“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.

“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!

“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.

“I want to see my family. My wife and child waiting for me.”

26 12 2013

I think it’s about time for me to actually write about what’s going at CSU-Pueblo rather than just make juxtapositions using other people’s material. First of all, thank you everyone for all the concern that you’ve expressed here in the comments and in e-mails to me. I too am concerned, but much more for others than for myself. Our president has stated publicly now that tenured faculty won’t be touched by the job cuts and I am fortunate enough to be a tenured full professor.

I don’t want to bore y’all with every last financial detail, but I do have a story that has some general relevance for people like me all over academia. We got a new Provost last summer. In his introductory all-faculty meeting he joked, and I paraphrase, “In what other job can you get away with working only three days a week?” I’m pretty sure that many of my colleagues will never forgive him for that remark.

There’s a lot of assumptions freighted in that comment: 1) The only real work we do is teaching. 2) Teaching only involves the time when we stand up in front of a classroom and 3) Anything else we faculty do to help keep the university run smoothly isn’t valued at all. So when I hear that the CSU-System wants to cut up to fifty of my colleagues, I think not only “How awful that is for them!,” I think “Who the heck is going to do all the other things those people did to keep this school running besides teach?” From what I understand, adjuncts will not count towards those fifty bodies if the administration has its way. It has to be either full-time, non-tenure track people or tenure track people with less than three years on campus.*

It’s hard enough already to find somebody to join another committee. It’s hard enough already for any committee with more than three people on it to find a time to meet because everybody is scheduled to the max with professional or family commitments. Yet, I read in the Chieftain that:

“[President Di Mare] said part of the review process will be examining unpopular courses and ensuring that professors who make it through the layoffs are working a full course load.”

What is a full course load? Theoretically, mine is a 4-4. However, I get one course off each semester for research (and longtime readers know that I’m very productive in that department). The worst thing that could happen to me is that I teach more.

Yes, if this happens my research production will slow. But here’s the thing: Research isn’t the only thing that would give if my theoretical 4-4 became a reality. For example, how I teach would change. I probably wouldn’t change books quite so much because I wouldn’t want to read more new ones. The amount of reading about history and teaching would go way down. Finding me for a meeting would become even harder. I’m not going to link to my cv here so you’re just going to trust me on this: I’m working at my max already. They’re not going to be able to make me work any harder.

Of course, there are plenty of people out there who would kill to experience the professional conditions which I’m deploring, namely adjuncts and nearly-finished grad students. That is, in fact, exactly my broader point here.

As long as we turn a blind eye to people who work even harder for far less money than we do, administrators will long to replace tenure line people with new Ph.D.s who’ll work practically for free. This giant pool of reserve labor is like an axe waiting to descend upon all of our necks. It doesn’t even have to actually descend in order to make us work harder than we should. Just the fact that somebody willing to do the only part of our jobs that most administrators care about for less money will continue to significantly contribute to the rapid decline of tenure-track autonomy for the foreseeable future whether we like it or not.

My friend Kate is ailing. Sensitive person that she is, she’s not only concerned for her own well-being but for everybody’s well-being in academia:

What do we do about the way in which overwork is the price that is now demanded for participating at all? What do we do about the thousands of higher education workers consigned to underwork that prevents them from making their irreplaceably good contribution to the mission of universities or the communities that they care about? Do we really believe that our colleagues in the precarity are there because they deserve it? Do we really think sustainable and healthy workplaces will result from us giving up all of our evenings and weekends just to keep up with the standards set by the most driven, or those with the fewest external ties or interests?

Speaking for myself, I want to see my family but I also want other people to see their families too. More importantly, helping other people get back their irreplaceable time will help me keep more of my own. It’s all interconnected, you see.

That’s why I fight. And, thankfully, here at CSU-Pueblo plenty of people are already fighting together.

* Yes, they say that this can include staff or administrators, but I’ll believe that when I see it.

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.

“I’m actually not against everything.”

5 12 2013

Apparently, the title of this post is a quote from me during the discussion session on our panel this morning. I’m not saying I didn’t say that (as that would require calling Bonnie Stewart a liar), but I really don’t remember saying it. It does, however, certainly sound like me and has the benefit of being true. Indeed, there have been plenty of things that I’ve heard about here at the MOOC Research Initiative Conference that I’m definitely not against.* It’s just that that quote sounds so defensive, and there really hasn’t been any occasion since I got here for me to feel defensive.

Oh wait! There was that moment this morning when Dave Cormier said, to quote Bonnie’s Twitter notes again, “you’re not defending adjuncts from the terribleness of the textbook, only the terribleness of the MOOC.” I am actually against the terrible of the textbook too, which might explain my general desperation to come up with something which I support.

Rather than try to list them all here now, let me try one big thing instead: I support an end to a state of permanent austerity in higher education. I think it is possible to organize faculty and students and staff and the general public to restore higher education to the glory it once had. Indeed, if MOOCs become a small part of that new picture as a means to bring new learners into the system, then higher education could be even more glorious than it’s ever been.

But I’m guessing that Dave’s point was that that ship has already sailed and it’s not coming back. Plenty of face-to-face classes are terrible now. The adjunct bell cannot be un-rung. If MOOCs don’t serve the people who aren’t being served well by the current system, then Pearson or some other non-MOOC evil corporation will continue to serve them even worse by creating yet another awful version of a course in a box that professors won’t enjoy teaching and from which students won’t enjoying learning.

Of course he’s right, you know.

But that still doesn’t answer my original question, “What problem do MOOCs solve?” I think the best answer I heard in the room came from Mike Caulfield, who suggested that they solve the lousy textbook problem. I can see that for disciplines where the textbooks are both incredibly boring and incredibly expensive, but with a limitless supply of primary source texts from which I can assign that certainly doesn’t apply to history. I got some pretty interesting answers to my question via Twitter, which included “free professional development” and “allowing learners to explore topics without worrying about maintaining a GPA,” but those aren’t problems. They’re side effects of a fundamental rethinking about the relationship between the teacher and the student done more out of financial expediency than out of any particular pedagogical need.

Are the benefits of those side effects worth the impact of this disruption? You know I’m going to say no, don’t you? I’m not going to bother with the whole face-to-face personal relationship thing here because I’ve written about the benefits of that relationship in this space many times before. What I’ll do now is offer a new reason in response to Dave’s argument.

Even if MOOCs work flawlessly, they’ll still be embedded inside the same old flawed higher education system. Indeed, if MOOCs work flawlessly, there’ll be far less pressure on the people who run public higher education to change that existing system because those MOOCs will serve as a escape valve for all the built up steam behind legitimate reform. At the end of the day on Tuesday, Stephen Downes made a long comment to the whole assembly that’s difficult to do justice to, but I’ll try to summarize it anyways: If you build a MOOC within a corrupt system, you’re part of the problem not part of the solution. If universities are the ones in charge of open learning then it’s not really open.

Although I’m employed by a university and I like having a job, I really sympathized with that comment. Here’s a guy who wanted to inspire a revolution and his revolution has been co-opted. Because of that co-optation, a tool designed to change the power structure might actually help keep that power structure in place for many years in the future. While I am hardly a revolutionary, I actually have a long list of reforms that I would implement tomorrow if I ran a university, starting with paying adjuncts a living wage and respecting shared governance.** If resources and attention towards major reform go exclusively in the direction of MOOCs (or even just technology in general) rather than for other excellent ideas, then I think we will all be the poorer for it.

Given a chance, rather than kill the patient or apply a technological band-aid, I’d prefer to keep trying to find a cure.

* For example, the first thing I’m going to do when I hit work again Monday morning is to take control of my digital identity.

** Which explains why nobody will ever let me run a university.

“I’m not a real professor. I just play one on the Internet.”

6 11 2013

In Frank Capra’s 1941 classic “Meet John Doe,” Barbara Stanwyck plays a newspaper reporter who’s about to get fired. For her final column, she makes up a letter by John Doe, a fictional unemployed person, threatening suicide on Christmas Eve. When the letter attracts intense public interest, Stanwyck and her editor hire a bum played by Gary Cooper to assume the role of John Doe. Cooper, playing John Doe, becomes famous enough to give radio speeches at $100 a pop, all penned by Stanwyck.

Joining Cooper in his odyssey is another bum played by Walter Brennan. At one point, in a fancy hotel suite, he unleashes one of the key speeches of the movie, the kind of speech that makes you wonder whether Frank Capra was actually a closet leftist:

“Then you get a hold of some doe and what happens? All those nice, sweet lovable people become heelots. A lot of heels! They begin creeping up on you, trying to sell you something. They get long claws and they get a stranglehold on you. And you squirm and you duck and you holler and you try to push ‘em away but you haven’t got a chance. They got you. First thing you know, you own things. The car, for instance. Now your life is messed up with a lot more stuff. You get license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and court rooms and lawyers and fines and a million and one other things. And what happens. You’re not the free and happy guy you used to be. You gotta have money to pay for all those things.”

When Cooper tries to go back to his free and happy life, his editor tracks him down and forces him to continue giving Stanwyck’s cheery speeches in support of his aspiring Huey Long-like political career. At the end of the movie, Cooper himself contemplates actually committing suicide.*

I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few superprofessors don’t feel the same way after reading this article in Slate. Commercial MOOC providers, being heelots of the first order, are already considering replacing their superprofessors with Hollywood actors:

“From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well,” said Anant Agarwal, CEO of EdX, who was until recently a computer-science professor at MIT. “So just imagine, maybe we get Matt Damon to teach Thévenin’s theorem,” he added, referring to a concept that Agarwal covers in a MOOC he teaches on circuits and electronics. “I think students would enjoy that more than taking it from Agarwal.”

Assuming Matt Damon is too expensive, the Lords of MOOC Creation can always replace their superprofessors with cheaper-but-more-telegenic lecturers, grad students or even adjuncts. Something like that is already happening, as the same Slate article describes:

One for-profit MOOC producer, Udacity, already brings in camera-friendly staff members to appear with professors in lecture videos. One example is an introduction to psychology course developed earlier this year in partnership with San Jose State University. It had three instructors: Gregory J. Feist, an associate professor of psychology at San Jose State University, who has been teaching for more than 25 years and who wrote a popular textbook on the subject; Susan Snycerski, a lecturer at the university who has taught for 15 years; and Lauren Castellano, a Udacity employee who recently finished a master’s in psychology from the university, advised by Feist.

In the course’s opening lecture, the three stand together and go over the ground rules, but after that, Castellano takes the lead on camera. Feist and Snycerski make regular appearances throughout the 16 lessons, but often only briefly, to explain a concept or two, or to be part of a demonstration or skit with Castellano.

Does it bother the more-experienced professors that they get less screen time than their younger colleague? “That’s a Udacity decision,” said Feist. “They’ve discovered that it works well if you have these younger people doing most of the instruction, but in fact the content is coming from professors. They wanted someone who students can identify with.”

[Emphasis added]

Commercial MOOC providers like Udacity are primarily interested in attracting eyeballs that they can eventually monetize. Unfortunately, education isn’t sexy unless it has a sexy spokesperson. If you don’t want to turn off students with all that nasty reading, why would you want to turn them off by having an old, unattractive person take over their computer screen for huge chunks of time?

While the “I’m not a real professor. I just play one on the Internet.” jokes practically write themselves, there’s still a serious point to be made here. Educational goals will inevitably fall by the wayside when heelots have cars to pay for and mortgages to service. More importantly, the resources that pay for their cars and mortgages could be going to students or, God forbid, professors. This includes adjunct professors who currently live lives comparable to Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in “Meet John Doe.”

Yet I still pity the poor superprofessor. While many of them may have wanted to be rock stars with followings like John Doe, what the heelots giveth, the heelots can taketh away. Those responsible for getting you groupies, can always turn the spotlight on someone else whether that person happens to be qualified to do your job or not. Indeed, one might argue that this is the natural outcome of separating content delivery from actual teaching. I simply expected that it would be the academic lumpenproletariate who would feel the effects of that decision first, long before the superprofessors did.

One might also argue that this is the natural outcome of introducing commercial values into higher education. I actually wouldn’t go that far. It’s more like the natural outcome of allowing commercial values to dominate higher education above all other things. While we can never go back to a non-existent free and happy time when professors were only in it for the sake of education, at least we can go back to a free and happy time before administrators and the people who want to sell them expensive edtech treated disruption like a positive good, no matter how many people it hurts in the process.

In other words, it’s not the MOOCs that are the problem here. It’s the heelots who are running them.

* As my memory of Frank Capra films other than “It’s a Wonderful Life” is far from perfect, I used both the IMDb and Wikipedia entries for “Meet John Doe” to help write this summary. The quote is my (probably bad) transcription of the video at top.

Don’t make me go “All flipped classroom, all the time.” Just don’t.

30 10 2013

Hey kids! Do the new dance craze that’s sweeping the nation! It’s called the “flipped classroom” and it’s the bee’s knees, at least so says Inside Higher Ed:

Go ahead and postpone the conversation about the backlash against the flipped classroom model. Supporters and skeptics alike — and even the researchers behind a seemingly critical new report — say the discussion continues to be positive.

Unless, of course, you believe in assigned reading, but nobody’s bothered to ask us. If you’d like to run your classroom differently, then please be my guest. The problem is that if you start suggesting that your teaching methods can cure boils, baldness AND everything that’s wrong with higher education all in swoop, it will become increasingly difficult for those of us who currently teach the way we want to teach to continue doing so.

You think I’m being paranoid? Ever heard of lecture capture? Apparently:

More college and universities are growing comfortable with the idea of recording lectures and making them available online. According to data compiled by the Campus Computing Project, more than two-thirds of institutions see lecture capture as an important tool to deliver instructional content. That share has grown steadily in the past few years.

Flipping yourself is one thing, but what happens if the university wants to use those lectures elsewhere? Leslie MB was on this two frickin’ years ago, people!:

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.

In other words, what’s good for those of us with the privilege of designing our own courses may not necessarily be good for those of us who lack that privilege. Therefore, go flip yourself all you like, and discuss the flipped classroom all you like too. Just don’t wring class politics out of that discussion. No technology is adapted in a vacuum. Ed tech startups, the pages of the higher ed press and upstarts trying to make a name for themselves in the new scholarship of teaching and learning all thrive on solutionism. Don’t join them on that ride without maintaining a healthy degree of skepticism.

More importantly, don’t make me go “All flipped classroom, all the time.” Just don’t. I don’t think I have the patience anymore.

Let it be.

7 10 2013

I was reading yet another great Christopher Newfield post at Remaking the University last week when I came upon this startling survey result:

A solid majority of college presidents agree with 2/3rds of faculty that MOOCs are a negative force in higher ed, which is not something that I for one would have predicted even six months ago.

Me neither. So why then are we still spending any time discussing MOOCs at all? Can’t we just all agree that there are better subjects having to do with higher education to command our attention?

Certainly the MOOC Messiah Squad has played a big part in keeping this futile conversation going, but then there’s also a whole school of technological determinists who are convinced that just because something can be disrupted it should be disrupted. As Newfield notes, the king of disruption himself, Clayton Christensen (along with a co-author), dropped down into the pages of the Chronicle (subscription only) to explain how disruption in the face of disruptive innovation can be avoided:

There appears to be a good lesson here for colleges challenged by would-be disrupters: Take whatever technology and tools are available and use them to organize tightly around a job to be done, to forestall—or prevent—disruption. With the mind-set of focusing on a specific job, it doesn’t matter what new technologies emerge. If a technology can help a college do the job that it has chosen, then it should be able to make changes accordingly and seamlessly. If the technology is not useful to doing the job, then a college can ignore it.

I’ll take a page from Newfield and define the critical job of any university as “creative learning.” Compared to a 4-year residential campus experience, MOOCs are a lousy tool for that. So are commercial LMSs, e-textbooks and a lot of other technological gizmos that private interests have been pushing on universities for years now. Direct contact with professors, particularly well-paid happy professors, on the other hand, is a proven winner. If it wasn’t, people wouldn’t have been paying (or even bothering) to go to college for pretty much forever. So why exactly do so many professors and administrators alike run around like chickens with their heads cut off all the time these days?

I know this opinion isn’t hip, but here goes nothing: higher education isn’t broken. The funding system that pays for college is broken (on both the student and government aid ends). The economy that employs college graduates is broken. The system of shared governance that has helped higher education stay in balance for the last century is broken on most American campuses. But “fixing” higher education without fixing these other problems will only make things worse. Therefore, maybe we don’t need a technological revolution to make higher education operate better. What if evolution, not revolution, can do the trick? Let it be. Let the natural process of deliberation within the academy resolve the problems with higher education that higher education can solve.

Oddly enough, the current state of MOOCs offers a good example of how gradual constructive change can occur. Beaten back by the opposition of faculty (and university presidents it seems) we are already in the process of entering the post-MOOC world – one in which a terrible idea might evolve into something useful as long as it’s not used exclusively for cost cutting purposes. This is from an administrator at Washington State, who after my living through the “Year of the MOOC” sounds downright reasonable to me:

There are certainly innovations and advancement to be gleaned from all these ventures and experiments, even the failed ones. There are new tools we can use to enhance on-campus education through flipping and blending, opportunities for remedial education with adaptive learning, increased access to educational opportunities through interactive online learning, improved student retention with early alert systems. That said, I think the most important development of all of this experimentation is a re-awakening to the purpose and nature of a college education.

These new technologies should be used to enhance the positive—supporting engaged faculty mentoring connected students participating in an interchange of ideas–and not to exacerbate the negative by removing the content and educational expertise (the faculty) from the student experience. Place the highest value not on the newest technological options, but on the very oldest element of instruction: the give and take of ideas between faculty and students.

There it is again! Direct contact between faculty and students. Whether online or in person, the key to a successful college experience is right in front of everybody’s face. Maybe the future resembles something somewhat MOOCish, or maybe it doesn’t, but to be successful that future requires more faculty contact with students, not less.

The title of that piece calls for the MOOC conversation to be redirected, but perhaps instead it’s time to kill that conversation entirely. To quote Newfield again:

Last year the future was Massive Open Online Courses. This year the future is something else.

Maybe we can all choose a better future this time around. In fact, why don’t all of us academics and administrators just kick all the interlopers and profiteers away from the table and finish the future of higher education conversation just amongst ourselves? We’ll at least know then that everyone around the table presumably has our students’ best interests at heart, which is a lot more than we can say now.

Faith is not critical thinking.

26 09 2013

We interrupt my merciless book flogging for a very important guest post. People send me stuff (MOOC-related and otherwise) all the time these days. If it’s good, I always ask if it can be a guest post here at MOLB…and my offer invariably gets rejected. The same thing happens when I try to get some of my best commentators *cough* Mazel *cough* to contribute guest posts.

That changes today. Thomas Castillo got his Ph.D. in American Labor History from the University of Maryland in 2011 and is on the job market. His topic is that crazy Northwestern adjunct teaching study which means that it couldn’t be more timely:

When I first read that non-tenure instructors were found to be better instructors than tenured ones in David Figlio, Morton Schapiro, and Kevin Soter’s “working paper,” “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers” my training in immigration, labor, and African American history switched the warning lights in my head: be weary of such broad sweeping categories explaining complex social phenomena.(1) My most immediate reaction was that this ran counter to the idea of the MOOC turn.

I have to admit my head has been spinning with the racing images that are orbiting speedily by in the education world. With the rise of the new robust celebrity roster of professors—what some have donned super professors—this new study suggests that non-tenure track professors may actually be the missionaries in the trenches since they help best the weakest students. The study’s limitations and narrowness are reflected in the fact that it only looks at one elite institution (Northwestern University) and it relies solely on questionable quantitative data to comment on teacher effectiveness—measures that are actually not that significant even in the terms of the study’s own parameters.

The superficial reaction to this “working paper” (an article that has not been peer reviewed) has come on three fronts. At least one tenured faculty member I had contact with thought this study was quite revealing. Up to this point, he tended to hold a low opinion of non-tenured faculty. In fairness to him, he has tended to have a low opinion of tenured faculty who he has deemed to be less than dedicated to their teaching responsibilities. However, I believe his gut feeling unfortunately tends to reverberate in academia. Many tenured faculty often either scoff at non-tenured instructors or, equally bad, remain oblivious to the plight of insecurity and instability that these non-tenured professors (contingent labor) have to live with: including lack of health insurance, reduced pay, large teaching loads, little support from their home institutions, and general social and intellectual marginalization.(2) The best advice progressive tenured faculty usually offer is condescending: they give a weak nod to the right of contingent labor to organize wondering all along why non-tenured professors have not done so yet. In the process, they reveal their cluelessness about the obstacles preventing contingent faculty unionization.

Another tenured faculty friend of mine was not surprised but for the opposite reasons. She felt that all the other responsibilities on her plate (publishing demands, committee work, university service, etc.) disallow her from being as good a teacher as she could be. She is very dedicated to teaching and has been deflated with the reality of a large teaching load (4-4 of mostly first year history courses) and working with students who need more academic support and guidance. As you can imagine, she does not teach at Northwestern University. She is committed to great teaching but is frustrated by the challenge arising from the demands of academia and the institutional reality of a large teaching load, a situation simply not confronted by tenured faculty at Northwestern—and likely non-tenured faculty as well. In addition, she has always held a high opinion of non-tenured faculty because her personal learning experience with non-tenured faculty and the fact of what she has witnessed: many of her friends are contingent labor and are very good at what they do. The situation she confronts highlights that increasingly the only difference between tenured and non-tenured faculty in many institutions across the country are in the areas of job security, benefits, and expectations for publication and service.

These two reactions are from instructors who care about teaching and look always to improve its effectiveness. The third reaction is to take this study as further proof that tenure as an institution is problematic and needs to end/be reformed or that the condition of contingent work is just fine and actually is a good thing for students especially the weakest ones. While the articles reporting on this “working paper” have generally been “neutral,” they nonetheless report its general findings which in effect serve to fuel a wider political academic controversy and offer only an employer, organizational perspective in the sensitive student-faculty-management relationship.

The study’s findings and its coverage in the media supports and buffers a neoliberal argument against tenure or, more positively, for flexible work regimes.(3) As the authors of the study write, “the growing practice of hiring a combination of research intensive tenure track faculty members and teaching-intensive lecturers may be an efficient and educationally positive solution to a research university’s multi-tasking problem.” (p. 16, my emphasis). It is not difficult to see how such a conclusion will support attacks on tenure and justify an increase in contingent faculty and further splinter the professorial ranks into at least two castes.(4)

While likely conceived with the best intentions, executed with great integrity, and completed with high hopes, the paper’s many assumptions embed too many problematic evidentiary issues. The authors show little concern for complex social phenomena, namely the changing contexts confronted by individual instructors and students. The absence of qualitative data hides deep weaknesses in the methodology of the study. Their paper is a classic case of the old saying that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

For starters, the authors do not use any qualitative evidence to evaluate teacher effectiveness. They use meta-data, such as courses registered for, registrar transcript records of all first semester freshmen between 2001 and 2008, information on faculty status, GPA, SAT scores, and vague and unclear measures used by admissions to rate accepted students (“a five point academic indicator scale” which is never described), to make their analysis about teacher effectiveness. Three huge assumptions they make that are qualitative in nature are student preparedness (based on the academic indicators and SAT scores), non-tenure teacher’s inspirational powers to motivate students to take a second class in a subject (9.3% more chance in subjects outside one’s stated intended major as listed in the admission application) (5), and a single non-tenure teacher’s power to shape a student’s academic performance in a subsequent course in the subject (a little over one-tenth of a grade point better in the next course).

One may begin to see the problem unfolding here. It may seem like a great idea to organize these data into a useful study. Certainly, access to such meta-data could inspire a group of researchers to look for neat linear causality particularly if motivated to find “a solution for a research university’s multitasking problem.” The attractiveness of the authoritative nature of the meta-data was clearly too much temptation to not try to tackle a topical and current problem, even if the data is useless when treated in a vacuum.

Let me state this as clearly and directly as possible: we do not learn anything about varied student experience outside generic aggregate meta-data (GPA) and this data does not account for specific semester context and other qualitative differences among students and/or instructors. Readers will likely interpret what they want from the study. It still will not correct the flawed logic. The model is very monolithic and traps students and teachers into rigid theoretical boxes. The authors bulldoze over relevant data for no apparent reason except what seems to be statistical convenience and/or lack of vital qualitative information.

That apparently weaker students can get stronger over time is not a surprising finding even if they happened to take their first class by non-tenured faculty. Indeed, as educators it should be expected. However, a student’s education is part of a collective effort. A student’s growth and development intellectually and emotionally are a function of the entire college experience not merely that of any one teacher. If you accept this premise then the entire study by Figlio, Schapiro, and Soter crumbles. It will be nearly impossible to identify any cause and effect relationship without a deeper and richer social study.

What is surprising is that the authors have the audacity to imagine such a passionless form of inspiration; that they can isolate a student’s growth and development in such linear and isolated fashion. The enormity of the data apparently infused the authors with lots of chutzpah. It really is irrelevant whether or not a student took a course with a tenure or non-track instructor in their first semester—that is, if one is not weighed down by preconceived notions about an instructor’s ability and skill being somehow related to arbitrary categories of job security and status.

It is a misfortune that Figlio, Schapiro, and Soter found it worthwhile to craft a study looking for differences among these apparently different populations. Each instructor I am assuming earned a Ph.D. which means that all instructors have been trained, in theory, equally the same in their respective fields. Each student is unique and each semester context likely varied for each instructor and student. The very assumption of the study should be offensive to each and every instructor and it should be to each and every student as well.

The authors assume much about the significance of grades and the next class experience. Students are treated as monolithic on this front. We have no sense what may be causing a reduction or improvement in grades and how that may vary by subject, time, course load balance, and personal subjective factors disconnected from instructor input. We are expected to accept their assumption that we only isolate teacher impact in either preparation or inspiration. That is a very large assumption. I for one simply do not hold this belief. Figlio, Schapiro, and Soter need us to have faith in this assumption in order for their study to have any credibility.

We are to assume that grades are a direct reflection of learning. When discussed in terms of outcomes and performance, learning (education) seemingly becomes quantifiable. Teaching in this context is not understood as a craft or art. Learning can be accounted by test results or GPA. As far as that is true, that is fine. But what is not allowed in the data are less easily quantifiable data or information not accessed such as teacher evaluations, performance in related subject fields, student growth and development, and performance (even on their terms) before or beyond that next class experience.

That final point hits a major flaw in their data: it isolates analysis of student performance/growth to the next class in the subject without following students in other contexts or even attempting to explain the semester context of the next class experience. The data therefore is too narrow to lead to sound conclusions on such a large subject as professor teaching effectiveness. What lessons, skills, and knowledge were actually learned and which of these are affecting student performance?

The model used in the study to evaluate student performance controls for two factors: student ability as defined by SAT and other unclear indicators and instructor standing (tenure vs. non-tenure). What is not considered are differences in students that likely have no record: student motivation, student identity development and degree it affects performance in class (how curriculum and/or major interest is connected to a student’s individual identity; sexual orientation; intellectual growth, etc.), and external factors (family, socioeconomic, and other personal issues). One may add to this the issue of student attendance, which has been shown to have a major influence in student learning outcomes but is not usually measured; in fact many universities disallow attendance to be graded so instructors often rely on class participation, something that is measured poorly if at all in large classrooms but evaluated more effectively in smaller venues.

The authors do not gauge the level of difficulty of a given semester by course load or individual course qualities or the weight of a student’s course load as determined by semester. They fail to follow variation over time: when does the next class experience occur? Do students improve, decline, or stay the same before and after the next class experience either in the specific subject or overall as a student in subsequent semesters. As any instructor and academic advisor will highlight, students’ academic performances (and major interests) change and change frequently depending on context.

It is clear to this reader that the authors simply were looking for ways to justify an existing system of a two-tier professoriate and perhaps even to expand its scale. They have little concern for the working conditions or professional development of professors. I would extend this lack of connection and empathy to the overall experience of students. They are driven by Northwestern’s self-interest of maintaining the prestige of the University regardless of the costs or real effects of the labor regime they have in place.

It would have been more scholarly and intellectually honest if the authors had produced a study with robust qualitative research, richer in detail, and more subtle and sensitive in its analysis. This would have led to far different conclusions and recommendations. Instead, the obfuscating nature of the statistics highlights the several poor choices made by the authors.

Given that the study addressed what amounts to an efficiency question (“multitasking problem”), it started with a blinding bias. This bias was articulated in the broad categories of tenure and non-tenure track professors. The authors failed to note that the non-tenured professors at Northwestern (over 80%) are full time with equal benefits as tenured track faculty, as the education blogger and psychologist Cedar Riener was told recently by David Figlio.(6) Riener’s point that job security and benefits are separate ethical questions and different than whether or how much students are learning is a crucial one. I do not take Riener’s response as an agreement of the study’s findings but rather an intervention to prevent confusion of two separate questions: workers’ rights and student learning. He does not analyze whether or not the study proves anything about learning and I think for good reason.

If we cut through the motivation for greater university efficiencies, what we get is an inadequate study that offers no real insights. In addition, it may very well be impossible to design a study to isolate such broad categories as tenure and non-tenure, weak and strong students if we accept the idea that student learning occurs as a collective experience. Studies designed on the micro level, however, may offer useful information about effective pedagogies, proper working conditions for instructors, good learning environments, and other relevant insights into student education and labor questions shaping higher education. Unfortunately, a perspective starting at the macro level with a clear emphasis on managerial prerogative and institutional “multitasking problems,” and lacking vital qualitative data, will not teach us anything on student learning or the condition of being a contingent laborer.

(1) David J. Figlio, Morton O. Schapiro, and Kevin Soter, “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” NBER Working Paper Series, National Bureau of Economic Research, Sept 2013. Figlio is the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research; Morton O. Schapiro is President of Northwestern University and an economist who has written on higher education; and Soter is said to be a consultant (see New York Times article cited below).

(2) James Monks, “The General Earnings of Contingent Faculty in Higher Education,” Journal of Labor Research, vol. 28, no. 3 (2007): 487-501; Monks, “Who are the Part-Time Faculty?” AAUP Report, July-August 2009; Gabriel Arana, “Higher Education Takes a Hit,” The Nation, April 13, 2009; Pablo Eisenberg, “The ‘Untouchables’ of American Higher Education,” Huffington Post, June 29, 2010; Claire Goldstene, “The Politics of Contingent Academic Labor,” Thought and Action, Fall 2012; Goldstene, “The Emergent Academic Proletariat and Its Shortchanged Students,” Dissent, August 14, 2013; Coalition of the Academic Workforce, “A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members,” June 2012; Kay Steiger, “The Pink Collar Workforce of Academia,” The Nation, July 11, 2013.

(3) Scott Jascik, “Adjunct Advantage,” Inside Higher Ed, Sept 9, 2013; Tamar Lewin, “Study Sees Benefits in Courses with Non-Tenured Faculty,” New York Times, Sept 9, 2013; Khadeeja Safdar, “Students Learn Better from Professors Outside Tenure System,” Wall Street Journal, Sept 11, 2013.

(4) “Should Tenure for College Professors be Abolished,” Wall Street Journal, Jan 24, 2012; Richard Vedder, “Time to Make Professors Teach,” Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2011.

(5) This statistic is at best perplexing. The authors state the percentage is actually 7.3%–that is, that a non-tenured faculty member will increase the likelihood to take another class in the subject of a student’s stated intended major (see p. 9). The 9.3% represents courses outside the student’s stated intended major. So how are we to interpret the disparity? Students are less likely to take a class in their intended major when they take their first class with a non-tenured faculty professor? This seems to suggest that students are being pushed out of their intended majors for some unknown reasons. Following the logic of the authors, one may argue that non-tenured instructors are negatively affecting students’ dreams and aspirations (their stated intended majors) by making them less interesting and thus are pushing students away. This, of course, would be an absurd finding.

(6) Cedar Riener, “Student Learning and Labor Policies, follow up,” Cedar’s Digest blog, Sept 25, 2013; Riener, “Student Learning Doesn’t Depend on How Much Teachers are Paid,” The Atlantic, Sept 24, 2013.


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