Freak out in a MOOC-age daydream.

16 12 2013

“We have this strong belief that you can only learn when you do something yourself and that you can’t really learn by watching somebody else talking at you.”

- Sebastian Thrun of Udacity, interviewed in Forbes, December 9, 2013.

He’s right, you know. Long-lasting, hard-thinking, critical reasoning-infused higher education is a lot of work and hard to do. Why then do each of the major MOOC providers’ platforms feature talking heads lecturing? Do they think they can somehow change the way that learning works if they do things their way frequently enough? This, I would argue, is the MOOC-age daydream: Automated learning can somehow become better than learning from another human being if we study it enough. I have news for you folks: It won’t because it can’t.

Much to their credit, a lot of superprofessors understand the limitations of their new medium. As Duke’s Dan Ariely explained to the PBS NewsHour:

Every week, students would pose some questions and I would go online and try to answer some of those, but it’s not the same.

Even some administrators now realize the contradiction of quality at the heart of any Massive Open Online Course. This, unbelievably enough, is the Chancellor of the California State University system, Timothy White:

White went further, calling a recent San Jose State experiment with the online startup Udacity — in which fewer than half of the students passed online courses — a failure.

“For those who say, ‘Well, Tim, you’ll save a lot of money if … you do more things online,’ that’s not correct,” he said.

That’s almost enough for me to forgive him for his 2011 appearance on “Undercover Boss” (which I called “appalling” at that time).

So why then are we still talking about MOOCs after all this time? Probably because money talks – or to put it another way, the predators need to find prey. Here’s my last new link for a post that’s turned out to be a gigantic link dump for everything I read since I started grading my final exams in the middle of last week, from Wired Campus this morning:

edX has created “a revenue-generating solutions division,” according to one slide. The organization has begun developing a range of fee-based services for different kinds of clients—not just colleges, but also government agencies and private companies. Those services include hosting and providing technical support for institutions that use edX’s open-source platform, OpenEdX.

How much revenue can that division generate for a product that can’t provide the same quality interactive instruction that a living, breathing professor can? Not much, as long as living, breathing professors are still a viable option for most students. Therefore, expect MOOC providers to just keep on freakin’ out until the money runs out (which might be rather soon).

Hopefully, the living breathing professors of the world can outlast them.

Reading is fundamental.

10 12 2013

One of the great themes of the MOOC Research Initiative conference I went to last week was trying to define what exactly constitutes success for a MOOC. Is it the percentage of people who finish it? Is it the number of people who start it? Is it the number of people who report that they got whatever they wanted out of it? This explains why everyone there could learn that “MOOCs have relatively few active users with only a few persisting to course end” and not just pack it in and go home. MOOCs in the eyes of the earnest, well-meaning people who are creating them are a different animal than the regular college course. Therefore, they argue, the success or failure of MOOCs should be judged by a different standard than the courses that the rest of us teach.

Unfortunately, succeed or fail, the “lessons” that MOOCs teach us are still going to be applied to regular college courses whether those of us who teach them like it or not. That’s why Anant Agarwal of edX, the guy who thinks Matt Damon should teach a MOOC, writes about unbundling higher education here as if it’s both inevitable and good for everybody involved. For example, consider this paragraph about unbundling just the functions of a university in general:

Traditional, four-year higher education institutions do far more than provide an education. Universities are responsible for admissions, research, facilities management, housing, healthcare, credentialing, food service, athletic facilities, career guidance and placement and much more. Which of these items should be at the core of a university and add value to that experience? By partnering with other universities, or by enlisting third parties to manage some university functions, could schools liberate resources to focus on what they value most?

I doubt it, but even so tell that to the people whose jobs are outsourced. The university as some bizarre hybrid of General Motors and Walmart certainly isn’t a future that I relish.

However, as a teacher myself, the part of his op-ed I find most interesting is his description of how we would unbundle content. It’s based on a very common analogy among MOOC enthusiasts between MOOCs and textbooks:

This practice actually began with the textbook centuries ago when instructors started using course content written by other scholars. Instructors are generally comfortable using textbooks written by a publisher’s team of authors, which they sometimes supplement with their own notes and handouts and those of their colleagues.

Leave aside the fact that some of us don’t assign traditional textbooks at all, what’s most interesting to me here is that he’s treating video lectures and the written word as if they’re the same thing:

MOOC technology may provide a new resource in online content for professors to do more of this in the future. Professors will have a choice to use multiple sources of content — the key being “choice” — in their lectures and classrooms that best fit the topic or their teaching style, and the learning styles of their students.

This is a classic example of a product purveyor struggling to find a market. While this might work in some disciplines for which outcomes matter more than the processes by which you reach them, it won’t work in the humanities at all. Here’s why::

1) Texts (using that word in its traditional sense) require more interpretation than film.

I’m not a film studies guy and I know nothing about theory, but I do know a little bit about auteurship, the notion of film reflecting a director’s personal creative vision. By focusing your attention on different parts of the screen, they can control where you look and, to a great extent, what you think about the story after it’s done. It’s like when I saw that “I see dead people” movie, and proceeded to kick myself after it was done for not picking up on the surprising twist until that guy who hasn’t made a decent movie since wanted to me to see all the clues he dropped earlier.

Books, especially textbooks, can’t paint the whole picture for you so you’re left to fill in much of the gaps yourself. That’s why teaching from a textbook that compliments your class is so important.

Sure you can go back and watch a difficult part of a lecture again, but it’s even easier to go back and read the difficult parts of a book. Suppose you do exactly that and you still don’t get it and you need to ask your professor about the concept that you missed. Are you two going to go back and watch everything from 2 minutes, 34 seconds to 4 minutes, 5 seconds again during class time? Isn’t that going to disturb everybody else around you? Indeed, it is much harder to discuss a “text” (in the broad sense of that word) if that text isn’t written because it’s much harder to access and process the parts of it you need.

Writing has persisted for thousands of years for a reason. You can run a video lecture on x150 speed, but you can’t skim it.

2) Reading is a skill. Teaching that skill is why the humanities exist.

Reading trains your attention span. You can’t read and watch TV at the same time if you hope to retain anything. In a MOOC, you can open a new tab and check Facebook while you’re listening to the lecture because nobody is there to watch you (except maybe the NSA).

Even in the Internet age, jobs require lots of reading. You’re reading right now. Shockingly enough, I think it’s a good idea to develop the reading skills to deal with long texts while in college so that graduates can apply those skills to shorter texts once they leave.

Unfortunately, too few people read these days. Indeed, I believe this is the root of our educational crisis today. These statistics come from a book about e-readers called Burning the Page:

“We’re a nation of readers and nonreaders. According to these studies, 33 percent of high school graduates who do not go on to college never read another book for the rest of their lives, and 42 percent of college graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. Sadly, 80 percent of U.S. families didn’t buy or read any books last year.”*

Making more MOOC content available for professors won’t help this crisis one bit. That’s why “All reading is good reading” is my new mantra (but that’s a subject for another post).

3) Humanities or otherwise, choosing the content you teach yourself is a vital component of academic freedom.

Oh God, there he goes bringing academic freedom into it again! Well, it’s not just me really. Here’s part of a very recent report on the freedom to teach from the AAUP:

The freedom to teach includes the right of the faculty to select the materials, determine the approach to the subject, make the assignments, and assess student academic performance in teaching activities for which faculty members are individually responsible, without having their decisions subject to the veto of a department chair, dean, or other administrative officer.

Now read that sentence again in light of MOOCs. Yes, nobody has been forced to flip their classroom and use MOOCs – yet. But as is the case with learning management systems, the pressures to use one particular collection of recorded content as opposed to the textbook of your choice is going to be immense. What gets me is how MOOC providers know this, as evidenced by their decision to contract with administrations rather than marketing to individual professors and counting on them to decide if they’ve built a better mousetrap.

Let me end this long post where Anant Agarwal began. This is from the very beginning of his piece:

When massive open online courses (MOOCs) first launched early last year, we had no idea what to expect. And even today — with dozens of global institutions and millions of learners participating — we as an industry have so much more to learn as we puzzle out online education. One thing that both supporters and critics of online education agree on is that the MOOC movement has ignited a spirited conversation about the future of higher education.

I heard a lot of similar sentiments at the conference last week, especially about a new focus on the quality of online education in general, and I kind of agree. Why just “kind of?” Because if some people involved in that conversation don’t think reading is fundamental, then they have no business telling me what or how to teach.

* Since I read it on my Kindle (well worth the $1.99 I paid for it), I can’t include page numbers (sigh), but that passage is at Loc. 1740.

What problem do MOOCs solve?

5 12 2013

These are the remarks I delivered at the MOOC Research Initiative Conference here in Arlington this morning. I’ll tell you all how the discussion went after I make it back to my hotel room tonight.

At Colorado State University – Pueblo, I teach mostly undergraduates in my classes. This includes the second half of the American history survey course, which I teach literally every semester. In this class, I never have more than forty students and (thanks to the little program that prints student pictures with my attendance list) I know them all by name. Most of them are Freshman. For many of them, mine will be the only history class that they ever take.

Had you asked me what the acceptance rate at my university was just a few weeks ago, I would have guessed 80%. It turns out that it’s 98%. In other words, we are basically an open access institution, just like a MOOC. Yet our six year graduation rate is about 30%, not counting transfers from the local community college. I wish it were higher, but nonetheless we’re 20% more successful getting college students through four years worth of classes in six years than most MOOCs are at getting students through a single course.

My history survey class is a general education requirement, which means that it’s on a list of a small number of courses at the university which literally every student has to take. Some of my students are more prepared to take it than others. For the ones who aren’t prepared, I spend an enormous amount of time teaching reading, writing, note-taking and study skills. Unfortunately, I can’t make anybody show up in class. I can’t force anyone to do their homework. I certainly can’t force anybody to visit me in office hours so that I can personalize their instruction to meet their needs.

However, when students do these things, I can see the difference. Facts are retained better. Their writing becomes more clear. Their interest in history also tends to improve. This is perhaps the most rewarding part of being a history professor because I can literally see learning happen. It’s not the kind of learning that can be measured on a standardized test, but this kind of learning is a lot more valuable in the long run.

MOOCs threaten this kind of learning. Yes, I know that we professors are supposed to use MOOCs to flip our classrooms so that we can spend more time doing exactly what I’m describing, but what will other students do all class period when I’m providing personalized learning? When will they have time to do the reading I assign if they’re watching all those videos for homework? And, most importantly, how can I be sure that my administration won’t just fire me and force students to fend through a lot of taped lectures all by themselves?

Technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is usually created in order to solve specific problems and I can’t for the life of me figure out what problem MOOCs are supposed to solve. They don’t improve access to college because you can’t get an all-MOOC degree. Indeed, it’s hard enough at the present time to get college credit for a single class delivered this way. If you want more students to get a college education, then fund public colleges better. If you want students to do better in class, then lower class size.

MOOCs are expensive to produce, and (at least as long as they’re given away for free) they don’t generate any revenue. Even if MOOCs are used as labor saving devices, the cost of labor is not what’s driving college costs. Otherwise, there’d be no adjuncts. If you want to introduce more technology into classrooms, then build a better mousetrap in order to create technologies that individual professors can use rather than technologies that can be employed by penny-pinching administrations in order to replace them.

I certainly agree that the idea of spreading knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a good thing. Therefore, I have carved out an exception to my anti-MOOC position for connectivist courses that remain in the control of individual professors with the best of motives. Unfortunately, this original MOOC idea has been expropriated by companies that are more concerned with attracting eyeballs that they can eventually monetize than they are with providing a quality education effectively.

Yet no matter what the motives of their producer, the most noble MOOCs in the world can easily be weaponized by those who care more about costs than they do about quality. In other words, there is no difference between replacing a local professor with a taped lecturer from Harvard and crowdsourcing that professor out of a job. The effect on the overall quality of education is the same.

In an ideal world, MOOCs would supplement modern higher education rather than replace it. We do not live in an ideal world. I’m not suggesting that people with better motives stop innovating. What I am suggesting is that they cannot innovate in a bubble. There is a political economy of MOOCs that matters just as much as their technological structure, especially for those of us who will never teach in or learn from a MOOC over the course of their academic careers.

Unlike a lot of other critics of this technology, I’ve taken a MOOC and completed it. While I remain critical of many of the pedagogical sacrifices made in that class, I enjoyed the experience. I don’t want to take anyone’s MOOCs away, but the idea of leaving any student no other option but MOOCs leaves me cold.

MOOCs, by definition, do not offer the kind of attention that a living, breathing expert professor can provide. Our job is not just to provide content, but to teach skills, to socialize students into the academic realm and and to provide inspiration for those students who want to examine that world on their own. You can’t do any of these things in a class of 30,000.

I’m not saying that our existing system of higher education is perfect. That includes my own flawed position in that system. However, I can say with certainty that if MOOCs are used to throw the baby out with the bathwater then we will all be poorer because of that decision.

The soft bigotry of low expectations.

25 11 2013

“We’re moving into a world where knowledge, base content, is a commodity, which allows anyone who is smart and motivated and passionate to make something of themselves and open doors to opportunity. But at the same time, the much deeper cognitive skills that are taught in the face-to-face interaction—they’re still going to be a differentiator. The best place to acquire those is by coming and getting an education at the best universities.”

- Daphne Koller of Coursera, WSJ, November 24, 2013.

“Coursera founder speaks the truth,” is the way that Gianpiero Petriglieri described that quote on Twitter this morning, and of course that’s right. You can only get those deeper cognitive skills through face-to-face interaction, which means (by implication) you can’t get those skills through a MOOC. So why then is yet another MOOC maven acknowledging the inadequacy of their product?

To borrow a phrase from the Bush years, I think it’s the soft bigotry of low expectations. While that particular piece of education reform sloganeering arose as a racial argument, I use here to refer to class bias. All the worthy hard-working MOOC students who can’t afford real college can make a name for themselves in Coursera’s numerous lotteries of opportunities in search of a golden ticket. The rest of them will at least get to watch some interesting lectures as they go about their humdrum lives of quiet desperation.

To be fair, Koller isn’t the only person practicing this kind of class discrimination. It’s been part of the DNA of the MOOC Messiah Squad from the very beginning. The title of this post actually popped into my head last week when I read some poor MOOC-ophile argue in the Atlantic last week that MOOC pass rates are actually a lot better than the tiny fractions that even bother to participate at all in the easiest of MOOCs. He sees lots of other denominators with which we could judge success or failure of that particular educational spectacle.

But would any face-to-face or even online class associated with any university campus get to be judged by simpler standards like “took any quiz” or “watched any lecture?” Of course not. The implicit assumption is that MOOCs are so special that they deserve to judged by different criteria so that they can be allowed to innovate their way into acceptability.

Unfortunately, giving MOOCs a pass on retention rates is absolutely the worst thing that higher education could possibly do. As Christian and Calvin Exoo explained in Salon last month:

The crisis in U.S. higher education is not a crisis of access — it’s one of retention. More U.S. students than ever before are starting college. The problem is that our students aren’t finishing college. Six-year graduation rates vary from 51 percent at private institutions, all the way down to 21 percent at state schools. This is the real crisis, and it is one that MOOCs are singularly ill-equipped to address.

Want to know how ill-equipped MOOCs are to solve the crisis of retention? They’re so watered-down that course on great ideas of the Twentieth Century can be devoid of required reading and a Coursera class in World History can have no writing assignments or required reading, yet the completion rates of MOOCs like these remain anemic across the board.

Nevertheless, we are still talking about MOOCs because MOOC providers and the academic neoliberals running elite institutions of higher learning that keep them afloat are willing to deny working class students the professorial attention they deserve in the name of extending their university’s brands. MIT is at least willing to put its money where its mouth is and give its own students the same experience they’re marketing to others. Since MIT students smart and probably self-motivated, that school will undoubtedly survive this ill-advised fad. But what happens to college students outside of MIT who are drug along for the edX experiment? MIT doesn’t care.

Coursera has no such pretensions towards intellectual consistency. Today it appears that Daphne Koller knows what real education actually is, yet she’s still willing to provide a cheap and inadequate substitute to people who can’t afford the real thing. This is worse than tilting at windmills because it will make it much harder for real reformers to convince Americans to provide everyone the education they deserve at an affordable price.

So pardon me if I’m less than impressed by Koller’s new-found defense of face-to-face interaction between professors and students. Say what you will about Sebastian Thrun. At least his company will soon only be shortchanging customers who won’t be wiped out by the experience.

The consortium to make the previously unacceptable acceptable.

12 11 2013

From Wired Campus:

Carnegie Mellon University is convening a high-powered consortium of educators, researchers, and technology-company executives that will spearhead efforts to develop standards and promote best practices in online education.

The Global Learning Council—to be led by Carnegie Mellon’s president, Subra Suresh—will also look for ways to leverage education-technology resources and disseminate data in an education landscape that some think is being turned on its head.

Believe it or not, developing standards and best practices for learning of any kind isn’t rocket science. I’ve been reading Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error on my new Kindle (so no page numbers), but she’s very clear on what works for secondary education: small classes, with lots of direct interaction between the student and the teacher.

Why would we expect it to be any different for higher education? Because there’s a bill of goods that the Lords of MOOC Creation would like our universities to purchase:

Two MOOC heavyweights—Anant Agarwal, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who is president of edX, and Daphne Koller, a Stanford professor who is a founder of Coursera—are also on the council.

That pretty much tells you that standards and best practices in online education has to include MOOCs in some capacity right from the beginning, otherwise those two folks wouldn’t be participating.

Wanna hear my standard and best practice for education of all kinds? One instructor for every thirty students, face-to-face or online. If you want to run a 300-person lecture course, then hire ten TAs. If you want to run a 30,000-person MOOC, then hire a thousand TAs. You say that’s not economical? Then maybe you shouldn’t run a course with 30,000 people in it in the first place.

Superprofessor or marionette?

8 11 2013

“Individual professors largely retain the right to choose what they teach and how, even when they’re teaching sections of the same course as other professors. That’s the American Association of University Professors’ take on individual vs. collective responsibility for course design, as laid out in its new statement on the matter.

- Coleen Flaherty, “‘Freedom to Teach,’” Inside Higher Education, November 8, 2013.

The professors said they typically developed the lessons and sent them to the Udacity employee to turn the lectures into scripts, complete with demonstrations and jokes. For the lesson on “Sensation and Perception,” Ms. Castellano came up with the idea of staging a “sense Olympics.” She and another Udacity employee pretended to be news anchors giving updates from contests that demonstrated human senses. The scenes are playful, and the professors even filmed mock advertisements for related “products.”.

- Jeffrey R. Young, “Will MOOCs Change the Way Professors Handle the Classroom?,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 7, 2013.

“I’m not a real professor. I just play one on the Internet.”

6 11 2013

In Frank Capra’s 1941 classic “Meet John Doe,” Barbara Stanwyck plays a newspaper reporter who’s about to get fired. For her final column, she makes up a letter by John Doe, a fictional unemployed person, threatening suicide on Christmas Eve. When the letter attracts intense public interest, Stanwyck and her editor hire a bum played by Gary Cooper to assume the role of John Doe. Cooper, playing John Doe, becomes famous enough to give radio speeches at $100 a pop, all penned by Stanwyck.

Joining Cooper in his odyssey is another bum played by Walter Brennan. At one point, in a fancy hotel suite, he unleashes one of the key speeches of the movie, the kind of speech that makes you wonder whether Frank Capra was actually a closet leftist:

“Then you get a hold of some doe and what happens? All those nice, sweet lovable people become heelots. A lot of heels! They begin creeping up on you, trying to sell you something. They get long claws and they get a stranglehold on you. And you squirm and you duck and you holler and you try to push ‘em away but you haven’t got a chance. They got you. First thing you know, you own things. The car, for instance. Now your life is messed up with a lot more stuff. You get license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and court rooms and lawyers and fines and a million and one other things. And what happens. You’re not the free and happy guy you used to be. You gotta have money to pay for all those things.”

When Cooper tries to go back to his free and happy life, his editor tracks him down and forces him to continue giving Stanwyck’s cheery speeches in support of his aspiring Huey Long-like political career. At the end of the movie, Cooper himself contemplates actually committing suicide.*

I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few superprofessors don’t feel the same way after reading this article in Slate. Commercial MOOC providers, being heelots of the first order, are already considering replacing their superprofessors with Hollywood actors:

“From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well,” said Anant Agarwal, CEO of EdX, who was until recently a computer-science professor at MIT. “So just imagine, maybe we get Matt Damon to teach Thévenin’s theorem,” he added, referring to a concept that Agarwal covers in a MOOC he teaches on circuits and electronics. “I think students would enjoy that more than taking it from Agarwal.”

Assuming Matt Damon is too expensive, the Lords of MOOC Creation can always replace their superprofessors with cheaper-but-more-telegenic lecturers, grad students or even adjuncts. Something like that is already happening, as the same Slate article describes:

One for-profit MOOC producer, Udacity, already brings in camera-friendly staff members to appear with professors in lecture videos. One example is an introduction to psychology course developed earlier this year in partnership with San Jose State University. It had three instructors: Gregory J. Feist, an associate professor of psychology at San Jose State University, who has been teaching for more than 25 years and who wrote a popular textbook on the subject; Susan Snycerski, a lecturer at the university who has taught for 15 years; and Lauren Castellano, a Udacity employee who recently finished a master’s in psychology from the university, advised by Feist.

In the course’s opening lecture, the three stand together and go over the ground rules, but after that, Castellano takes the lead on camera. Feist and Snycerski make regular appearances throughout the 16 lessons, but often only briefly, to explain a concept or two, or to be part of a demonstration or skit with Castellano.

Does it bother the more-experienced professors that they get less screen time than their younger colleague? “That’s a Udacity decision,” said Feist. “They’ve discovered that it works well if you have these younger people doing most of the instruction, but in fact the content is coming from professors. They wanted someone who students can identify with.”

[Emphasis added]

Commercial MOOC providers like Udacity are primarily interested in attracting eyeballs that they can eventually monetize. Unfortunately, education isn’t sexy unless it has a sexy spokesperson. If you don’t want to turn off students with all that nasty reading, why would you want to turn them off by having an old, unattractive person take over their computer screen for huge chunks of time?

While the “I’m not a real professor. I just play one on the Internet.” jokes practically write themselves, there’s still a serious point to be made here. Educational goals will inevitably fall by the wayside when heelots have cars to pay for and mortgages to service. More importantly, the resources that pay for their cars and mortgages could be going to students or, God forbid, professors. This includes adjunct professors who currently live lives comparable to Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in “Meet John Doe.”

Yet I still pity the poor superprofessor. While many of them may have wanted to be rock stars with followings like John Doe, what the heelots giveth, the heelots can taketh away. Those responsible for getting you groupies, can always turn the spotlight on someone else whether that person happens to be qualified to do your job or not. Indeed, one might argue that this is the natural outcome of separating content delivery from actual teaching. I simply expected that it would be the academic lumpenproletariate who would feel the effects of that decision first, long before the superprofessors did.

One might also argue that this is the natural outcome of introducing commercial values into higher education. I actually wouldn’t go that far. It’s more like the natural outcome of allowing commercial values to dominate higher education above all other things. While we can never go back to a non-existent free and happy time when professors were only in it for the sake of education, at least we can go back to a free and happy time before administrators and the people who want to sell them expensive edtech treated disruption like a positive good, no matter how many people it hurts in the process.

In other words, it’s not the MOOCs that are the problem here. It’s the heelots who are running them.

* As my memory of Frank Capra films other than “It’s a Wonderful Life” is far from perfect, I used both the IMDb and Wikipedia entries for “Meet John Doe” to help write this summary. The quote is my (probably bad) transcription of the video at top.

“And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear.”

4 11 2013

The first professor I ever TAed for was the urban historian Stan Schultz.  Before he retired a few years ago, Stan taught the 500-person US History II survey at UW-Madison, and he was a local legend.  Administrative assistants from the department office used to slip into the back of the classroom when he did his impersonation of Billy Sunday during his 1920s lecture because it was just that good.

Shortly after I worked for him, Stan began to offer a version of the course on local public access television. At different times during the day you could watch taped Schultz lectures filmed in a special studio.  I heard later that people would stop Stan in the grocery store to tell them how much they enjoyed seeing him on TV (even though they weren’t taking the course), but this still wasn’t the same as the in person experience.  He couldn’t impersonate Billy Sunday on television for fear of offending someone.  He didn’t quote Harry Truman saying “fuck” twice like he did during another one of his in person lectures.

While I’m tempted to take this post down a well-worn path (and you can read an earlier Schultz-inspired post along those lines here), an article from the Boston Globe I read over the weekend made me think of Schultz for a different reason.  It’s called “For online professors, a celebrity side effect.”  The subheading reads:  “Wardrobe worries and groupies, too.”  Much of the text consists of various current or future superprofessors offering quirky stories about the somewhat dark side of Internet fame. To borrow and slightly augment a point that Noel Jackson made on Twitter, the movement of MOOC stories from the business pages to the front page to the Living Section is all the evidence you’ll ever need to argue that MOOCs have jumped the shark (if they hadn’t done so months ago already).  However, I’d rather make a different point in the rest of this post.

The great argument in favor of xMOOCs has always been that the best professors now become accessible to anyone, whether they can pay tuition or not.  Yet the majority of the superprofessors quoted in that article are assistant professors.  No disrespect to the assistant professors of the world, but they have less teaching experience than higher-ranked professors do almost by definition.  Equally importantly, by definition, they do not have tenure.  [Tenure, of course, being the only reliable guarantee of academic freedom and academic freedom being the best available guarantee that the material being taught is true in both the literal and spiritual senses of that word.]

My understanding was that Stan taught the 500-person history survey because he was the only professor in the department willing to do it. Because he was the only professor willing to do it, he got very good at it over time.  Because he was very good at it, they let him try to teach it over public access television.  Stan could do a spellbinding 50-minute lecture from nothing but a 3×5 index card.  That is a standard I have only recently reached (although I use 25-odd historical pictures on PowerPoint instead).  I often think of Stan when I hear or read that all lectures are inherently boring.  He’s living proof that they’re not.

Why then are so many assistant professors teaching MOOCs instead of more people like Stan?  Well, of course, these assistant professors might all be just as excellent, but anybody who’s taught online for a community college for any length of time is more qualified to bring college learning to the general public through the Internet than anybody teaching just face-to-face at an elite institution, experienced or not.  In truth, rank doesn’t matter to commercial MOOC providers.  Their entire reason for being depends upon the name identification of their partners:  Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, whatever. The superprofessors are merely the embodiment of that brand.  

That’s why scholarship or teaching skills don’t matter to Coursera or edX anywhere near as much as the places where their superprofessors teach.  It doesn’t matter then that the “best of the best” may be someone who’s actual teaching experience is rather slim. Indeed, as my friend Kate reminded me this morning, even if your superprofessor is an experienced educator, their inevitable huge team of underpaid grad students likely perform most of the functions that we used to associate with actual teaching.

Perhaps so many assistant professors are quoted in that article because most of us who’ve been around for a while know that the proper academic response when the papers want to know whose shirts you wear is, “Buzz off!!! It’s not about me.  It’s about the material.” Anything else is an invitation to create a cult of personality.

We academics are a funny bunch.  Most of the ones I’ve known (my own father included) would go to great lengths to avoid drawing attention to themselves.  Think of the number of academics you follow on Twitter whose avatars aren’t pictures of themselves and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.  This blog, my Twitter account, the fact that I actively want to write for popular media outlets – all of these things might be construed as my trying to call attention to myself, but I would draw a distinction between calling attention to yourself and calling attention to your ideas.  I mentioned my twin causes last week.  I also want to sell books full of my ideas. While none of these goals are particularly noble, at least they don’t require my telling you about my wardrobe or my nonexistent groupies.

They say that all publicity is good publicity, but the fact that Niall Ferguson periodically shows up in the gossip pages does nothing to improve the quality of his teaching or his scholarship.  All publicity may be good publicity if you want to be Niall Ferguson when you make it in academia, but if you want to be Niall Ferguson when you make it in academia then I think your priorities need some serious readjustment.

Don’t make me go “All flipped classroom, all the time.” Just don’t.

30 10 2013

Hey kids! Do the new dance craze that’s sweeping the nation! It’s called the “flipped classroom” and it’s the bee’s knees, at least so says Inside Higher Ed:

Go ahead and postpone the conversation about the backlash against the flipped classroom model. Supporters and skeptics alike — and even the researchers behind a seemingly critical new report — say the discussion continues to be positive.

Unless, of course, you believe in assigned reading, but nobody’s bothered to ask us. If you’d like to run your classroom differently, then please be my guest. The problem is that if you start suggesting that your teaching methods can cure boils, baldness AND everything that’s wrong with higher education all in swoop, it will become increasingly difficult for those of us who currently teach the way we want to teach to continue doing so.

You think I’m being paranoid? Ever heard of lecture capture? Apparently:

More college and universities are growing comfortable with the idea of recording lectures and making them available online. According to data compiled by the Campus Computing Project, more than two-thirds of institutions see lecture capture as an important tool to deliver instructional content. That share has grown steadily in the past few years.

Flipping yourself is one thing, but what happens if the university wants to use those lectures elsewhere? Leslie MB was on this two frickin’ years ago, people!:

I’m not sure what the policy is at my current institution, but I signed away a lot of intellectual property rights at my last one. In an age where people seem to think that education is just a matter of “delivering content” that translates into mad workplace skillz, I’m uneasy about providing the university with any multimedia content that could be aggregated into a enormous-enrollment course taught by a grossly underpaid and underinsured Ph.D.

In other words, what’s good for those of us with the privilege of designing our own courses may not necessarily be good for those of us who lack that privilege. Therefore, go flip yourself all you like, and discuss the flipped classroom all you like too. Just don’t wring class politics out of that discussion. No technology is adapted in a vacuum. Ed tech startups, the pages of the higher ed press and upstarts trying to make a name for themselves in the new scholarship of teaching and learning all thrive on solutionism. Don’t join them on that ride without maintaining a healthy degree of skepticism.

More importantly, don’t make me go “All flipped classroom, all the time.” Just don’t. I don’t think I have the patience anymore.

On boredom.

27 10 2013

I served as a panelist for a webinar last week.  It won’t be available until next month (and it appears that you can sign up here if you are inclined to watch me play talking head for an hour), but I’ll describe the highlight right now:  I came very close to jumping out of my seat, reaching my arms through the Internet and strangling a guy from Google on my panel.  You see, he had just made the argument that lectures are inherently boring and if students are checking Facebook on their smart phones during classes then it’s obviously the professor’s fault.  He then suggested that more technology in the classroom can fix that problem.  This led me into a long rant about reading and writing skills and the importance of learning patience which I now kind of regret for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the guy from Google seemed like a perfectly nice person right up until the point that he made that argument.

What I should have said was this:  “Yes, some professors are boring.  Other professors put a great effort into making their lectures as entertaining as humanly possible.  I hope I fall into the later category as I’ve changed the way that I lecture a lot since I first started teaching.  The most important change is that I no longer read anything.  I keep my eyes on my audience at all times and address them directly, using only the pictures on my PowerPoint presentations as reminder of what I want to talk about.  This makes it easier for me to ask questions or take questions during class or do whatever I can to make lectures a less passive experience.

Undoubtedly, some students still find this boring, but life often requires us to sit through things that we don’t enjoy.  I, for one, feel the exact same way they do at just about every academic meeting that I am ever required to attend, but as going to these  meetings is part of my job I have learned to grin and bear it.  While certainly we shouldn’t deliberately set out to bore our students, there are some things about higher education that a majority of them will not enjoy.  To suggest that they should somehow get a vote in what higher education should be is to turn its very purpose on its head.  We might as well just sell degrees online for a fixed price whether students show up to class or not because the effect will be just the same.”

Right after that conversation, I read Evgeny Morozov’s piece on boredom in last week’s New Yorker (subs. req.).  While he seldom writes explicitly about higher education, so much of what he does write applies perfectly to higher education that it’s no wonder that I’ve become such a huge fan.  Take this, for example:

“Information overload can bore us as easily as information under load.  But this form of boredom, mediated boredom, doesn’t provide time to think; it just produces a craving for more information in order to suppress it.”

This would explain the absolute inability of so many students to to stop checking their phones in even the most interesting classes.  If everything new has become boring despite its newness, then it would be difficult to distinguish between the ephemeral information coming at them via phone and the timeless truths that a good professor may be teaching in whatever discipline they happen to be imparting to them.  More importantly, you can filter what information that comes to you via Facebook in all sorts of ways, but in class most professors only let you learn one way:  theirs.  If you never give yourself time to think or reflect about yourself, then you’re certainly going to resent the fact that your professor is demanding that you reflect on the experiences of other people (be they writers, historical figures, scientists or whomever) who you don’t even know and could care less about in the first place.

Why don’t they care more?  Because students, like so many people in general, have enough trouble managing their own Information Age existences.  Here’s Morozov again:

“The fire hose of social media tricks us into thinking that, for a fleeting moment, we can play God and conquer every link that is dumped upon us; it gives us that mad utopian hope that, with proper training, we can emerge victorious in the war on information overload.”

Listening to the professor in class not only distracts students from engaging in the exciting war that they can wage on their phones anytime, anywhere, it has the unfortunate side effect of giving them yet more information that they have to process.  Of course, we can do what the guy from Google wants and turn all of our classes into social media or social media-like experiences.  I can certainly see why that could be useful in a limited number of disciplines (take media studies, for example), but do we really want to throw out the baby with bathwater?

As Mazel likes to point out in his many comments on this blog, books are really useful teaching tools which have been a very useful for inquisitive people everywhere for hundreds of years now.  Even if the media by which written information is delivered changes over time, reading is a skill that will remain essential for thinking people for hundreds if not thousands of years into the future.  Turning every aspect of college into a consumer-oriented, technologically-enabled, app-driven endeavor in order to avoid a systemic boredom that no one professor could possibly cure on their own won’t do the college students of tomorrow any favors.  More likely it will just make it harder for graduates to last in jobs that won’t cater to their every whim or to get jobs that involve any kind of thinking or ability to act independently in the first place.

But why should anybody listen to me? I don’t design apps and I don’t know how to code. I just teach for a living.


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