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.

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.

“I liked this blog much better when he only wrote about MOOCs.”

25 02 2014

Speaking of our provost, David Dillon of our chemistry department sent this letter to the President, cc’ing every employee on campus, early yesterday evening:

Now, you may wonder how such a thing is even possible. How can one person e-mail an entire campus? I explained this in the comments at Historiann’s place at one point, but I might as well do it now in plain sight. Here at CSU-Pueblo, almost every e-mail distribution list is open for almost anybody to use. [Until a few years ago, even students could e-mail the entire campus.] That’s why my inbox fills up regularly with pitches for every single event on campus, Blackboard updates and even messages from the mail room looking for somebody who has a package addressed to them whom they can’t identify.

Usually, this is not a major problem, but Tim McGettigan hit the distribution lists hard right before they took his privileges away. When you read that his e-mail has been partially restored, what that means is that he can use the Internet again but he can’t access the distribution lists anymore.

In the run up to Tim’s fifteen minutes of fame, I actually expected the administration to crack down on him for his use of the distribution lists. Instead, they cracked down on him for the CONTENT of his message. By doing so, they not only restricted his academic freedom, they implicitly endorsed the notion of faculty sending policy messages that can’t be misconstrued as violent to the entire campus, an invitation which Professor Dillon accepted last night (and of course the inevitable “reply all” conversation has continued into this morning).

PS I know what you’re thinking: “I liked this blog much better when he only wrote about MOOCs.” Well, I promise I’ll get to them again soon. Hopefully, this space won’t turn into the academic equivalent of disaster porn before I get around to it.

The flipped classroom as MOOC waste product.

13 02 2014

This is a hard post for me to write. For one thing, I have an article coming out in the next Academe that covers some of this ground. For another thing, as my friend Phil Hill knows all too well, I have a #Slatepitch in for an essay on the evils of the flipped classroom. I think they’re going to take it (eventually – assuming the one and only Rebecca Schuman doesn’t do it first), so I don’t want to give away the whole store here.

But this paragraph is just way too much for me to bear:

The MOOC, in our view, is the ideal way to flip the classroom, replacing both the lecture and the textbook. Whether they build their own content or draw on an existing MOOC, professors can off-load content to on-line formats and spend face-to-face time interacting with students. Students will actively debate history -for instance–rather than transcribing the professor’s lecture. Universities will not be destroyed, only lectures, and in their demise better conversations will happen.

To make matters worse, I’ve met one of the co-authors of those words. Louis Hyman teaches at Cornell, his books on the history of debt are excellent and if I had all the time in the world I’d be taking his upcoming MOOC on the history of capitalism just for the sheer enjoyment of it. I’ll bet you anything that he’s a terrific lecturer, but if you think I’d let him or anybody else replace my own content on any subject you’ve got another thing coming.

Why not? I need to back up a little in order to explain that.

Let’s begin by considering the possibility that Hyman (and his co-author, Edward Baptist) raise with respect to “building your own content.” The vast majority of people in academia do not have their own MOOCs. Nothing is stopping them from recording their own lectures. However, anyone doing this really should understand the risks. Yes, it’s time to quote Leslie M-B writing about “lecture capture” again:

“I’m not sure what the policy is at my current institution, but I signed away a lot of intellectual property rights at my last one. In an age where people seem to think that education is just a matter of “delivering content” that translates into mad workplace skillz, I’m uneasy about providing the university with any multimedia content that could be aggregated into a enormous-enrollment course taught by a grossly underpaid and underinsured Ph.D.”

Are you a professor? Then providing content is an important part of your job. If you don’t want to do that duty every semester, somebody might just relieve you of that burden. I can hear the anti-professor catcalls now: “They’re too lazy to tailor their lectures to their audience! Why is tuition so darned expensive then!” Besides that, aren’t you ever going to change your lectures at some time in the future? If the answer to that question is “no,” why the heck did you bother to become a teacher in the first place?

Now let’s go to the other possibility that Hyman and Baptist raise: to “draw on an existing MOOC.” The unspoken assumption here – that most lectures are boring, but superprofessor lectures are all Grade A – is not only empirically wrong (as any wide-ranging MOOC student would readily attest to), it’s flat-out insulting to the rest of the professoriate. Not only are there plenty of people who do a fine job of lecturing outside of the MOOC limelight, even the less-gifted lecturers among us have the advantage over a recording in that they can actually tailor the content of their lectures to the goals of their individual courses.

Indeed, one of the reasons that the vast majority of the professoriate does research is that what we learn doing our research makes us better teachers. That’s how we keep our content fresh. Some of us even have undergraduates do research with us! Teach somebody else’s content and in this economic climate you can kiss that course off you get for research goodbye, if not your entire job with it.

What bugs me the most about this newfound enthusiasm for the flipped classroom is the sheer superfluity of it all. If I can thank Hyman and Baptist for anything it’s for making it abundantly clear that the rise of MOOCs and the sudden fad for the flipped classroom are intimately related. To borrow some inflammatory language from Marc Bousquet, the second is a waste product of the first. If the MOOC providers are like meatpackers, then the flipped classroom is how they’re going to get us to eat their offal.

Not making enough money from your MOOC? Sell the content to unsuspecting campuses without MOOCs of their own. Coursera has already started doing this. [That’s why the Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier quit his MOOC last year.] And Coursera isn’t offering MOOC content directly to professors. They’re marketing it to administrations who will need to find a financial justification for their very expensive MOOC content purchases.

So to all my caring colleagues out there who are flipping your own classes without any prodding: Thank your lucky stars you still have that freedom. Just remember though that your new educational silver bullet has already been co-opted. The more you flip freely, the more likely it is that somebody else will be flipped against their will in the future. You’re the people who gave the administrators of the world this idea. You’re the people who are currently in the process of legitimizing this idea. Denounce flipping other professors involuntarily all you want, but you are still partially responsible for that result. Just because you can unbundle and rebundle your job at will, doesn’t mean that the rest of your colleagues can.

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