Disruption disrupted.

17 06 2014

I never took a course in the history of technology. My dissertation (and very poorly read first book) were about labor relations in the American steel industry. While overdosing on industry trade journals, I quickly realized that how steelworkers labored depended upon how steel was made and that the best way to distinguish what I was writing from the many studies that had come before was to get the technological details right.

This proved to be a terrible strategy. While I’m quite sure that I did indeed get the technological details right, the people who read my manuscript never recognized this since they had all read or written books that got them wrong or never covered them at all. The worst comment I ever got (which, of course, I remember to this day) was “Rees knows nothing about the technology of the steel industry.” I begged to differ, but what could I do about it? Nothing.

I wrote Refrigeration Nation because I enjoyed reading old trade journals to get the details right and because I wanted to examine the technology of an industry that nobody else had written about. Surprisingly, when I picked my second book project that description included the refrigeration industry. Actually, refrigeration is not one technology, but many: ice harvesting equipment, large scale industrial refrigerating machines, electric household refrigerators and others. If you read the book (and I certainly hope you do), you’ll see I spill the most ink writing about the transitions between one technology and another.

These transitions can be painfully slow. Ice harvesting didn’t die until around World War I. The ice man still delivered machine-made ice door-to-door in New York City during the 1950s. Even today, you can still buy what is generally known as “artisan ice” for people who really want their drinks to be special. Perhaps this explains why I’ve always been so suspicious of Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation.” Everything I’ve ever studied that you’d expect to disappear in the blink of an eye when in competition with better technology always managed to hold on for decades.

By now, you’ve probably already read Jill Lepore’s absolutely devastating takedown of disruptive innovation in what I presume is this week’s New Yorker. [It appears rather late in my neck of Colorado. Thank goodness this one is outside the paywall!] If you still haven’t let’s just say that Lepore is unimpressed by the work of her Harvard colleague:

Disruptive innovation as a theory of change is meant to serve both as a chronicle of the past (this has happened) and as a model for the future (it will keep happening). The strength of a prediction made from a model depends on the quality of the historical evidence and on the reliability of the methods used to gather and interpret it. Historical analysis proceeds from certain conditions regarding proof. None of these conditions have been met.

And remember, there’s plenty of excellent evidence for the pace of technological change in countless American industries. You’ve never read an Alfred Chandler takedown because Chandler actually consulted this stuff. Christensen apparently not so much.

Since I don’t have a team of fact checkers at my disposal, I’m just going to concentrate here on the industry Lepore covers that I know best: steel. Here’s Lepore:

In his discussion of the steel industry, in which he argues that established companies were disrupted by the technology of minimilling (melting down scrap metal to make cheaper, lower-quality sheet metal), Christensen writes that U.S. Steel, founded in 1901, lowered the cost of steel production from “nine labor-hours per ton of steel produced in 1980 to just under three hours per ton in 1991,” which he attributes to the company’s “ferociously attacking the size of its workforce, paring it from more than 93,000 in 1980 to fewer than 23,000 in 1991,” in order to point out that even this accomplishment could not stop the coming disruption. Christensen tends to ignore factors that don’t support his theory. Factors having effects on both production and profitability that Christensen does not mention are that, between 1986 and 1987, twenty-two thousand workers at U.S. Steel did not go to work, as part of a labor action, and that U.S. Steel’s workers are unionized and have been for generations, while minimill manufacturers, with their newer workforces, are generally non-union. Christensen’s logic here seems to be that the industry’s labor arrangements can have played no role in U.S. Steel’s struggles—and are not even worth mentioning—because U.S. Steel’s struggles must be a function of its having failed to build minimills. U.S. Steel’s struggles have been and remain grave, but its failure is by no means a matter of historical record. Today, the largest U.S. producer of steel is—U.S. Steel.

Two other factors that Lepore doesn’t mention (which makes me think that Christensen didn’t either) are environmental regulation and foreign competition – the second being the more important of those two to the overall fate of the industry. The success of minimills also required a huge decrease in the price of scrap steel. What these other factors suggest is that any hard and fast rule of technological change will inevitably fall victim to the unpredictability of people. My old advisor used to call this the social system of production, and practically the entire subfield of the history of technology is predicated on this notion rather than Christensen’s brand of technological determinism

For example, if I remember right, Chandler’s last book (I get the titles mixed up) is about the various quirks in the path of industrialization across international borders. In my work, the most important factor determining the speed at which one refrigerating technology transitions to another is its reception by consumers and amazingly enough lots of refrigeration consumers just hate “progress.” Just to namecheck a great book that I happen to be reading right now, in Seeing Underground, Eric Nystrom describes the effect of political factors – especially lawsuits – on the quality of mine maps. In Butte, Montana, at least, the more lawsuits there were the more precious metals they eventually found.

Of course, my interest in Christensen comes from his pronouncements about higher education. Lepore does very little with them in her article, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from applying the same logic that I just did here. There is no scientific law of the jungle that fates universities to go entirely online or die off. If people value direct human contact and the educational advantages it brings, they should be willing to pay – or force their governments to pay – for universities to teach in face-to-face settings. Like I wrote in Inside Higher Education a really long time ago now, all this talk about inevitability is just a way to shut down discussion so that the educational traits that we once valued will be abandoned more easily.

The great service that Lepore has performed is to metaphorically take the fight over those values to the source of the attacks against them. Like MacArthur at Inchon, she has landed behind enemy lines and will hopefully force the enemy to pull back and defend ideological territory that they thought they had already conquered. Those of us currently at risk of becoming victims of creative destruction can only hope she succeeds.

“Andy Warhol, silver screen. Can’t tell them apart at all.”

8 01 2014

Andy Warhol was a practical joker. I’m not sure anyone ever saw him laughing, but I like to think of his work as a giant parody of industrialization and mass production. Consider the famous paintings of all those Campbell’s soup cans. They’re different, but they all look the same. More importantly, Warhol has decided that this is art. It is, but only in the sense that Warhol wants you to find beauty in sameness and uniformity. There may be some there, but this kind of shock only works for a limited amount of time. If you don’t believe me, just try to watch his eight-hour movie of the top of the Empire State Building (and nothing else).

Do the same in the realm of education and the results will be deadly. Is a MOOC a class or the image of a class? Do MOOC purveyors understand the difference? Do administrators? Does the MOOC Messiah Squad even care?

I thought of this when I read Anne Corner’s comment from my first post on the MOOC session at AHA 2014:

I also particularly liked Ann Little’s comments about not being controversial. That, of course, is half the fun of history and explains why Coursera seems a little bland.

Being a little bland might not be a problem if you’re teaching math. After all, the process is the same wherever you are and whoever you happen to be. This is most decidedly not true with respect to history.

Perhaps I saw the great Tressie MC make this point about MOOCs somewhere at some point, but I know I haven’t made it before. That’s why I was so glad to hear Ann argue the difficulty of teaching controversial material in MOOCs because it reminded me of something. Education isn’t education if the “customer” is always right. Education is supposed to be challenging in every sense of the word. If you’re signed up for seven MOOCs and you have to decide which one you want to invest your time in, are you going to pick the one that makes you feel uncomfortable? Of course not. And where does that leave diversity requirements or distribution requirements or even foreign language requirements?

MOOCs that don’t bring in the eyeballs will have to cater to the lowest common denominator or end up on the dustbin of history. I’m not just talking about required reading or writing assignments here. I’m talking about the material covered in the course overall. As Ann Little implied during our session, if the students want nothing but Whiggish history, then Coursera has every incentive to pressure their superprofessors to give it to them.

So what’s a superprofessor to do? Problem #1 is to make sure that the superprofessor is even involved in the course in the first place after all their lectures have been taped. Assuming they are there, what incentives are they getting to be as challenging in every sense of that word? If success in MOOCs means completion or even engagement, then not much at all. Will they still be adored by their worldwide audience if the superprofessor make them feel uncomfortable? Somehow I doubt it.

Sometimes I get the feeling that superprofessors are like Andy Warhol in the way that they both understand fame. Unfortunately, unlike Andy, most superprofessors do not produce art and do not appear to be joking. No disrespect intended to the two I just shared a podium with. They’re both nothing if not humble in the face of their new teaching-induced celebrity, and I’m sure it’s that celebrity that helped us pack the session last week. But, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, perhaps the medium has become their message.

When you get a chance to watch the tape of our session, you’ll notice how happy I was when Jeremy Adelman walked into the room. When you meet somebody you’ve been watching on the screen for a really long time you want to like them, and are disappointed when you find out that you disagree with them on some issue that’s important to you. This is why I know longer want to investigate the politics of quarterbacks.* When you listen to Jeremy’s and my comments, you’ll see that his and my attitudes towards MOOCs aren’t all that far apart anymore. That’s why I like him now more than ever. But the relationship between students and they’re professors is supposed to be different from this.

One of the side trips I made during the AHA convention was to see Robert Brugger, my editor at the Johns Hopkins University Press. Now that it’s out, I wanted to thank him for putting me through hell during the editing process for Refrigeration Nation because the result is a much, much better book. I think I learned more about writing from him than I did from my dissertation advisor. There were times when I wanted to throw in the towel, but I had skin in the game (so to speak). He invested his time in me because I invested my time in what he (and their excellent outside reviewers) had to say.

Students will never get that treatment in the world where their professor is nothing but a presence on the silver screen. Students will never get that in the world where their education is stamped out of an assembly line, like so many soup cans or Brillo boxes. But you say that this nightmare scenario will never happen? Are you sure? Once you say that an industrialized higher education is acceptable for some people under some circumstances, it will be very hard to draw a line where MOOCs are not acceptable to anybody who can’t pay for the best that academia has to offer.

* I have this persistent horrible sinking feeling that Peyton Manning is not a Democrat. John Elway certainly isn’t.

“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.

The now obligatory post about writing for free.

31 10 2013

Last summer, I got an e-mail from Jeff Selingo of the Chronicle. They had started organizing this new project called Chronicle Vitae and they wanted to know if I would be one of the contributors. While I was pleasantly surprised that the Chronicle was interested in featuring the writing of somebody with my politics, I didn’t exactly jump at the chance. You see, I know some people of my political persuasion who’ve had bad experiences writing regularly for the Chronicle. Besides that, I wanted to know exactly what I was committing to and what exactly I’d be getting in return.

Yes, I was rude enough to ask the Chronicle about money. I did this well before getting paid for writing became all the rage because I don’t really want to write for free anymore. Yet I do anyway. Does this make me a bad person? Am I putting professional journalists out of work? Am I contributing to a system of naked exploitation?

I agree with what Derek Thompson wrote at the Atlantic: “It’s complicated.” While I’m not sure this is at all original, here’s my explanation of how I sort it out in my own mind:

Perhaps the greatest thing about having tenure is that I can write what I want for whomever I want to now. I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to spend seven years on a dissertation, five years on revision and have the final product sell a whopping total of 400 copies worldwide. This is not writing for a living or even the pittance of a living. It’s writing for tenure, and there are plenty of worthy presses out there who are more than willing to help you achieve that end – even if you have to buy 25% of those 400 copies yourself so that the press can at least break even.

Honestly, I’m beginning to feel the same way about academic journals. I’ve done my fair share of articles in my time, but I’ve never gotten even one ounce of feedback or encouragement from anybody who has ever read them after publication. Perhaps that’s because none of my articles have been any good, but I can’t shake the sneaking suspicion that it’s actually because almost nobody has ever read them. I spent five years [FIVE YEARS!!!] going back and forth with Technology and Culture to get this article published. While I love the result dearly, I have no idea why I bothered anymore. And, of course, I never made a dime off of it. But then again I didn’t expect to either.

Blogging has the decided advantage of being a lot more fun than writing for purely academic audiences. When nobody read this blog, I told myself that I was doing it for therapy. Now that people do read this blog, I tell myself that I’m doing it for my twin causes: faculty rights and faculty prerogatives for faculty at all levels of employment. To turn down the chance to bring those causes to an audience of professors and graduate students of all kinds would have been idiocy on my part.

Besides, as Jeff explained it to me, I actually like the idea. Chronicle Vitae is kind of like the academic LinkedIn, except academics won’t be all confused about why they joined up in the first place. It’s free to access and there’s even a place where grad students and young scholars can sign up for mentoring. What’s not to like? Besides, since I’ll eventually get around to plugging my book there it’s not exactly “free” labor in the Gary Becker sense of that word.

My first post for Chronicle Vitae is up now. You can find links to my future contributions in this space or just join up yourself and follow me once you’ve registered. Either way, I hope to see you there.

What is to be done?

29 08 2013

“The workers were losing their age-long faith in the permanence of the system which oppressed them.”

– Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?”, 1905.

I’ve been a Thomas Frank fan since the olden days of The Baffler. I realize that the guy is sort of a one trick pony with endless variations of the “culture tops class and that’s really horrible” argument, but that certainly is an extremely versatile pony. Therefore, when he brings that argument to the state of modern higher education, you should certainly read the results:*

[T]he big universities expanded in their heyday to keep up with industry demand, not to build the middle class. Instead, what everyone agrees on is this: higher education is the industry that sells tickets to the affluent life. In fact, they are the only ones licensed to do this. Yes, there are many colleges one can choose from—public, private, and for-profit—but collectively they control the one credential that we believe to be of value. Everything about them advertises it. The armorial logos, the Gothic towers, even the names of the great colleges, so redolent of money and privilege and aristocracy: Duke and Princeton and Vanderbilt. If you want to succeed, you must go to them; they are the ones controlling the gate.

What they sell, in other words, is something we believe to be so valuable it is almost impossible to measure. Anyone in her right mind would pay an enormous price for it.

Another fact: This same industry, despite its legal status as a public charity, is today driven by motives indistinguishable from the profit-maximizing entities traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

The whole essay is beautifully written. What I’m most interested in, though, is the conclusion:

What actually will happen to higher ed, when the breaking point comes, will be an extension of what has already happened, what money wants to see happen. Another market-driven disaster will be understood as a disaster of socialism, requiring an ever deeper penetration of the university by market rationality. Trustees and presidents will redouble their efforts to achieve some ineffable “excellence” they associate with tech and architecture and corporate sponsorships. There will be more standardized tests, and more desperate test-prep. The curriculum will be brought into a tighter orbit around the needs of business, just like Thomas Friedman wants it to be. Professors will continue to plummet in status and power, replaced by adjuncts in more and more situations. An all-celebrity system, made possible by online courses or some other scheme, will finally bring about a mass faculty extinction—a cataclysm that will miraculously spare university administrations. And a quality education in the humanities will once again become a rich kid’s prerogative.

To stop this from happening, Frank recommends attending German or Argentinian universities, a free speech movement or a nationwide student strike. To put it bluntly: Ain’t. Gonna. Happen. Does that mean that all is lost? Is it already game, set, match and the good guys lost? What is to be done?

I’m actually a tad more optimistic than Frank is. I almost started an argument with my department chair the other day about the future of American universities. She was suggesting in our department meeting that enrollment goes up and enrollment goes down and things may be bad now, but they’ll inevitably get better again at some point. I’m afraid this time is different: student loans are expensive, jobs are scarce and tuition is, as the economists say, sticky. [Seriously, when’s the last time you ever heard of a university lowering its tuition?** ] But that doesn’t mean that higher education is going to disappear anytime soon. It simply means that after a huge increase in scope after World War II, it’s inevitable that higher education is going to get smaller in the future, and I think this presents a wonderful opportunity.

I haven’t really touched the Obama Higher Education Plan on this blog yet because…well…I haven’t really thought of anything interesting to say about it. Of course, I’ve been pondering its relation to MOOCs, but the President didn’t actually say all that much about MOOCs in his speeches. In the plan itself they’re more of a component of a laundry list of potential reforms than a centerpiece. It’s like Obama wants to throw every bad higher education idea at the wall and see what sticks. MOOCs won’t stick. Nevertheless, the President would rather burn money on dumb ideas, enriching a few undeserving people and accelerating the coming crack-up either way, than focus on the crucial issue of educational quality or whether enough students can actually get a decent paying job when they graduate.

Perhaps a better higher ed plan would be to do nothing. Sure, some colleges are going to close and that will be a tragedy, but that’s going to happen even if we do everything that Barack Obama wants and more. As Erik Loomis explains in his comments on Frank’s article:

whatever happens, whenever the bubble bursts, whenever students revolt, the inevitable answer will be MORE market, more capitalism, more of the same that puts the tuition dollars in the hands of the administrators and takes it away from teachers or doesn’t take it away from students at all. It’s incredibly depressing.

But maybe the fight will be different when the battlefield is smaller. You can’t have a race to the bottom when the bottom is gone. Maybe, just maybe, with fewer colleges in the mix, schools will start to differentiate themselves on the quality of their instruction rather than simply on the basis of their price (both higher and lower). Maybe we could focus on making the higher education system that survives more sustainable rather than privatizing what we have now so that people can sell a watered-down product to students who’ve already bought a bill of goods that structural changes in the economy will make it difficult for them to afford.

At this stage in the history of higher education, I’m actually glad to be working at a public institution that anchors my community because the State of Colorado and the people in my region have said repeatedly, in so many words, “We want a university in Pueblo.” Where I wouldn’t want to work now is at an expensive private college or university of any kind with little name recognition outside its region. Who’s gonna want to pay a top-dollar sticker price for a spin of a roulette wheel? On the other hand, the same kind of discounting that makes MOOCs appealing could make a quality face-to-face education at a comparatively low price appealing too, assuming the people running institutions like mine do more than just follow passing fads.

No, I don’t have much faith that that’s going to happen, but at least we can still do our best, with carrot and with stick, to steer them in that direction. After all, not all revolutions are violent or necessarily even all that revolutionary.

* And, if you don’t know, he’s got a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Chicago. His dissertation is well worth reading in its published form.

** No Phil Hill, slashing tuition and financial aid in the name of sticker price transparency doesn’t count. I’m talking about cutting the cost for students in real terms.

“All the promises our teachers gave. If we worked hard, if we behaved.”

18 07 2013

It has been years since I recommended to anyone that they go to grad school in the humanities. In this market, even the most talented students face a likely future of adjunct destitution. When college has come under attack though, I’ve always defended it. “Sure, it’s no guarantee of a job,” I say, “but it certainly makes your chances better.”

I still believe that, but a whole series of recently published articles about the changing nature of work have depressed me beyond belief, making me worry about how long I can promise students that that’s still true. For example, there’s this from Salon:

Technological advances are putting serious pressure on the working person’s ability to command a living wage. If the data showing that workers are grabbing a smaller and smaller piece of the overall income pie even as productivity continues to grow tells us anything, it’s that employers are benefiting far more than workers from Silicon Valley’s disruptive innovations.

The same forces that have enabled American corporations to offshore and outsource so much labor overseas are now atomizing the most basic tasks of daily life — everything from lawn mowing to scheduling a dentist appointment. Fancy Hands employs only American contractors, but the principle is the same. With the Internet, and particularly with the mobile Internet, anyone, anywhere, is a potential employee.

Or, if you have about 15 minutes to spare, go listen to this, then hug your children tight after you’re done.

Call me cynical, but I can’t help but wonder if this drive to educate the world is part of a deliberate effort to drive down the wages of college-educated workers everywhere. The MOOCs increase the supply of labor. The robots decrease demand. The result will be that a free degree will be worth exactly what students paid for it.

Is the Internet going to do this to my profession too? I’m actually a little more optimistic here. It’s not like this is news, but apparently if you throw students into the deep end of the pool, many of them will sink to the bottom. The other end of the spectrum, babying them through their online courses doesn’t strike me as any better. For example, here’s the vision for the future of higher ed that Bill Gates’ money is trying to promote:

Mr. Crosgrove and his classmates study clusters of curated online materials, such as the free “Smarthistory” videos presented by Khan Academy. They let students show mastery of competencies by completing “tasks.” One task, for example, asks them to research potential works of art for a museum exhibit and to create a PowerPoint on their findings. The completed tasks are shipped out for evaluation to a pool of part-time adjunct professors, who assess the work and explain to students what they should do to improve.

A coach helps Mr. Crosgrove set goals, navigate materials, and handle problems. The faculty role in College for America involves curating the content for students and assessing tasks.

I remember when I was shocked that people in India were reading our x-rays overnight. Now that they’re serving as personal digital assistants, this is practically commonplace. However, the difference between all those general work-related examples and higher education is that your x-ray can be read just as well remotely as in person while “curating online materials” is, the obvious labor issues aside, a lousy excuse for a college education. It’s even a lousy excuse for an online college education!

As I keep saying, what scares me most is that students will vote with their feet. Given a choice between an all-MOOC degree or nothing, they’ll pick nothing or – perhaps more disturbingly – even if they have the choice to get a traditional college education, the all-MOOC option will make the competition too stiff for anyone to keep the traditional option viable.* If bad education drives good education from the market this is not a good thing as nobody will actually have the skills our economy needs to innovate or succeed.

In this scenario, academia will become one big Allentown and it will be “getting very hard to stay” for all of us professors except the super ones. Creative destruction may be creative, but that doesn’t always represent progress.

* Of course, all of this will have to happen before the MOOC providers inevitably collapse, but $43 million can last an awful long time.

Update: I’m teaching the New Deal in summer class today, so I thought maybe I could end this discussion on a happier note:

“Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

18 06 2013

“It’s time for teachers to rethink learning methods. I invite everyone along for the exhilarating ride.”

– Anant Agarwal of edX, “Online universities: it’s time for teachers to join the revolution,” The Observer, June 15, 2013.

Since I’m all for edtech, I’ve decided to take up Anant Agarwal’s call and become a star. Reversing myself on everything that I’ve ever written in this space on this subject, I’ve begun planning my own MOOC. The name of my MOOC?:

Class Consciousness for College Professors.

Can you think of a more underserved population than us with respect to this subject? As I wrote last year, the professoriate is the worst guild ever, so even impersonal learning on this vital subject is better than none at all. Besides that (at least in my experience) nobody starts (and then doesn’t finish) more MOOCs than college professors. But this MOOC will be different. Instead of learning for learning sake, my MOOC will be all about understanding your own self-interest, something that few of us outside of our business schools seem to understand.

Here’s a tentative outline of my syllabus:

Week 1: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism

I’m not a Marxist, but I can play one on stage, screen or computer screen. I did read The Marx-Engels Reader back when I was in college so I can teach this stuff, right? After all, dialectical materialism simply means that class is a relationship. When some get more, others get less. You’d think everyone in academia would know this since faculty have been getting much less for years now, right? Alas no, but college professors are smart enough to figure this out even if the pedagogy behind the system I teach it to them with has so much to be desired.

Everyone says we’re a bunch of leftists anyway. Let’s earn that reputation for once. If I had my druthers, this where I’d assign Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital. On page 94, he explains the urgency of my whole endeavor:

“The destruction of craftmanship during the period of the rise of scientific management did not go unnoticed by workers. Indeed, as a rule workers are far more conscious of such a loss while it is being effected than after after it has taken place and the new conditions of production have become generalized.”

Too bad this is a MOOC, which means that I can’t assign any reading at all unless it’s beyond copyright protection. Even then, there’d be no guarantee that anyone in the class would actually read it. With their research and their lecturing and their service and their so-called “professional development,” college professors are such slackers.

Have you heard? They even get summers off.

Week 2: You Are a Worker

Here’s a subject I know well! I have a job. I get a paycheck. A few weeks ago I (along with a lot of other people) was informed that even though my performance last year “exceeds expectations,” the State of Colorado hasn’t got enough money to give me a merit pay raise. In other words, I have little control of the terms and conditions of my employment, yet I continually read stuff like this (3rd comment):

Just as doctors are dedicated to their patients, professors should be dedicated to their students not job security, a hippocratic oath for professors if you will. As such, arguments against MOOCs should only be based on student benefits/disadvantages.

Sure, some of us have families or medical problems or the need to eat…anything…ever. Yet they tell us we have to think of the children (as well as the adults going back to college) so that they can get real jobs in the new global economy rather than our lame dying ones. Therefore, being a college professor means you can’t travel or accumulate goods like every other American consumer does. Did I mention those summers off?

Silly me, I thought the invisible hand meant that everyone should pursue their own self interest and everything would work out OK. Indeed, since my working conditions are student learning conditions, I figured that I actually was acting in the best interests of my students by sticking up for myself. Happy profs = better teaching.

That’s why I want to be a superprofessor, so that I can spread my message of professorial unity throughout the world, unemploying as many other professors as possible in its wake. Hmmmm, I think I detect a contradiction here. Perhaps I can create a MOOC with a self-destruct mechanism in it.

Week 3: “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!”

In 1996, I worked with another grad student who was far more radical than I, but who was going to vote for Bob Dole in order to “accelerate the revolution.” That hasn’t worked out too well yet, but there’s no reason not to try this line of attack with MOOCs. A recent Chronicle piece entitled “Why We Fear MOOCs” is my inspiration here:

What is not often acknowledged, however, is how our understanding of college has created and reinforced rigid social distinctions in American life. In previous generations, it was abundantly clear who had attended college and who had not. College graduates might speak differently, have different pursuits (theater versus television, for example), travel more, or read more books. Attending college served as a clear marker of social class…

Thus, being college-educated does not simply signify that one has completed a task; it is a facet of one’s identity.

My identity shouldn’t be tied into where I teach or how I teach because the imminent academic proletarian revolution will simply wipe those distinctions away. Down with hierarchies of all kinds (including the one that allows me to put food on my table)! Who ever heard of a well-fed radical?

But what if the revolution never comes? What if MOOCs are just a way for the oligarchs to hang onto power during the age of permanent austerity? That’s when I’ll explain to my new vassals all the wonderful opportunities for personal growth in our glorious all-online future. If you can’t be a trained professional, you can still be a personal trainer. Sure, it’s not like you went to grad school for seven years in order to do that, but you have to learn to think like an “edu-preneur.”

Besides, you can still make good money as a trainer. Certainly more than being an adjunct. Which is a nice segue into Week 4…

Week 4: Meet Your Adjuncts.

You may not be an adjunct, but you certainly could have been. No matter what your discipline or where you went to graduate school, quirks of supply, demand or timing might have led to your adjunctification. As the irreplaceable William Pannapacker writes:

I have known too many extraordinarily talented and productive long-term adjuncts to believe that academe is a meritocracy. And I have known too many long-suffering academic-labor activists to believe that such people are enemies of higher education. They are often the only friends that a demoralized job seeker can find, the only ones who acknowledge that the inability to land a tenure-track position is not entirely the fault of the individual alone, that it is a systemic problem.

This may explain why the vast majority of tenure track faculty couldn’t pick their own adjuncts out of a lineup. We wouldn’t want anybody challenging our assumptions, would we?

To be fair, knowing my adjuncts is easy for me as we invite them to the (catered) introductory department meeting every year. However, as they tend to get the worst class times, I’m never on campus at the same time of some of them again. The lesson here is that you have to make the effort to build a relationship. Your adjuncts are too busy.

I’ll definitely use guest lecturers this week because I have so many fine people from from which to choose. Of course, I’ll pay them nothing because they’ll willingly work just for the exposure. After all, aren’t they just doing this out of love? If that’s not enough, they can put it on their cvs for next year’s job market. Of course, that won’t make a difference anyways since too many people think they’re already damaged goods. I’ll correct that impression during my MOOC.

Obviously this week’s assignment will be for everyone to go introduce themselves to their adjuncts. After that, peers in the class will quiz you on their names. What’s that you say? You want to know what happens if an adjunct signs up for my MOOC? That won’t be an issue because they already know the material backwards and forwards as they live the need for class consciousness every day.

Extra credit for saying “Hello” to them in the hall later.

Week 5: We Are at War Already

Did you actually read that Agarwal essay? It’s a direct shot at the bow of professorial class consciousness:

Moocs make education borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind. Up to now, quality education – and in some cases, any higher education at all – has been the privilege of the few. Moocs have changed that. Anyone with an internet connection can have access. We hear from thousands of students, many in under-served, developing countries, about how grateful they are for this education.

Race, class, gender and nationality all in the same paragraph! How can we let our petty concerns (like eating or retiring someday) get in the way of ending every social problem of our time? Of course, if we educate everybody everywhere and do nothing to change the structural injustices of the global economy, everybody but the luckiest few will remain in the exact same position before MOOCification began. My MOOC will fix that problem by teaching professors to teach students to help themselves. Of course, if they do it through MOOCs they’ll be cutting the throats of their fellow professors, at least until the real revolution comes. A good revolutionary doesn’t bother with internal consistency.

Then there’s Agarwal’s absolute enormous straw man argument about what MOOCs aim to replace:

Students have always been critical of large lecture halls where they are talked at, and declining lecture attendance is the result. But today we see that there is deep educational value in interactive learning, both online and in the classroom. Colleges and universities are beginning to use Moocs to make blended courses where online videos replace lectures, and class time is spent interacting with the professor, teaching staff and other students.

I’ll let Audrey Watters give him the history of edtech speech if she’s so inclined. What I’m interested in is the way that Agarwal conflates giant lecture halls with the entirety of higher education. He knows that’s wrong. We know that’s wrong. Even if we have 500 students in a class, we can still flip our classrooms anytime we want to without having to use somebody else’s content. If you won’t let somebody else pick your textbook for you, why on earth would you outsource your own content? What did you spend all those years in graduate school for then?

This piece is so out of touch with reality that it makes me think that the whole pitch isn’t really directed at professors or teachers at all. It’s pure public relations, designed to get angry torch-bearing mobs appearing outside university buildings demanding fresh non-superprofessors to satiate their lust for blood. Or maybe it’s a superprofessor recruiting pitch because as a pitch for victims suckers MOOC consumers it’s really weak tea.

Week 6: The Futility of MOOCs

You’ve heard of the MOOC to end all MOOCs?I’ve decided that the only way to match the tremendous reach of MOOCs is to use a MOOC to teach the futility of MOOCs. Don’t believe me? 90% dropout rates should be your first clue. To quote Rebecca Raphael:

“There is simply no way to mass-scale the real attention of another human being.”

Who cares if not everybody gets this lesson because it’s being mass-scaled. Professors are smart people. They can figure it out for themselves, right? And if they don’t, they’ll be going the way of the dodo soon anyway.

Too sum up then (à la Ian Bogost):

1. MOOCs are futile as teaching tools.
2. This is a MOOC.
3. Therefore, this MOOC is futile.

OK…nevermind. I guess I’ll just accept my upcoming obsolescence like a good cog in the machine. I wish I had a mansion and a crazy German butler to help assuage the disappointment, but I’ll have to make do with once having been big in Connecticut.

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