I am no longer anti-MOOC.

6 06 2014

You may have noticed my general failure to avoid discussing MOOCs lately. “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Actually, that’s not an entirely accurate assessment. There’s my latest for Chronicle Vitae, which is entirely MOOC-free. And sometimes instead of writing exclusively about MOOCs these days, I find myself writing about things that are MOOC-ish (MOCs, POCs, XOCs, etc.) or, like that Academe article of mine, I write about MOOCs in a wider context of technological threats to faculty prerogatives.

The more I think about it, the more I think that this last subject is where the real battle for the future of higher education will occur. While Coursera might love to stuff MOOCs down our throats, administrators of ill will are much more likely to use a wide range of technological tools to change higher education for the worse by making most faculty irrelevant. After all, the vast majority of us are too busy or too old school to follow every little twist and turn in education technology. That’s why it should be easy to slip something by us.

Which is why I’m making this announcement: I am no longer anti-MOOC (and not just because I like DS106). Anti-MOOC is so 2013. I am now anti- “the misuse of technology to destroy higher education by usurping faculty prerogatives.” Of course, that INCLUDES the vast majority of MOOCs, but really the threat we face is so much bigger than MOOCs and their ilk.

In order to spread the word about what’s going on, I’ve decided to get my act together and take it on the road. Yes, I’ve just started working up a presentation for interested faculty everywhere (and am teaching myself Keynote in order to do it) which I’m tentatively calling, “Educational Technology, Budgetary Priorities and Academic Freedom.” Anybody interested in booking me to present this analysis for their event need only contact me at the e-mail address here on the right.

Does this mean I’m selling out? The answer to that question is, “Sort of.” If you happen to have money to pay for my services, I will accept it. However, if you are an impoverished faculty group (and of course I know the vast majority of faculty groups are very impoverished), I’ll go anywhere and speak just for expenses, just like all the speakers I know through AAUP do all the time.

PS If you need a reference, contact the nice people at the Connecticut AAUP. I had more fun speaking there last year than I ever thought possible, and all they gave me was a personalized poster (which I will treasure for the rest of my life or until I get replaced by a robot, whichever comes first).


How would you respond if that happened offline?

27 05 2014

You’ve seen my article in Academe by now. Here’s my intro to it on the Academe blog.


I vividly remember my exact reaction the first time I read about Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs).  It was, “They can’t be serious, can they?  How on earth can anybody teach 30,000 people at once?”  Since I had already developed an interest in quality control for online education, I followed every new MOOC development very closely on my blog, More or Less Bunk.  For a long while, my blog was nothing but MOOC news and analysis every time I posted.  While I still write quite a bit about MOOCs there, I’ve come to believe that the technological problem higher education faces involves a lot more than MOOCs, which just happens to be the title of my contribution to the May-June 2014 issue of Academe.

Back when I was blogging mostly about regular online courses, before higher education caught MOOC madness, I heard a great deal from dedicated…

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“More than MOOCs.”

18 05 2014

So the nice people at Academe let me publish what amounts to my manifesto, at least for this year. Longtime readers will recognize much in that article, but I think it all goes together well in one official place like that. If you’re interested in reading my manifesto from last year, I don’t think I’ve ever linked to this before. I think it holds up pretty well.

Having it come out now also has the added benefit of buying me some time before I feel compelled to blog about this particular puff piece published in the Boston Globe this morning.

Reading is fundamental.

10 12 2013

One of the great themes of the MOOC Research Initiative conference I went to last week was trying to define what exactly constitutes success for a MOOC. Is it the percentage of people who finish it? Is it the number of people who start it? Is it the number of people who report that they got whatever they wanted out of it? This explains why everyone there could learn that “MOOCs have relatively few active users with only a few persisting to course end” and not just pack it in and go home. MOOCs in the eyes of the earnest, well-meaning people who are creating them are a different animal than the regular college course. Therefore, they argue, the success or failure of MOOCs should be judged by a different standard than the courses that the rest of us teach.

Unfortunately, succeed or fail, the “lessons” that MOOCs teach us are still going to be applied to regular college courses whether those of us who teach them like it or not. That’s why Anant Agarwal of edX, the guy who thinks Matt Damon should teach a MOOC, writes about unbundling higher education here as if it’s both inevitable and good for everybody involved. For example, consider this paragraph about unbundling just the functions of a university in general:

Traditional, four-year higher education institutions do far more than provide an education. Universities are responsible for admissions, research, facilities management, housing, healthcare, credentialing, food service, athletic facilities, career guidance and placement and much more. Which of these items should be at the core of a university and add value to that experience? By partnering with other universities, or by enlisting third parties to manage some university functions, could schools liberate resources to focus on what they value most?

I doubt it, but even so tell that to the people whose jobs are outsourced. The university as some bizarre hybrid of General Motors and Walmart certainly isn’t a future that I relish.

However, as a teacher myself, the part of his op-ed I find most interesting is his description of how we would unbundle content. It’s based on a very common analogy among MOOC enthusiasts between MOOCs and textbooks:

This practice actually began with the textbook centuries ago when instructors started using course content written by other scholars. Instructors are generally comfortable using textbooks written by a publisher’s team of authors, which they sometimes supplement with their own notes and handouts and those of their colleagues.

Leave aside the fact that some of us don’t assign traditional textbooks at all, what’s most interesting to me here is that he’s treating video lectures and the written word as if they’re the same thing:

MOOC technology may provide a new resource in online content for professors to do more of this in the future. Professors will have a choice to use multiple sources of content — the key being “choice” — in their lectures and classrooms that best fit the topic or their teaching style, and the learning styles of their students.

This is a classic example of a product purveyor struggling to find a market. While this might work in some disciplines for which outcomes matter more than the processes by which you reach them, it won’t work in the humanities at all. Here’s why::

1) Texts (using that word in its traditional sense) require more interpretation than film.

I’m not a film studies guy and I know nothing about theory, but I do know a little bit about auteurship, the notion of film reflecting a director’s personal creative vision. By focusing your attention on different parts of the screen, they can control where you look and, to a great extent, what you think about the story after it’s done. It’s like when I saw that “I see dead people” movie, and proceeded to kick myself after it was done for not picking up on the surprising twist until that guy who hasn’t made a decent movie since wanted to me to see all the clues he dropped earlier.

Books, especially textbooks, can’t paint the whole picture for you so you’re left to fill in much of the gaps yourself. That’s why teaching from a textbook that compliments your class is so important.

Sure you can go back and watch a difficult part of a lecture again, but it’s even easier to go back and read the difficult parts of a book. Suppose you do exactly that and you still don’t get it and you need to ask your professor about the concept that you missed. Are you two going to go back and watch everything from 2 minutes, 34 seconds to 4 minutes, 5 seconds again during class time? Isn’t that going to disturb everybody else around you? Indeed, it is much harder to discuss a “text” (in the broad sense of that word) if that text isn’t written because it’s much harder to access and process the parts of it you need.

Writing has persisted for thousands of years for a reason. You can run a video lecture on x150 speed, but you can’t skim it.

2) Reading is a skill. Teaching that skill is why the humanities exist.

Reading trains your attention span. You can’t read and watch TV at the same time if you hope to retain anything. In a MOOC, you can open a new tab and check Facebook while you’re listening to the lecture because nobody is there to watch you (except maybe the NSA).

Even in the Internet age, jobs require lots of reading. You’re reading right now. Shockingly enough, I think it’s a good idea to develop the reading skills to deal with long texts while in college so that graduates can apply those skills to shorter texts once they leave.

Unfortunately, too few people read these days. Indeed, I believe this is the root of our educational crisis today. These statistics come from a book about e-readers called Burning the Page:

“We’re a nation of readers and nonreaders. According to these studies, 33 percent of high school graduates who do not go on to college never read another book for the rest of their lives, and 42 percent of college graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. Sadly, 80 percent of U.S. families didn’t buy or read any books last year.”*

Making more MOOC content available for professors won’t help this crisis one bit. That’s why “All reading is good reading” is my new mantra (but that’s a subject for another post).

3) Humanities or otherwise, choosing the content you teach yourself is a vital component of academic freedom.

Oh God, there he goes bringing academic freedom into it again! Well, it’s not just me really. Here’s part of a very recent report on the freedom to teach from the AAUP:

The freedom to teach includes the right of the faculty to select the materials, determine the approach to the subject, make the assignments, and assess student academic performance in teaching activities for which faculty members are individually responsible, without having their decisions subject to the veto of a department chair, dean, or other administrative officer.

Now read that sentence again in light of MOOCs. Yes, nobody has been forced to flip their classroom and use MOOCs – yet. But as is the case with learning management systems, the pressures to use one particular collection of recorded content as opposed to the textbook of your choice is going to be immense. What gets me is how MOOC providers know this, as evidenced by their decision to contract with administrations rather than marketing to individual professors and counting on them to decide if they’ve built a better mousetrap.

Let me end this long post where Anant Agarwal began. This is from the very beginning of his piece:

When massive open online courses (MOOCs) first launched early last year, we had no idea what to expect. And even today — with dozens of global institutions and millions of learners participating — we as an industry have so much more to learn as we puzzle out online education. One thing that both supporters and critics of online education agree on is that the MOOC movement has ignited a spirited conversation about the future of higher education.

I heard a lot of similar sentiments at the conference last week, especially about a new focus on the quality of online education in general, and I kind of agree. Why just “kind of?” Because if some people involved in that conversation don’t think reading is fundamental, then they have no business telling me what or how to teach.

* Since I read it on my Kindle (well worth the $1.99 I paid for it), I can’t include page numbers (sigh), but that passage is at Loc. 1740.

Superprofessor or marionette?

8 11 2013

“Individual professors largely retain the right to choose what they teach and how, even when they’re teaching sections of the same course as other professors. That’s the American Association of University Professors’ take on individual vs. collective responsibility for course design, as laid out in its new statement on the matter.

– Coleen Flaherty, “‘Freedom to Teach,'” Inside Higher Education, November 8, 2013.

The professors said they typically developed the lessons and sent them to the Udacity employee to turn the lectures into scripts, complete with demonstrations and jokes. For the lesson on “Sensation and Perception,” Ms. Castellano came up with the idea of staging a “sense Olympics.” She and another Udacity employee pretended to be news anchors giving updates from contests that demonstrated human senses. The scenes are playful, and the professors even filmed mock advertisements for related “products.”.

– Jeffrey R. Young, “Will MOOCs Change the Way Professors Handle the Classroom?,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 7, 2013.

Dear Superprofessors: Your labor has value.

1 09 2013

Dear Superprofessors:

I know that I’ve been hard on y’all in the past, but to mark Labor Day today I wanted to give each and every one of you some useful info: Your labor has value. Now I know that many of you know this already (particularly you business proffies), but too many of you out there are charging MOOC providers and your own universities too little or even nothing for your services. Has the fame bug bit you that badly? I know you think you’re doing a public service, but you don’t teach face-to-face for free, do you? Why should running a MOOC be any different?

How many of you are selling yourselves short? That’s part of the problem because it’s impossible to say. I’m not going to dig out every link I’ve seen on this subject, but I know that Princeton’s Jeremy Adelman told readers of this blog (see the comments here) that he wasn’t charging anything to teach his Coursera World History MOOC. Duke’s Cathy Davidson told readers of her blog that she only got $10,000 for teaching her upcoming MOOC and that she was spending it all on the MOOC itself. Vanderbilt’s Derek Bruff has hinted (in a post that I can’t find now) that superprofessors there are getting paid, but he (quite rightly) didn’t want to tell how much. That would be the job of the superprofessors themselves.

Why you ask? Because asymmetric information about salaries, like hiding information about the true costs of MOOCs themselves, hurts your fellow superprofessors and it hurts us in the lumpenprofessoriate* too. Those of you who think of MOOC instruction as just a part of your regular duties are hurting the ability of other superprofs to be paid fairly for the countless hours of work that go into making any MOOC possible. Of course, the whole point of a MOOC is to build a machine that can go itself, but you don’t want other people to get rich off your labor do you? After all, without a professor out front your MOOC is just another computer program.

Come to think of it, do you even own the rights to your lectures? The copyright and intellectual property issues involved with MOOC creation must be enormous. Have you called a lawyer? Have you consulted the AAUP? I ask these questions because I’m afraid that some of you are setting a very bad precedent by giving your services away for free, a precedent that might make it much more difficult for the rest of us to make a living whether we teach MOOCs or not. So why don’t one of you just leak your contract to the Chronicle or IHE and get it over with? I bet they’ll be delighted to remove your name from the resulting story.

Then there’s what you’re doing to the value of teaching as a service. William Pannapacker (rightfully) points out how awful it is to teach solely out of love, but his context is always the adjunct problem. You folks at least have the economic and professional security so that you can afford to be magnanimous. However, if too many of you offer your services without proper compensation, then I’m afraid administrators everywhere are going to get used to thinking that teaching should be free – and if that happens then all the rest of us are even more screwed than we are already.

I do realize that this is something of a no-win situation for superprofessors everywhere. Stay silent or work for free and I hassle you. Make the size of your big payday known, and others will hassle you – probably harder than I am now. But here’s the thing: At some point you have to realize that you do not work in a vacuum. Teaching a MOOC or not teaching a MOOC, speaking out in favor of them or remaining silent – these things all have an effect on the rest of your profession. You can’t just declare that MOOCs are the future and let the chips fall where they may. You have the ability to influence what kind of future we’ll all face.

If you don’t know it, there’s more than one model of MOOCs out there. Unless your school has a noncompete agreement, you’re perfectly welcome to superprofess any way you want. So if the spirit moves you, you can help create not-for-profit collaborative MOOCs that will never cost any student a dime. Perhaps these efforts won’t make you famous, but at least you’ll have the solace of knowing that they’re a lot more benign than the for-profit model that you’re participating in now.



* Thanks to Marcus Fontaine for coining that term. Now I will proceed to beat it like a dead horse from now until the end of time in the hope that it catches on.

No MOOCs were harmed in the making of this post.

17 08 2013

Well, at least not directly.

Jonathan Rees Becomes Conference Co-President

8 07 2013

Here’s another reason the frequency of posts around here is going to stay comparatively low, even when summer ends. The conference in question is the Colorado AAUP (American Association of University Professors).

Rees.portraitEffective July 1, 2013 Jonathan Rees became Co-President of the Colorado Conference. He joins Steve Mumme as Co-President for a two-year term, and replaces Dean Saitta. Dean served as Co-President for 4 years and will continue as Conference webmaster.

Jonathan Rees is in the History Department at Colorado State University, Pueblo.  He writes an excellent blog called More or Less Bunk, which includes many essays on the phenomenon of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Jonathan is a tireless champion of academic freedom, shared governance, and budgetary transparency.  Given the state of higher education at the moment, the Conference is fortunate to have both Jonathan and Steve at the helm.

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The “Down With MOOCs” World Tour, 2013-14.

6 05 2013


My grades are in, the post I promised on Friday is up at the Academe blog and now I have (different) work to do. I need to prepare to take my show on the road.

Cheap Trick is big in Japan. I’m told that I’m big in Connecticut. This would explain why the Connecticut AAUP invited me to be the speaker at their annual spring meeting on May 17th in New Haven. Looking at the registration form, it appears that today is the last day for that. Therefore, if you’re in that area and want to come by you should let them know immediately.

Stop #2 will be on Thursday, June 13th at 2PM at the national AAUP’s annual conference in DC. My topic for both presentations will be the same, “Should Professors Be Afraid of MOOCs?” In the interests of drama, I will not reveal my answer to that question. You’ll have to come by and hear it from me directly.

Following a longstanding principle, I promise I will not read my speech/conference paper like a script. I do, however, need to write something, so if you don’t see as many missives as usual in this space during the next few weeks you’ll know why. Indeed, since I might actually want to write some history this summer, I’m hoping the number of posts here goes way down for the length of the season.

Nonetheless, I’ve gone and gotten myself a cause so I’d like to help by more than just blogging about it. If you represent an impoverished academic organization that wants to help me add dates to my “Down With MOOCs” World Tour, I’ll go just about anywhere in exchange for expenses. If your worthy organization isn’t impoverished, I’ll still work cheap as I’m in the humanities (so very little money looks like a lot to me). Just e-mail me at the address in the right column of this page. I’ll announce more dates here as they come by (and I’m hoping to hear about a very interesting one very soon).

Image courtesy of the Connecticut AAUP.

“When danger reared its ugly head, he bravely turned his tail and fled.”

2 10 2012

Why yes, I do take requests. I’m particularly glad to when they remind me of scenes from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” that I haven’t used on this blog yet. Whose brave deeds do I wish to sing about here? Glenn A. Hartz of Ohio State, who used to be opposed to online classes, but thanks to the inevitable forward progress of technology has now changed his mind. He writes in the Chronicle:

So, do I like online courses? My answer is that it doesn’t matter. The students like them, and we have to adjust to their demands.

I hear that students all like getting “A”s, so I assume we must adjust that way too. While we’re at it, we can give up on homework since that might offend their delicate sensibilities. Hey! Why don’t we just give up getting paid entirely and become volunteers? After all, the idea of professors fighting for their own interests (which might actually coincide with the interests of their students) is simply unseemly.

I’m not going to fisk the whole essay because I’ve covered Hartz’s points a million times before on this blog. What I will do, however, is note how ludicrous it is to think that there are only two possible positions on the subject of learning online: for or against. Anybody who really understands this subject knows that the right tools can be used in the wrong ways (or vice versa for that matter). If fewer administrators used online learning as a club to bash the concept of shared governance, perhaps I’d be a lot more positive about it.

Let me cite a better essay from the Huffington Post to illustrate my position better:

Distance learning technologies should be seen as one more tool at an educator’s disposal. Some educators have an almost ideological reaction to distance learning. They hate it and think its evil, or they love it and think it is the solution to all of our educational problems. The specific tool used should be the one best matched to the educational objective. Just because you have a tool and you know how it works, doesn’t mean you have to use it. Form should follow function.

As I’ve explained before, I’m not anti-edtech. I’m pro-professor. In a professor-centered edtech world, faculty could pick and choose the tools we want, making sure that education not profits remains the primary goal of universities everywhere.

This is not some utopian dream. My friend Jonathan Poritz’s essay about open source technology (now available in Academe) can serve as a road map for creating that kind of world. On the other hand, ceding edtech decisions entirely to administrators and profit-seeking private companies almost guarantees that the future will be a nightmare.

For this vision to become a reality, we professors need to stick to our principles. We can’t just mindlessly accept the free market ideology that our critics are so desperate to impose upon higher education everywhere. We need to be willing to have our eyes gouged out and our elbows broken.

Seriously, isn’t control of the future worth fighting for? Isn’t control of YOUR future worth fighting for?

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