“You never give me your money.”

25 03 2014

When is a business not a business? When it’s in the edtech business! How do I know? This quote from the new Coursera CEO, former Yale President Richard Levin talking to the Chronicle is typical of a whole genre of similar sentiments:

The company has disbursed some payments to its university partners from revenue generated by its Signature Track program, which offers “verified” certificates to MOOC students in exchange for fees. But so far, the returns for Coursera’s partners have been largely intangible.

Mr. Levin said he was not too worried about that. “Intangible returns are, in fact, the kinds of returns that we, at universities, are in the business to provide,” he told The Chronicle.

[Emphasis added]

Yet if you read all the business-oriented coverage of Levin’s hiring, you’d see them discuss very little else besides the possibility of Coursera’s tangible returns. Here’s Anya Kamenetz (of all people) hassling them because students never give them their money:

The money problem is a big one. Coursera’s growth so far has been funded by investment. They have been experimenting with different ways to attract revenue. Advertising, the most obvious choice, would likely be off-putting to students and university partners. At the end of 2012, Coursera announced a recruitment service, where employers would pay for access to users. But this didn’t get much traction.

A little over a year ago, they introduced a ”Signature Track,” which provides learners verification of their identity and course completion for a fee. Nine months later they announced $1 million in revenue from Signature Track. But that compares to $85 million in investment that the company has already taken on, from venture capitalists who expect large returns. It also translates into a 4/10 of one percent adoption rate, with just 25,000 of 7 million users opting to pay. Successful “freemium” companies, which offer some services for free and others for pay, typically have 2 to 4 percent paying users–five to ten times more than Coursera is reporting. In order to be sustainable, Coursera needs a lot more paying customers.

But wait!!! I thought Coursera’s mission was to bring education to the people who couldn’t afford it? Remember all those geniuses in lesser-developed countries? That argument is for TED talks and the New York Times. Can you imagine if Coursera’s VCs complained that the company never gave them its money and Richard Levin told them that they should be satisfied with “intangible returns?” Since the Chronicle told us that he’s being compensated with an ownership stake in the company, I think that scenario is by definition impossible.

Then there’s the question of paying students in developed countries. Here’s Ray Schroeder in the WSJ talking about other potential revenue streams:

“Coursera has huge potential,” Mr. Schroeder said. “The roadblock has always been accreditation.”

He estimates that with accreditation the company could charge in the neighborhood of $300 for a course and still undercut the cost of most other accredited courses by several hundred or even several thousand dollars.

I hate to point out the obvious, but charge $300 a course and Coursera’s initial sign up numbers are going to plummet. Their MOOCs would also cease to be actual MOOCs. Take out the massive and take out the open and you’re left with online courses, or OCs. If they’re automated, they won’t be particularly good online courses either.

While I’ve been picking on the stupidity of the phrase “intangible returns,” I should also note how stupid it is to suggest that universities are simply in the business of providing them too. It’s the determination of the modern university administrator to run their institutions like businesses that have already made so many online courses unrelentingly awful. In other words, Levin isn’t just fibbing on behalf of his new company. He’s fibbing on behalf of his new company’s clients too.

When all is said and done then, ed tech businesses are in fact businesses. It’s just that edtech businesses are less honest about it than those in other industries.


Higher education is not available à la carte.

24 02 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

This is the key lyric, at least for me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The MOOC don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles.

11 02 2014

“If you look at sub-Saharan Africa, the place where education is hardest to achieve – in the Western world, 70 percent of the students of college age are enrolled in either a two-year or a four-year program and the average years of education you can expect if you were born today in the United States is 16 years. If you were born in sub-Saharan Africa, then less than 10 percent of the kids go to any kind of college [or] any kind of post-high school, and your average years of education are eight. So there’s something I think to add to the rest of the world…And that’s a good thing for Stanford to do, it’s a good thing to do for the rest of the world, and then we can do it with relatively little cost associated with us at the end.”

– Stanford President John Hennessey, Stanford Daily, October 30, 2012.

But skeptics say the virtues of MOOCs also are emerging as vices.

“Two words are wrong in ‘MOOC’: massive and open,” Stanford President John Hennessy said in a widely noted interview with the Financial Times.

– Meghan Drake, “Old School rules! Wisdom of massive open online courses now in doubt,” Washington Times, February 9, 2014.

What’s gotten into John Hennessey? Doesn’t he want to educate the people of sub-Saharan Africa anymore? More importantly, how does the leader of the school mostly responsible for pushing MOOC mania on all of us get off being depicted in any major publication as a MOOC skeptic?

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows and the wind has not been blowing in the direction of MOOCs for some months now. Anti-MOOC really is the new black. That’s why all the alleged “MOOC skeptics” that the Washington Times has interviewed want to mend MOOCs not end them. The MOOC don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles, they’re essentially telling us. When we put the handles back on, everything will be right with the tsunami again.

Of course, putting the handles back on will take more time and more money. To get both, the MOOC Messiah Squad had to adopt a new tone. While it was once hip to claim that the world of higher education was about to change forever, it’s now hip to claim the exact opposite. Consider Dartmouth:

Dartmouth College recently announced a partnership with edX. Joshua Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, said the college is starting to add MOOC courses slowly because it “very consciously did not want to jump on the bandwagon.”

Dartmouth will add four MOOCs in the next couple of semesters, Mr. Kim said, but they will not be substitutes for and will not change regular Dartmouth courses.

“The promise of MOOCs has been overpromised,” he said.

MOOCs have been overhyped. Therefore, Kim tells us, Dartmouth’s MOOCs will be hyped just right:

“Lifelong learners will be able to take part in a Dartmouth course, but they will not receive a Dartmouth education,” he said.

Don’t call it a Dartmouth education, then nobody will get confused and everything will be OK.

You can see the same futile obsession with superficial labeling issues in Coursera’s History and Future of Higher Ed MOOC, which I’m not taking, but have been following in blogland. Here’s Tamson Pietsch and Melonie Fullick describing the assumptions behind that course:

In the framing of the course higher education is cast as something whose features ‘were designed specifically to prepare workers and leaders of the Industrial Age’ – the Fordist era of the Model T. But since public access to the internet was made available in 1993 (on April 22 to be precise) everything – so we learn – about ‘our lives, our work, our occupations, our culture and our entertainments’ has changed. Our education, it is suggested, needs to catch up.

They beat that assumption senseless in the next few paragraphs, but I couldn’t even get that far. Before I ever got there I couldn’t help but wonder how a course devoted to ending educational Fordism could assume the most educationally Fordist structure possible; namely, an xMOOC. Teach one thing. Do another. Perhaps Cathy Davidson wants higher education to evolve beyond MOOCs someday. Sadly, if you carry the hierarchical, every-student-for-themselves assumptions inherent in an xMOOC into the future you will never escape the reasons why so many caring educators oppose MOOCs in the first place.

Let’s try to make this perfectly clear to the people who are sick of the MOOC bandwagon and want to hop on the anti-MOOC bandwagon instead: The problem with MOOCs isn’t the name. Its not even the components of that acronym. The problem with MOOCs is that they’re being designed to create low-quality, hierarchical courses that can be championed by unscrupulous administrators to fire caring professors and leave unsuspecting students to fend entirely for themselves. In short, it’s not the quantity (of students), it’s the quality that’s the problem.

Cosmetic changes will not solve these problems. Only re-thinking the entire xMOOC experience from the ground up will have even the slightest chance of creating something worthwhile. Unfortunately for the get-rich-quick edtech entrepreneur crowd out there, this is unlikely to be all that revolutionary or all that profitable. This, unfortunately, will do nothing to stop them from trying to disrupt the rest of us anyway.

Let it be.

7 10 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

“Video killed the radio star.”

29 07 2013

As you might imagine, I’ve been reading a lot of insufferable technological determinism aimed in my direction ever since that Slate article came out. Of course, there’s been, “How dare you resist progress?” and “Don’t you understand business history?,” or, my favorite…well, let’s just say it gets even worse from there. Since I only title blog posts in order to amuse Ian Petrie now, I’ve decided to call the belief system that motivates these kinds of arguments, “The Buggles Theory of the History of Technology.”

Under this system, progress marches on from one technology to another (like video killing the radio star), always getting better. Under this system, the people who lose out need to just stand aside and accept their obsolescence without making a peep since the dead are silent. No mention of political decisions (like chronically underfunding higher education) or power structures (cough…contingent faculty…cough) or even the actual history of technology will be tolerated! And God forbid you mention the self-interest of your own profession, because that will invalidate your argument immediately since it proves that you’re biased.

Of course, MTV no longer plays any videos anymore, but that just proves their point doesn’t it? After all, if the people want “Teen Wolf” or “Buckwild” or reruns of “Jersey Shore,” then the history of MTV proves that capitalism works. After all, I can still watch any video I want on YouTube (such as “Video Killed the Radio Star”) whenever I want to see it. I can even embed it in a blog post. Therefore, the people have spoken!

That’s all well and good, but how do we know that students actually want MOOCs? Sure, tens of thousands of people will sign up to access MOOCs for free, but what evidence do we have that anybody, especially college-age students, will actually pay for them? I’ve covered potential problems with the MOOC business model in this post. What I want to do here is expand on what was point #3 there: Whether paying college students will be willing to put up with being treated like faces in the crowd.

In just the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot more evidence that they won’t. For instance, here’s Rob Jenkins writing in the Chronicle:

It’s true that during the past decade, the number of students enrolled in online courses grew at a significant rate. But according to a recent study, that growth started leveling off in the fall of 2010, when about 31 percent of all postsecondary students were taking at least one online class. Researchers concluded that “the slower rate of growth … compared to previous years may be the first sign that the upward rise in online enrollments is approaching a plateau.”

Moreover, a survey conducted this year by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University found that students at two-year campuses, in particular, prefer face-to-face over online instruction, especially for courses they deem difficult.

So while some students want, need, and benefit from online classes, the argument that students in general are clamoring for them doesn’t exactly hold up.

This is just for online courses, the ones in which students can actually be treated as individuals. Student attitudes towards MOOCs inevitably have to be worse since they aren’t treated as individuals at all. [Don’t worry, MOOC Messiah Squad, you can always just hold your hands over your ears and chant “access” until all the bad news goes away.]

Then there’s what happened in my own state. My friend, fellow cog in the CSU system machine and future debate partner Historiann reminds of this in her most recent post on MOOC Madness. Here she quotes an absolutely appalling op-ed from the Washington Post:

What about that experiment to offer dramatically reduced tuition for MOOCwork courses at Baa Ram U.? It’s even more hilarious than you can guess [Historiann’s emphasis]:

Colorado State’s Global Campus advertised last year that it would give credit to enrolled students who passed a MOOC in computer science. This would cost students $89 instead of the $1,050 for a comparable course. There were no takers. Seven additional institutions are set to make similar offerings in the coming year. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, they expect only hundreds, not thousands, of takers.

But why are prospective students so reluctant to jump on the MOOC bandwagon when 10% of them stand to learn so much? Why is it only a few tenured edupreneurs at prestigious universities who are pushing MOOCs by reassuring us that they’re inevitable “for good or ill?” But why? Santy Claus, why? Why are you taking our Christmas tree? Why? Even the not-very-intelligent commenters at the Washington Post have called bull$hit on this advertorial: my favorite is the one that says “Yeah, and blow up dolls are a good substitute for a wife…”

I still think this is more an indictment of online education in general than MOOCs in particular, but students aren’t stupid. That’s why I wonder how much market research any of these schools are doing. What if “hundreds” turns out to be “a handful?” Where will that leave the Buggles Theory of the History of Technology?

Unfortunately, there’s one way that the Buggles Theory of the History of Technology can be rescued from the dustbin of horrible edtech punditry: Make sure that most students have no other option but MOOCs, and the people running the show can still make money even if many students do forego college in droves. However, that doesn’t have to happen.

It’s still early yet in the process of MOOC-ification. We can still rewind. We haven’t gone too far. Those of us who haven’t given themselves over to the Cult of MOOCs simply have to make sure that anti-MOOC remains the new black until the providers all come crashing down courtesy of their non-existent business plans. Cathy Davidson is right. If all the MOOCs went away tomorrow, higher ed would still be in a world of hurt, but at least those problems couldn’t get much, much worse much, much faster than anybody imagined before MOOC Mania began.

In which higher education eats everything (including itself).

15 07 2013


I have another stop on the “Down With MOOCs” World Tour on Wednesday. Thanks to my friend Dean Saitta, I got invited to address the University of Denver’s Strategic Issues Panel on the Future of Higher Education. If you’re up in the capitol city of our fair state this Wednesday the 17th (two days from now), I’m speaking at 10:50AM in the Anderson Academic Commons.

What do I know about the future of higher education? After all, I’m the “Down With MOOCs” guy, not the future of higher education guy. Actually, MOOCs can tell us a lot about the future of higher education. Most notably, to elaborate on a point I made last week, why is anybody worrying themselves to death about access to higher education in the rest of the world when we can’t take care of the students we have now?:

[O]nly a bit more than half of all US students enrolled in four-year colleges and universities complete their degrees within six years, and only 29% who start two year degrees finish them within three years. America is last in graduation rate among 18 countries assessed in 2010 by the OECD. Things used to be better; in the late 1960s, nearly half of all college students got done in four years.

Of course, everyone who takes out student loans to go to college still has to pay them back whether they get a degree or not. However, the schools getting their money don’t really care as long as they have more students to replace them. MOOCs offer the tantalizing prospect of an unlimited supply of students to suck up.

Unfortunately, like that vacuum beast from the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine movie, eventually there will be nothing to left for higher education to suck up except for itself. Indeed, as Michael Carley writes, that process may actually have started already:

The mooc is the end (?) of the process of turning universities into the educational equivalent of vanity publishers: your name on a colourful document of little substance. For now, human contact, with academics, non-academics, other students, and students of other disciplines, is keeping universities in the apostolic succession from Plato’s focus groups. The danger of the mooc is not that it will destroy higher education, but that it will reveal the destruction that is already happening, and take us to a point of no return, where universities will quite openly offer nothing but a brand to be stamped on graduates, who are paying good money for shoddy goods, neither a head start in employment, nor intellectual enrichment.

Grow your way out is not a smart strategy for survival in our troubled economy. You can have the best university in the world, but nobody will attend it if they can’t afford to go there or have few job prospects should they actually graduate.

Aside from the obvious moral problems with treating your less successful existing students like (to borrow a phrase from Bousquet) an academic waste product, this becomes much harder to do when the largest, most successful schools in the country are literally treating your already cash-strapped students as a new revenue stream. Perhaps, as more and more schools go belly up irrespective of MOOC madness, the people running the precarious ones that are left will be smart enough to treat their campuses as vulture-free zones.

Mean Mr. Market.

12 11 2012

Why does everyone seem to think I’m anti-capitalist these days? Robert Bromber made that assumption last week. So did Jeremy on Friday. Believe it or not, I am not a socialist (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And for the 600th time, I’m not a Luddite either.* I simply think there are some places where market forces should not reign supreme and one of those places is higher education.

The problem with unregulated capitalism is that the people who benefit from it simply don’t know when enough is enough. Here’s Nicolaus Mills in Dissent:

Running a corporatized college or university is not easy. The professor who takes time out from teaching and research to devote him- or herself to administration for a few years increasingly is an anachronism. A new, permanent administrative class now dominates higher education. At the top are the college and university presidents who earn a million dollars or more a year and serve on numerous corporate boards (Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, earned a reported $1.38 million in a single year from her multiple directorships). Thirty-six private college and university presidents, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, fall into the million-dollars-a-year category, and many more are close behind.

Seriously, what makes Gordon Gee worth $2.14 million dollars/year? I know Ohio State is a big place. I’ll buy $500,000 or maybe even a million, but $2.14 million? Think of the faculty half that sum could pay for! Think of the tech they could buy!

Students aren’t the only ones paying for salaries like that or the less-bloated salaries of lower profile unnecessary administrators. Faculty are too. Here’s Mills again:

[W]hen colleges and universities think of economizing, their target is all too often those who are already their most vulnerable employees—part-time faculty and service workers. The administrators who run our leading colleges and universities are unwilling, the record shows, to downsize themselves. In the 1970s, 67 percent of faculty were tenured or on a tenure track. Today that figure is down to 30 percent, and for those who run higher education such a low number is ideal. Whether they are adjuncts or teaching assistants (TAs), those without the claim to permanent jobs cost less and are easy to get rid of in a period of contraction.

This isn’t news to people who pay attention to higher education labor issues. However, I don’t think most people understand that outsourcing a campus’ technological endeavors to private companies has the same effect. As my friend Jonathan Poritz has suggested, why do we need Facebook Blackboard when there’s plenty of free LMSs out there that campuses can run with minimal costs for continuing support?

Similarly, why does the University of Michigan have to hire Coursera to run its MOOCs when there are plenty of people on that campus who could set up systems designed to benefit the faculty there? Instead, they agreed to a contract where the company’s sources of revenue hasn’t even been identified yet! In the meantime, the governor there cut enough money from the budget in 2011 to spark protests and I doubt the Coursera revenue will make up for that loss anytime soon.

I’m not asking for a lot on behalf of faculty – A living wage, some job stability, at least some control over higher education’s technological future. As a trade unionist, I believe that labor and management can sit down together and work out their differences in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. However, once you invite Mean Mr. Market to your party and give him the freedom to trash the place, it’s going to be really hard to ever get him to leave.

* Pretty soon I’ll be blogging about the new internet-based, professor-centered pedagogical venture that I’ll be editing, as soon as my publisher is ready to go public.

Out of grad school, money spent. See no future, pay no rent.

16 05 2012

I blame Phil Hill for getting me to read this rant by Mark Cuban:

Its far too easy to borrow money for college. Did you know that there is more outstanding debt for student loans than there is for Auto Loans or Credit Card loans ? Thats right. The 37mm holders of student loans have more debt than the 175mm or so credit card owners in this country and more than the all of the debt on cars in this country. While the average student loan debt is about 23k. The median is close to $12,500. And growing. Past 1 TRILLION DOLLARS.

We freak out about the Trillions of dollars in debt our country faces. What about the TRILLION DOLLARs plus in debt college kids are facing ?

The point of the numbers is that getting a student loan is easy. Too easy.

That’s, of course, easy for him to say. He doesn’t need a student loan anymore. The effect of tightening those loans wouldn’t just be catastrophic for American universities. It would cut off all hopes of upward mobility for tens of thousands of young people in this country.

Worse yet, aside from loan money going to for-profit no-diploma mills, it wouldn’t be warranted. Graduating in debt with poor job prospects is obviously a risk. If you don’t believe that, then look at the results of this survey coming out of Rutgers. Yet for most college graduates, that risk will still pay off over the course of a lifetime.

However, I defy you to say the same thing about getting a Ph.D. in the humanities. As I’ve explained elsewhere, about 75% of academic jobs are now part-time workers on limited-term contracts. There is virtually no private sector for a humanities Ph.D. So do the math. The vast majority of new doctorates will end up as adjuncts (if they get jobs in academia at all) because that’s all that will be available for them. Adjunct wages aren’t worth the considerable investment in time and money that a Ph.D. program requires.

Look for a non-academic job, you say? When you’re done, you might actually be less employable than when you started. [After all, they think you only give them your funny papers.]

Therefore, how can anyone possibly tell anybody that they should pay or (worse yet) borrow money in order to get any graduate degree in the humanities in this environment unless they have 1) a job already (like a secondary school teacher looking for a raise) or 2) a totally different path to employment to fall back upon?

Nowhere to go is no excuse.

“Don’t go for second best, baby.”

10 05 2012

Yeah, I’m really going to blog about Madonna and I’m going to make it relevant too. First, however, let’s start firmly within the usual subject matter for this space. Peter Cohan writes about edX in Forbes:

So if pricing is a market signal, what message is the free edX sending out to consumers and suppliers of higher education? To answer that, it’s worth pointing out that there are many reasons that people apply to these top colleges – and among those reasons, free edX sends a signal that knowledge of an academic subject is nowhere near the top of the list of what is important to parents who are making the tuition payments.

“That’s not true!,” I can here you say, very defensively. Price does not signal the value of a college education! The real value of a college education is in the intangibles and you can never get those without personal interaction. I happen to agree with you on all of that. The problem though is that that may very well not matter.

The New Yorker has a fawning profile of Harvard’s Clayton Christensen this week. As much as I dislike his attitude toward nearly everything, I still think he’s right about this:

“He realized that, whereas in a regular classroom students could learn only in one way-the way the teacher taught them-online learning offered students who thought differently from their teachers a way to get help. What’s more, recorded lectures and online learning were much cheaper than teachers in a room, so they had the potential both to bring otherwise unavailable courses to underfunded schools and to disrupt not-underfunded schools, like Harvard. Few people at the not-underfunded schools agreed with him-they couldn’t imagine that an online course could ever be as good as the old-fashioned kind. They didn’t realize that a low-end product didn’t need to be as good as a high-end one to drive it out of a market.

[emphasis added]

It’s the same reason that students flock to for-profits. They do so not out of desire, but out of necessity as they have no viable alternatives. Online advocates tell you essentially, “If we build it they will come,” but then fail to mention that the main reason they’re coming is that poor public funding has priced even students from the middle class out of the market for the face-to-face alternatives.

Which brings me back to Madonna. Yesterday, I found a 1990 interview with Madonna on Nightline which I remembered from back in the day. Last night, it disappeared from YouTube because the user had closed their account. So you’ll have to trust my transcript of her defending the “Express Yourself” video at the top of this post:

“I chained myself though, OK? There wasn’t a man who put that chain on me. I chained myself. I was chained to my desires.”

It’s all about agency, people. Give students a real choice and there’s no way they’ll pick an inferior product. Destroy higher education through systematic under-funding and what students actually desire won’t matter. In that case, it should also go without saying that what professors desire won’t matter either.

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