spectrum of students. Yet they graduate unprepared.

And university faculty are content experts. They may think they are process experts but they lack many of the skills that the secondary teachers have and the advanced training that corporations provide for those who have to educate their work force.

The universities, additionally, are not prepared to fund the needed support services to help these students to succeed or to function at the level of those who come better prepared. There are no remedial courses that can compensate in one or two semesters what the better qualified students have obtained from birth and/or in the better functioning primary and secondary schools.

This is particularly problematic in subjects that are cumulative like STEM, language and similar courses that need well constructed sequences.

27 07 2014
Contingent Cassandra

I think the truly crucial part of the process that the edupreneurs fail to imagine is not just the effect on the students of interacting directly with the professor, but also the effect on the professor of interacting directly with cohort after cohort of students: changes, both small and large, in the information we present, how we present it, the assignments and exercises we use, etc., etc. Such incremental change is sometimes hard to observe (and definitely hard to monetize, precisely because it’s ongoing and somewhat erratic), but it adds up to a lot of movement over time, especially if instructors get a chance to talk to each other, share ideas, try out and modify each others’ ideas, etc., etc. But it’s so much less exciting to subsidize that kind of ongoing, very local, pedagogical research than to do something big and splashy (and then do something big and splashy again in five years, and so on).

30 07 2014
Dan King

I think you’re wrong to blame administrators. The trade-off between cost and personal attention will ultimately be made by students. And I doubt they’ll go all the way toward either extreme. More likely, they’ll choose personal attention for classes most closely associated with their major, while emphasizing cost savings for classes in which they are less interested.

1 10 2014
Paul-Olivier Dehaye

Your emphasis on technological choices is particularly relevant in mathematics. We don’t use Word, Excel or whatnot. We use LaTeX. It’s old and has its problems, but Microsoft will never build a better alternative for us, and it means we pretty much write the papers as they will be published. The preprint version and the published version will look very similar, but one is really expensive. This has led to a campaign against this system, initiated by mathematicians, and called “The Cost of Knowledge”. It even includes a Fields medalist encouraging others to leak contract information

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