“I am unable to comprehend the changes that are taking place in higher education.”

24 06 2014

Wanna know why I’m luckier than you are? I’ve read John Kuhlman’s letters from his students and you almost certainly have not. Radiolab, Starbucks and a ninety-one-year-old retired economics professor are in my latest for Chronicle Vitae.

I wonder if this one is going to get me hate mail.

15 01 2014

My latest post for Chronicle Vitae is called “Do You Really Want to Use a Commercial Learning-Management System?” As there’s something of a backlog at Vitae, I wrote this weeks and weeks ago. Major geeks can probably guess the part I added after that MOOC conference in Texas. Reading it all again, I remain really happy with it.


An easy week of blogging for me.

30 09 2013

In theory, I should be able to do nothing but link to pieces that I’ve already written as they get published – like this bit of refrigeration blogging at the Historical Society’s place. I think I’d like to say something about Chronicle Vitae in this space when it finally exits Beta, which should be very soon. I also have a MOOC post in my head that I’ll write up if I get the time. However, it’s likely that you’ll mostly just be seeing links here for at least a while.

“The MOOC Racket”

25 07 2013

Right after I published this post, the nice people at Slate e-mail and asked me to rework it for a general audience. You can read the results here. I needed to include a lot of exposition, so it’s more like a reworking of everything I’ve written this summer. Nevertheless, regular readers will at least find a few new laugh lines.

If you happen to be visiting here from Slate, welcome and feel free to look around. Some of my favorites MOOC posts at MOLB include this, this, this and this.

Bang your head (Peer grading edition).

10 03 2013

While most people here and elsewhere seem to have appreciated my essay about the futility of peer grading from Inside Higher Ed last week, I have seen enough serious critiques that I want to defend myself here.  While I certainly understand why any superprofessor would want to teach the best MOOCs they can teach, I nonetheless offer what follows as a reality check.

Debbie Morrison, who is open-minded enough to read this blog even though it might well be the polar opposite of hers, rebuts my argument by citing research which suggests the circumstances under which peer grading can be effective:

1) When learners are at a similar skill level.

2) When assignments are low stakes [i.e. when a course is taken for professional development of personal interest…]

3) Where credit is not granted

4) When learners are mature, self-directed and motivated.

5) When learners have experience in learning and navigating within a networked setting [if the review is completed in an open and online setting.]

6) Learners have a developed set of communication skills.

The breakdown in peer grading occurs when the learning environment cannot provide the conditions as mentioned above.

Now that’s all well and good, but the sheer massiveness of a MOOC combined with Coursera’s obligation towards its investors to eventually turn a profit pretty much assures that every single one of those conditions will be violated at one point or another.  More importantly, the rich university administrations that produce course content as well as the poor university administrations that long to replace their faculty with videotaped superprofessors and poorly-paid teaching assistants have every incentive in the world to break every one of those conditions too.

The other critique I particularly appreciated appeared very late in the week at the bottom of the comments to my original article.  Its author signed in as “EnglishTeacher,” and went through the same peer grading process I did as a student in Jeremy Adelman’s course.  They write:

“No one has ever claimed that MOOCs do, can or should replace the full learning experience available to those fortunate enough to be able to be in an engaged on-campus classroom.  And no one has ever claimed that students can take the place of humanities professors.”

Actually, Daphne Koller of Coursera just claimed that students can do a BETTER job at grading essays than humanities professors about a week and a half ago.  With respect to taking over the rest of any particular professor’s job, if the superprofessor provides all the content and student peers do all the grading, what exactly is left?  Not bloody much.  Yes, we can go from desk to desk like my high school math teacher used to do while we worked through our algebra problems, but what kind of wage is that going to get us (particularly as most professors don’t have union representation like so many secondary school teachers do)?

I admire everyone who wants to experiment with new technology to make higher education better for their students.  I really do.  Unfortunately, while those people bang their heads against a wall as part of a futile quest to build a better mousetrap than the one we already have, the powers that be will still be doing their best to make us all technologically unemployed whether robots can do our jobs any better or not.

In the end, the value of peer grading comes down this:  Who can do a better job at grading students essays, peers or professors?  If the answer is “peers,” then why do professors exist at all?*  If the answer is “professors,” then why are so many people wasting their time trying to figure out a way to make the wrong answer right?  As David Golumbia has explained:

MOOCs are being deployed specifically as part of an economic argument whose consequences for liberal arts education are designed to be explosive: they are designed to make liberal arts education emerge as too expensive for us to afford.

Peer grading, like the MOOCs it facilitates, is designed to make the unacceptable acceptable.  It is a strategy created to fit the contours of permanent austerity rather than for the benefit of our students.  So while I agree that pigs look better with lipstick on them, that doesn’t mean the pig becomes any less porcine.

Should anyone choose to keep banging away at the peer grading problem anyway then be my guest.  Just remember that you have been warned, not just about your prospects for ultimate success, but also of the larger political context in which that banging must inevitably occur.

* By the way, I expect the resignation letters of all humanities professors who answer this way to be tendered as soon as they have time to pack up their offices.

Back in the good old days when I was still on sabbatical.

5 03 2013

I wrote this piece on the utter futility of peer grading in today’s IHE back in the good old days when I was still on sabbatical. Had I written it now, I might have cited this quote or this quote or maybe Anne Corner’s comments at that second link in order to help me make my case. Nonetheless, I’m really happy to be able to do my part to keep the MOOC backlash fires stoked.

One of us.

22 10 2012

I have a post up about the late George McGovern’s historical career over at the blog of the Historical Society.

Two things I wrote last week, appearing elsewhere.

13 08 2012

This is the week I head up north to drop my daughter off at college, so you’ll see nothing from me here for a while. However, you can read two things I wrote last week. The first is a post for the Academe Blog (where I’m now a contributor) about Cathy Davidson’s latest book. The second is a long post about teaching the survey class without a textbook, which I wrote for the Historical Society.

In which my words appear elsewhere.

21 05 2012

This one is probably only of interest to historians.

Also, while I was working in the New York Public Library on Friday, I got e-mail interviewed by a reporter from Inside Higher Education on the subject of MOOCs and faculty rights. I don’t see that story this morning, but if it shows up with me in it before I get a chance to see it please tell me that I don’t sound like a crank.

Two Monty Python jokes.

21 02 2011

That’s the best part of my post for this President’s Day, which is not located at this blog. It’s at the Historical Society blog – a far, far better blog than this one (and without the snarky angry attitude you get from my labor posts).

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