MOOCs and the promise of universal higher education.

29 05 2014

I’ve been writing about MOOCs for so long now, that I’ve grown terribly afraid that I might repeat myself. On second thought, I shouldn’t worry too much because at least some members of the MOOC Messiah Squad are still partying like it’s 2012. This piece in IHE is fairly innocuous propaganda in the great scheme of things, but there’s a reason it really bothers me (and it’s not just that the class in question is a history MOOC). [Dedicated MOOC obsessives like myself should now go read the link, guess what I’m talking about here and come back.]

Here it goes: In all those numbers, did you see a denominator anywhere? In other words, we know in great detail now how many students in History 229X did what, but how many of them didn’t do what they were supposed to do? How many of them failed (voluntarily or otherwise)? There’s a hint in the piece:

Some critics of MOOCs have pointed to the fact that only a small percentage of those who register for MOOCs routinely “finish” classes. Students in MOOCs can engage in such courses in a variety of ways, but it is true that about 6% of the students who registered for my class completed the final exam.

Thanks to Mark Cheathem, who did the math for me, I know that means about 19,500 students started in the class, which means an “astonishing” 18,000+ students did not complete the course! If my classes had dropout rates like that I’d never have gotten tenure.

Of course, those of us who even bother to read the MOOC literature anymore have seen this kind of dispute pop up countless times. The superprofessor who authored this piece, Guy M. Rogers of Wellesley, is therefore well prepared for my line of argument:

But the total of 1162 students taking the final exam in this one course is more students than I have taught at Wellesley College over the past ten years. Even more incredibly 554 got perfect scores on the final. Overall, 1039 earned a passing grade in the course and received a certificate. Out of those, 760 finished with 90 points or above on all the exams and exercises and thus became members of our course Honor Roll.

OK, I’ll admit it: MOOCs can teach smart, self-motivated people with an internet connection and lost of time on their hands (like retired physics professors, for example) lots of content knowledge, but how are they going to reach everybody else?

That question takes me back to the infamous Daphne Koller TED talk. This part is from the very beginning (so even you folks who couldn’t stomach it all the way to the end might remember it):

In some parts of the world, for example, South Africa, education is just not readily accessible. In South Africa, the educational system was constructed in the days of apartheid for the white minority. And as a consequence, today there is just not enough spots for the many more people who want and deserve a high quality education. That scarcity led to a crisis in January of this year at the University of Johannesburg. There were a handful of positions left open from the standard admissions process, and the night before they were supposed to open that for registration, thousands of people lined up outside the gate in a line a mile long, hoping to be first in line to get one of those positions. When the gates opened, there was a stampede, and 20 people were injured and one woman died. She was a mother who gave her life trying to get her son a chance at a better life.

I happen to find that story offensive. Of course, this was the whole point of that Campaign for the Future of Higher Education video: Coursera is not really trying to save anybody’s life. They’re trying to make money. Bringing higher education to the developing world is just an accident of Coursera’s nonexistent business plan.

But don’t miss what else is going on here. Koller, and by extension the rest of the MOOC Messiah Squad, are performing a huge intellectual switcheroo by making arguments like this one. They’re replacing the promise of universal higher education with the promise of universal ACCESS to higher education. We’ll let you listen to our superprofessors for free, she is essentially saying, but you have to do the hard work of obtaining an actual education all by yourself.

It doesn’t take a practicing teacher to tell you that most people in the world aren’t as gifted as Benjamin Franklin was. Most students need dedicated, trained instructors to help them learn the skills that higher education can provide, and when they don’t get that help they drop out of their MOOCs in droves. For all the bragging superprofessors like Guy M. Rogers offer up about the sheer numbers of students that pass, they are always leaving far more people behind, thereby making a sick joke out of the promise of universal education. In fact, it’s we supposed Luddites who care much more about making higher education effective than the MOOC Messiah Squad does, who’d rather just focus on the people they educated who probably have an education already.

Shouldn’t the alleged liberals amongst the superprofessoriate be able see this instantly or have their egos blinded them to reality? The whole theoretical framework behind this kind of argument is just so…so…so…Republican that it makes me want to cry.


The MOOC/Online Education Industrial Complex.

14 05 2014

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”

– Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Farewell Address,” 1961.

The other night, Audrey Watters and Kate Bowles were picking apart a new Sebastian Thrun interview on Twitter. While such activities are indeed highly amusing, I’ve been busy writing about refrigerators these last few days so I figured I would just let it go. But then Audrey linked to the job description of a Udacity Course Manager. Here’s my favorite part:

“A Course Manager is a teacher, mentor, and technical reviewer in one. You should take pride in ensuring that your students receive the best possible learning experience by motivating and working with them 1-on-1, mentoring them as they develop their portfolio, reviewing course materials, and giving insightful feedback to the Course Development Team.”

“Where I come from,” I tweeted, “they call course managers “professors.” But when I went back and looked at the ad again I noticed that no specific content knowledge is required to be a Udacity course manager at all.

Does anybody else see a problem with this?

Udacity, Post-Pivot:

If you’ve been paying attention to MOOCs for some length of time, you undoubtedly remember the infamous Sebastian Thrun Fast Company interview in which he basically called all of his company’s courses crap. It even gave birth to its own hashtag, #thrunpivot. In this new interview, he doubles down on that proposition:

The MOOC that we created at Udacity was our first attempt to democratize education and we learned from it. Like everyone, we made mistakes. We learned we can drastically boost learning outcomes by adding a service layer around MOOCs. It has a huge impact on completion rates and learning outcomes. Many people in the industry would say, ‘We told you so.’

What, pray tell, is a “service layer?” Living breathing human beings who will help guide students through the corridors of knowledge:

At the very beginning you do a Google Hangout and someone from Udacity talks to you. It’s our internal fleet of mentors [who provide coaching through the class]. When we make a class, we have a very different model from a classic MOOC. The team trains mentors specifically for the one class.

I was so troubled by our [former] completion rates. When I called a MOOC a lousy product I wasn’t kidding. [With this new model] we have literally gotten a [course] completion rate of 60 percent.

It would be interesting to know what the difference is between a course manager and a mentor. I’m guessing the course manager serves as the mentors’ boss. Yet some of those course managers are actually part time. Either way, if “the team trains specifically for one class,” who teaches the team? Certainly it can’t be the superprofessor, right? They’re too busy preparing the lectures and otherwise serving humanity. Do they just watch the same videos that everybody else does before they get released to the class?

No matter what, this whole set up is most decidedly not automated education. It’s cheap. It’s online. But it’s not automated. People who need to be trained require money for their labor and the source of that money has to be the students. That’s why Thrun says:

If you’re affluent, we can do a much better job with you, we can make magic happen.

Pardon me while I go vomit.

The New Profitable Non-Profit Model:

While it would be really interesting to contrast Thrun’s new model with a new Boston Globe article in which Clayton Christensen (and a co-author) restate his now very old ideas, I’d rather compare it to another article you may have seen, this one about the University of Southern New Hampshire because I think there’s very little daylight between this and the new Udacity. And Jesus, if this story doesn’t give the average college professor the chills, I don’t know what will:

Delilah Caldwell, a philosophy instructor at Southern New Hampshire University, may well represent the future of higher education’s teaching force.

As one of the first full-time faculty members at Southern New Hampshire’s online college, Ms. Caldwell taught 20 online courses last year: four at a time for five terms, each eight weeks long. The textbooks and syllabi were provided by the university; Ms. Caldwell’s job was to teach. She was told to grade and give feedback on all student work in 72 hours or less.

First of all, this:

Second of all, the 72 hours or less is my favorite part. Suppose you actually want to have a life AND write half-decent comments on your students’ papers. What do you do then? Stupid me, who’s actually going to be dumb enough to assign papers if they’re facing a 72 hour turnaround time on all student-submitted work?

Yes, the academic assembly line workers at the University of Southern New Hampshire get paid relatively well (compared to adjuncts), but I bet the course managers at Udacity do too. The problems here go well beyond that in both cases. No academic freedom. No research. Very little control over your own class. [In the case of MOOCs that goes for both the mentors and to some extent the superprofessor too.] These things aren’t just important to the faculty involved. They’re vitally important to the quality of the course. Happy, knowledgable teachers teach better than peons on an academic assembly line.

Technological enthusiasts may be asking me right now, “Where’s your study on this?” I don’t have one. Neither do the MOOC people. As a recent study I saw via George Siemens has suggested:

To date, there has been little evidence collected that would allow an assessment of whether MOOCs do indeed provide a cost-effective mechanism for producing desirable educational outcomes at scale.

Gee, you’d think somebody would actually bother to study that BEFORE they decided to disrupt higher education. So why do such courses exist then? Are faculty so desperate to be superprofessors that they’re willing to act now and ask questions later? Are students simply pining for them? What if disrupting higher education isn’t such a hot idea after all? I think the reason that both these online facsimiles of real college college courses exist is, to paraphrase Eisenhower, the MOOC/online education – administrative industrial complex.

“Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved”:

The beauty of the Military-Industrial Complex (if such a word is even appropriate for use with such an awful thing) was that all that defense spending offered the economic benefits of being on a permanent wartime footing, but only occasionally did anybody have to go out and kill anybody. After the Manhattan Project, all those incredibly expensive nuclear weapons were never used at all.

What made Eisenhower’s warning about the Military-Industrial Complex so powerful was that here was a guy who knew. The great regret of his presidency was that he hadn’t done enough to stop this reckless spending, and his warning was supposed to help prevent that spending from continuing too far into the future. But the forces that stood to gain the most from that spending, generals and defense contractors, thrust it upon a willing America anyway because it was in their interests, if not the interests of America at large.

I’m beginning to think that administrators and edtech providers of all stripes, MOOCs or otherwise, have an evil tacit bargain all their own. Move college online, the deal goes, not because it will do anything in particular for education, but because it will help backfill all the government funding you’ve been losing over the last few decades. As an added benefit, it will certainly help you cut labor costs as your formally highly-paid, influential teachers can be replaced by an online army of the under-employed, or worse yet, robots.

Meanwhile this revolution is being sold to students for reasons of cost and convenience. As an added benefit, administrators and their private sector clients can make it seem as if such courses will help make college more effective at solving the structural inequalities inherent in our modern economy than they really are. Here’s Christensen and co-author on precisely that point:

Education technology companies and alternative learning providers — not just MOOCs — are finding disruptive footholds by targeting these non-consumers. They note that graduates from even well regarded colleges are struggling to launch their careers, make it into the workforce, or transition between jobs. Innovators are, therefore, beginning to address this widening gap by identifying what employers need and building those skill sets into their curricula.

Why not just sell the college to Subway so that they can turn it into a sandwich university and just get it over with?

Yet if the MOOC you’re taking sucks, why would it make a difference if you’re learning the exact skills that employers want or not? After all, you wouldn’t be learning them particularly well. Even if the MOOC you’re taking didn’t suck, the fact that so many people can learn those skills at the same time will only drive down the wages that graduates would earn for having them. If those skills are best practiced online, our students would then be facing the same kind of job market that new Ph.D.s are, and that’s not good news for anybody.

In short, why would anybody pay to have “magic happen” if they’re never going to get a chance to make a decent living using the skills they learn? If there aren’t any journalists willing to ask Thrun that question, maybe his investors should.

A libertarian commune is a contradiction in terms.

13 01 2014

Like so many things these days, I first heard of Black Mountain SOLE on Twitter. My tweeps were debating whether or not it was a hoax. It is not a hoax. Repeat: It is not a hoax. SOLE stands for “self-organized learning environment,” which includes, as its founders describe it, every education reform buzzword wrapped up into one:

We saw not only serious flaws in the current system but also tremendous opportunity. We’re joining the revolution – alongside new paradigms like DIY education and unschooling, new technology and content like MOOCs, and new blended learning programs – to offer a new education pathway.

And while Black Mountain SOLE is apparently a 501(c)(3), it is hardly free.

I had no reliable confirmation that Black Mountain SOLE actually existed until an article about it appeared in the New Republic shortly before Christmas. You should be able to see my interest immediately from just this exxcerpt:

At Black Mountain, much hangs on this brand of team-building exercise, because community is the program’s chief selling point. The other selling point is, basically, access to the Internet. It’s both an offshoot and an indicator of the recent boom in online education, especially the rapid growth of MOOCs, which have made lecture courses from a wide range of universities available for free online. Though traditional colleges are increasingly rounding out their curricula with online courses, Black Mountain claims to be the first experiment in assembling an entire campus around MOOCs.

Alas, it seems, things weren’t really going well at the cutting edge of the revolution. Read the whole article to learn about all the problems, but this was by far my favorite part:

Accordingly, most of the SOLEmates are more interested in crafting a business proposal than in pursuing some version of a liberal arts curriculum—barely any are taking MOOCs. Tara Byrne, an 18-year-old who told me about a business plan to monetize YouTube, explained, “I’m currently in social psychology on Coursera”—one of the leading MOOC platforms—“so that I can actually use it in day-to-day life. I won’t pick up a MOOC unless I know that I’m going to be using it. It makes me more picky … because I could be making money” by working on her business ideas instead.

So here we have some of the most self-motivated young people in the world, living in what is in essence a commune in North Carolina trying to educate themselves, and the MOOCs that this community were supposed to be organized around have already fallen by the wayside.

Do you see a problem here?


One of the strange rabbit holes my obsession with MOOCs has brought me down is the strange relationship between the counterculture of the 1960s and modern-day Silicon Valley. How, to put it as crudely as possible, did a group of well-meaning stoners gradually evolve into the libertarian technological utopians of today? I’ve read Markhoff and I’ve read Turner now and I’ve read Morozov on the subject, yet this relationship still kind of eludes me.

That’s why I have to fall back on the history of the Sixties that I tend to teach in my U.S. survey class here. Imagine that the Sixties Left falls into two factions: the political Left and the cultural Left. Some of the political left wrote the Port Huron Statement. Some of it went “Clean for Gene.” The cultural left, on the other hand, tuned in, turned on and dropped out. These are the people who not only freaked out their parents, they freaked out America. If you don’t believe me, watch this:

But apparently a few of these cultural leftists had real political aspirations, at least in the broader sense of that word.

Fred Turner points to a group that he calls the “New Communalists,” cultural Leftists who expressed their politics through a number of different experiments in communal living that tended to be short lived, as most utopian experiments tend to be. The jump that Turner makes, which just seems impossible for me to describe, is from living in a commune somewhere near Taos or Trinidad, to participating in a community online. If we couldn’t save the world by example, those people essentially said, then we’ll bring everybody together online to do the same kind of reorganization there.

That effort started with The Well, and has only grown bigger in the last twenty odd years. Unfortunately, thanks to companies like Facebook, these newer, bigger efforts have been highly commercialized. Can you serve the interests of your members and still make money? Let’s just say that I quit Facebook as soon as I realized that they’d be using my image to sell crap to my friends. If you’re still on Facebook and you’re over age 16, you’re essentially working against their efforts to monetize your good name, not with them.


Read that description of Black Mountain SOLE in the New Republic and you can really see how what came around then has come around again with a vengeance. This time, however, the politics are a lot more self-interested than they were back in the day:

From the first, Dobias envisioned Black Mountain as a haven for young entrepreneurs like himself, and to the extent there are guiding structures in place, that’s the group they serve. Dobias and Hanna share their experience in business; Cleary worked in PR; Adams can teach programming. When they hold workshops, the topics are “how to build a landing page” (Adams) and “how to woo a mentor” (Dobias) and “how to write a press release” (Cleary, who resigned from the operations team in November but is still a “coach” at the SOLE). When I asked Dobias about this, he was firm that he and the staff “don’t want this to be just a business incubator. What makes this place awesome is the exchange of all these different groups mixing together.”

I bet the “Meditation room with backjacks and cushions,” the outdoor swimming pool and the 18-hole disc golf course are lovely, but they’re not exactly conducive to collaboration, let alone learning. Live communally, make a million? It doesn’t hold water. No wonder the whole thing is falling apart already.

Learning, like teaching, is actually a lot harder than it looks. This post is an oldie but goodie which I first read in the early days of my online learning fixation:

E-books + Youtube Videos + tweets x anywhere= learning. It’s just so simple. Yet flawed. It reminds me of that Forbes blog post,a couple of month ago, where that old white guy talked about how he would get out of poverty if he was black, just read stuff online. Real learning is much more than that.

Trying to make money out that arrangement is even harder than succeeding at your stated goal. Coursera and Udacity are finding that out right about now. Even though they have a larger cash cushion than Black Mountain SOLE, I predict they’ll all end up in the exact same place: bankrupt.


Why do I predict that? All of these experiments in higher education face the same insurmountable problem: Too much customer service. Students don’t want to read books? Coursera won’t assign them. Students don’t want to watch MOOC lectures? Black Mountain SOLE won’t make them. After all, the learning is self-organized, not top-down.

One of the earliest and most famous communes in America was at Brook Farm, where all those Transcendentalists hung out for at least a while. The goals of that community were:

To insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possible, in the same individual; to guarantee the highest mental freedom, by providing all with labor, adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry; so to do away with the necessity of menial services, by opening the benefits of education and the profits of labor to all; and thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions.

Sounds great in theory, but somebody has to do the drudgery, right? That commune went bankrupt after only six years. If your society is as small as one of Fourier’s phalanxes, maybe you can get by without a leader for a while but that will never work in even the smallest classrooms. Education is top-down almost by definition. [I actually have a fondness for problem-based learning but even that works better under the guidance of trained professionals.]

In education, it is exceedingly difficult to farm out the drudgery to anybody. Send your MOOC to every corner of the planet, but if you don’t follow it there your students will not learn as much if you are not there to help them. On the other side of the equation, you will not learn nearly as much if you don’t do the reading than if you do all the assigned reading yourself. Allow students to plan their own classes, and nearly all your classes will be held out on the lawn faster than you can shake a stick. Somebody has to be the authority figure. Somebody has to be around to say, “No.”

Which brings us back to the 1960s. Rebelling against “The Man” is all well and good, but in education it can only get you so far. It used to be that people entered higher education because they actually wanted to learn something. Now too many people enter higher education only because they want a job. If your degree is nothing but a pedigree, then it doesn’t matter whether you actually learned something in college or not. You’ll get that job anyways when you’re done. To my mind, MOOC providers have not only bought into this mentality, their business model actively encourages it because they know that they’ll never be able to have someone watching every student to make sure that they’re actually learning. They just give out certificates to people who can make a claim to having completed a bunch of multiple choice tests.

Professors are, like it or not, authority figures. They are authorities on their given subjects and they are also authorities in their classrooms. Disrupting them may seem like a revolutionary act, but it’s about as helpful for the cause of actual higher education as blowing up the Army Math building in Madison was for ending the war in Vietnam.

Sometimes creative destruction is just destruction, and it’s sad that we all have to re-learn the lessons of the 1960s in order to realize that fact.

This is why nobody is ever going to put me in charge of anything.

26 08 2013

Imagine two companies. The first treats and pays its employees well in the hopes of developing their full potential and making them as productive as possible. The second treats its employees badly, paying them poorly and riding them as hard as possible in the hopes of maximizing production before they quit, at which time those employees can be replaced by other more desperate people. Both these strategies are economically rational. What determines which direction a particular company will take is its culture.

Leaving aside the fact that most universities aren’t companies, which strategy does the current culture of academia suggest? I’d argue (hopefully uncontroversially) that academia has gradually gone from Strategy A to Strategy B over the last few decades. [Hello? Adjuncts?] While Walmart has time clocks and scanners that tell management every item being scanned at every moment,* universities drive their full-time, tenure-track employees with useless bureaucracies created by people with bullshit jobs primarily designed to justify their own wildly-inflated salaries.

What can you do to fight this kind of treatment? “Just say no,” argues Michael DeCesare in a must-read blog post for professors everywhere:

More and more is being demanded of professors. We are told that we must standardize our syllabi and textbook selections; that we must satisfy those aspects of teaching on which the institution was “dinged” by the accrediting body; that we must earn approval from the local institutional review board for any and all research projects, even those that do not involve human subjects; that we must assess virtually everything that we and our students do; and that we must [insert your favorite personal example here]. In short, we must do whatever administrators want us to do.

All of these administrative “musts” come on top of the traditional, truly important job requirements in the areas of instruction, scholarship, and service; namely, teach effectively, present and publish important research, and serve our institution, discipline, and profession. The list of additional “musts,” which seems to be generated annually by administrators, cuts deeply across all three of the traditional areas of faculty responsibility. What eludes most faculty members is that administrators’ requests are often only that—requests. They are rarely “musts.”

It’s not like anything he has to say in that essay is even remotely revolutionary. Indeed, this is the way that industrial relations is supposed to work. Employment, especially academic employment, doesn’t mean you have to kiss your autonomy goodbye.

I actually had the privilege of hearing Michael deliver the paper on which that blog post is based at the last AAUP convention a few months ago. Therefore, I can tell you with certainty that he’s not recommending anarchy. For example, if your administration replaces your department’s 3-page annual review form that takes an hour with a 30-page annual review form that takes a day and a half, just do the old form. The sun will not go dark. The planets will remain in their orbits. Faculty should certainly be accountable for their actions to some degree, but there are limits, and when that limit is surpassed you have to stand up for yourself or you’ll only just encourage them.

You also have to stand up for the interests of your students. “What does this have to do with students?,” you ask. It’s a resource thing, as Chris Newfield explains with respect to the Obama higher ed plan:

Autonomy is cheaper than administration, because you don’t have to pay for a compliance bureaucracy. This is a big deal at universities, whose every interaction with the federal government involves complex reporting on everything from the sports programs to research grants and financial aid. Universities have to pay for this, and they charge students to do it. The Obama plan will only increase these costs, and add to the administrative bloat that is a major source of the cost growth that everyone dislikes.

More bureaucratic costs, of course, mean less resources for actual education.

Since professors are the ones on the front lines of education, we’ll be the ones held to account for our universities’ bureaucratic failures despite our opposition to their creation in the first place. Since we’re in a lose/lose situation anyways, we might as well get used to resisting now. This way, even if we can’t get rid of the entire bureaucracy, we’ll at least have a fighting chance of driving our employers back towards Strategy A before we’re all swept away by a new hurricane of pointless busy work.

* You knew that Walmart is a Big Data pioneer, right?

“Bully!,” says Teddy.

21 08 2013

History blogging from me? “Bully!,” says Teddy. It’s at the blog of the Historical Society, which remains my favorite history blog even when I’m not writing for it.

Oddly enough, I’ve been reading Heather Cox Richardson’s West From Appomattox for like the fourth time in anticipation of teaching it again fresh out of the starting gate in my 1877-1945 class and TR is the most interesting person in that book too.

“I hate Illinois Nazis.”

26 07 2013

Following some excellent advice from Lee Skallerup, I still haven’t read the comments over at my Slate article. However, it’s been impossible to avoid the high-profile attention that it has received from the likes of Matt Yglesias, Megan McCardle and Brad DeLong (who called me “somewhat strange.”) I’m actually OK with all of this.

It’s this piece by Jonathan Chait of New York magazine that’s periodically sent me into fits of giggles ever since I first read it yesterday. Now that I’ve read it again, I’m actually a mixture of depressed and angry. While I expected the hostility I’ve been getting from techies (particularly on Twitter), I never in a million years expected to become part of the horserace narrative of a political journalist:

Jonathan Rees’s polemic in Slate against MOOCs today is an important preview of the coming fight within the Democratic base.

Chait’s hook for this point is the fact that President Obama was speaking about higher education and the economy the day before. I checked all three speeches that Obama made on the economy earlier this week. He didn’t mention MOOCs once. [And no, online education and MOOCs are NOT the same thing. If you think that then you have no business writing about this topic at all.] So much for the coming fight between Obama and his loyal professorial base.

But what’s even funnier than that is the implied notion that my little article is somehow the first salvo from the far left wing of the party against what we perceive to be Illinois Nazism. I hate to break it to you, Jonathan, but I voted for Obama twice. While I happen to think his education policies are far worse than George W. Bush’s, I would vote for him again for one reason: I have multiple interests.

I’m a college professor, but I also have a daughter in college. Therefore, I would be delighted to see the cost of higher education drop. Unfortunately, as Scott Lemieux explains in a very astute Chait dissecting at LGM:

Chait seems to be making an implicit assumption that tuition increases — which are indeed a serious problem — are driven primarily by spending on faculty. The problem is that this just isn’t true — the additional revenues that don’t go to increasing infrastructure expenditures have been much more likely to have been captured by administrators than faculty (especially outside of a few specialized areas like law and business.) Which brings us to a related problem — Chait’s even more crucial implicit assumption that cost savings from using MOOCs will be passed on to students rather than captured by administrators, used for physical or marketing expenses, and/or taken as profit when applicable. Given that the turn towards extremely low paid adjuncts instead of decently paid tenure track faculty has coincided with skyrocketing tuition, I’m not sure what the source of Chait’s faith that students will be the primary beneficiaries of reduced education costs is.

Therefore, when professors fight for their own economic interests, they are actually fighting for the interests of their students as well. Multiple interests? Get it? We do this not just because we can help prevent the people running universities from squandering tuition money, but because money spent on teaching is money spent on improving the quality of higher education (online or otherwise). If your higher education doesn’t actually teach you very much, then it isn’t really worth anything, is it?

The issue of quality is where Chait’s analysis makes me more sad than amused. Let me take this part of Chait’s article slowly, in the order that he wrote it:

But, uh – are we sure the only way to teach people what to do with facts is face-to-face?

No, you can teach them in online classes that aren’t massive. The article was about MOOCs. Does he understand the difference?

This seems like something that could at least conceivably be taught to more than one person at once.

I teach sections with between ten and forty people at once all the time. Is he advocating a faculty-student ratio of 1-1? I know I’m not. That’s not efficient.

I can remember lots of professors teaching me what to do with facts via lectures in extremely large auditoriums, which is not that different than a lecture you watch online.

If I hate MOOCs, why do I have to defend large lecture halls? Can’t I oppose them both? Even then, large classes presumably have TAs and office hours and an entire support structure of peers and staff designed to help students learn. With MOOCs, you’re on your own. It’s the student’s job to ask for help if they need it, and anybody who’s ever taught for a living knows that they often won’t do so even if they’re failing.

Nobody claims that the technical barrier has been solved, but it’s amazing that Rees is already declaring it unsolvable.

So we’re going to experiment on tens of thousands of paying students at once (because you know with private companies involved, free can’t last)? Time to quote Tenured Radical:

Could we have some oversight please? It seems to me that if this is all one, grand fun experiment, it should not be paid for by students, nor should they be rolled into a big educational experiment without understanding that no one knows how it will turn out.

I’m not assuming MOOCs can’t work for anybody, but I am assuming they aren’t going to work for many people because, God forbid, I actually have experience teaching. That’s why I know that students all have varying levels of ability. Chait, on the other hand, is willing to generalize from his “classic college experience,” even though he wants universities to conduct experiments that will take that experience away from all but the rich people who can afford it in the future. Isn’t liberalism grand?

Jake and Elwood were on the side of their fellow orphans. Ultimately, this argument is about who’s really on the side of young people here. In his last line, Chait writes of me:

Perhaps some of the students who can’t afford to get a college degree should forcefully explain their plight to him.

Maybe they should explain their plight to their administrators, or the football coaches or the for-profit colleges that are sucking up all the financial aid dollars on their ridiculous excuses for college courses, or the for-profit ed tech companies that are selling MOOCs or vastly over-priced, ill-suited learning management systems to universities that want to act like they’re doing something modern even if they don’t know exactly what it is. But no, Chait has to single out college professors because he mistakenly thinks this plays into his ridiculous political horse race narrative.

Next time you feel like blogging about higher education, Mr. Chait, why don’t you do some homework first? I hear there are many fine MOOCs on the subject in which you can enroll.

How do you get people to do what they don’t want to do?

24 06 2013


When I grow up, I want to be Robert Caro. For one thing, the man is an incredible historian. The chapters in The Power Broker about the building of the Cross Bronx Expressway may be the best narrative anybody has ever written about anything ever.* What I envy more than the guy’s writing skills though are his persistence and patience. He’s literally been writing about Lyndon Johnson since the 1970s and all four volumes of this eventual five volume set have been worth the wait. Think about the patience it takes to interview all those aides twenty – maybe thirty – years ago when they were still alive and to wait decades before there thoughts make it into your narrative. Think of the persistence it takes to keep writing about the exact same subject decade after decade.

In fact, when you consider all of Caro’s work, he’s really been writing about the same thing since the 1960s: power. First with Robert Moses, then Johnson, Caro’s books (as I’ve seen him explain many times in interviews like this one) are really all about power: How to get it, how to use it and mostly importantly how to use it well. This is particularly true with Lyndon Johnson because LBJ started from nothing, got lots of power, lost it and then found it again. There’s also that fascinating Good Lyndon/Bad Lyndon phenomenon. We liberals cheer The Great Society and condemn Vietnam, but there really both two sides of the same coin. Grateful for what Johnson was willing to give us, we elected him in a landslide in 1964, but the Vietnamese wouldn’t trade their independence for a new TVA. When he was Vice President, the Kennedy people called him “Uncle Cornpone” to his face, but when he became President, Johnson could intimidate people into doing his will without them even noticing. [This is the famous “Johnson Treatment” pictured above.]

MOOCification is about power too. If people with access to power want to convince recalcitrant professors to accept MOOCs, arguing that they must be because this must be is a terrible idea. Yet this is precisely what the two quotes following mine in that New York Times article from last week try to do. First, there’s my online buddy Phil Hill, making an argument I’ve read from him a million times on every form of social media except Facebook**:

“The problem with this MOOC-as-labor-issue argument is that it has no place for students and learning,” said Phil Hill, an education technology consultant. “Our starting point ought to be what students need and whether this is an effective form of learning.”

Whenever Phil makes that infuriating argument, I usually respond with some variation of “profs gotta eat.” Not surprisingly that argument works really well on other profs, but not so well on Phil. However, I want to point out to Phil’s clients that they can’t just wish the class divide away. Since profs gotta eat, they’re going to worry about eating whether you tell them they’re allowed to or not. Moreover, plenty of us believe that by looking out for our interests we are looking out for students and learning. Therefore, making this kind of argument simply serves as a way to shut down all discussion of the subject, which will only breed resentment.

Perhaps the real problem with higher education labor policy today is that too many people don’t care how much resentment they breed. The next quote in that article after Phil’s is even worse, if such a thing is possible:

“The issue in higher education is how we get to scale,” said M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “The question now is how long it’s going to take for faculty members to stop saying they can use the same textbooks as others at other institutions, but they can’t use the same lectures.”

Darn it, faculty, what’s taking you so long to accept your own obsolescence? Can’t you see the same future that I see (without you in it)! It’s right there in front of your noses! That kind of argument didn’t work on my 8-year-old the last time I tried it and it won’t work on faculty either. Even smart people without class consciousness need to be convinced that they are the ones who have to sacrifice for what’s right. Acting as if your position is the one inevitable future is really just an admission that your argument is too weak to stand up to close scrutiny.

You don’t even need to be a business professor to see that this is a terrible personnel management strategy. Professors of all kinds know the limits of power because we have to convince people to do what they don’t want to do every time we step into the classroom. In other words, employer is to employee as teacher is to student. We manage our classrooms the same way that our employers have to manage us.

That’s why letting too many non-professors into the MOOCif-ication process is a pedagogical disaster. You can’t just say “grade the essays of your peers” and thy will be done. Here’s Karen Head, in another jaw-dropping explanation of what it’s really like to be a superprofessor, documenting firsthand one of the many reasons why peer grading can’t work:

Because the qualitative process is central to our course, I wanted to require students to participate in peer work in order to get credit for assignments. When I wanted to make the penalty for not completing peer review a 100-percent deduction per assignment, the Coursera support team responded that the maximum deduction could be only 20 percent. Coursera acknowledged that other instructors had complained about the penalty figure but gave no indication as to when or whether the problem would be addressed. Predictably, many students have not completed the peer review, leaving others with little feedback. In my opinion, the instructor, not the platform, should determine how an assignment is evaluated.

I’m not convinced upping the penalty would help much either. You can’t make students care when they don’t care. You have to inspire students to care, and you can’t do that if the only way they ever see you is on tape.

Thomas Leddy of the now legendary San Jose State Philosophy department, in “Are MOOCs Good for Students?,” tackles this same general issue with respect to reading assignments:

Another essential component to genuine education is close, careful, critical reading. MOOCs, however, discourage the acquisition of college-level reading skill. When the edX package of Sandel’s lectures was proposed to us, we were told that the amount of time students would spend using the platform would be monitored. They were expected to work online at home for nine hours a week, mainly watching videos and taking quizzes. Assuming a typical load of five courses, students who took only MOOC courses would spend about 45 hours per week watching video clips and taking quizzes. What time would they have left for reading Plato, Shakespeare, or Freud?

If I assigned my students The Power Broker, which is over 1000 pages long, they’d either not do the reading or murder me. The trick is to assign as much reading as you need to teach history well without alienating too many students in the process and that can be very hard, particularly as the reading skills of the typical college student have dropped through the floor in recent years. Unfortunately, as that Karen Head piece clearly indicates, the customer can do no wrong in Coursera’s eyes. That may yet prove to be good business, but it’s undoubtedly terrible pedagogy.

Lyndon Johnson understood that in order to get people to do what they don’t want to do there have to be both carrots as well as sticks. This goes for faculty as well as students. Drive professors out of their professions and they’re not coming back. Therefore, you have to expect them to use all the power at their disposal to hang on to something they do more from love than for money. Whining about our refusal to accept our own obsolescence will only make us fight harder.

* If you’re a history grad student, do yourself a favor and just get the book out of the library right now and read the whole giant thing this summer. It remains well worth your time almost forty years after publication.

** And that’s not because I wouldn’t friend him there. It’s because I’ve decided that Facebook is just far too creepy for me to ever join it again.

Why build a better mousetrap when you can kill the cat instead?

29 05 2013

I’ve had some trouble picking out technological books for my summer reading list. Jaron Lanier’s book sounded really good when I first heard him on To the Best of Our Knowledge. Then he uttered the word “micropayments,” and he lost me forever. Similarly, I felt kind of nervous about getting Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything Click Here because I read that he picks on some people whose work I really respect (most notably Nicholas Carr). But then Morozov showed up in an otherwise dull New Yorker story about political contributions from Silicon Valley with what may be the best quote I’ve ever seen in that storied publication:

“You might not be able to pay for healthcare or your insurance, but if you have an app on your phone that alerts you to the fact that you need to exercise more, or you aren’t eating healthily enough, they think they are solving the problem.”

“Here is a guy who understands my frustrations with technology,” I thought to myself. I bought the book posthaste, read it over Memorial Day weekend and am so glad I did.

If you’ve read the reviews, you know that Morozov’s main contribution to discussions about technology is the re-appropriation of the term “solutionism,” by which he basically means coming up with extremely simplistic technological solutions to problems that don’t (or just barely) exist. More importantly (and I think this is what every review that I’ve seen has missed and which is captured beautifully in that New Yorker quote), Morozov is particularly hard on Silicon Valley types for acting as if their technological solutions are apolitical when in fact they are political as Hell – mostly because they tend to accept the existing distribution of power as a given.

MOOCs, the usual subject of this blog these days, come up early in the book. This is from p. 8:

“The ballyhoo over the potential of new technologies to disrupt education – especially now that several start-ups offer online courses to hundreds of thousands of students, who grade each other’s work and get no face time with the instructors – is a case in point. Digital technologies might be a perfect solution to some problems, but those problems don’t include education – not if by education we mean the development of the skills to think critically about any given issue. Online resources might help students learn plenty of new facts (or “facts,” in case they don’t cross-check what they learn on Wikipedia), but such fact cramming is a far cry from what universities aspire to teach their students.”

Or at least we can only hope.

While MOOCs pretty much disappear from the narrative after that point, it was very difficult for me to forget them because the problems that Morozov spots with Silicon Valley in general apply particularly well to MOOC purveyors in particular. For example, here’s a useful quote from p. 314:

“Our geek kings do not realize that inefficiency is precisely what shelters us from the inhumanity of Taylorism and market fundamentalism. When inefficiency is the result of a deliberative commitment by a democratically run community, there is no need to eliminate it, even if the latest technologies can accomplish it in no time.”

Those two quotes actually go together very well. You can cut the inefficiencies of education down to nothing by putting videos of smiling superprofessors on the world’s computer screens, but then you won’t be teaching most people anything. Education is SUPPOSED to be inefficient because it is never (to use another word I picked up from reading Morozov) frictionless. If students can’t stop and ask questions, they won’t know if they really get the material. Worse yet, they might think they get it even if they don’t.

The other thing I kept wondering as I read Morozov discuss different aspects of solutionism is what problem does Coursera think it’s solving? The most obvious example would be the high cost of higher education, but watching videos isn’t education. That’s why we’ve never heard anyone from Coursera or Udacity actually admit that MOOCs are designed to be course replacements. They’re either supposed to help people in lesser-developed countries learn or help poor disadvantaged non-superprofessors get back to their roots and teach down in the trenches mano y mano. I find these arguments incredibly offensive because 1) People in lesser-developed countries deserve face-to-face educations of their own (steeped in the culture of their own nations) and 2) Most of us are teaching mano y mano already. [If I hate MOOCs, why do I have to defend 400-person lecture courses? Can’t I hate both?]

The other Silicon Valley tendency that Morozov covers in great detail is the widespread belief that tech alone can save the world. You know what he means already. It’s the same reason that Bill Gates is so much more dangerous now that he’s not working at Microsoft every day. Through a combination of hubris and already having too much money to know what to do with, everything must be disrupted for the good of humanity. No, humanity will not be consulted because, as that New Yorker quote suggests, the “Internet” isn’t really a democracy. It just feels like one if you have no idea how power is distributed or how it’s actually used.

Let’s go back to my favorite subject in order to make more sense of that argument. Suppose I want to improve higher education. I could build tools to help professors do their jobs better (like Zotero or Diigo or even WordPress) or I could get rid of professors altogether and hope for the best. Why build a better mousetrap when you can kill the cat instead? That way whatever sorry excuse for an education I create solely through technology (namely MOOCs) will look great in comparison to nothing.

People who want to disrupt higher education don’t care one whit about the quality of higher education. They want to disrupt higher education because that’s where the money is. While they will inevitably fail at making higher education better, recent history suggests that this inevitable failure will not prevent a few people from getting very rich at the expense of faculty and students worldwide.

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.

“Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

30 07 2012

Usually I depend upon Thomas Frank for this sort of thing, but Howard Fineman has read the newest conservative bestseller so that the rest of us can ignore it. Here’s the part that speaks to the main subject of this blog:

Our superior culture of risk, [Ed Conard] says, is fostered by comparatively low personal taxes and light government regulation. And that, in turn, has yielded growth rates way above those of Europe and Japan. “The Internet is the key and they have produced NOTHING–no Facebook, Google, Amazon, YouTube, Apple, Microsoft–NOTHING.” Bottom line: leave the market alone.

Of course, for every Facebook, Google and Amazon this culture produces, there are several Pets.coms. Indeed, social media companies that once looked like the future are already tanking on Wall Street. Yet, as Historiann recently noted, successful, established universities are falling all over themselves to sign up with private companies so that these firms can host brand-extending MOOCs despite the fact that those firms currently have no revenue stream at all.

Where’s the money going to come from? There are no good answers.

When your typical venture capital fund comes in and buys a company, they monetize their investment by selling off the pieces, sometimes even when that company is already profitable. This is what’s led to all those ads with steelworkers explaining how Mitt Romney shipped their jobs off to China. Unfortunately, college professors aren’t particularly sympathetic figures. Therefore, tearful explanations of how Coursera left us unemployed won’t evoke any sympathy from anyone.

However, the second line of attack on the Mittster’s business career might be much more useful in our situation. Besides outsourcing American jobs, Bain Capital has made scads of money whether the companies they’ve taken over have been successful or not. Create the next Apple, the risk takers get rewarded. Act like this, they still get rewarded:

And on Thursday, the 800-pound gorilla of the group, Facebook Inc, reported tepid results that shaved some $10 billion off the company’s market cap. The stock has gone straight down since its botched May initial public offering and now trades over a third below its $38 IPO price.

“The VCs, the private equity guys at the early stages, already cashed out and made their fortunes,” said Peter Schiff, chief executive of Euro Pacific Capital. “Everybody else who ran to buy the stock at the IPO at a sky-high valuation ended up holding the bag.”

In the case of higher education, the VCs backing Coursera and Udacity are only part of the problem. What about the administrators who sign their universities up with these companies, or worse yet, spend tens of millions of dollars of other people’s money pursuing a homegrown version of the flavor of the month? They can point to their “record of innovation” then move on to greener pastures before the effects are felt.

Seriously, if you really want to disrupt higher education, don’t you think it would be a good idea to make sure that there are different people with different attitudes in charge when you’re done?

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