“[A]nd the number of the counting shall be three.”

16 04 2014

While I was making my way home from Atlanta on Sunday, a whole bunch of my virtual and actual friends were still at the Organization of American Historians annual meeting discussing whether blogging is scholarship. While I’m sorely tempted to weigh in on this question myself, I think I’d rather follow Mike O’Malley’s example and consider exactly what scholarship is. Or to put it a slightly different way, what and who is scholarship for? Or maybe just why scholarship?

What’s sent me down this path before I even saw O’Malley’s post is this rather amazing article from Smithsonian (which I found via Rebecca Schuman, who’s probably still laughing her ass off about this days after she first read it):

“There are a lot of scientific papers out there. One estimate puts the count at 1.8 million articles published each year, in about 28,000 journals. Who actually reads those papers? According to one 2007 study, not many people: half of academic papers are read only by their authors and journal editors, the study’s authors write.

But not all academics accept that they have an audience of three. There’s a heated dispute around academic readership and citation—enough that there have been studies about reading studies going back for more than two decades.

In the 2007 study, the authors introduce their topic by noting that “as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.” They also claim that 90 percent of papers published are never cited.”

Of course, the flies in the ointment of this discussion are tenure and promotion standards. Early-career scholars with blogs want blogging to be scholarship because that will make tenure easier to attain. I know that sounds bad, but really what’s the use of running the normal academic peer review gauntlet if it’s likely that only three people will read the result?

Coincidentally, this discussion and this article happened at the same time that I have to worry about precisely this sort of thing once again. Yes, I’m a tenured full professor, but as anybody among the somewhat more than three people who read this blog regularly know our administration here at CSU-Pueblo is trying very hard to move the vast majority of professors at this institution from a 3-3 (or 9 credit) to a 4-4 (or 12 credit) teaching load. While I was once optimistic that there would be enough exceptions to that standard that most active scholars on campus would be able to avoid it and continue their research apace, I am not anymore.

Here’s why: A few weeks ago, our Provost published his new research standards at the back of a grant application form for a single semester of release time. To my knowledge, he did not consult our faculty senate or any faculty members whatsoever before doing so. Here is a selection from that document (no link because it was e-mail only, e-mail attachment only to be exact):

“At CSU-Pueblo, faculty are expected to teach 12 credit hours per semester (and engage in research/scholarly/creative activity, and perform service). I emphasize that regular scholarly activity is expected of faculty who teach a 12 cr hr teaching load per semester. Awarding equivalency time to conduct research/scholarly/creative activity, above and beyond the usual expectations that we have of faculty, requires careful justification – even moreso at a public institution, in an environment with significantly constrained resources.”

Here’s what it says about release time for scholarly activity in our faculty handbook:

“After consultation with the faculty and Chair of a department, the Dean shall recommend to the Provost all requests for release from teaching. Faculty members released from teaching assignments shall devote a minimum of three (3) clock hours per week for each semester hour of released time to tasks associated with such release….Release from teaching to engage in sponsored research, University supported scholarly or creative activity, University service or other approved activities may be authorized by the Provost dependent upon the availability of funds and program needs.”

In other words, we’re going from an environment in which the vast majority of faculty members received that one course release to an environment in which we all have to prove that we’re not ripping off the taxpayers of Colorado and we still might not get that course release anyway. Furthermore, there’s been no hint that the standards on our annual performance reviews will be amended at all to reflect this rather significant change in policy.

While I’m fortunate enough to have no need to submit this blog as proof of scholarship, other faculty members on campus might not be quite as productive as I’ve been lately. Here’s the gauntlet that we all have to run to get one of 20 or so release time “fellowships” to pay for our adjunct replacements (as described in that policy statement I referenced above):

“The Provost will not approve equivalency time for research/scholarly/creative activity for Fall 2014-Spring 2015 if there is not a demonstrable peer-reviewed work product within the previous 2 or 3 years, depending upon the amount of equivalency time requested.”

It so happens that I approve of the peer review process. In most cases it has significantly improved the work that I’ve published, but as anybody with actual experience in peer review knows this slows things down to an unimaginable degree. For example, I wrote on article to mark the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre for Labor during my sabbatical a year and a half ago in order to make the anniversary itself, which is this very week. It’s accepted, but won’t be published until the fall, months after the anniversary is over.

Will more than three people read that article? Labor is a very good journal so I think so. However, even before I read that Smithsonian article I had become increasingly convinced that most academic journals are utterly useless. The value of blogging (or God forbid practicing actual journalism) is that you’re almost instantly guaranteed a much wider audience than publication in even the most respected academic journals will ever give you. Shouldn’t the point of scholarship be to influence the way the world works? If so, how can anybody justify a narrow fixation on peer review if almost nobody reads the results?

What troubles me most, however, is my administration’s demand for a “demonstrable peer-reviewed work product” within a two to three year window. My last book took me (on and off) thirteen years. Nevertheless, I still want to write more books. Not only that, I want to write more books that people will actually read. I’m currently close to being under contract to write two more comparatively quick refrigeration related books using my surplus research. Both will be peer-reviewed (or at least extensively peer-edited). After that, however, my Harvey Wiley biography is going to take a huge amount of time for me to finish because his papers are all back East and that extra class I’ll be teaching starting this fall isn’t going to speed that process up any.

As you might imagine, this whole situation makes me incredibly sad. If the only solution to this problem is to write short, crappy, purely academic work that reads like the instructions for the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and only three people ever read it, I don’t know if I want to play this game anymore.


“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!

“I know a dead parrot when I see one and I’m looking at one right now.”

19 11 2013

“Oh God! He’s not going to write about Sebastian Thrun’s pivot again, is he?”

Well, not exactly. I’m going to write about Rebecca Schuman writing about Sebastian Thrun’s pivot. It begins:

Sebastian Thrun, godfather of the massive open online course, has quietly spread a plastic tarp on the floor, nudged his most famous educational invention into the center, and is about to pull the trigger.

It’s a wonderful article (and I’m not just saying that because she quotes me), but there’s a problem with that vivid metaphor. I would argue that Sebastian Thrun’s most famous educational innovation is already dead. In fact, it was pretty much dead on arrival.

Yes, I know that the MOOC hype continues unabated. And yes, I know that Thrun insisted this morning that his academic MOOCs are in fact only resting. Nevertheless, all of us living, breathing educators who actually know all of our students’ names understood that xMOOCs were a stupid idea from the moment we first heard about them because students who need higher education the most simply cannot teach themselves.

This fact explains why the problems that MOOC providers face go well beyond Udacity. Alex Usher has run the numbers, and he thinks that Coursera has only 15 months left before their VCs pull the plug. He’s more bullish on the future of edX, but check out this quote from Anant Argawal:

Education has been going on for hundreds of years and online technologies—people have been working with online technologies for, I would say, 30 years. However, intense experimentation and excitement [around education] has happened only in the past year or year-and-a-half. So this is Version 1.

Wait ’til you see Version 6.

So I think it’s too early to say that, “this doesn’t work,” or you know, something doesn’t work.

In my book that’s pretty close to admitting that, at the present time at least, they have a lousy product. “Sure our current prototype of a flying car doesn’t fly, but just give us 30 years!” Yes, edX has no VCs that can pull the plug, but eventually students (particularly students who may be asked to pay tuition in exchange for the MOOC experience) will begin to resent the fact that they’re being treated like guinea pigs and vote with their feet.

Luckily for those of us who are interested in real educational innovation, there are still other parrots in the pet store besides the Norwegian Blue. Connectivist MOOCs (or cMOOCs, as the jargon goes) predated the “Year of the MOOC” and will outlive them too. I’m still not sure if I can actually endorse them since getting crowdsourced out of your job is just as bad as being replaced by a superprofessor and an online mentor. Nevertheless, I am certainly not willing to pronounce them dead.

To me, the key difference between the live parrot and the dead one here is that cMOOCs are designed for people who already know how to learn. With this audience, under some circumstances (like problem-based learning, for example) they could make a wonderful pet for the right owner. Hand them to a penny-pinching administrator on the other hand, someone who’s determined to make one size fit all, and we’ll have to return our dead parrot about half an hour after we take it home.

In the meantime, Sebastian Thrun will go on to try to sell his Norwegian Blue to unsuspecting corporate customers, hoping they remain distracted long enough by its “beautiful plumage” so that he can slip out the back of the pet store.

Déjà vu.

18 09 2013

“The Massachusetts Institute of Technology will this fall package some of its online courses into more cohesive sequences, just as edX prepares to roll out certificates of completion using identity verification. Seen together, the two announcements may provide a glimpse at what the future holds for the massive open online course provider.

The “XSeries” sequences add a new layer of structure to MITx, the institution’s section of the edX platform. The first of seven courses in the Foundations of Computer Science XSeries will be offered this fall, with one or more new courses being rolled out each semester until the fall of 2015. The Supply Chain Management XSeries, consisting of three courses, will begin in the fall of 2014. The two sequences will target undergraduates and working professionals, respectively.

MIT officials deny that the XSeries sequences are a first step toward students one day being able to combine a set of sequences into something that may resemble a degree.”…

“Students have been asking for certificates that have more verification, more meaning behind them that they can add to their resumes,” the edX spokesman Dan O’Connell said.

Students will pay a fee for the verification service that varies depending on the length of the course. A course lasting only a few weeks that uses the service could cost $25, while a longer course could cost more than $100. Multiplied by however many students — thousands, tens of thousands — who enroll in a massive online course, the revenue generated from the verification service could be one piece of the puzzle toward a sustainable business model for MOOCs.”

– Carl Straumsheim, “Mini MOOC Minors,” Inside Higher Education, September 18, 2013.

“If Columbia’s correspondence courses were genuinely of ‘college grade’ and taught by ‘regular members of the staff,’ as Columbia advertised, then why was no academic credit given for them? If correspondence instruction was superior to that of the traditional classroom, then why did not Columbia sell off its expensive campus and teach all of its courses by mail? ‘The whole thing is business, not education,’ Flexner concluded. ‘Columbia, untaxed because it is an educational institution, is in business: it has education to sell [and] plays a purely commercial game of the merchant whose sole concern is profit.’ Likewise, he bemoaned as ‘scandalous’ the fact that ‘the prestide of the University of Chicago should be used to bamboozle well-meaning but untrained persons…by means of extravagant and misleading advertisements.’ Finally, Flexner pointed out that regular faculty in most institutions remained justifiably skeptical of correspondence and vocational instruction. The ‘administrative professoriate,’ he declared, ‘is a proletariat.'”

– David Noble, summarizing Abraham Flexner, the leading critic of correspondence schools c. 1930 in Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education, 2001, p. 17.

“Piggy in the Middle.”

30 07 2013

“[Frederick] Taylor and [his protégé Carl] Barth interpreted their responsibility as that of introducing certain technological and administrative changes at Watertown Arsenal. In fact they were doing much more than this: they were disrupting an established social system and trying to build a new one. Nothing they did was, in this respect, neutral; nothing was merely technological or administrative.”

– Hugh G.J. Aitken, Scientific Management in Action: Taylorism at Watertown Arsenal, 1908-1915, 1960, p. 135.

The aspect of Taylorism that skilled molders at the Watertown Arsenal objected to most was time studies: “efficiency experts” who stood behind them, measuring the duration of particular aspects of their jobs, and then telling them how to do it better. This led to a very brief strike which actually got Taylorism banned from US government facilities.

Now imagine if that efficiency expert stood not behind those skilled workers, but between them and their work. This is essentially the situation that Lisa Lane describes here:

It’s like making a movie. And I want to be Orson Welles – writer, director, actor. It’s my class. I write it when I create the syllabus and collect the materials. I direct it when I teach and assist students. I act when I’m lecturing or presenting.

But now that we’ve professionalized “instructional design” (and other aspects of education that used to be considered support rather than primary functions), I feel there’s a movement afoot to have me just act. Someone else has a degree that says they are more qualified than I am to design my class, in collaboration with me as the “content expert”. They want to do the writing, create the storyboard, tell me what the “best practices” are.

They are trying to turn me into Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Orson Welles. They want me to profess, to perform, to present, and that’s it. (They’ll record that, so my students can view it later. Others can set up a “course structure” around my performances.)

Well…that’s not OK. As a professor, I do not simply profess – I teach. All the decisions involved in teaching should be made by me. It’s not that I don’t understand the limitations (transferrability concerns, student learning outcomes), but beyond those limits the decisions about which materials to use, and how to use them, and what to have students do, and how to assess that, etc. etc. etc. should be mine. Doing those tasks are teaching.

She’s talking about online teaching in general, but this goes double for MOOCs in particular. Here’s Karen Head of Georgia Tech (who remains my hero for describing MOOC-making in such honest detail) describing the team for her composition MOOC:

I cannot imagine doing this alone. I’m joined by Rebecca Burnett, director of our Writing and Communication Program and the project’s co-principal investigator; Richard Utz, chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication; a group of 11 postdoctoral teaching fellows; plus several specialists in assessment, IT, intellectual-property law, and videography.

And that doesn’t count the representatives from Coursera! No superprofessor is going to be able to be Orson Wells in that environment. They’d be lucky to be Ed Wood.

Perhaps superprofessors are happy just being Leonardo DiCaprio. After all, Leonardo DiCaprio gets paid very, very well. However, all the money for those salaries has to come from somewhere. More importantly, the money for a price of the ticket to watch this blockbuster for credit won’t be going to the rest of us who aren’t part of this movie. This is from that no-bid contract expose that ran in IHE a while back:

San Jose State University, a high-profile hotbed of experimentation with MOOC providers, has a revenue-sharing agreement with Udacity to offer for-credit online classes. That arrangement was not publicly bid, San Jose spokeswoman Pat Harris said. The university signed a contract addendum in April. The university expects to receive $40 per student, though students paid $150 per class.

Leland Stanford, the original California entrepreneur, and his buddies didn’t get a deal that sweet.

In other words, MOOC providers are the piggy in the middle, sucking up tuition money that could be going back into the state universities that desperately need it. As Gerry Canavan explains it:

The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent, of the people hired on campus to design or implement MOOC-ification. Some of them really are extraordinarily smart, caring people who I consider to be among my online friends. Nevertheless, they have just as much self interest in promoting MOOC-ification as I do in promoting the self-interest of my colleagues in the professoriate. How come we never hear about that?

It’s not just bad publicity. It’s a power structure that favors technology over teaching, untenurable labor over the tenured kind and growth over dealing with the actual paying students that universities have now.

PS Holy moly! The entire Rutles “All You Need Is Cash” special is on YouTube! See you in about an hour.

“You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!”

3 07 2013

So last night Aaron Bady (better known as @zunguzungu to his legions of Twitter followers) tweeted a link to an excerpt from an e-mail that a disgruntled MOOC student forwarded him. That e-mail had come from a Coursera superprofessor, and it read:

“First, I know that some of you want answers to the assignments. This is a seemingly reasonable request but very difficult to accommodate. Creating questions for the videos and the assignments has been the most challenging part of this new endeavor. Four people, including me, worked several months to create these. We believe our assignments are well thought out and reflect a good balance of conceptual and applied stuff. Creating the assignments online and then testing each one multiple times takes additional time. Due to copyright issues, we cannot simply give you questions from existing books, and I would not want to do that anyway. If this were a one-time class, we would have considered posting answers. It will however be very difficult for us to offer this class again if we have to keep preparing new sets of questions with multiple versions to allow you to attempt each one more than once. Handing out answers will force us to do that.”

Follow the conversation in that first link and you’ll see that much merriment ensued.

When I saw this, I begged Aaron to source it so that I could feel comfortable discussing it on this blog. On Twitter again, he explained that the e-mail came from Gautam Kaul’s Coursera Intro to Finance MOOC out of the University of Michigan. Aaron was then kind enough to send me and IHE‘s Ry Rivard a copy of the full e-mail, with the student’s name removed.

I’m guessing that the IHE story on this will proceed as soon as Rivard can confirm the legitimacy of that e-mail. That’s certainly the right thing for any journalist to do. I, though, am not a journalist. However, don’t get your hopes up that I’m about to pound Professor Kaul anyway. Assuming that the e-mail is completely legit, I don’t think he has done anything wrong except perhaps be too honest about the true nature of MOOCs for Coursera’s comfort. So I just want to use this unconfirmed e-mail to make two points about MOOCs in general:

1) MOOCs are designed to be frozen in amber.

Do you remember those professors in college who lectured off the same sheets of yellowed (not yellow – yellowed, as in used to be white) note paper for twenty years? MOOCs are like that, only moreso. If it takes twenty people and $250,000 to create a MOOC, you don’t have a lot of incentive to bring the gang back together to make necessary changes, like writing new multiple-choice questions.

What if the scholarship changes? What if you decide something doesn’t work as well as it should? What if the students change? Tough luck. They get what they pay for.

2) MOOCs cannot teach students to learn how to learn.

Here’s a little more of that e-mail I got from Aaron:

I believe that learning from each other, with a little push from the faculty/coach, is the way to go. So I encourage you to participate on the forums and learn from each other. Elizabeth has created subfolders within the assignments forum to help organize questions. Post your questions in the proper assignment subforum, and hopefully that will make it easier for all of us to find relevant discussions as well. Needless to say, do not post answers. It is not the answers that matter, but how you think and approach a problem that does.

I agree with every bit of pedagogical philosophy in that statement. The problem is, you can’t necessarily get students to do any of these things working inside a MOOC. If you’re not self-motivated and creative already, you will quickly become another face in the crowd. Hence, the high dropout rate for MOOCs of all kinds.

Like so many things in life, this story reminds me of something from Monty Python. Do you remember when Brian adresses his followers from the window and tells them, “You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!”? The response from the crowd, in unison, is “YES, WE’VE GOT TO WORK IT OUT FOR OURSELVES!!!” I think that joke about the nature of religion has many parallels to higher education.

Plenty of already college-educated people taking that MOOC or others will, indeed, be able to work it out for themselves because they’ve already learned how to learn. The vast majority of the rest of them will just keep blindly following one superprofessor messiah after another, thinking that they’re learning something important about life when in fact what they’re really doing is helping the enemies of higher education keep more people from ever becoming enlightened at all.

Ground rules for the MOOC Monster.

29 04 2013

So a giant, hairy, orange monster has shown up at the door to your classroom. Maybe you invited it, but more likely your dean or provost invited it into your department for you. What are you going to do? Are you going to let it inside and risk being eaten alive or are you going to try to bar the door?

Recognizing that plenty of people are not in a position to bar the door, I thought I would suggest a few ground rules for living with the MOOC Monster. After all, monsters are such interesting people. Maybe you and it can learn to get along. And rather than making these rules facetious (like “Don’t let him eat anybody,”) these are (mostly) serious:

1) The Monster is not allowed to get between the professor and the students.  In other words, every student must maintain access to the professor.

Public education does not mean education only for the self-motivated or the quick to pick up on things. Public education means education for everybody. That means every student must be able to ask questions of somebody who knows the answer. TAs are helpful in this area, but even students caught in a 500-person face-to-face lecture hall still require access to the professor. In theory, they have it. MOOC students, on the other hand, certainly don’t. Instead they’re barred in the syllabus from e-mailing the superprofessor or the superprofessor holds a lottery so that students have the privilege of participating in a Google chat with them. This is not good customer service.

Neither is pawning the inquisitive off on other students and calling that a “learning community.” Yes, there are plenty of things that students can learn by working together. There are also plenty of things that they can’t. Anybody who thinks that the entire college experience can be transformed into an interactive group activity is either an edtech entrepreneur or rolling too many of their own jelly babies.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, the Achilles Heel of endeavors like these is peer-grading. That’s where the lack of access to the professor hurts the learning process most because correcting essays is where most writing-based instruction occurs. Rather than quote myself, I’ll offer up an extended excerpt from this post at Degrees of Freedom:

But when paid graders have to go through thousands of submissions for AP History (for example), they are not simply e-mailed a rubric and a bunch of essays and told to get on with it. Rather, they are all flown into the same location and put through hours or days of training to ensure they are all grading consistently.

This usually includes sharing examples (called exemplars) of essays representing each score on a rubric (giving graders models to work from). It will also include mechanisms for sharing and confirming scores between graders and bringing in additional evaluators to break ties or settle disputes.

The point of all this activity is to squeeze as much inconsistency out of the process as possible so that the major source of subjectivity in a rubric-graded scoring exercise (idiosyncrasies between those doing the grading) is minimized.

Needless to say, no such training or collaboration is available when I’m scoring 3-4 essays from my home in Boston (and applying my own extra rules – such as the non-native English one mentioned above) while someone else is scoring their 3-4 from their villa on the Turkish coast (and applying his or her own idiosyncratic rules as they work).

This is not good customer service either. Indeed, if you actually care about learning, this kind of crapshoot would probably drive you to drink. Perhaps, just perhaps, the MOOC Monster could be a model party guest while visiting a math classroom, but if the course has anything to do with writing I don’t see why we shouldn’t kick the creature out before it comes in and trashes the place straight away.

2) The Monster must be kept on a leash. The professor must hold that leash at all times.

Technology, the cliché goes, is neither good nor bad. That depends upon how it’s used. How it’s used depends upon how much you know about where you plan to use it. Over the weekend, Michael Feldstein, fresh off a conference full of edtech startups and VCs wrote:

The prevailing attitude in the Valley seems to be, “Hey, we built the internet. How hard could education be?”

That’s right. Education is your career, but the capitalists of Silicon Valley are convinced that they can do your job better than you can. I wouldn’t trust my history classroom to a psychology professor (nor they to me, I hope), yet the guy who used to run Snapfish.com and his venture capitalist buddies are convinced that they can recreate the Ivy League online. It would be hilarious if so many people weren’t assuming that this sort of thing was even remotely plausible.

If you need brain surgery, call a brain surgeon. If you want an education, then there better be some educators involved or you’re probably flushing your money down the toilet. I’m not talking about the venture capitalists here. If gullible administrators willingly give them guaranteed contracts then their profit is in the bag. I’m talking about the students. Professors serve as quality control for higher education endeavors. If your professor is about as accessible as the pope or Thomas Pynchon, then you can’t perform that function no matter how well-meaning you happen to be.

I am not a Luddite (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I try to learn technologies that I think will be useful to me in my life or in the classroom. I eschew technologies that won’t help, or which I know I can’t control. Also over the weekend, Derek Bruff asked, “Why isn’t the digital humanities community building great MOOCs?” I think the answer to that question is pretty obvious. Its members want nothing to do with a technology that they can’t control.

Come to think of it, the fact that MOOCs don’t do anything to improve the quality of education may have something to do with it too.

3) The professor is the one who gets to decide if the Monster has overstayed its welcome.

In real terms, I’m talking about assessment here. I hate assessment. I think it’s nothing but a fishing expedition for an excuse to punish higher education by defunding it, thereby making it even less effective than it already may be. Yet, for some reason, MOOCs seem to immune from all this assessment talk that dogs face-to-face classes. “Don’t mind the 90% dropout rate,” the MOOC enthusiasts tell us. “It’s a new technology. We’ll figure it all out down the road.” Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. I still want to know why MOOCs deserve a pass while face-to-face classes don’t.

I think this is where that whole “Be a maker not a hater” business comes in. I have no problem with making things. However, if a professor can change their assessment rubric to value outcomes rather than individual student learning, they are cooking the books. Of course 95,000 students are going to do something, but doing isn’t necessarily the same thing as having every student learn what they need to know.

The digital humanities allows us to stretch the nature of our disciplines and of what students need to learn in college. I’m certainly fine with trying some of what this new subdiscipline has to offer in some of my classes. In fact, I just got a small grant from my university to try a class along these lines next spring. However, too many edtech startups and superprofessors are running down what most of us do every day in an effort to justify whatever disruption makes them rich, famous or both. Perhaps whatever tech that happens to be hip that week is a good thing. Perhaps it isn’t.

I say let the people who do the teaching be the judge.


But what if we can’t? What if the powers that be won’t let us kick the MOOC Monster out of our classrooms? Congratulations, if you understand that this is the likely outcome of laying ground rules for the MOOC Monster, then you understand that professors are employees, not entrepreneurs. Everything we do takes place within an industrial relations system in which most of us have very little power.

Nonetheless, I think there’s value in forcing the MOOC pushers to go on the record with their anti-education views. These simple ground rules aren’t unreasonable. They are reflections of the should-be-uncontroversial principle that educators know what’s best for education, not VCs or tech geeks. To argue against these rules would clearly reveal that the actual agenda of the MOOC “Revolution” does not involve improving the quality of education for anyone. Maybe then we professors might start paying more attention to the threat that the MOOC Monster embodies.

Monsters may be interesting people, but you can’t engage them in meaningful conversation if they’ve just swallowed you whole.

“They mean to win Wimbledon!”

22 04 2013

Since this blog is getting kind of popular, I think it’s time for me to scare off as many readers as possible with an extended Monty Python analogy. And rather than go for a scene from a movie that almost everybody’s seen like “Life of Brian” or “Holy Grail,” I’m going to discuss a skit from the Flying Circus that only diehard fans like me can remember (since it comes from the season after John Cleese left the show), let alone quote without watching the whole thing again.

Here’s the video:

And part II:

And part III:

If you want the short version: Giant blancmanges from the planet Skyron in the Galaxy of Andromeda are turning Englishmen into Scotsmen. Why? Because Scotsmen are the worst tennis players in the entire world. When the blancmanges are discovered practicing on tennis courts throughout the country, the Graham Chapman scientist character logically concludes in a very alarmed voice, “They mean to win Wimbledon!”

This is a long way of saying that I thought of that line on Friday morning when I read a similarly absurd but obvious conclusion in the IHE article about Amherst College rejecting MOOCs:

“They came in and they said, ‘Here’s a machine grader that can grade just as perceptively as you, but by the way, even though it can replace your labor, it’s not going to take your job,’” [Adam] Sitze [Assistant Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought] said. “I found that funny and I think other people may have realized at that point that there was not a good fit.”

Gee, ya think? The Amherst faculty are like that plucky Scotsman, Angus Podgorny, fighting off the scourge of the alien blancmanges at Wimbledon before they get a chance to eat us all.

But I also have a more serious point to make here that’s a little less obvious. The blancmanges could only win Wimbledon once all the real competition had disappeared (either by being eaten or being turned into Scotsmen). Similarly, I think Amherst’s liberal arts college model is a threat to the MOOCification taking hold nearly everywhere else in academia.

In order to take over, MOOCs have to worm there way into places where they might not obviously belong. That requires something that has come to be called wrap-around. [Kind of reminds me of a boa constrictor, now that I think of it.] As Michael Feldstein recently wrote:

I was able to ask edX’s Howard Lurie about whether the course design for the blended classes in the SJSU project will be the same as the fully online one. He acknowledged that there would have to be a variant. We’re going to see more of that. To the degree that MOOCs are going to used in this way, they need to (1) have the curricular wrap-around that scaffolds the classroom use, and (2) be designed to be modular so that faculty using them in their own classrooms can customize them to the local needs of their students. In other words, we need to be able to draw different and more flexible lines between where the course-as-artifact ends and human-directed course experience begins.

In one way, this would be a pretty good future. MOOCs as textbooks would restrict MOOCs to the role of tools and professors couldn’t possibly replaced by tools, but what if we don’t need MOOCs at all? Why should we blow up the entire concept of courses [Feldstein calls the concept of the course an “artifact.”] just to facilitate a technology that plenty of professors don’t want and won’t use? Indeed, if we’re going to go ahead and question everything, then the need for professors at all would inevitably find its way onto the table.

This seems to be what bothered the faculty at Amherst most. From that IHE article again:

Some Amherst faculty concerns about edX were specific to Amherst. For instance, faculty asked, are MOOCs, which enroll tens of thousands of students, compatible with Amherst’s mission to provide education in a “purposefully small residential community” and “through close colloquy?”

Yes, there’s a reason tuition at Amherst is so expensive. An Amherst education is labor-intensive because faculty there are primarily concerned with educational quality rather than price. Yet partnering with edX has the potential to make Amherst even more expensive! That makes as much sense as blancmanges playing tennis.

For people without access to higher education, the ability to enroll in MOOCs is certainly better than no higher education at all. If you’re already in college, then the question becomes whether the cost saving that MOOCs might offer can offset the inevitable decline in quality. [Claiming there’s no decline in quality is just a way to justify the unjustifiable.] Amherst students who have the qualifications and the means to attend that school have little to gain from MOOCs.

MOOC providers are in a different position entirely. If they want to convince the public that their education is not just sufficient, but somehow superior to face-to-face instruction, liberal arts colleges become a nagging reminder to everyone who cares about such things of the road not taken. In other words, they can never win Wimbledon as long as this kind of competitive counterexample remains MOOC-free.

World History MOOC Report 10: In which I look on the bright side (sort of).

2 11 2012

If you haven’t checked out the comments to this post in which I discuss MOOC pedagogy with Jeremy Adelman, you really should. If nothing else, he’s given me an enormous amount of material for a week with no lectures. Like this:

I think you are giving a partial representation of a more complex story that would involve the multiple tiers of students, some auditing, some doing the full-bore (as it were). The submission levels are low compared to what? Compared to all enrolled? Or compared to other MOOC’s? What we know about MOOCs is that they all have very high attrition rates and uneven participation rates. My main concern is that people understand the principle of reciprocity so that peer support and assessment doesn’t run into free-riding; which is not the same as more passive forms of using the course, like watching the lectures no more.

This came in response to my second mention of the poor response rate from my fellow students on the first writing assignment. Jeremy (and some new commentators on this blog) have been suggesting that there are multiple levels of engagement in a MOOC and that we should celebrate that for increasing engagement with the humanities, and world history in particular. That works for me. Despite my carping, I’ve come to enjoy my MOOC experience more the closer it gets to my period of expertise. I particularly enjoyed Adelman’s discussion of building national identities around the world during the Nineteenth Century and his brief history of the American West in global perspective.

The problem with this kind of cheeriness, however, is that even as some parts of American higher education reach for a broader audience, those parts are nonetheless doing their best to eat the lunches of those of us left in the vast MOOC-less wasteland. Mills Kelly described this process quite succinctly a few days ago:

Why are we in trouble? The answer is both simple and very complicated. The simple answer is that institutions with much better brands than ours have thrown themselves head first into the MOOC swamp and already we are seeing signs that in the coming year or two many, if not most (or even all) of these institutions will find ways to offer academic credit for what are now free courses. Once that happens, our students are going to vote with their feet (or fingers on keyboards) and will start taking increasing numbers of courses from these institutions–both because these courses are convenient, and because they are from institutions with better brands.

When that happens, we can expect that more and more of our students will be presenting us with transcripts from Stanford, Penn, Michigan, the University of Virginia, and other similarly better known competitors, and demanding that we accept these courses toward our degrees.

Actual enrollment in an actual MOOC has made me more optimistic than that for two reasons. 1) If actual professors review the course structures of these MOOCs for which they are supposed to award credit, they’ll see that they differ greatly from the brand images of the institutions that hosted them. [“So you took a history course from Princeton, but there was no required reading?”] and 2) I don’t think most college students will pick this kind of education if given a real choice because it is impersonal, superficial (since drilling down in history requires reading and real time responses), but still incredibly time consuming.

Professor Adelman is doing the best he can to create a worthwhile experience, but the format in which he’s operating has made it very difficult for me to see any of the pedagogy which he tells us he’s considered. As Alan Levine put it in a post I read yesterday:

…I have the question of how video lectures of people reading content is really going to play in parts of the the world where connectivity is not what it is in Palo Alto.

And is this really the best learning we can give the world? Lectures, machine grading, and multiple guess? Really? Check the century on your digital watch, Socrates.

In short, it’s not the MOOCs that I’m afraid of – it’s the people who insist on making their declarations that MOOCs are the future a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of them actually have the power to make that happen.

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

2 10 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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