If the first MOOC sex scandal breaks during the next two weeks…

1 08 2014


If the first MOOC sex scandal breaks during the next two weeks, I’m going to be very upset because I won’t have any time to cover it. I leave on Sunday for the Doing Digital History Summer Institute at George Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History in New Media. If this news makes you think I’ve lost my mind (again), please remember that I’m interested in helpful technologies that I can control, which means I want to see everything that’s out there and pick the ones that are most useful to me.

My interest in the digital humanities has always been primarily on the teaching side.  Indeed, I had to have a project going to get admitted into this NEH-funded institute in the first place.  Starting last semester, I began the groundwork for a digital project that my students could do. Indeed, having them work on it in a hybrid format this semester is the only way I could possibly keep my sanity with my about-to-be-increased courseload.

It’s going to be an online recreation of the mining town of Sopris, Colorado (following a town- and city-based approach to Colorado History pioneered by the organization formerly known as the Colorado Historical Society). My friends at the Bessemer Historical Society have astoundingly cool stuff like this, a map of the mine tunnels that is so much bigger and more impressive in person but still pretty cool when shrunk:


What I hope to get in northern Virginia over the next two weeks are both the skills and the conceptual framework to get all of this stuff up in a format that people can use.

When I read the schedule and the reading list for the institute, I quickly realized that this would take up all my time, night and day, if wanted to do this right (and still get my syllabi done by the start of fall semester). Since the first thing we’re doing on Monday is (apparently) signing up with Reclaim Hosting, I might even migrate this blog to a new site like I should have done years ago and enter the world of WordPress plug-ins.

This doesn’t mean this blog will be going dead. I have two pieces out elsewhere that I think (cross my fingers) will be published. I’ll link from here if they indeed are. They also appear to be threatening to make the participants in the institute blog too. If I manage to write anything about DH that’s less embarrassing than this, I’ll link to it from here as well.


“And we can act like we come from out of this world and leave the real one far behind.”

1 07 2014

Mark Cheathem has done me a great favor. He’s written the exact post that I would have written about this Junto interview about MOOCs with the historian Peter Onuf so that I don’t have to repeat myself. Indeed, Mark has provided plenty of links to this blog so that I can make those points myself without writing another word. And while I know Onuf primarily from his excellent work on the wonderful radio show BackStory, I can also second Mark’s respect for his obvious talent as an historian.

So what is there left for me to write here? There’s a part of that interview that can help me make a point that’s been bubbling around the back of my mind for about a week now. This is Onuf:

Let me talk a little about my dubiousness. As for any other self-respecting academic, this seemed suspiciously like a substitution for conventional lecturing. If this was the future it was a future that we looked at with mixed feelings—that this would reinforce the emerging inequality in higher education, which mirrors that of the nation as a whole, with some institutions monopolizing the airwaves, displacing lecturers and teachers, making places like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT the centers of a new era of pedagogy. And that sounded pretty ominous, particularly given that people were being asked to create these MOOCs in their spare or extra time. And you can imagine the scenarios that would play out: “Well, we don’t need you anymore! We got you on MOOC.”

Now that’s certainly exaggerated; it suggests a fundamental bad faith at the level of administration, and I’m not willing to go that far. But I just wanted to say I had mixed feelings.

[Emphasis added]

If I remember the way that the History Guys get introduced on the radio these days, Onuf is retired – or at least retired from regular teaching. [Indeed, he notes later in the interview that Alan Taylor is his successor at the University of Virginia.] This means the cost of his being wrong about the intentions of his administration is exactly zero. Indeed, if you remember, it’s not the administration in Charlottesville who’s faith anyone there should worry about, the problem is higher up. On second thought, even administrations with good faith will do bad things when pressured from above, so really people there have a right to stay worried about everybody.

And so do people elsewhere. Onuf makes a common mistake among superprofessors when he assumes that the people running universities who produce MOOCs are the only people who’s faith he needs to measure. Nobody among us MOOC skeptics is arguing that Alan Taylor is going to be replaced by old Peter Onuf tapes. The people we’re worried about are the community college professors down the street or across the country. If you make a MOOC you have a responsibility to be sure that it is used wisely. Simply letting the chips fall where they may clearly demonstrates that you’ve left the real world far behind – the world of MOOC consumers rather than the world of MOOC producers.

Sadly, you don’t have to be a superprofessor in order to adopt this attitude towards online education of all kinds. Here, in a Google+ posting inspired by my last Chronicle Vitae column, my favorite online instructor of all time, Laura Gibbs, makes the same mistake that Onuf does – since the situation in my department is excellent, everything will eventually work out great elsewhere too:

“[T]here is no reason at all to suppose that an online instructor is more or less likely to care to know their students (see quote below). I care. I care a lot, in fact. Meanwhile, I also know that plenty of face to face faculty don’t care. Which is their choice, a personal choice – not technological determinism.

I guess Jonathan is assuming that online faculty have higher teaching loads (“too many students”), but that’s not necessarily the case at all. For example: big lecture classes that take place face to face. I would contend that there is more distance in a big lecture hall than in any of my online classes. I teach appx. 100 students total per semester… not too many for me; it works fine. And I do care to know them – plus, teaching online, I have far more opportunities to get to know them than I ever did in a classroom.”

The problem, of course, is not with online or face-to-face faculty per se. The problem is the circumstances in which they teach. I am against giant, impersonal face-to-face classes. I am against giant, impersonal online classes. The question becomes how do we make it possible to assure that all students, online or face-to-face, learn under the best circumstances possible? Safety first!

Am I arguing that all administrators are inherently bad? Of course not. But some are, and if you don’t take steps to prevent abuse you’re practically giving the bad ones an invitation to do mischief. This goes for all aspects of academic life. However, if the tool you’re using to do a job is more dangerous than another, more safety measures are very much in order.

With great power comes great responsibility. And like it or not, the superprofessors of this world have a lot more power than the rest of us do. All we can do is remind them of their responsibility to use it wisely.

You do not need an LMS in order to teach with technology.

28 06 2014

“…Silicon Valley’s reigning assumption: Anything that can be automated should be automated. If it’s possible to program a computer to do something a person can do, then the computer should do it. That way, the person will be “freed up” to do something “more valuable.” Completely absent from this view is any sense of what it actually means to be a human being.”

– Nick Carr, “An android dreams of automation,” Rough Type, June 26, 2014.

Who dropped the ball? It certainly wasn’t me. Was it you?

When I stopped taking graduate classes in 1993, people had barely heard of the Internet, let alone any kind of learning management system (or LMS). I had never even taken a class that used the Internet, let alone an LMS. I didn’t start teaching with any kind of technology until I got some professional development when I was working at what is now Missouri State University. My department chairman there mandated that all syllabi must be posted online (a really good idea that I still don’t think most universities bother to do). As a result, I learned what I think was then called Microsoft FrontPage and haven’t handed out a piece of paper in class since.

I also remember attending the first time my current employer offered BlackBoard classes. I thought it was mostly bells and whistles and refused to use it. In the same way I hated Moby Dick the first time I read it (actually, I still hate Moby Dick, but that’s the subject for a whole different blog), I gave Blackboard another chance a couple of years later. I came to the same conclusion and haven’t touched any LMS since

Yet while I was learning what technologies for teaching I like and eschewing others, a sea change was taking place in higher education. Learning Management Systems were quickly (if you call fifteen years or so quickly) going from a novelty to being the norm. At first, I was simply annoyed because my students kept asking me what their grade was during the semester (since they could always see it for most other classes in the LMS) and I had to keep telling them that I hadn’t done the calculations yet. Over time, however, LMSs have become a way for administrations and edtech companies to control the manner in which professors teach. Yes, you can still pick your content – I think – but many of the other decisions that professors used to be able to make by themselves (whether to tell students how they’re doing at every point during the semester, for example*) have been determined by the capabilities of learning management systems to process and present information.

What I’m wondering now is how this happened. I wasn’t really paying attention at the time and I haven’t done the research into this little piece of edtech history, but I do have some theories that I was hoping people better informed than I am might kick around:

1. It was the online instructors. They did it!!!

OK, maybe not the online instructors, but certainly online instruction is possibly to blame here. Imagine it’s the late-1990s. All these universities want to go into online instruction on the cheap so like IBM with the Windows, they outsource the operating system to companies that are dying to serve them. The universities themselves are so pleased with the ability to monitor classroom interactions, that they then go and encourage every other faculty member to use the LMS too. Pretty soon, scads of us can’t live without one.

2. Faculty were sold a bill of goods with respect to convenience.

Why would anybody first pick up the LMS habit? Time would be a great incentive. I still remember how amazed I was when I first learned Excel so that I could compute my grades on them. It literally saved me at least eight hours each semester at exactly the time of year when my time was most important! Gradebooks in any LMS would do the same thing. Such conveniences may have convinced lots of people to invite a guest to the party who decided to monetize the punchbowl. Pretty soon, who has time to learn any other system?

3. It started with the adjunct faculty.

The same way that adjunct faculty can’t pick their textbooks in many cases, perhaps they were the natural beta testers for learning management systems – particularly in online settings where the regular tenure track faculty was likely not paying attention. Once they became hooked on doing things through an intermediary, regular faculty joined along because that seemed like the right thing to do. I don’t know exactly how LMS contracts are structured, but imagine them all being on campus-wide licensing systems. Even if it costs more the more users you have, the later users are always cheaper than the earlier users and pretty soon the whole thing would have just snowballed.

Whether it’s all these things or none of these things, there’s still time to remember three very important points and begin to act upon them:

1. You do not need an LMS in order to teach.
2. You do not need an LMS in order to teach with technology.
3. The selection of educational technologies you can use outside the LMS are only getting better.**

If we forget these simple facts, we will all likely become victims of the reigning assumption of Silicon Valley sooner or later once the LMS takes over most of our jobs entirely. At least this will free us up to spend more time looking for better-paying work, while our students suffer from a chronic substandard education which just happens to be delivered with a few elements based upon the use of modern technology.

* I strongly suspect that those of you who actually teach with LMSs can come up with a better example than that one. Please do so and explain it in the comments below.

** Who remembers what happened to AOL? I certainly do.

A world without us.

25 06 2014

By now, you should have “met” John Kuhlman. My correspondence with him began after my office hours piece, and has only gotten more interesting over time. One of the things he’s suggested to me that I particularly like is the idea of measuring teaching effectiveness by the responses that professors receive from their students. I imagine this not simply as a question of counting the number of comments you get on your teaching evaluations, but looking anywhere (e-mails, LinkedIn requests, whatever) for active engagement with your pedagogy, both good or bad.

You say I’m a dreamer? Of course I am. The corporate types that have taken over most of higher ed will never let qualitative measures happen because this flies against everything that modern management philosophy represents. As Chris Newfield explains in his epic contextualization of the Christensen/Lepore grudge match:

In contrast to professional authority, which is grounded in expertise and expert communities, managerial authority flows from its ties to owners and is formally independent of expertise. Management obviously needs to be competent, but competence seems no longer to require either substantive expertise with the firm’s products or meaningful contact with employees. The absence of contact with and substantive knowledge of core activities, in managerial culture, function as an operational strength. In universities, faculty administrators lose effectiveness when they are seen as too close to the faculty to make tough decisions. In the well-known story that Prof. Lepore retold, the head of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors decided to fire the university president on the grounds that she would not push online tech innovation with the speed recommended by an admired Wall Street Journal article. The Christensen model does not favor university managers who understand what happens in the classroom and who bring students and faculty into the strategy process. For employees and customers are exactly the people who want to sustain and improve what they already have, which in disruptive capitalism is a loser’s game.

What universities already have is us – by which I mean the professoriate. Applying Christensen’s value-neutral philosophy of “progress” to higher education inevitably means getting rid of faculty entirely, no matter what kind of meaningful responses they can illicit from their students.

Perhaps a very brief history is in order. Starting around 1970, universities began to use adjunct faculty to spare themselves the cost of hiring tenure track faculty who demand crazy things like health benefits and academic freedom. People not in those positions mostly did not object to this development because they did not see that it affected them. Where are we now? As the anonymous genius behind “100 Reasons NOT to Go To Graduate School” noted in their first post in a really long time:

There are now nearly 3.5 million Americans with doctorates (see Reason 55) but only 1.3 million postsecondary teaching jobs (see Reason 29), and the oversupply of PhDs is becoming a crisis in the rest of the world as well. A Norwegian newspaper has called it the academic epidemic. Legions of graduate students spend years of their lives preparing to compete for jobs that are few in number and promise little opportunity for advancement. The academic world is one in which ambition is rewarded with disappointment millions of times over.

The real “disruption” in higher ed is the entirely understandable willingness of people at the wrong end of that numerical divide to undercut the wages and prerogatives of the faculty on the other in order to scrape out a living. Technology which allows anybody with an internet connection to teach anywhere makes this process ridiculously easy, while academic management types use the tuition checks that keep flowing in to hire more managers.

The obvious next step in this process is to cut out faculty entirely. Since you can’t survive without teaching entirely, then you unbundle it so much that almost nobody can make a living doing it. Here‘s Katherine Moos from Chronicle Vitae last year:

Private and public universities are pouring millions of dollars into MOOCs. Where will the savings be realized? An organization (in this case, a university) won’t invest in a new technology unless there’s a long-term labor cost advantage to doing so—hence the term “labor-saving technology.” Remember Adam Smith’s pin factory? Now picture one professor video-lecturing, another taking attendance, and yet a third grading assignments (perhaps from another country). Rather than producing original research and unique pedagogy, professors could quickly join the ranks of workers providing highly specialized and deskilled services.

I would suggest that this kind of de-skilling is so drastic that the word “faculty” is no longer appropriate. Indeed, just try to imagine someone receiving the kind of letters that John Kuhlman received simply by taking attendance really, really well. And while students might be listening to content from the most qualified content providers in the world, the whole idea of splintering the learning process into a million pieces is obviously an idea that only a manager (rather than an educator) could love.

Of course, I don’t want to blame this whole thing on MOOCs (as tempting as that might have been a couple of years ago). MOOCs, like any other educational tool, can be used responsibly or irresponsibly. The problem here (as it is with so much of higher education) is the dictatorial, top-down management philosophy that makes their misuse not just possible, but likely. If the practitioners of this management-centered higher ed philosophy can imagine a world without us, perhaps we can begin to imagine a world with a lot fewer of them – a world in which faculty prerogatives over the educational process can be re-established.

A Facebook education?

16 06 2014

A few days ago, my friend Jill suggested that I come up with a catchy acronym for my new position on MOOCs. She suggested:

While that’s not bad, the more I thought about it, the more I figured why fall into the same trap that the Antifederalists did? I’d rather be for something than anti- anything moving forward as I think I’d generate much better karma that way. Therefore, from this moment on, my new edtech position (since the problem remains more than MOOCs) is pro- faculty autonomy.

What does that mean? The term I’ve previously used in this respect is “professor-centered,” but somehow being pro-faculty autonomy seems more useful as a jumping off point for the kind of technological decisions that we professors increasingly face with each passing semester.

Suppose, for example, you’re forced to use an LMS because your university mandates it, or because you’re just too busy to design your own customized learning environment. As Groom and Lamb point out in that wonderful article which I cited the other day:

Instead of supporting “learning enhancement environments” on an enterprise level, colleges and universities implement and mandate the use of “learning management systems.” Thus, before we even begin to encounter the software itself, we privilege a mindset that views learning not as a life-affirming adventure but instead as a technological problem, one that requires a “system” to “manage” it. This mindset and its resulting values result in online architectures that prioritize user management, rigidly defined and restricted user roles, automated assessments, and hierarchical, top-down administration. Yes, creative and engaging learning can happen almost anywhere. But environments matter, and disturbingly often these systems promote formulaic and rigid instruction.

Faculty autonomy would at least mean that any system would have to be customizable enough to express a faculty-member’s individual teaching style. That’s good for professors and good for students.

Since building your own teaching domain is a daunting task to many folks, they should at least understand what kinds of systems they should avoid. My good friend and fellow Princeton, New Jersey native Jonathan Poritz from our math department has a name for this: a Facebook education. To describe what he means, Jonathan clued me in to the work of Columbia Law School’s Eben Moglen. Here Moglen is describing the problem with Facebook all the way back in 2010:

Facebook is the web with, ‘I keep all the logs, how do you feel about that.’ It’s a terrarium for what it feels like to live in a Panopticon built out of web parts. And it shouldn’t be allowed. That’s a very poor way to deliver those services. They are grossly overpriced at ‘spying all the time’, they are not technically innovative. They depend on an architecture subject to misuse and the business model that supports them is misuse. There isn’t any other business model for them. This is bad. I’m not suggesting it should be illegal. It should be obsolete. We’re technologists we should fix it.”

A Facebook education would be an education that operates under these same principles. Instead of setting up a learning environment that’s primarily directed towards promoting learning, it would set up an environment that promotes the interests of the learning management system providers and the administrators who contract with them. This more than anything else should be most of the incentive you need to learn this stuff and start innovating.

But the wonderful thing about the non-corporate edtech types who I’ve come to admire is that they’re working to create a world in which this process would be rather easy. Not only would faculty have autonomy over their classes, but students could have autonomy over their entire web presence. As Groom and Lamb put it,

The point is not that everything must be open source; rather, it’s that we need coherence, and right now, coherence is too often offered at the price of ownership and control, of working within someone else’s application.

That’s right, I’m pro coherence, and the first step towards coherence is regaining control over the teaching process. I’m also still anti- “the misuse of technology to destroy higher education by usurping faculty prerogatives. But I’m also pro- faculty using technology to TAKE BACK the prerogatives that we’ve already lost. How sweet would that be?

You technologists out there should go fix that for everybody.

Tell me how you teach and I will tell you who you are.

7 05 2014

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”

– Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, 1825.

The great problem I have maintaining my Twitter account is to keep the edtech people happy when I share too much history, and the history people happy when I share too much edtech. This feels like a particularly acute problem when I’m on a food history kick, as the number of refrigeration nerds amongst my tweeps is really pretty low. Luckily, I think I found away to kill two birds with one stone here. All it requires is a metaphor that’s been at the back of mind for a long time, but I’m going to use it now because it doesn’t really seem all that forced to me anymore.

There’s an article in this week’s New Yorker (not behind the subscription curtain even!) that I find absolutely disgusting, in both the conventional and abstract sense of that word. Apparently, there’s a new startup called Soylent (Yes, like the movie*) that purports to offer you all the vitamins and minerals that you need to survive. Of course the idea started in Silicon Valley, and of course the stuff tastes absolutely repulsive:

People tend to find the taste of Soylent to be familiar: the predominant sensation is one of doughiness. The liquid is smooth but grainy in your mouth, and it has a yeasty, comforting blandness about it. I’ve heard tasters compare it to Cream of Wheat, and “my grandpa’s Metamucil.”

So why buy it? Allegedly, people are spending far too much time growing and eating food:

We pulled up at Caltech in early evening and were met by Rachel Galimidi, a Ph.D. candidate in biology, who is the resident adviser for Ricketts dorm. Galimidi said that the dorm is home to “a lot of very busy engineering and physics students” who “don’t have time to do anything”—including eat.

If this counts as lifehacking, then count me out. Eating is supposed to be one of the most pleasurable things in life. It’s freighted with both cultural value and priceless human experiences. Whatever benefits you might get from reducing it to a doughy liquid simply aren’t worth the costs.

While you may not see the parallel between this and the famous scene from “Modern Times” I posted above, I do think there is a similarity. Both Soylent and the eating machine there are designed so that people can get done with their meals and back to work faster. The difference, of course, is that the eating machine in “Modern Times” is being imposed on workers by management. Those Caltech students, like every other Soylent customer, are imposing this bizarre form of hurry-up upon themselves.

It may take somebody as obsessed with edtech as myself to draw an analogy between this and that, but I’m going there nonetheless. In the same way that Soylent breaks down eating into its component parts – missing the bigger, human picture – way too many edtech companies try to do the same with education. You want content? Watch our lectures. You want to know how to write? Our computer will grade it for you. Want to interact with other students? Post on the discussion board. They simply assume that the whole is the same as the sum of its parts. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But I can tell you this, though, the whole is certainly a lot more fun for teachers and students alike.

Where this analogy breaks down though is with respect to the difference between eaters and students. Anybody who actually thinks eating Soylent is a good idea is an anti-social asshole in my book. It’s the functional equivalent of not getting up to go the bathroom because you’re having too much fun playing your favorite first-person shooter game. If you’ve eaten at even a decent restaurant before, you should certainly know better. And don’t even start me on those people being too lazy to cook.

I’m willing to cut students more slack. Unfortunately, too many of them may never know what they’re missing. It’s the professors who serve them up their cold, doughy glasses of higher education who really ought to know better, and shame on them all for ignoring the deficiencies that are all too obvious to the rest of us.

* Amazingly, I’ve actually made a “Soylent Green” joke on this blog already, “It’s faculty! Soylent Green is faculty!”

The flipped classroom is decadent and depraved.

5 05 2014

“The flipped classroom model is becoming increasingly popular in higher education because of how it rearranges face-to-face instruction for professors and students, creating a more efficient and enriching use of class time.”

New Media Consorium Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition (.pdf), 36.

I’ve written a fair bit here now about the flipped classroom. Much of that criticism has focused on the lack of assigned reading (or at least the lack of time for assigned reading) if students spend most of their limited homework hours watching videos. What I want to do now is “flip” that critique, and take a look at exactly what teachers are doing in class once their classroom has been flipped, assuming the use of the word “efficient” in that above quote isn’t enough to scare you away from trying to answer that question all by itself.

The first thing I ever wrote on this subject was called, “These flipped classrooms are the educational equivalent of scanning your own groceries at the supermarket” and that critique has survived as the popularity of the flipped classroom has grown. Here’s Robert Talbert in the Chronicle:

The flipped classroom does not automatically provide those sorts of outstanding learning experiences. What it provides is space and time for instructors to design learning activities and then carry them out, by relocating the transfer of information to outside the classroom. But then the instructor has the responsibility of using that space and time effectively. And sometimes that doesn’t work. In particular, if there’s no real value in the class time, then the students are not mistaken when they say they are teaching themselves the subject, and they are not wrong to resent it.

So don’t just hand them work sheets and tell your class to get at it. Yes, you can spend more time with students who don’t get what’s going on this way, but isn’t that what office hours are for? Don’t your students who do get it deserve more of your time so that you can help instill the satisfaction of knowing exactly why the right answer happens to be right in them? [By the way, this goes for math just as much as it does for history.] Unfortunately, that’s not efficient.

So what exactly does the professor do all period in their flipped classroom in order to maximize the efficiency of the classroom experience for everyone? Of course, it varies. As Jung Choi explains:

“…class time can be used in so many different ways: case studies, problem-solving, peer discussion, data analysis, writing, peer-review, internet research, and still other activities.”

Talbert offers a sports metaphor in order to explain his idea of exactly what good flipped instruction looks like:

Under the supervision of the instructor – there’s the rub. I don’t mean a kind of aloof, checking-your-Facebook-while-students-work kind of “supervision” but rather the kind of interactive engagement that a coach might have with his or her players while they practice. The coach doesn’t do the exercises for the players, but neither does s/he stand off to the side and let them flail around the entire time. There is interaction between the coach and the player, between different players, and between different groups of players. And through that interaction, questions get answered, others get raised – and things get learned, if it’s done right.

That sounds great, but the instructor can’t help every student’s individual problems at once. Otherwise, they’d be lecturing. [Neither can a coach. That’s why there are assistant coaches, after all.] Come to think of it, if lecturing is so awful how come the Flipped Classroom Messiah Squad wants most class content to be transmitted that way on tape, the least interactive way possible (since Stephen Greenblatt will not take questions)? Learning from peers in small groups is, of course, another option in flipped classrooms, but if peer grading can’t work, why would you possibly outsource actual instruction to students who only just learned the skills that you’re trying to teach them or who quite possibly haven’t learned those skills at all?

You may thinking that you’re teaching more efficiently, but what you’re really doing is putting the onus of learning entirely on the student. Plenty of very smart students require direct interaction with an expert instructor to master skills and concepts across a wide range of disciplines. When they don’t get that, they tune out, or – as the MOOC example so beautifully illustrates – drop out of class entirely. Indeed, I would argue that there is very little daylight between teaching somebody else’s MOOC and flipping your classroom with anybody’s content, including your own. When penny-pinching administrators eventually get around to replacing the Flipped Classroom Messiah Squad’s voluntarily flipped courses with the content they gained access to through a ridiculously expensive partnership with Coursera or edX, we will all learn that lesson the hard way.

It’s not the grade, it’s the comments.

28 04 2014

It’s ironic that of all the articles I’ve read recently that have tempted me to blog when I should be doing something else, it’s this one that’s gotten me to hit the “Add New Post” button. You see it’s about grading written essays, and that’s exactly what I should be doing right now. Actually, to be more specific, it’s about computers grading essays…badly:

The Babel generator, which [Les] Perelman [former director of undergraduate writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] built with a team of students from MIT and Harvard University, can generate essays from scratch using as many as three keywords.

For this essay, Mr. Perelman has entered only one keyword: “privacy.” With the click of a button, the program produced a string of bloated sentences that, though grammatically correct and structurally sound, have no coherent meaning. Not to humans, anyway. But Mr. Perelman is not trying to impress humans. He is trying to fool machines.

Of course, the program succeeded beautifully:

Now, here in the office, Mr. Perelman copies the nonsensical text of the “privateness” essay and opens MY Access!, an online writing-instruction product that uses the same essay-scoring technology that the Graduate Management Admission Test employs as a second reader. He pastes the nonsense essay into the answer field and clicks “submit.”

Immediately the score appears on the screen: 5.4 points out of 6, with “advanced” ratings for “focus and meaning” and “language use and style.”

The point of this exercise is, of course, that an essay is more than just a string of grammatical rules. It represents an underlying idea, or, to be more exact, the students ability to express an underlying idea.

Who on earth then would turn automated graders (and nothing else) loose on their humanities students? Superprofessors, of course:

Daniel A. Bonevac, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is one of them. Last fall he taught “Ideas of the Twentieth Century” as both a MOOC and a traditional course at Austin. He assigned three essays.

He calibrated the edX software by scoring a random sample of 100 essays submitted by students in the MOOC version of the course—enough, in theory, to teach the machines to mimic his grading style.

The professor then unleashed the machines on the essays written by the students in the traditional section of the course. He also graded the same essays himself, and had his teaching assistants do the same. After the semester ended, he compared the scores for each essay.

The machines did pretty well. In general, the scores they gave lined up with those given by Mr. Bonevac’s human teaching assistants.

Big, fat, hairy deal. Wake me when the computer can write comments at the bottom of the essay. No student has ever learned anything from their letter grade. They learn from the comments. Indeed, as anybody who actually does this for a living knows it takes much, much more time to write comments on essays for precisely this reason than it does to read them. Even “A” students learn from the reasons the instructor put at the bottom of their essay as to why their essay got an “A.” That’s how they know what to do again next time. Anyone with any grade lower than that needs the instructor’s comments to know what to do better.

So what kind of philosophy class assigns essays that won’t be graded by human beings or will only be graded by unqualified peers? The same kind of philosophy class that doesn’t assign any required reading – which means an xMOOC. The name of my post describing the syllabus in that same philosophy MOOC is “What exactly does that certificate represent?” Without required reading or real grading of the required essays, it’s pretty clear the answer to that question is not much at all.

I might expect some confusion between writing and what it represents from students wondering whether MOOCs are right for them, but people who teach writing for a living, no matter what their discipline (but especially philosophy!), really ought to know better.

The (edtech) hippie revolt.

23 04 2014

One of the strangest rabbit holes I’ve gone down as a result of all this edtech blogging is the association between early developments in computing and the counterculture of the 1960s. While I’m not going to try to explain it here, you can read a really good summary of those links in John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said from 2006. I actually assigned that book this semester and am currently pursuing those links with students in my 1945-Present class for the first time.

My students final paper assignment asks them to compare Markoff’s book to Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing and look for continuities between the 1960s and the 1990s. Much to my amazement, we found at least nine or ten of them while exploring possible paper theses the other day. I think it helps that Lewis’ book is now just as dated as the history that Markoff covers (which actually makes it better for use in history classes than when I first started assigning it!).

If you’re wondering whether I might have brought this paper topic up to the present, the answer is “no.” Every last inkling of the Hippie Revolt has dissipated from Silicon Valley. How do I know? Check out this note which my friend Historiann got from her administration up in Fort Collins the other day:

This seminar will provide information about the university’s involvement in a national consortium that promises to enhance learning and teaching. The consortium, which includes several leading research universities, is exploring new directions in the use of instructional technologies. The intent is to facilitate and accelerate digital learning using the best integrated digital systems available that make it easy for faculty and enhance learning. The ecosystem consists of three components: a digital content repository/reflector, a service delivery platform, and a learning analytics service. The digital content repository/reflector will allow us to regain control over our digital learning objectives, allow faculty to choose to share/reuse digital content easily and seamlessly while preserving their digital rights. The service delivery platform is Canvas by Instructure, and has the characteristics of easier use by faculty and faster development of courses in it. The best learning analytics will be deployed and evolve apace as this area develops.

Historiann was rightfully flustered by this terrific example of edtech gobbledy gook. [My favorite word in it is “ecosystem.” What’s yours?] I’d try to translate for her, but what’s the point? That would be playing the game on their home field in a struggle that we faculty are bound to lose.

Instead, let me suggest an alternative strategy: Think outside the box. If administrators and for-profit edtech concerns want to colonize our educational turf, then move the playing field. The easiest way to do that is what I’m pretty sure Historiann’s response is going to be: Don’t use their commercial learning management system and don’t teach online.

But even people interested in using more online tools than Historiann don’t have to surrender control of their classrooms to “The Man.” As I wrote in the Chronicle Vitae piece linked to above, Jim Groom, who blogs at Bava Tuesdays and who remains my hero, is working on a project to facilitate and teach faculty members to control their own domains, Reclaim Hosting. I, for one, want to learn how to use technology to teach history better, but I HAVE TO BE THE ONE WHO DECIDES WHAT CONSTITUTES “BETTER.” After all, I’m the one with all that teaching experience, not our administrators and not the techies who work for our LMS provider.

Does this position make me a hippie? Good. [Insert obligatory legal weed in Colorado joke here.] I think educational technology could use a lot more hippie and a lot less revolt – at least revolts of the unnecessarily disruptive kind. Don’t you?

Successful parasites never kill their hosts.

31 03 2014

“I think this really makes clear that we are not out to put universities out of business — have never been out to do that.”

Coursera’s Daphne Koller said this to Marketplace last week after hiring ex-Yale President Richard Levin as CEO. My immediate response was, “Who ever said Coursera wanted to put universities out of business?” They partner with universities to produce MOOCs and have just started to contract with other, less-prestigious universities to consume them. Tuition, after all, is where the money is. It reminds me of why Willie Sutton robbed banks. As Chris Newfield put it last night:

“Universities may have a cost disease, but they now have a privatization disease that is even worse.”

Successful parasites never kill their hosts. They just slowly suck the lifeforce out of them.

The real criticism against Coursera from MOOC skeptics like me is not that they want to put universities out of business, but that they want to put faculty at non-elite universities on the unemployment line. Too many university administrators dream at night of faculty at Point A, students at countless point Bs and themselves at Point C simply cashing the tuition checks. Coursera’s MOOCs offer these administrators the opportunity to cut out point A almost entirely, making sure that they don’t have to pay the glorified TAs tending to MOOC administration a living wage or give them anything that even faintly resembles tenure.

Perhaps this future awaits me. Perhaps not. Nevertheless, of all the responses that I get to my MOOC skepticism, it’s the people who like to point out my self interest who drive me more than a little bonkers. Don’t get me wrong: I am indeed self-interested when it comes to MOOCs. I like my job (or at least my profession) and want to keep earning a living wage doing what I do now. What makes me crazy is the notion that my bias somehow makes me wrong by definition. “Oh, teachers can’t critique MOOCs on grounds of pedagogy,” the counter-critics are implicitly saying, without noting that all of us potential professorial dinosaurs have a lot more experience with actual teaching than the vast majority of MOOC enthusiasts do. Professors are the check built into the system to make sure that any technological innovation maintains higher education’s academic integrity. Sell your faculty down the river and your students to the highest bidder and there’s likely going to be very little academic integrity left in the system that results.

My arguments here is really simple: Destroy professorial jobs and education will suffer because we professors do it better. That’s not just because Stephen Greenblatt will not take questions. It’s that we’re all right there every step of the way to monitor progress and provide the kinds of personalized guidance that students can only get from other human beings, and that’s true even for the largest classes. While people who know nothing about education seem to think that education can somehow be automated, the professoriate understands that teachers matter and that the more qualified the human being at the front of the classroom the better.

Unable to articulate a coherent educational vision of their own, the MOOC enthusiasts are forced to rely on the incredibly lame argument the way people learn now has to be changed just because it’s old. Perhaps it’s old because it actually works? Here’s a business proffie from Columbia who should really know better getting in on what is now a very tired schtick:

Further, the exact problem that MOOCs are designed to address remains unclear. They call to mind the earliest movies; in possession of new technology, no one was quite sure what to do with it, so they filmed theatrical productions! Only with time did it become clear that “moving pictures” could do things that stage productions could not, at which point the medium came into its own. MOOCs are very similar, filming professors talking in classrooms, essentially tying the technology to a pedagogical approach that harks back to the age of Socrates!

That Socrates, what did he know about learning? The Socratic Method, you say? What has the Socratic Method ever done for us? How big was its IPO?

We professors shouldn’t have to be the ones to tell the world that waving a few videos in front of people’s faces does not equal an education*, but it appears that somebody has to before the parasites and their profit motive redefine education out of existence.

* No, giving students multiple-choice tests after they’re done watching those videos doesn’t make it an education either.

%d bloggers like this: