“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?

Don’t feed the beast.

12 09 2012

If you don’t read the Academe blog because I contribute over there sometimes, then you should read it because of the high quality of material provided by the other contributors. This piece by Martin Kich, for example, is incredibly persuasive even though I don’t agree with it:

The issue of whether faculty ought to resist this “automation” of higher education is already moot. Tenure-track faculty now constitute just 35% of the faculty employed nationwide, and full-time non-tenure-eligible faculty account for just another 18%. And at many institutions, the percentage of full-time faculty is much lower—at some technical and community colleges, even as low as the single digits. Faculty, in the traditional senses of the classification, are already on the verge of becoming anachronisms. Resisting or, worse, denying one of the major factors in our radically changed circumstances will serve only to hasten our demise.

OK, but the problem with that assessment is that it would require me to teach online. Life is too short to teach online. I didn’t get into this business to stare at a computer screen all day. Of course, you can do remarkable things by staring at a computer screen all day, but the administrators who Martin wants you to engage with don’t care about how remarkable your course is. They’d replace you with an adjunct in the blink of an eye. All they care about is revenue. Therefore, my position is don’t feed the beast.

So what happens if the beast eats you? I think he’ll eat you faster if you enter the cage than if you stay outside. The more faculty who engage in online pedagogy, the more legitimate this form of instruction will become. Now that would be awesome if online education deserved that legitimacy, but if you judge the online education industry on its own terms it hasn’t earned anyone’s respect yet:

Education researchers have actually conducted a number of studies about this. As of a few years ago, the findings were pretty bleak for the industry. A literature review in 2009 found that ”all scholarly research to date has concluded that the ‘gatekeepers’ [human resources managers, executives, etc.] have an overall negative perception about online degrees.” But online teaching has gotten a lot better in the past three years, and the results are starting to show up on surveys of employers. One study found that half of executives viewed MBAs earned online as no different from ones earned in person. That’s still substantial stigma, though. If half of employers don’t think your degree is worth as much as those of other people applying for the same position, that’s not a great position to be in.

What happens to the online education industry if things stay this way? What happens to the professors who’ve made the jump online if it all turns out to be just another bubble? What happens to the students who jumped with you?

I refuse to have the answers to those questions on my conscience.

…what are the problems with online universities?

4 09 2012

Did you know that online universities are blossoming in Asia? I know because AFP told me so. Read the whole article if you want to see the hype for yourself, but I find their obligatory nod to critics much more interesting:

The growth of online degree programmes is also constrained by poor Internet accessibility in parts of Asia and beyond.

More than 80 percent of South Koreans and 60 percent of Malaysians have online access, but in China the rate slips to about 40 percent and it slumps to around 10 percent in India.

Other criticisms include inadequate regulation, allegations of poor-quality teaching, student cheating, and the fact that online degrees are still not as widely recognised as traditional ones in the marketplace, say industry experts.

Reading that list reminds me of this scene from “Life of Brian”:

Apart from the limited Internet access, inadequate regulation, poor-quality teaching, cheating and the facts that employers won’t give their graduates jobs, what are the problems with online universities?

Well, I guess the argument’s over then, isn’t it?

“[Y]ou must cut down the mightiest tree in the forest with…a herring.”

28 08 2012

Laura Gibbs deserves some kind of prize for public service. I’ve been tweeting her series of posts about peer grading in Coursera for a while now, but since Audrey Watters has written them up I figured I might as well consider them here too. What you need to know going in is that Laura teaches online for the University of Oklahoma so she’s clearly rooting for Coursera as she takes their course on Science Fiction and Fantasy. I think this makes her indictments of the process all the more damning.

For example, there’s this:

So, what kind of data is Coursera collecting about the efficacy of this process? None. What kind of feedback are people getting on their feedback? None. What kind of guidelines and tips did we get on offering feedback? (Almost) none. Given that this is a skill, and a skill that many people have not had to use in the past, I think we would need a LOT of tips and guidelines to help with that, along with feedback so that people who are just now developing this skill can estimate how well they are doing.

And this:

By far the biggest problem, though, is vague and/or inaccurate feedback… and that’s a much harder problem to solve. It’s much like the problem with the poor quality of the essays overall; yes, there are inappropriate essays (blank essays, essays only a few words long, plagiarized essays, even spam essays) that need to be flagged – but the larger problem is the bewildering number of essays that are of such poor quality that it gets very discouraging to spend time on them. Without some kind of additional instructional component to the class, I am just not convinced that this often unreliable and/or unhelpful anonymous peer feedback can really help people to improve their writing.

Remember, this is just about the peer feedback system. I haven’t even mentioned the plagiarism problem or the lack of writing instruction in general.

“Can peer feedback really work in a setting where there is so little community and where this is little sense of reciprocity?,” asks Audrey. Well, that depends upon how you define the term “work.”

If you watched that Daphne Koller TED video, you probably remember the joke about how she tried to convince those terrible humanities professors that multiple choice was a perfectly acceptable way to test for higher order critical thinking and they did’t buy it. Ha ha ha. Unable to do that, they went with Plan B: peer grading. The impression this story left on me was that Coursera was only interested in doing the absolute minimum in order to make their humanities classes acceptable. Certainly, everything Laura has written suggests that they didn’t exactly put much forethought into some pretty basic problems.

But I want to take this point one step further. I would argue that creating an effective peer review process for grading writing is impossible – like chopping down the mightiest tree in the forest with a herring. Since writing is a skill that you never really stop learning, peer grading is therefore almost always the blind leading the blind.

For example, I am about to go into deep seclusion to polish my book manuscript for the last time before it hits the copy editor. It needs polishing because I have a bad habit of using the passive voice the first time I write anything at all complicated. Usually I turn those sentences around when I catch them during proofing, but I don’t always catch them. If your peers don’t know what passive voice is, or (as seems very likely in a lot of these Coursera classes) your peers don’t even speak English as their first language, learning how to write well solely from them is going to be impossible.

Since I teach history, I am prone to think of learning history as an excellent end in itself. However, if you desire employment when college is over, learning how to write well is the best skill that academic history classes can offer you. No wonder employers don’t take job applicants with online college degrees seriously then.

It appears that Coursera is giving them little reason to think otherwise.

As if the Monty Python reference wasn’t proof enough.

30 07 2012

That is in fact me writing about whether the Internet will make professors obsolete at Inside Higher Ed. If you’re arriving here from that link, I invite you to take a look about a year’s worth of posts making related points. If you’ve been around already, I hope you’ll help me monitor the comments over there so that I can do a follow up post (assuming one is necessary).

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