“Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.”

7 04 2014

Good news everybody!  Robots will only replace SOME us at our jobs by 2034, not all of us.  Who’ll be safe?  As the Huffington Post explains part of it:

Human social intelligence is critical for those professions that involve negotiation, persuasion, leadership or high touch care. Those positions demanding high social intelligence tasks might include public relations specialists, event planners, psychologists and CEOs.

Does that include university professors? You’d hope so, but that would force the people in control of universities to actually respect the quality of the education they produce and I’m not sure we can trust most of them to do that. The corporatization of higher education over the last forty years strongly suggests that most of them would rather treat education like any other manufactured product.

If education were a real factory problem this transition might actually be an improvement. It’s not just that robot arms never get tired or ask for a pay raise. They can work with greater precision than even the best skilled craftsmen. I’ve toured the steel mill on the south side of Pueblo, Colorado many times now. While 10,000 people used to work there during WWII, fourteen people can handle a shift in a building the size of several football fields rather easily now. [And even then, a few of them are just waiting around in case something goes wrong.] Foreign competition, pensions, environmental regulations aside – the payroll in that plant would have gone down over the last fifty years just because of automation. Furthermore, the steel they produce there might actually be better as a result.

Can you say the same thing with a MOOC? The New York Times Magazine makes an argument for the effects of automation on workers in general that reminds me a lot of the argument for MOOCs:

Man invents a machine to make life easier, and then that machine reduces the need for man’s work. Ultimately, it’s a virtuous cycle, because it frees humans up to work on higher-value tasks.

Flip your classroom with the latest MOOC, spend more time in class teaching one-on-one. Everybody wins, right? Only if you completely ignore the class politics that surround labor-saving machinery of all kinds. Nick Carr, explains this point here far better than I ever could:

The language that the purveyors of the endless-ladder myth use is fascinating. They attribute to technology a beneficent volition. The technology itself “frees us up for higher-value tasks” and “propels us into more fulfilling work” and “helps us to expand ourselves.” We just need to “allow” the technology to aid us. Much is obscured by such verbs. Technology doesn’t free us or propel us or help us. Technology doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us. It couldn’t care less whether we have a great job, a crappy job, or no job at all. It’s people who have volition. And the people who design and deploy technologies of production are rarely motivated by a desire to create jobs or make jobs more interesting or expand human potential. Jobs are a byproduct of the market’s invisible hand, not its aim.

If you think most administrators give a rat’s ass about whether there’s a human being or a robot at the front of the classroom then you haven’t been paying attention.





MOOC sublime.

15 03 2014

“The steamboat sublime took expropriation and extermination and renamed them ‘time’ and ‘technology.’ From the vista of the steamboat deck, Indians were consigned to prehistory, the dead-end time before history really began, represented by the monuments of ‘remote antiquity’ that lined the river’s bank.

The confrontation of steamboat and wilderness, of civilization and savagery, of relentless direction with boundless desolation, was called ‘Progress.’”

- Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 76-77.

Barbara Hahn of Texas Tech University is one of my very favorite people in all of Academia. We not only share similar interests and the same publisher, she is also a very, very good historian. As proof, I offer this from a new AHA Perspectives article intended to introduce other historians to the history of technology as a sub-field:

[A] difficult-to-shake belief in technological determinism—the idea that tools and inventions drive change, rather than humans—is widespread. When apps download on their own, or when cellphones appear to inspire texting over talking, it certainly feels as if technology changes and humans simply react. But most research into the history of technology undermines this widespread assumption. Technology itself has causes—human causes. If it didn’t, it would have no history. So the field by its very existence fights common misconceptions about technology.

Of course, the first thing I did after reading this article was to apply its lessons to MOOCs. Did MOOCs emerge fully grown out of Sebastian Thrun’s head? Of course not. They have both a history and a pre-history. While I’m not qualified to explore either of those subjects in any depth, I do want to explore the question of what a MOOC actually is from a technological standpoint so that others might have an easier time explaining that history.

Again, Barbara’s article can help. “What is technology?,” she asks:

Even experts struggle to fix its boundaries, but a modest definition will suffice to begin inquiry: technology is the systematic, purposeful, human manipulation of the physical world by means of some machine or tool. In this definition, technology becomes a process, rather than the artifact that process employs.

MOOCs, of course, employ a variety of technologies to achieve their goals, and since no MOOC is exactly alike (see Rule #2), the kinds of technology they use will be different. Video recording is one MOOC technology. A forum is another one. Some MOOCs use Google Hangouts. Others don’t. What they all have in common is the Internet as their base infrastructure, but since so many other things depend upon the Internet for their existence these days, I’d argue that that similarity obscures more than it illuminates.

As a student of the history of technology myself, I’d argue that what every MOOC has in common is a story to hold the diverse technologies that it employs together. Daphne Koller’s story involves bringing education to the undeveloped areas of the world. The story that all those nice Canadians tell involves students helping other students learn. The best I can tell, the story behind DS106 involves barely controlled anarchy (which might explain why it’s my favorite MOOC out there by far).

Listen to enough of these stories and you begin to detect patterns. What their proponents emphasize tell you what they think is important, but the opposite of that thought is true as well. What their proponents leave out tell you what narratives of MOOC progress discount or ignore altogether. Here’s a summary of a paper called, “Do professors matter?: using an a/b test to evaluate the impact of instructor involvement on MOOC student outcomes,” which I’m pulling from the blog Virtual Canuck:

The study concluded that teacher presence had no significant relation to course completion, most badges awarded, intent to register in subsequent MOOCs or course satisfaction. This is of course bad news for teacher’s unions and those convinced that a live teacher must be present in order for significant learning to occur.

Well let’s kill all the teachers then!!! What’s that you say? Probably not a good idea? I happen to agree, but if all you’re measuring is badges, course completion and MOOC satisfaction then this kind of conclusion makes perfect sense. Learning, or at the very least the learning process, has been obliterated by the structural sacrifices that MOOC creation entails.

Another part of the learning process that disappears in the xMOOC story is the direct interaction between the professor and the student. You just knew I was going to get to this particular MOOC news nugget eventually, didn’t you?:

An English professor at Harvard University turned heads last month when she instructed students in her poetry class to refrain from asking questions during lectures so as not to disrupt recordings being made for the MOOC version of the course.

Elisa New, a professor of American literature, instituted the policy at the behest of technicians from HarvardX, the university’s online arm, according to The Harvard Crimson, which first reported the news. The video technicians reportedly told her they wanted to record a continuous lecture, with no back-and-forth with students.

Of course, professors play an oversized role in the xMOOC story, but what this wonderfully symbolic anecdote shows us is that the process of teaching doesn’t. If anybody fails to understand this superprofessor’s lectures, in class or in the MOOC, they are just S.O.L. This shows that what we used to think of as teaching is being replaced by mere content provision in this new narrative, which I think I’m going to start calling the MOOC sublime.

In Walter Johnson’s version of steamboat sublime, “Progress” rendered Native Americans invisible. In the MOOC sublime, the people who disappear are the faculty members who choose to cling to the outmoded, inefficient mode of instruction that so many MOOCs aim to replace. Who cares if we use actual technology ourselves? As long as we fail to board the MOOC train before it leaves the station we are expendable.

How do you fight this kind of passive/aggressive, often self-interested narrative attack? I think we alleged Luddites need to come up with a story of our own in order to help us resist the fate that the edtech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley have in store for us. I guess this post is my shot at doing so. Any additional details in the comments below would be much appreciated. After all, so many of our jobs may depend upon how well we can all tell it.





“You deserve a break today.”

10 03 2014

When I was in graduate school, I was both a member and a board member of the oldest graduate student union in the country, the good old TAA. The vast majority of TAA leaders came from three departments: History, English and Sociology. Some of that was an artifact of the size of those departments. My first-year graduate school cohort at Wisconsin had ninety people in it. [Thanks again for that, Bill Bowen.] Yet the flip side of that situation was in some ways more telling: You couldn’t find a scientist in our union if you had put one on the Most Wanted List and offered a $100,000 reward. We always figured it had to do with the quality of their aid packages. Well-paid workers seldom join unions.

Want to know how bad things have gotten at CSU-Pueblo? The scientists here are at the forefront of the faculty’s fight to save the university from whatever the administration has in store for us. I think a lot of this has to do with the unilateral imposition of a 4-4 load. While I teach both undergraduate and graduate research methods courses, a lot of our science professors actually do their research with their students. Doing this, as I understand from what I’ve been told lately, is an absolutely vital part of what it means to be an advanced chemistry or biology major.* It’s as if our administration has told the scientists here to either work twice as hard or stop doing an absolutely vital part of their teaching duties entirely. I certainly understand why neither option is particularly appealing.

While I’ve already shown you the amazing letter that David Dillon sent our campus, I still think that nobody has done more for our cause than Bill Brown from Physics. I’m going to offer up a long quote from a letter to the editor that our local paper published yesterday because I think this applies (at least in the abstract) to so many of us everywhere:

Professors only work 10 or 12 hours per week in front of classes — so thought and said by many. Therefore, the reasoning goes that they are slackers who are highly paid and who work much less than others who have “real” jobs. When financial ills arise, then they must be made to work more to fix problems they had no fault in creating.

I would like to dispel some of these faulty ideas and to suggest what the results likely will be if this scenario is implemented with the entire faculty forced to work 4-4 teaching loads at Colorado State University-Pueblo.

I must confess that I suffered under the misconception that teaching required only a few hours. I spent the majority of my career as an engineer in the aerospace business. I was excited to come to academia and believed that my new teaching career would be almost like semi-retirement.

Little did I know what realities lay ahead. I was quickly awakened to the fact that teaching in front of classes is only a tiny part of being a professor. Here are just a few of the other things I learned that I must do.

Unlike many universities, we do not have teaching assistants at CSU-Pueblo and must do all of our own grading of homework and exams in classes sometimes as large as 85 students. I must prepare exams and homework assignments. I spend a huge amount of time preparing for classes. This entails writing notes to be used and then making them available to students.

There is a lot of bookkeeping when it comes to recording and correcting student grades for all assignments and classes.

I serve on and prepare for many committees that meet regularly that better the university and student welfare. I was a faculty senator for four years. I answer many emails sent by students and other faculty members. At the request of students, I have written many letters of recommendation for admission to medical, pharmaceutical and graduate schools.

Every year, we must submit to the College of Science and Mathematics a long, detailed report for our annual performance reviews.

I advise students about careers and what to expect when they graduate. I supervise the research of senior students and prepare them for their presentations before they graduate. I serve on master’s degree committees for students in the engineering department. I manage the CSU-Pueblo observatory that I built from the ground up after receiving a $200,000 grant. This entails scheduling, repairs, maintenance and public viewings.

I spend time preparing for department reviews that come every five years. As part of my outreach to the community, I am the vice president of the Southern [Colorado] Astronomical Society, which also requires many meetings and events. There are many phone calls and text messages I field from the public.

Another thing I do for outreach to the community is to prepare and deliver lectures of interest. I have done this at the Southern Colorado Astronomical Society, service clubs in the Pueblo area, other schools such as Otero Community College and the Coalition of Professional Engineers of Pueblo.

I offer six hours per week of office hours for students to come for help. I have written many proposals for in-house grants to update our computer lab, to provide tools for our astronomy program and to update the observatory. Then I spend whatever time is left to continue my research on cosmic rays and lightning.

But wait! The State of Colorado pays him to work, doesn’t it? What makes his job different from any other job? Bill has a very good answer to those questions:

In the aerospace business, I worked 40 hours per week and had weekends off. Now that is not the case. I used to receive regular raises and used to make two to three times my current salary.

Perhaps you still have no sympathy for us “spoiled” professorial types, but let’s talk about a basic rule of industrial relations, shall we? If you work anyone too hard for low pay, they will no longer sing and dance for you on cue. Now will they perform nearly as well at their jobs as they might have done otherwise. Perhaps the floors of your McDonald’s will not be so clean. Perhaps the cashiers will have a harder time greeting customers with a smile. Perhaps the quality of the food will suffer too. If you simply tell your forlorn workers to do more with less, this might actually make this situation worse. If that happens, your customers might just flee as fast as their feet can carry them.

As good as Bill’s letter is, I would add that professors – like all other workers – also deserve time for leisure and to spend with their families. The old slogan of the eight hour day movement in the United States was, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” Jesus, I’d settle for half that last one on most days.

Hey Academia! You deserve a break today. I’d argue that you’ll actually work more productively the rest of the time as a result.

* If any scientists out there reading this are slapping their foreheads right now and saying something like, “Welcome to the party, pal!,” cut me some slack, OK? I filled my science requirements as an undergrad with nothing but Psychology and Anthropology courses.





“I see dead people.”

26 02 2014

“When I speak with [Al] Filreis [of the University of Pennsylvania], a charismatic bearded professor, he complains that people criticize MOOCs without differentiating between those that are done well and those that are not. He is sitting at a computer and clicks between discussion boards, Facebook posts, and live “office hour” chats led by teaching assistants who discuss poems in the video lectures (the TAs have become ModPo celebrities, too).”

- Laura Pappano, “How colleges are finding tomorrow’s prodigies,” Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 2014.

No Al, you’ve got it all wrong. People who criticize MOOCs are perfectly capable of differentiating between MOOCs that are done well from those that aren’t. The problem is that even the best MOOC in the world is nowhere near as good as the average community college course. The reason is obvious: access to the professor.

I’ve gone the rounds with Al (and many other MOOC enthusiasts) on Twitter a few times so I can easily predict the response to this point: People who want to find me can find me in the forums, or in a Google Hangout or through whatever technological doo-dad they’ve invented to stimulate simulated interaction. Unfortunately, for the average student – rather than the prodigies that the Christian Science Monitor (like so many other gullible media outlets) prefers to discuss – they either won’t or can’t make use of that access. In fact, if most students actually did try to make use of that access the technological infrastructure behind the MOOC platform would collapse.

It’s simple math, really. Even superprofessors only have so much time in their days. This way, they can interact with only the brightest, most dedicated students from around the planet. What teacher wouldn’t love this arrangement? All the other students who are left waiting by the wayside. The ones who need lots of help that isn’t available or who need the kind of help that is simply too awkward to be made available over the Internet. Sadly, the Masters of MOOC Creation don’t care because real education is not profitable. Giving people certificates for watching videos and answering multiple choice questions about them (supposedly) is.

While the average community college instructor may not be a superprofessor, at least they’re accessible. That’s why MOOC enthusiasts are continually waging a deliberate campaign to belittle the contributions of non-superprofessors everywhere. This particular example is from the Economist:

Caroline Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University, argues that MOOCs threaten different universities in different ways. Less selective institutions are close substitutes for MOOCs. Course content is often standardised and interaction with professors is limited in order to keep costs down.

Really? I know there are large intro classes in many institutions, but even those professors have TAs and office hours and writing centers and early warning systems if you’re failing the course. And, of course, practically the whole point of the non-vocational aspects of community colleges is to prevent those situations from happening, to make sure that students get a user-friendly introduction to academic life and be a success when they transfer elsewhere. It’s as if all the dedicated teachers who help make that happen are dead to her.

Then there’s this (Thank you, Vanessa), “A Colorado Software Firm Is Programming Your Next Professor:”

“MOOCs and online schools have not fully thrown the student-teacher ratio out the window, but they seem to be heading in that direction. As education costs increase, it’s not unreasonable to think that professors, teachers, adjuncts, and tutors could at least be partially replaced by a $7,000 programmable character who never sleeps or unionizes, or emotionally overreacts to student behavior.”

Jesus, and I get called paranoid and delusional for suggesting that anyone is even contemplating such a thing. Never underestimate how little college administrators don’t know about education. Any university that replaces their professors with a dancing paper clip deserves the fate that awaits it. It’s not that we can’t be replaced by a dancing paper clip. We obviously can. It’s whether or not we SHOULD be replaced by $7000 avatars that is the question. If we’re all dead to them, then this process becomes much easier as students are left with essentially no other choice.

Well, I see dead people. So do students. I only hope that we all don’t end up like Bruce Willis and discover that we’re all dead already.*

* So I spoiled the end of a fifteen year-old movie. Well, I think it’s your fault if you haven’t seen “The Sixth Sense” yet, not mine.





Higher education is not available à la carte.

24 02 2014

Perhaps you saw this piece of clickbait from NPR’s Planet Money team last week? It’s called, “Duke: $60,000 A Year For College Is Actually A Discount” and it follows a familiar format: some people say this, other people say that, but – this being a Planet Money piece – they’ll tell you what’s really going on at the end of the report.

For reasons I don’t really understand, the reporter became fixated on the costs of doing academic research in the sciences. I guess this might seem particularly shocking to those not in the know:

Jennifer West is a professor of bioengineering and materials science with a long list of publications, awards and titles. To hire West away from Rice University, money wasn’t enough. She came with an entourage. “I moved a whole entire research group with me, so I had to move a lot of people and then we had to move a lot of our equipment and rebuild our lab,” she says. “They actually sent architects to Rice who looked at our lab facilities there, then used that information to go back and design the facility that would work for us at Duke.”

West is not alone. Duke pays what it calls “startup costs” for a lot of professors, particularly in the sciences.

How much of that was paid for by government grants? How much of those costs were paid for by private companies? Certainly, with less support for higher education in general, a lot of what used to get paid for these ways is now being subsidized by tuition, but why is this a bad thing if the research is valuable to society?

The answer to that last question depends upon selfish individualism. Here’s the sound of the other shoe dropping:

Charles Schwartz, a retired professor from the University of California, Berkeley, who has been studying university finances for the past 20 years, takes issue with this way of accounting. He says it’s unfair to place the financial cost of professors like Jennifer West, who spend most of their time in the lab, on undergraduate students. “It’s just wrong to bundle all those costs together,” he says.

But how exactly are you going to pull those costs apart? If I were to underpay my taxes and write, “Please understand that the underpayment here is to avoid my having to pay for building those nuclear bombs that I don’t really support,” they’d lock me away. Or suppose I’m a racist. I don’t want to support African American Studies because I don’t believe it’s valuable. Can I withhold the portion of my tuition that goes to that? Of course not because, like government, higher education forces you to subsidize the whole hog because that’s the only way the whole thing works.

Don’t get me wrong. I think $60,000/year for a Duke education is ridiculously overpriced, but the implicit notion in that Planet Money report that students should be able to buy higher education à la carte is completely ridiculous. Why not do away with all graduation requirements then? After all, if I’m going to be a CS major why should I have to learn a foreign language? What good is a history requirement to a nursing major? A lot, of course, but this is the road down which this kind of consumerism will take us.

***

If I sound unduly sympathetic to Duke University’s ludicrously-high tuition, it’s probably because of a meeting with our Provost that I attended last Thursday. You might remember that during his first all-faculty meeting, our Provost joked that we faculty members only worked three days per week. This meeting went better than that one at first. For a while, it was actually valuable.

The first thing he did was report on the last meeting of our Board of Governors. Apparently, he told the assembled professors, they hate you all. Why? He wasn’t exactly sure, but he didn’t have to tell us. A copy of an e-mail from Chancellor Michael Martin to nobody in particular was circulating from faculty member to faculty member in the days leading up to the meeting. Here’s the part that contains the big tell:

“I would note that CSU-Pueblo students are currently paying fulltime faculty salaries for faculty not working fulltime…Participating in Denver South could relieve some of this unproductive burden on students.”

That’s why every last single professor on campus with out administrative duties or grant money has to teach an extra course starting next semester. We’re “unproductive.”

But, in fact, we’re not. You see, the only reason that faculty are not currently teaching the optimum number of courses by Chancellor Martin’s estimation is that policies exist in our handbook that allow faculty members to get release time for research. The vast majority of us (myself included) teach three courses each semester because we actually do research. Chancellor Martin wants to unbundle that function from our job description so that students won’t have top pay for it.

Unfortunately, even this financial justification for this policy doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. During our meeting with the provost, somebody (OK, it was me) pressed him about how exactly faculty losing their research release time actually saves money. The first thing he mentioned was that faculty with higher loads will replace the $290,000 worth of adjunct faculty that we’re in the process firing. Of course, that’s a pittance in the overall university budget. Nevertheless, my fellow tenured and tenure-track colleagues, never forget that the ability to hire someone to do the only part of their your job that an administrator cares about at a fraction of what you cost is a constant threat to your employment and your quality of life.

But the provost admitted that that small scrap of money wasn’t the real motive. During my portion of the conversation with the provost, I proposed the following scenario: Imagine two identical courses with the same professor teaching both, fifteen people in each of them, but the room holds thirty. Can we cancel one section and merge the class? After all, it wouldn’t cost any money. No, the provost said, because that would be political suicide. Yes, they’re making us teach a 4-4 because the Board of Governors of the Colorado State System doesn’t think we work hard enough, not because it does anything for the budget or anything for education. Still no word on whether they feel the same way about Fort Collins.

It’s enough to make you nihilistic, don’t you think?

***

Last week, Bob Casale of Devo died. Coincidentally, I was teaching Jeff Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive in my 1945-Present class. The book is about the death of the working class during the 1970s, and it’s quite wonderful in large part (but not exclusively) because of it’s many astute cultural references. While I was surprised that my students had never heard of Archie Bunker (who I had thought of as a kind of Mickey Mouse-style cultural icon), I knew that I was going to have to tell them about Devo. That’s right, Cowie explains the politics of Devo.

If you haven’t read the book, to save time I’ll just tell you that those politics revolve around nihilism. Yeah, I missed that too when I was in high school, but really the politics are there. Here’s the video I picked to illustrate Devo’s philosophy:

This is the key lyric, at least for me:

In ancient Rome there was a poem
About a dog who found two bones
He picked at one
He licked the other
He went in circles
He dropped dead

You just know that Mark Mothersbaugh had OD’ed on Milton Friedman by the time he wrote those words. In the video, there are two guys dressed as Caligula, one holding this dude in a cheap dog suit by a leash. To me, this sounds like the perfect metaphor for cheap higher education. Freedom of choice? In fact, when both choices are bad you get no real choice at all.

Why are both choices bad? That depends upon who exactly is holding the leash. Here’s Planet Money again (this was their snide little aside at the end of the story about which position you should actually believe):

If you’re engaged in research and capitalizing on your professors’ expertise, maybe you’re getting something that’s worth more than what you paid. If you’ve got a good financial aid package, you’re definitely getting a good deal. But if you’re a full-paying student, who’s not learning much from professors outside the classroom, it’s the university that’s getting the deal.

But rip faculty research out of the equation and the quality of the entire product will suffer. Take me, for instance. I teach a research methods class for both undergrads and graduate students. Don’t you think I’ll do that better if I actually have time to do research? More importantly, if Duke students are willing to pay $60,000/year to have access to faculty who do actual research, what does this tell you about the quality of higher education at an institution where professors don’t have time to do any research at all?

Any notion that higher education is available à la carte is a complete illusion. Behind Door #1 is austerity. Behind Door #2 is more austerity. There is no Door #3.

What too few of us understand is that faculty are facing the same rotten choices that our students now get. Faced with numerous vocal complaints about our pending 4-4, the provost told us that you make time to do what you love. That comment was met by the loudest series of groans I’ve ever heard from all over the room. Oddly enough, while workers during the 1970s may have forgotten their class consciousness, professors at CSU-Pueblo seem to be discovering theirs again.





“Luxury” thy name is flipped classroom.

19 02 2014

Way back in the day, I had to teach all my classes for the whole period, every period. I would lecture or lead a discussion of the reading or do some other hierarchical teacher thing. But now that the flipped classroom has come along, all my problems are solved! Now I can sit out on the veranda smoking cigars rather than prepare for whatever class I’m teaching the next day. Better yet, since my students are all working out the answers to the questions I’ve given them all by themselves, I can sit on my butt all class period long and just act like I’m busy.

What about the reading, you ask? As Rebecca Schuman indirectly implies here in an obviously ignorant attempt to dismiss this wonderful solution to every professor’s problems, the flipped classroom is a great way to get rid of the annoying busywork that reading entails altogether:

“[W]hat about the reading? I assign a lot of it, and if I piled on a 30-minute YouTube of me yapping about the connection between childlike being and the concept of “genius” in Faust, wouldn’t that incite mutiny? And what would constitute a “problem set” about Goethe, anyway?”

Silly Rebecca, learning about Goethe won’t help tomorrow’s college students become tomorrow’s drones in the technological “utopia” that our Silicon Valley overlords are planning now! Besides that, the taxpayers of America want a return for their investment in higher education as we twiddle away on useless humanities! How much tax revenue can your precious Goethe generate?

That’s why I’m cashing out now. I’m going to tape all my lectures (and write them for the many courses for which I don’t lecture at all) pronto so that I can start living a life of leisure! I want to become a rentier (just like all those superprofessors)! I want to be an educational entrepreneur! If I start early maybe I can contract with some desperate college that can impose my content on some poor, unsuspecting adjunct who doesn’t have the same freedom to flip as I do.

Thank you, thank you, Flipped Classroom Messiah Squad! You’ve solved all my financial problems forevermore. See you all on the veranda!





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.





“Why don’t you call me sometime when you have no class?”

16 01 2014

“Back to School” is hardly my favorite movie. It’s not even my favorite movie about college (which would be “Wonder Boys.”), but they filmed it at the University of Wisconsin – Madison just a few year before I arrived there. For that reason, I think of it fondly as my introduction to the place. [Longtime Badgers will notice how they did everything possible to block out all the ugly buildings on campus, especially my old workplace, the Mosse Humanities Building.]

Despite the explicit efforts in that movie to de-Madison Madison, I can’t tell you how often I thought of the joke excerpted above when I was in graduate school there. Not to spoil the fun by analyzing it too much, it depends upon two meanings of the word “class.” The first is an even during which instruction is taking place. The second is the kind of refinement one gets from being born to or living in affluence. Trained as a labor historian, I always imagined a third meaning for the word class: the dialectical relationship between labor and capital. Yes, it doesn’t fit the context of “Back to School,” but that line sure is handy when discussing just abut anything else in American life.

I thought of that line again when reading Cathy Davidson this morning. Like so many technologically enthusiastic educational reformers, I know she means well. I even agree with the vast majority of what she writes in this article from “Hybrid Pedagogy.” However, this particular part is worthy of very close consideration:

“The hype about MOOCs offering the equivalent of a Harvard or Stanford education for free is just silly. Equally implausible is the ancillary hysteria that MOOCs will be used to take away jobs. The appalling and reprehensible 70% contingent and adjunct labor statistic in higher ed began long before MOOCs were a gleam in Sebastian Thrun’s or Daphne Koller’s eye.”

The existence of adjuncts is precisely the reason that so many of us do think MOOCs will be used to take away jobs. If administrations are willing to sacrifice the quality of the educations they provide by creating and deliberately growing adjunct labor, why wouldn’t they take the next step and do away with tenure track jobs altogether? The motivation of saving money for their own ends would be precisely the same.

Davidson’s chicken/egg problem only grows over the course of this paragraph:

“[I]f we scapegoat MOOCs for all the troubles in higher education, we’ll be left with no solutions, no progress, no innovation, and no change in the status quo. Simply protesting MOOCs is not enough. We have to be smart about new ideas and about what is or is not threatening and what is or is not efficacious about MOOCs. We need to work together, and with the interest of our students utmost, to change the conversation back from a contempt for higher education to appreciation of its importance to civil society and to the future. There is no victory in undercutting MOOCs if our hostility does nothing to change the percentage of adjuncts or public support for higher education — or the status quo of the structures, legacies, outmoded methods, assumptions, and metrics of higher education today.”

I think where you stand on this issue depends upon where you sit. Suppose just for a moment that Cathy Davidson is wrong about MOOCs not taking away people’s jobs. She’s a superprofessor. She’s at Duke. She can offer her apologies and go back to work. A lot of the rest of us in academia will not have that option. Ironically, the people who are most likely to be replaced (or perhaps just further underpaid) because of MOOCs are precisely the adjuncts that Davidson expresses a desire to protect. After all, they’re the easiest people to get rid of during a race to the bottom caused by technological disruption. With MOOC students scattered all around the world, their online mentors don’t have to be on campus either. Administrators (or more likely private MOOC providers) can pay them whatever traffic will allow since they’ll have to compete against every surplus Ph.D. on the planet with an internet connection to even do a pale imitation of the work for which they trained.

Does all this sound as if I have “lost my marbles?” Will people who have “lost their marbles” be welcome in Cathy Davidson’s new Coursera MOOC on the past and future of higher education? Perhaps I would consider attempting to make a glib attempt to follow along except my version of reforming higher education is to try to help save the jobs of up to fifty of my colleagues. That takes up an awful lot of my time these days, along with other important considerations apart from my regular teaching load.

For those of you reading this who are participating in that MOOC, though, let me give you one piece of advice: higher education has always had class, and it always will. And I’m not talking about class in either sense of the word that Rodney Dangerfield meant it when he was trying to pick up Sally Kellerman. I mean it in the third sense of that word, the one I learned in graduate school.

You folks can come up with the most brilliant way to solve every last one of higher education’s problems, but if you refuse to acknowledge the existence of higher education’s inherent class divide nothing you propose will ever be implemented. Not one thing.





A libertarian commune is a contradiction in terms.

13 01 2014

Like so many things these days, I first heard of Black Mountain SOLE on Twitter. My tweeps were debating whether or not it was a hoax. It is not a hoax. Repeat: It is not a hoax. SOLE stands for “self-organized learning environment,” which includes, as its founders describe it, every education reform buzzword wrapped up into one:

We saw not only serious flaws in the current system but also tremendous opportunity. We’re joining the revolution – alongside new paradigms like DIY education and unschooling, new technology and content like MOOCs, and new blended learning programs – to offer a new education pathway.

And while Black Mountain SOLE is apparently a 501(c)(3), it is hardly free.

I had no reliable confirmation that Black Mountain SOLE actually existed until an article about it appeared in the New Republic shortly before Christmas. You should be able to see my interest immediately from just this exxcerpt:

At Black Mountain, much hangs on this brand of team-building exercise, because community is the program’s chief selling point. The other selling point is, basically, access to the Internet. It’s both an offshoot and an indicator of the recent boom in online education, especially the rapid growth of MOOCs, which have made lecture courses from a wide range of universities available for free online. Though traditional colleges are increasingly rounding out their curricula with online courses, Black Mountain claims to be the first experiment in assembling an entire campus around MOOCs.

Alas, it seems, things weren’t really going well at the cutting edge of the revolution. Read the whole article to learn about all the problems, but this was by far my favorite part:

Accordingly, most of the SOLEmates are more interested in crafting a business proposal than in pursuing some version of a liberal arts curriculum—barely any are taking MOOCs. Tara Byrne, an 18-year-old who told me about a business plan to monetize YouTube, explained, “I’m currently in social psychology on Coursera”—one of the leading MOOC platforms—“so that I can actually use it in day-to-day life. I won’t pick up a MOOC unless I know that I’m going to be using it. It makes me more picky … because I could be making money” by working on her business ideas instead.

So here we have some of the most self-motivated young people in the world, living in what is in essence a commune in North Carolina trying to educate themselves, and the MOOCs that this community were supposed to be organized around have already fallen by the wayside.

Do you see a problem here?

***

One of the strange rabbit holes my obsession with MOOCs has brought me down is the strange relationship between the counterculture of the 1960s and modern-day Silicon Valley. How, to put it as crudely as possible, did a group of well-meaning stoners gradually evolve into the libertarian technological utopians of today? I’ve read Markhoff and I’ve read Turner now and I’ve read Morozov on the subject, yet this relationship still kind of eludes me.

That’s why I have to fall back on the history of the Sixties that I tend to teach in my U.S. survey class here. Imagine that the Sixties Left falls into two factions: the political Left and the cultural Left. Some of the political left wrote the Port Huron Statement. Some of it went “Clean for Gene.” The cultural left, on the other hand, tuned in, turned on and dropped out. These are the people who not only freaked out their parents, they freaked out America. If you don’t believe me, watch this:

But apparently a few of these cultural leftists had real political aspirations, at least in the broader sense of that word.

Fred Turner points to a group that he calls the “New Communalists,” cultural Leftists who expressed their politics through a number of different experiments in communal living that tended to be short lived, as most utopian experiments tend to be. The jump that Turner makes, which just seems impossible for me to describe, is from living in a commune somewhere near Taos or Trinidad, to participating in a community online. If we couldn’t save the world by example, those people essentially said, then we’ll bring everybody together online to do the same kind of reorganization there.

That effort started with The Well, and has only grown bigger in the last twenty odd years. Unfortunately, thanks to companies like Facebook, these newer, bigger efforts have been highly commercialized. Can you serve the interests of your members and still make money? Let’s just say that I quit Facebook as soon as I realized that they’d be using my image to sell crap to my friends. If you’re still on Facebook and you’re over age 16, you’re essentially working against their efforts to monetize your good name, not with them.

***

Read that description of Black Mountain SOLE in the New Republic and you can really see how what came around then has come around again with a vengeance. This time, however, the politics are a lot more self-interested than they were back in the day:

From the first, Dobias envisioned Black Mountain as a haven for young entrepreneurs like himself, and to the extent there are guiding structures in place, that’s the group they serve. Dobias and Hanna share their experience in business; Cleary worked in PR; Adams can teach programming. When they hold workshops, the topics are “how to build a landing page” (Adams) and “how to woo a mentor” (Dobias) and “how to write a press release” (Cleary, who resigned from the operations team in November but is still a “coach” at the SOLE). When I asked Dobias about this, he was firm that he and the staff “don’t want this to be just a business incubator. What makes this place awesome is the exchange of all these different groups mixing together.”

I bet the “Meditation room with backjacks and cushions,” the outdoor swimming pool and the 18-hole disc golf course are lovely, but they’re not exactly conducive to collaboration, let alone learning. Live communally, make a million? It doesn’t hold water. No wonder the whole thing is falling apart already.

Learning, like teaching, is actually a lot harder than it looks. This post is an oldie but goodie which I first read in the early days of my online learning fixation:

E-books + Youtube Videos + tweets x anywhere= learning. It’s just so simple. Yet flawed. It reminds me of that Forbes blog post,a couple of month ago, where that old white guy talked about how he would get out of poverty if he was black, just read stuff online. Real learning is much more than that.

Trying to make money out that arrangement is even harder than succeeding at your stated goal. Coursera and Udacity are finding that out right about now. Even though they have a larger cash cushion than Black Mountain SOLE, I predict they’ll all end up in the exact same place: bankrupt.

***

Why do I predict that? All of these experiments in higher education face the same insurmountable problem: Too much customer service. Students don’t want to read books? Coursera won’t assign them. Students don’t want to watch MOOC lectures? Black Mountain SOLE won’t make them. After all, the learning is self-organized, not top-down.

One of the earliest and most famous communes in America was at Brook Farm, where all those Transcendentalists hung out for at least a while. The goals of that community were:

To insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possible, in the same individual; to guarantee the highest mental freedom, by providing all with labor, adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry; so to do away with the necessity of menial services, by opening the benefits of education and the profits of labor to all; and thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions.

Sounds great in theory, but somebody has to do the drudgery, right? That commune went bankrupt after only six years. If your society is as small as one of Fourier’s phalanxes, maybe you can get by without a leader for a while but that will never work in even the smallest classrooms. Education is top-down almost by definition. [I actually have a fondness for problem-based learning but even that works better under the guidance of trained professionals.]

In education, it is exceedingly difficult to farm out the drudgery to anybody. Send your MOOC to every corner of the planet, but if you don’t follow it there your students will not learn as much if you are not there to help them. On the other side of the equation, you will not learn nearly as much if you don’t do the reading than if you do all the assigned reading yourself. Allow students to plan their own classes, and nearly all your classes will be held out on the lawn faster than you can shake a stick. Somebody has to be the authority figure. Somebody has to be around to say, “No.”

Which brings us back to the 1960s. Rebelling against “The Man” is all well and good, but in education it can only get you so far. It used to be that people entered higher education because they actually wanted to learn something. Now too many people enter higher education only because they want a job. If your degree is nothing but a pedigree, then it doesn’t matter whether you actually learned something in college or not. You’ll get that job anyways when you’re done. To my mind, MOOC providers have not only bought into this mentality, their business model actively encourages it because they know that they’ll never be able to have someone watching every student to make sure that they’re actually learning. They just give out certificates to people who can make a claim to having completed a bunch of multiple choice tests.

Professors are, like it or not, authority figures. They are authorities on their given subjects and they are also authorities in their classrooms. Disrupting them may seem like a revolutionary act, but it’s about as helpful for the cause of actual higher education as blowing up the Army Math building in Madison was for ending the war in Vietnam.

Sometimes creative destruction is just destruction, and it’s sad that we all have to re-learn the lessons of the 1960s in order to realize that fact.





MOOOOOOOOOCS!!!: #AHA2014 edition.

4 01 2014

So we did our panel yesterday. The nice people at the History News Network (aka David Austin Walsh) did indeed film it, but they say the tape won’t be online until next week. In the meantime, I thought I’d just dump my (probably not all that accurate) notes from the presentations online while I’m breakfasting at Starbucks on my way to the library again, with just a couple of introductory remarks of my own for each speaker:

1) Philip Zelikow

For those of you who may have seen any of his MOOC, Philip really is that poised. He says he did multiple takes while filming those lectures, but I’m telling you he couldn’t have needed all that many. I was so grateful to him for coming because (for reasons I’ll explain below) without him most of the session would have been like the sound of one hand clapping:

MOOCs different from regular online courses.
14 weeks (the length of both his and Jeremy’s course) is highly unusual.
UVA does MOOCs for outreach.
“These [meaning MOOCs] are not cheap” if you want to do them well.
Huge #s are meaningless. How many people actually try out the course?
His course had 94 separate video segments. If the narrative arc worked some were as long as 30 mins.
90,000 people signed up.
15,000 people gave the course the old college try.
10,000 stuck with it.
5,000 of those were online auditors (weren’t taking the tests).
2,500 more were downloading and watching the segments offline.
“Most gratifying teaching experience of my entire life.”
Someone even sent him flowers [Unsolicited, of course].
This was an overload. As a dean, he isn’t even supposed to be teaching at all.
Advantages of MOOCs:
1) Allows for more elaborate integration of media.
2) Students can freeze on maps.
3) Students can learn at different speeds.
4) His students get the follow-up explanation from him, not the TA.
“In a way, I’m doing the TA sections.”
TAs are doing history labs, something new that wouldn’t happen otherwise.
Students self-report that they work 50% harder in his flipped course.
Is the pure online material useful? Yes, students in and out of UVA said it was highly enriching.
Flipping class is highly satisfying for everyone involved.

2) Me

Well, of course I couldn’t take notes on my own paper and (as I explained earlier this week) I can’t post it yet. For now, I’ll just say this: labor historian at heart that I am, I made the “MOOCs as scientific management argument,” comparing the “unbundling” of the historian’s job in the classroom to having Frederick Taylor stand behind you with a stopwatch. Break up any job, and you can pay the people performing the component parts less – often much less. The folks who were livetweeting me seemed to think I was being combative, but I really do understand that nobody interested in MOOCs welcomes the virtual equivalent of academic Taylorization. My fear is that if we really do leave everything to the market, we’ll get this outcome nonetheless.

3) Ann Little

It really is a privilege to be able to hang with Historiann in the non-virtual world. For those of you who have never met her, she does indeed talk like she writes in the sense that she is both incredibly astute and hilarious at the same time. Funny story: I was going to avoid using the word “superprofessor” with two of them in the room because I thought it was too inflammatory, but Ann just dove right in. Therefore, I lapsed repeatedly by the end of the session too:

What MOOCs can’t do well:

1) MOOCs obscure the real work of teaching.
2) MOOCs make it difficult to teach controversial content.
3) Compares the upcoming MOOC and in-class version of Stephanie McCurry’s slavery class at U Penn. [The MOOC version is much easier.]

Professors face attacks on their politics first to soften us up for later budget attacks.
Quotes my Provost on us only working three days a week.
Will superprofessors be too afraid to cover race?
Students need to hear other people talking about controversial material.
Given a say in the matter, would students only pick Whiggish studies of progress?
Would polarization occur in a gender or sexuality class?
Would the discussion boards in a class like that look like the angriest corners of the Internet in general?
How will McCurry monitor the shocking nature of the material on the discussion board?
McCurry at Penn: Six books, primary sources and discussion section.
Her MOOC appears to have nothing but online primary sources.
Real education requires skin in the game from both sides, both the teacher and the student.

4) Jeremy Adelman:

Jeremy’s plan was to take Amtrak down from Princeton to DC in the morning, but there was that big snowstorm in the Northeast the night before. I was getting optimistic travel updates from him by e-mail the night before, but they kept getting more pessimistic as the reality of Amtrak under stress began to sink in. I was kidding him about making a dramatic entrance from the back of the room, and it turns out that’s exactly what he did – straight from Union Station, about 25 minutes before the end of the session. I don’t think he even took off his coat before he started talking:

“My attitude is experimental”
Starts with the fact that he doesn’t want to ban students taking notes on laptops.
Didn’t want to have an adversarial relationship with his students.
[This explains his interest in the flipped classroom.]
Interested in the promise of global learning.
His hope was the world could talk to itself.
Papers were the part of the MOOC that worked the least well.
Forums worked in the sense that there was global dialogue.
The problem was that there was less dialogue between Princeton students and the world.
Second version of his MOOC had Princeton students blogging for the global audience.
Princeton students didn’t want to go out and engage the planet.
From flipped classroom at Princeton, students got a lot out of lectures for the first time in 25 years.
Most MOOCs give certificates. We gave nothing. Going to change that.
Lifelong learners take relatively passive attitude toward learning.
Going through college without learning how to write is a problem.
Jeremy also announced (quite offhandedly) that he’s leaving Coursera.

That’s it for me for now. Hopefully, I’ll get some time to write something more reflective about this next week, but my semester starts a week from Monday and I still have syllabi to write (during those three days that I’m actually working).








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