The Walmart of higher education will not be online.

25 05 2011

“The price of college is going to fall, and the Internet is going to cause that fall. The rest of it is really difficult to figure out.”

So begins an article about the coming higher education revolution in the Atlantic that Historiann sent me since, you know, higher education is in crisis. [Cue scary music.] I think you can imagine the argument, but here’s a taste nonetheless:

Despite college costs rising faster in college than any institution in the country including health care, we have the technology to disrupt education, turn brick and mortar lecture halls into global classrooms, and dramatically bring down the cost of a high quality education.

Entrepreneurs like to say there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Is education innovation that next big idea?

It’s like Walmart, right? Stack the education high and sell it cheap! We’ll make millions! To be fair, there is a hint of the alternative point of view in the piece:

[Yale classics professor Diana E. E.] Kleiner reads from the same script, if more cautiously. “If the best economics teacher in the world creates a course that is better than any other, would there be merit in having that course be the only course?” she asks. “Maybe, but you would still need teachers. There’s no substitution for personal education.”

Maybe? The last time they tried to tried to to treat students like a bunch of raw material, Mario Savio and his pals took over the Chancellor’s office. Why does anyone think it’s going to go any better this time when they’re not even getting an education from Berkeley (except, of course, for those poor online suckers who actually will be getting an online education from Berkeley)?

The assumption that college is too expensive is certainly correct. The problem with this article is that it assumes that online education is the way to solve that problem. As I’ve noted before, it is possible to do some really interesting things with education online. However, if you’re just doing it to save money so that your university can keep more money for other things, your online courses are going to be awful. As a result, nobody will learn anything and they’ll all end up unemployed. The negative feedback loop will then lead to a real crisis in higher education, brought on by the people who thought they were saving it.

I have a dream of what a new, cheaper, face-to-face university education might look like: No sports. Cut the number of administrators in half. The President is not allowed to make any more than twice what the lowest paid faculty member in the business school takes home in salary. Run the book store as a co-op. No climbing walls. Spend the surplus every year on scholarships, and cost-of-living adjustments for faculty.

Too bad I’m don’t have a few million to spare for a start-up.





What do faculty and Walmart workers have in common?

6 12 2010

On Saturday, I heard Cary Nelson speak at the state AAUP’s annual meeting in Boulder. It was actually the same speech he gave at the shared governance meeting in Washington, D.C., but not exactly the same. Besides, like when you listen to your favorite albums enough, you sometimes hear little things you didn’t pick up the first time around.

What I picked up most this time around was a thought about the relationship between state aid at public universities and tuition. It’s obvious when you think about it: When state aid decreases, the costs of running a college are shifted to students in the form of higher tuition. From the typical administrator’s standpoint, it basically doesn’t matter. If you raise tuition too high, perhaps students will choose a cheaper alternative (like community colleges), but as long as enrollment continues unabated one source of money is as good as another.

The problem with this arrangement from the faculty perspective is that it sets students and faculty off against one another. Want a raise? Tuition is going to have to go up. Of course, there are many other expenses in running a university besides faculty salaries, but I’ve noticed a tendency among administrators everywhere to inflate the relative percentage of the cost of instruction compared to overall budgets and I think this is precisely the reason. Invoking the interests of students to their teachers is a much better argument than saying you can’t have a raise because they need to hire still more administrators or pay the football coach another million dollars per year.

This is what reminds me of Walmart. certainly everyone on the tenure track still has it better than the average Walmart worker, but I’ve been a Walmart blogger for a long, long time and I think I’m starting to see a parallel here. When Walmart is attacked for its poor wages, a certain class of Walmart defenders (many of them in economics departments), make an argument like this:

[Obama] has appointed the 37-year-old Jason Furman, one of Wal-Mart’s most prominent defenders, to head his economic team. On the campaign trail, Obama blasted Clinton for sitting on the Wal-Mart board and pledged: “I won’t shop there.” For Furman, however, Wal-Mart’s critics are the real threat: the “efforts to get Wal-Mart to raise its wages and benefits” are creating “collateral damage” that is “way too enormous and damaging to working people and the economy … for me to sit by idly and sing Kum Ba Ya in the interests of progressive harmony”.

That collateral damage is, of course, higher prices for cheap plastic crap. In our case, it’s higher tuition – probably for the same class of students that feel the need to shop at Walmart.

Obviously I’m sympathetic to people at the bottom of the power equation in both these relationships, but those in academia can at least take the argument in another direction by invoking the effect of budgetary decisions on the quality of instruction. As I put it after the first time I heard Cary Nelson give this speech:

Our first inclination is to thank our administrators for not furloughing us (and if we are furloughed, to thank them for not firing us) when we should be asking, “What can we do together to make sure that the education we’re providing doesn’t suffer?”

We work at universities, not Walmart. If the quality of instruction isn’t someone’s first priority, then that person might want to consider employment in Walmart’s management team rather than higher education administration.





“[T]he Walmartization of higher education.”

29 05 2010

This is the sort of thing I expect to find at RYS, not the pages of Academe. Nevertheless, here it is:

At a community college in Maryland, many faculty members have ignored an administrative initiative that one professor says puts him in a position similar to that of a sales clerk in a department store.

Over the past year, Prince George’s Community College has issued name badges to every college employee that ask, “Have you been served well?” President Charlene Dukes says the badges are part of a campuswide campaign for “quality service” that focuses on providing students with the information and support they need to reach their academic goals.

For faculty, she says, that might include helping students find referrals for services outside the classroom or assistance with financial aid. “We expect our faculty to get to know their students by name and the types of academic need they have,” says Dukes. “We don’t mandate that faculty wear them, but we encourage them to do it, and some do.”

Faculty members have been cool to the badge campaign. Associate professor Earl Yarington says very few wear the badges. The badges put faculty in the position of delivering a product, preferably with a smile; the student is buying the course and the prized higher education credits.

“The problem is—I’m not selling them shoes,” says Yarington. “It’s the Walmartization of higher education and it’s a disturbing trend.”

I guess I could just chuckle and let this one slide. After all, most of the faculty is ignoring the initiative. Nevertheless, I think this is indicative of something more.

Students are the LAST people who understand whether they’ve been “served well.” Or, perhaps, you only figure out whether you’ve been served well long after you leave college.

The problem is all these administrators who seem to think that education is a commodity like toilet paper or cheap plastic crap from China. It’s not. Paying tuition does not guarantee that you get it. If students don’t put everything they can into the process, learning will not come out the end. That badge is an invitation to blame the professor for whatever shortcomings you have, when perhaps students would be better served if we encouraged them to look inward instead.





Are we going to let Walmart starve us all?

19 01 2009

My latest post at our Walmart blog is historical enough that I might as well link to it here.





The just-in-time professor.

23 07 2014

Have you noticed the new emerging consensus? MOOCs will no longer make faculty go the way of the dodo. It will be the technologies that enable MOOCs (presumably employed by people who know more about teaching than various current and ex-members of the Stanford Computer Science department) that will disrupt us all. Here, for example, is Bill Gates making something that sounds like that argument. This study of the effect of MOOCs on MBA programs argues essentially the same thing. I would argue that the emerging consensus around hybrid classrooms, that they are a way to have the “best of both worlds” (online and face-to-face instruction), as yet another way to make the same point. “Education,” writes Mark Guzdial in a post describing two more studies that also seem to me to support this new consensus, “is technology’s Afghanistan.”

So does that mean we faculty can relax now? After all, if we’re not extinct we’re alive (if not exactly thriving), and if we’re alive what is there to worry about? Afghanistan may be a permanent stalemate for all invaders, but unfortunately there are still casualties in stalemates. The thing to worry about now in the post-MOOC world is exactly what our jobs will be like when they are infused with technology. Will we faculty run the technology or will the technology run us? Experiences in other industries suggest the latter rather than the former.

One of the scariest things I learned about during my days as a Walmart blogger was their computerized scheduling system (which I wrote about on this blog here).  The NYT‘s labor reporter, Steven Greenhouse, recently did a story that validated this trend without really explaining the technology behind it.  You need to look to the British journalist Simon Head’s book Mindless to learn about computer business systems in their full glory. As Head explains, these powerful programs, pioneered by Walmart (p. 3):

“bring the disciplines of industrialism to an economic space that extends far beyond the factories and construction sites of the machine age: to wholesale and retail, financial services, secondary and higher education, healthcare, “customer relations management” and  “human resources management (HRM),” public administration, corporate management at all levels save the highest, and even the fighting of America’s wars.” 

If you’ve never worked at Walmart, the time that you most likely encountered one of these programs is when dealing with a customer service representative who was clearly going by the book. The computer IS their book scripting their every interaction with you the same way that the computer tells the company how many calls it gets in which hours, which then determines how many representatives to have waiting for calls at any particular time.

Unfortunately, Head does very little in his book with higher education, but it is easy to imagine a future in which power-hungry administrators attempt to use technology to dictate both how and when we all deal with our students. The students customers have a complaint? Handle it by the manual. If professors aren’t allowed to say anything controversial on social media, how can we ever expect to be able to do so in class – especially in online classes during which our every interaction with students can be monitored and searched?

Even more troublesome, however, is the prospect of the just-in-time professor. If MOOCish technologies really are used to unbundle us all, what exactly will they be paying us to do? Somebody has to greet the students on the first day of class, right? Make them feel at home. Somebody has to grade the final exams. But what are we all going to do in between? Press play for some superprofessor’s video-taped lectures? Our bosses certainly aren’t going to let us all sit back and do our research for the fourteen weeks until finals start.

This is exactly why that story about outsourcing the hiring of adjuncts in Michigan just scares me to death. For all the problems that adjuncts have (which are manifold), at least they are guaranteed work through the end of a semester. If their hiring can be broken up on an as-needed basis, what’s to stop schools from hiring them on an as-needed basis during the semester? Get more workers when you need them – like during finals. Don’t pay for them when you don’t. This is the logical end to which faculty unbundling will bring us all – tenured, tenure-track and adjunct alike.

Perhaps you scoff at this notion, but if the power relationship between faculty and administrations gets any more one-sided than it is right now we are all going to pine for the good old days like they are now at the University of Southern New Hampshire. As George Siemens explains:

When unbundling happens, it is only temporary. Unbundling leads to rebundling. And digital rebundling results in less players and less competition. What unbundling represents then is a power shift. Universities are today an integrated network of products and services. Many universities have started to work with partners like Pearson (ASU is among the most prominent) to expand capacity that is not evident in their existing system.

Rebundling is what happens when the pieces that are created as a sector moves online become reintegrated into a new network model. It is most fundamentally a power shift. The current integrated higher education system is being pulled apart by a range of companies and startups. Currently the university is in the drivers seat. Eventually, the unbundled pieces will be integrated into a new network model that has a new power structure. 

Perhaps most faculty won’t be unbundled and rebundled right out of their jobs, but after this process is completed nobody will want those jobs anymore. Equally importantly, what kind of education will it be if the human relationship between a student and professor is replaced by a business relationship between a student and a temporary worker who happens to have a Ph.D. (and perhaps more than a few that don’t)? The kind of education you get at a for-profit university now, but pleasantly housed inside a semi-public shell like at Arizona State University online.

I guess all this means that I hate the future. But as George suggests elsewhere in that same post:

The parts of a social system are less than the whole of a social system. 

Anybody who has the least bit of experience teaching can tell you that this rule applies to higher education in spades. Too bad nobody wants to listen to us. While we get called Luddites for sticking up for a sick system, the powers that be go off and kill the patient in the name of “progress,” which looks a lot more like profiteering to me.





Going, going…gone?

3 07 2014

Thanks to the great Sarah Kendzior, I picked up a copy of Gone Girl when I was in Target yesterday.  While I’ve barely started it, I can tell it’s going to be really, really good.  What I think made me do it was that until I read Sarah’s piece on the death of malls, I didn’t realize that the book had economic themes, like this quote from the beginning few pages:

“I’d arrived in New York in the late ’90s, the last gasp of the of the glory days, although no one knew it then.  New York was packed with writers, real writers, because there were magazines, real magazines, loads of them.  This was back when the Internet was still some exotic pet kept in the corner of the publishing world–throw some kibble at it, watch it dance on its little leash, oh quite cute, it definitely won’t kill us in the night.  Think about it: a time when newly graduated college kids could come to New York and get paid to write.  We had no clue that we were embarking on careers that would vanish within a decade.”

I love good magazine journalism.  I have an almost religious devotion to the New Yorker since my parents were subscribers.  Yet I also read the Huffington Post and give content away for free at this very blog.  Does that make me a bad person?

Of course, it’s easy to imagine some bitter magazine writer muttering to themselves, “You’re next, professor.”  That, at least, is what the disrupt higher education crowd would like everybody to believe.  Longtime readers know that I constantly go back on forth on the question of whether or not my profession will “vanish within a decade.”  Today, I’m definitely in “I will survive mode.”

What’s improved my mood is an op-ed at Inside Higher Education.  The author, Randy Best, is discussing the pricing model for online classes:

These days, two out of three students attending on-campus programs receive some form of generous subsidy or discount, while their online counterparts, generally ineligible for such assistance, foot the full sticker price even though they do not benefit from all the amenities of the revered campus life, do not take up parking spaces, inflict wear and tear on facilities, or take up as much instructor time. Instead of embracing these online learners who produce considerable incremental revenue for institutions, colleges and universities are penalizing them, which has troubling implications not only for students’ bank accounts, but also for universities’ own vaunted views of fairness. By introducing e-tuition, which is appropriately lower than the on-campus price tag, universities could easily capitalize on the scale, brand extension, and new revenue synonymous with online learning while maintaining far more equitable pricing for online students.

Never.  Gonna.  Happen.  How do I know?  The entire existence of online courses is predicated on the notion that they’re just as good as the courses on campus.  Because offering online courses cheaper than face-to-face courses strongly suggests that these courses are somehow inferior to the courses that are offered on campus, universities will do nothing to discredit their brands.* Besides that, many of them have undoubtedly already spent the money they expect to take in through online courses on new administrators and climbing walls in the gym.

Best’s example of a university that’s bucking this trend is the online computer science MA at Georgia Tech.  If you remember though, this is the MOOC-ish MA in which people spend most of their time watching video, with minimal outside help.  They’re only discounting the sticker price because they’re hoping to make it up in volume and, as Chris Newfield has argued persuasively, their revenue estimates are probably inflated.  That would make this an exception that proves the world.

The problem here is prestige.  A long time ago, when I was in another one of these “I will survive” moods, I wrote a post called “The Walmart of higher education will not be online”:

The assumption that college is too expensive is certainly correct. The problem with this article is that it assumes that online education is the way to solve that problem. As I’ve noted before, it is possible to do some really interesting things with education online. However, if you’re just doing it to save money so that your university can keep more money for other things, your online courses are going to be awful. As a result, nobody will learn anything and they’ll all end up unemployed. The negative feedback loop will then lead to a real crisis in higher education, brought on by the people who thought they were saving it.

Maybe this time I’ll stop changing my mind.  The future is a lot closer than it was when I first wrote that post, and the evidence of discounting still hasn’t surfaced.  What’s going to make them change their minds?

*  Of course, the good online courses aren’t inferior to the ones offered on campus, but if you discount them the market will still likely treat them that way.





“What goes up, must come down.”

20 06 2014

My knowledge of the contemporary steel industry is a little rusty, but it’s better than you might think. About a decade ago, my poorly-read dissertation was enough to get me invited on as a consultant to two NEH seminars conducted at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, OH. Those gigs included tours of the huge Mittal plant there, where we discussed the difference between how steel is made now and how it was made back in the day.

The big difference is that nobody manufactures steel at all anymore in America. The price of scrap steel is so cheap (and his been so for decades now) that just about every blast furnace in America* has been taken down and replaced with electric arc furnaces that melt old steel so that it can be recycled into new products. Just last week, I got a chance to tour the arc furnace building here at Evraz in Pueblo for the first time. They have “recipes” which they use to turn various kinds of scrap into first-rate finished products. I don’t think anybody bothers to call plants like this one “minimills” anymore. In reality, they are old plants (the one in Pueblo dates from 1906) that have been retrofitted for new market realities.

All this serves as background for my reading of the primal scream of an interview that Clayton Christensen just gave Business Week in response to the Jill Lepore takedown of disruptive innovation in the New Yorker. Here’s the part about the steel industry:

[Disruptive innovation] is not a theory about survivability. I’d ask [Lepore] to go see an integrated steel company operated by U.S. Steel. Seriously. And come back with data on, does U.S. Steel make rebar anymore? No, they’ve been taken out of rebar. Do the integrated steel companies like U.S. Steel make rail for the railroads? No. Do they make rod and angle iron, Jill? No. Do they make structural steel I-beams and H-beams that you use to make the massive skyscrapers downtown, does U.S. Steel make those beams? Come on, Jill, tell me! No!

So what do they make? Steel sheet at the high end of the market. The fact is that they make steel sheet at the high end of the market, but have been driven out everywhere else. This is a process, not an event.

For all I know, Christensen may be right about what U.S. Steel makes (although there must be a hell of a market for high-end sheet steel if they can dominate the entire steel industry from that niche). I can, however, tell you this: Evraz makes rail, and apparently they’re the market leader. And they do this from a plant that looks like Hell from the outside, but is obviously incredibly high-tech from within. In other words, this particular facility (under a different owners) caught up in its battle against the slash-and-burn “innovators” of the steel industry. And they’re still a union shop!!!

But you don’t even have to innovate in order to keep up. I heard a story in Cleveland that still haunts my dreams. Apparently, there was once a rolling mill there that the owners sold to a Chinese firm. That Chinese firm took that mill, disassembled it piece by piece, reassembled it in China and starting making steel there again. They couldn’t make money from it in America because of labor costs and environmental regulations, but the old technology still worked fine in China. What’s standing at that site now? A Walmart, of course.

Unlike Lepore, who did the research across industries and got it fact-checked, I’m not saying that Christensen is full of it. What I am saying is that the situation in the steel industry is clearly much more complicated than he has suggested. Unfortunately, complicated stories don’t sell books to businessmen. Complicated stories don’t get you expensive speaking gigs. Complicated stories don’t make you the darling of Silicon Valley. Simple ones do.

“What goes up, must come down,” is probably too simple to explain what’s happening to Christensen at this moment, but it’s the best I can do at the moment so I’m sticking to it. If anybody out there would like to revise my revisionism, please be my guest. After all, that’s how scholarship is supposed to work.

* Nobody was sure whether U.S. Steel still made its own steel in Gary, IN anymore. That’s a harder question to answer than you might think. Mittal maintained the capacity to make its own new steel, but when I was there they told me that they almost never used it.





“I don’t need no beast of burden.”

11 06 2014

I have very eclectic interests. Labor history. The history of technology. The history of food. Monty Python. Ferris Bueller. The music of the Rolling Stones. The survival of higher education in America. All this makes the fact that I’ve stuck to one subject on this blog for so long really quite amazing.

The advantage of having these eclectic interests is that it makes it possible for me to draw some connections that other people might miss. So let me begin by briefly summarizing two rather amazing articles that I read this morning and then trying to pull them together. First, the distinguished Atrios guest poster alumni and Corrente blogger Lambert Strether published a higher education post over on Naked Capitalism that really is quite epic. I’m not sure there’s all that much here that I didn’t know already, but it is certainly very helpful to see it in one place.

He begins with a discussion of the actual privatizing of public universities, citing this Bloomberg piece:

After gaining greater independence, many public universities have increased tuition, raising fears that West Chester would follow suit.

“For any university that leaves the state system, tuition and fees will likely go up — creating an added burden for students and their families,” Frank Brogan, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, said in a statement opposing the bill when it was introduced.

The independence drive is analogous to the rise in K-12 education of charter schools… Like charters, breakaway universities want less red tape and more freedom to experiment with academic programs.

I had actually heard that the University of Alabama (of all places) actually increased faculty salaries after doing something similar, but anybody who puts their faith in the majority of college administrators (or even a significant minority) to do the same thing is deluding themselves. As Lambert goes on to point out, the usual effect of more revenue at a corporate university is for it to become even more corporate, despite the fact that their students still need to depend upon public assistance through student loans in order to attend there at all. Welfare is to Walmart as student loans are to the corporate university, especially the for-profit corporate university, but even the ones that you’d have thought were better than that too.

Skipping a lot (please do read the whole thing), Lambert concludes with an analogy to Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine:

It’s almost like there’s a neo-liberal playbook, isn’t there? No underpants gnomes, they! Defund, claim crisis, call for privatization… Profit! [ka-ching]. Congress underfunds the VA, then overloads it with Section 8 patients, a crisis occurs, and Obama’s first response is send patients to the private system. Congress imposes huge unheard-of, pension requirements on the Post Office, such that it operates at a loss, and it’s gradually cannibalized by private entities, whether for services or property. And charters are justified by a similar process.

Having read that book more than once now, what I want to point out here is that this Shock Doctrine-style privatization actually began a long time ago. No, you don’t have to get a charter to operate as if you were corporate, all you have to do is outsource large sections of your core mission to private companies, just like the U.S. government did in Iraq.

Consider, for example, education technology. This is where the second great article I read this morning comes into the picture. While I normally wouldn’t be caught dead reading the Educause Review (since David Noble called them out as corporate stooges about fifteen years ago), they might actually be getting better as they published this remarkable article by Jim Groom and Brian Lamb called “Reclaiming Innovation,” [h/t David Kernohan].

As you might imagine, my favorite part is where they go after the Learning Management System. For purposes of this post, the key argument of their five-point LMS condemnation is #4:

The expense of enterprise LMSs is an inexhaustible drain on institutional resources. Even when they are operating at optimal efficiency, the commitment required to maintain them represents an immense set of challenges. And any technologists who have been involved in a migration from one system to another, or in significant upgrades of the same system, can testify to how time-consuming and troublesome these processes will be.

In other words, all the techies you’re hiring to keep the thing operating could be going to keeping tuition low. More importantly for my audience here, all that money going to Blackboard could be going to raising faculty salaries or even just giving adjuncts a living wage. And the really insane thing is that none of these G.D. things make anybody (students or faculty) who uses them particularly happy!!! They are solutions that solve nothing. In fact, what they mostly do is create new problems.

Read the whole thing to see Groom and Lamb’s elegant solutions, but what I want to point out here to the education technology-inclined is that no matter how convincing you happen to be in your advocacy for open source anything, you’re still going to have to overcome the neo-liberal mindset that Lambert describes so well. You want to design something truly innovative and all they offer you is an electronic beast of burden. Worse yet, their ultimate neo-liberal wish is to use that beast of burden to put you out on the streets – to put you out, put you out, put you out of misery. Like the coal companies in Colorado one hundred years ago, they’re more interested in mules than people and that goes for students as well as faculty.





“[T]he low end always wins.”

16 05 2014

You were just dying to know what I think of that video from the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, weren’t you? George Siemens has already called it a “flailing rage walrus response to MOOCs,” and the campaign itself the “Thrun of anti-MOOC.” Well, in my effort to be the George Siemens of the anti-MOOC crowd, I want to try to look at the video rationally.

First, let’s talk about the good stuff. Oh my God, where did they get those xMOOC promotional films???!!! They look like the https://moreorlessbunk.wordpress.com/wp-admin/edit-comments.phpworst daytime TV ads for online for-profit schools x 3. You know what I mean, “You can go to school in your pajamas.” [Or is that one just a Rocky Mountain thing? Maybe TressieMC can help me there.] I also appreciate all Alice in Wonderland references wherever they may surface. On the other hand, the cartoon figures of the actual people involved just seem gratuitously nasty.

Similarly, the subtitle, “Teaching Millions or Making Millions?” gives away the video’s basic argument, which to me is also its biggest flaw. The campaign is upset that the Lords of MOOC Creation act as if they’re saving in the world when they’re really trying to make money, and so am I. But that’s a pretty lazy argument upon which to rest an entire video. People like me, those of us whose class politics resemble the CIO c. 1937, will probably be swayed by an argument like that, but not the vast middle ground who haven’t really formed an opinion on the subject of MOOCs yet. That’s why I’ve spent so much time on this blog trying to explain why MOOCs – to be specific, commercially-sponsored xMOOCs – are bad pedagogy compared to their traditional alternatives.

Which goes to the other obvious counterargument to this particular attack: All MOOCs are not the same. It sounds as if this is the line of attack that Stephen Downes would spring upon the campaign if they actually accepted his invitation to debate MOOCs with him, and of course he’s right. As I’ve written before, getting crowdsourced out of your job is no different than being replaced by an xMOOC. Nevertheless, I think everybody should have the opportunity to take a cMOOC in something, during college or afterwards, so that they can take advantage of the collective wisdom that these groups offer and learn the kinds of skills that they can’t get in a traditional college class. I’ll even go so far as to suggest that every college student today should take at least one online class just so that they can have that kind of experience under their belt.

The problem comes with the possibility that MOOCs, cMOOCs or xMOOCs, may sweep everything else away in its wake. Clayton Christensen, who really deserves just as much flack from the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education as the MOOC purveyors are getting, has repeatedly suggested, “[T]he low end always wins.” Like with Walmart, he’s arguing, the bad will drive out the good because everybody cares about price and nobody really cares about quality.

Honestly, I constantly go back and forth over whether Christensen is right about that or not. After reading Sarah Kendzior on the state of college with respect to the broader economy these days, I’m on the “Christensen is right” bandwagon this week. Who knows where I’ll be next week? I think I could live with this proposal to treat MOOCs as health clubs rather than as hospitals (it’ll make sense if you read it), but I simply don’t trust the average administrator to exercise any particular online educational option wisely without substantial faculty input.

So in this environment, who can blame the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education for flailing around like a rage walrus? After all, when discussing the future of higher education, we faculty have so much to be angry about.





“I walk the line.”

4 03 2014

Here’s a little-known fact about me: I used to be a Walmart blogger. That blog is still updated occasionally by my friend Jeff in Cleveland, but a few years back I came to the decision that I could do more to help my own profession through blogging than I could the Walmart workers of the world (although they all still have my general support). Yet that experience was hardly a total bust. For one thing, it explains why I’m a vegetarian. It also explains why I once talked on the phone with the British journalist Simon Head.

I don’t remember exactly why he contacted me. I think I had written something about Walmart that implied that I knew more than I really did. What he ended up doing is schooling me on the evils of Walmart’s computerized scheduling system. The long and short of it is that Walmart schedules its workers on the basis of when its computer system predicts that customers will be in the store. If there aren’t enough people there to justify paying you, then you stay home. To make matters worse, Walmart demands that its employees be on call for work at any shift, any time, thereby making other jobs (or even going to school) that much more difficult. Since Head first wrote about that system, it’s become absolutely commonplace in workplaces of all kinds. It’s one very important reason why so many cheap employers today can employ all part-time workers and not be understaffed.

Head has a new book out now, Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Humans Dumber. You may have seen an excerpt from it about Amazon in Salon last month. I’ve read the whole thing now, and I can tell you it’s almost certainly going to be the most important book I’ll read all year. In essence, it is an update on Head’s earlier work on Walmart. Rather than just use the computer to dictate when your employer needs you to work, technology is now powerful enough for management to use it to dictate exactly how workers do their jobs. For example, here’s a bit from that excerpt about what Amazon warehouse workers do all day:

Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. In a fine piece of investigative reporting for the London Financial Times, economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.

All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences. At Amazon’s depot in Allentown, Pennsylvania (of which more later), Kate Salasky worked shifts of up to eleven hours a day, mostly spent walking the length and breadth of the warehouse. In March 2011 she received a warning message from her manager, saying that she had been found unproductive during several minutes of her shift, and she was eventually fired. This employee tagging is now in operation at Amazon centers worldwide.

If you read Head’s entire book, you’ll see that these same principles are now being applied to white-collar jobs of all kinds. Work with a computer, you may be subject to this kind of Taylorism no matter what your particular income level happens to be.

In the book, Head notes the effect of this kind of management system on British universities. Unfortunately, he does not go the extra step of reporting (or even just predicting) the effect that these kinds of programs might have upon teachers involved in online education. Nevertheless, the implications should be obvious. Teach online and your every interaction – heck your every keystroke – is subject to scrutiny if you use a system that your employer controls. I’m not saying this is happening now everywhere, but it is easy to imagine that this will be happening somewhere soon. Even the best online educators will be subject to this kind of scrutiny if their employers care more about efficiency than they do about education.

Can this really happen? Well, look at MOOCs. Here’s Jim Groom, reviewing some recent history in that area:

MOOCs, as Siemens and Downes imagined them, are one of the few sources of true innovation you can point to in educational technology in recent history, and it was born from a higher ed/government relationship. Yet, within a couple of years the MOOC movement had become increasingly denatured and over-run by corporate boosterism that was redirecting the logic of experimentation and possibility to a rhetoric of how broken higher education is, and how Silicon Valley (poaching superstar faculty from Stanford with the allure of million of dollars) has come to its rescue. What was remarkable to me as I watched the MOOC experiment transform into a corporate takeover was how quickly and completely the alien pods took over the experimentation before it could breath. before it could even develop it was already a fully formed disruptive solution to a moribund institution. Innovation lost.

As I know I once read Marc Bousquet write somewhere, many universities admire the for-profit online approach and have rushed into it not to improve education, but to improve their own bottom lines. You may be convinced your online class is the best online class that can be given online (and it might very well be better than a lot of in-person lecture-only classes at giant state universities), but how long will your employer let you keep teaching it in the inefficient way that you’re teaching it now? I’m not saying this disaster is going to befall every online instructor, but it will certainly befall some of them as budgets grow tighter in higher education worldwide. The question then becomes, “Where will the line between the lucky and the unlucky get drawn?”

I’ve started to feel as if I walk that line every day. Our recent troubles here with our research downloads has reminded me that nothing lasts forever. This is particularly true for those of us who work at universities with administrations that do not value what skilled faculty bring to the educational table. If I am not swept up in a wave of digitization that will allow my job to be Taylorized, the CSU-System could still simply invest its resources in creating new campuses where a surveillance state can be constructed at birth.

As longtime readers know, I keep a close watch on this job of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time. But what happens if this kind of vigilance makes no difference?








%d bloggers like this: