Every man his own superprofessor?

10 06 2014

In the spirit of my new anti- “the misuse of technology to destroy higher education by usurping faculty prerogatives” position, I want to discuss this Joshua Kim post about “the end of courses.” He gets into the subject by discussing George Siemens’ keynote at the edX Consortium #FutureEDU conference, and only takes issue with one of George’s points:

Where I take issue with George’s claims of what MOOCs are destroying derives from how I am seeing open online education at scale play out at my campus.

Faculty autonomy. No way. Faculty are more important than ever, and there is absolutely zero intent to influence what they will be teaching. (And I’d argue that the what, rather than the how, is the really important part of the autonomy equation. But we can debate).

I know George, and don’t know Joshua, but really that doesn’t matter because I think they’re both right. My contribution to the debate Joshua invites is going to be to explain why.

If you run your own MOOC, you are indeed more important than ever. You provide the content that something like twenty people have to present. You make the decisions about how learning is going to be evaluated. After all, the thing has your name on it. You want to be sure that everything runs smoothly. If you run your own online course, chances are you’re doing so through your school’s learning management system, but even the worst of those have tools that allow you to customize the platform to your course. That’s probably why everybody always says that it takes much more time to teach online well than it it does to teach in a face-to-face setting.

The problem is (and although I’m not sure this is what George was referring to as I haven’t seen the speech, but I wouldn’t be surprised) what happens to the professors who get left behind? Every man cannot be their own super professor. The world will run out of students first. And as online classes get scaled up and MOOCs get scaled down, all the rest of us will be left as ministers without portfolios. Faculty don’t have any autonomy if nobody will pay them to teach anything to anybody. If we do, our autonomy won’t prevent us from starving.

So if I have any criticism of Joshua’s column, it’s a fairly mild one. While he’s busy counting the number of times the basketball is being passed back and forth, the guy in the gorilla suit has just walked by and waved.

George sees the whole MOOC picture. So should everybody else.





Welcome to my nightmare.

3 06 2014

So I’ve been reading Piketty. For an economist, he writes really well. While some of the math is a little over my head, it’s still pretty easy to find lots of points with which I agree. While I’m not done with the book yet, I can already tell that David Graeber is right when he explains that the overall argument in Piketty’s Capital is a lot tamer than Marx’s:

Piketty…begins his book by denouncing “the lazy rhetoric of anti-capitalism”. He has nothing against capitalism itself – or even, for that matter, inequality. He just wishes to provide a check on capitalism’s tendency to create a useless class of parasitical rentiers.

“Parasitical rentiers?” Hmmm……What industry does that remind me of? Give me a minute! I have it at the tip of my tongue…

I. “How American Universities Turned Into Corporations”

There was a TIME Magazine article a little ways back by the guy who did that “Ivory Tower” documentary that tries to explain how American universities turned into corporations. There’s not really anything in it with which I disagree, but it nonetheless makes me uncomfortable.

No, I do not feel tacitly responsible for ripping off my students: Exactly the opposite. The article treats colleges and universities as if they’re monolithic entities when, in fact, they’re filled with factions: Administrators, faculty, staff, students. Focusing simply on the faculty administrative divide: Everybody’s administration does plenty of things that they absolutely hate. Did the faculty request that new climbing wall in the gym? No. Did the faculty suggest the last thirty deanlets that the administration hired? Of course not. Did the faculty request that the university start hiring adjuncts? The vast majority of us weren’t even around when that started, but we get blamed for it anyways.

Want to know how universities turned into corporations? Corporations decided they wanted to stop paying taxes. In response, governments cut back on funding universities and administrators started behaving like corporate executives in order to make up for the shortfalls. Of course, corporate executives expect everyone to take the fall for their bad decisions so that they can go merrily along, falling upwards into their next high-paying job.

Here’s a cautionary tale out of my university that explains how this principle plays out in real life. Last December, the system decided that our budget needed a three million dollar haircut. The President announced that fifty faculty positions, including tenure-track positions, would be cut. A bunch of my friends in our campus AAUP chapter went into long meetings with the President to see if those cuts could be directed elsewhere. The cuts went down to twenty-one non-tenure track people, but the President then raised the teaching load of most of the faculty (except those with “administrative duties”) to a four-four. Of course, my friends supported no such thing, but the President claimed that the AAUP had supported her plan. What they did was accept the assumption that the three million haircut was inevitable, and since a university is not a democracy, this was the result.

That’s how academic capitalism works. Administrators may consult with a wide range of people on campus, but the decision is always theirs. Yet in the press, everybody on campus gets the blame. Blaming the faculty for the corporate university is like blaming gas station attendants for Exxon’s record on global warming. The culpability is not shared equally.

II. Academic capitalism is not very good at academics or capitalism.

Staying in the Colorado State University System, the edtech-obsessed among you may have seen some really interesting news over at e-Literate that my friends Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein have broken. Apparently, a whole bunch of public universities are developing their own online education consortium. I was kind of surprised to see that Colorado State University in Fort Collins is involved because we kind of have our own online education arm already, but who am I to argue with “progress?”

This all goes back to that really glib e-mail that Historiann posted a few weeks back. As Michael explains it language only slightly less obscure:

Indiana University has been the driving force behind the creation of a new organization to develop a “learning ecosystem”. At least ten schools are being quietly asked to contribute $1 million each over a three-year period to join the consortium. The details of what that $1 million buys are unclear at this point. The centerpiece for the short-term appears to be a contract with Instructure for use of the Canvas LMS. But there are also hints of ambitious plans regarding learning object repositories and learning analytics.

Frankly, I have no idea what a learning object repository is, but I do know that $1 million is a lot of money, particularly when my own school, CSU-Pueblo, was just asked to cut $3 million from its budget. Not only that, the folks up north also want to build a new football stadium in downtown Fort Collins and the system wants to build a new campus in South Denver. Is this really a good time to start a giant online endeavor WHEN YOUR SYSTEM ALREADY HAS ONE? If universities are businesses and students are our customers, shouldn’t we do something more to help our existing customers first? That’s not exactly good capitalism.

It’s not good academics either. As Michael explained in another part of that first post I quoted:

At the recorded CSU meeting, one of the presenters—it’s impossible to tell which is the speaker from the recording we have—acknowledges that the meetings were largely conducted in secret when challenged by a faculty member on the lack of faculty involvement. He cited sensitive negotiations among the ten universities and Instructure as the reason.

Similarly, here’s Phil explaining the risks to shared governance inherent in this project, which is called “Unizin”:

In the Unizin content repository case, what would be more natural is for the provosts to first help define what learning content should be shared – learning objects, courseware, courses, textbooks – and under what conditions. After defining goals it would be appropriate to describe how a software platform would facilitate this content sharing, with CIOs taking a more active role in determining whether certain scenarios are feasible and which platforms are the best fit. Throughout the process faculty would ideally have the opportunity to give input on needs, to give feedback on proposed solutions, and to have visibility in the decision process.

Whether this type of open, collaborative decision process is happening behind closed doors is not known, but the apparent need to keep the process quiet raises the risk of pushback on the consortium decision.

Fearless executives don’t ask permission of their faculty or their students. Unfortunately, it’s the faculty that are supposed to provide a check on the excesses of academic capitalism, yet the vast majority of us have been effectively silenced because we’re either too scared or too compromised to say what we really think about what’s going on around us. Of course, I think that stinks, but it’s also a really terrible strategy for surviving into the long run.

III. Welcome to my nightmare.

So why would the universities involved in Unizin feel the need to keep things quiet from their own faculty? I would suggest that the answer to this question is because they know how faculty feel about a really important part of this project and they want to keep that information from them – namely MOOCs. Yes, it appears that I will soon be working in the same system as a MOOC provider, or at least a provider of something that looks awfully MOOC-ish to me.

While this argument is not featured in any of Phil or Michael’s Unizin’s posts, I wrote Phil and asked him to lay out his case that this thing at CSU-Fort Collins will look MOOC-ish for me. Here’s how he responded:

1. Fort Collins already has one MOOC. They seem quite proud of it.

2. Phil wrote me that:

“For Unizin in general, we have heard from several sources that heard pitches to CIC schools that MOOCs were core part of mission,” then he noted that MOOCs are listed on this slide as part of Unizin’s core mission, alongside flipped classes and badges. In other words, everything I love is available in one place!

3. He also noted that a white paper from the provosts involved has statement about MOOCs.

While I haven’t cleared this analysis through either Phil and Michael, it looks to me that once you open up a learning management system to admit more people and close off a MOOC to restrict it to paying people, you have something that looks like the average Provost’s wet dream: Scores of paying students with very few of those nasty faculty there to muck up the revenue stream by demanding nasty things like a living wage and health benefits.

Is any of this a direct assault on my job? No, but it is an indirect assault on my university. As I suggested in my Academe article, when administrations get deeply involved in edtech decisions it becomes really easy for them to direct resources from the jobs of living breathing professors to technology designed to scale up the education process beyond recognition. While tenured people like me might not be on the cut list anytime soon, if every school demands its own MOOC (or MOOC-ish) endeavor we may not have any students left to teach before too long.

To those of you who suggest that this is a good thing because it will save students money, I’d urge you to spend some time with a typical corporate-minded college administrator to realize that you’re barking up the wrong tree. As Piketty understands, corporate capitalists do not check themselves. It’s up to the political system to check them on everybody’s behalf. Since we don’t get to vote for our college presidents, shared governance is all we have left. If that’s too inconvenient, then my ultimate nightmare will likely ensue sooner rather than later.





MOOCs and the promise of universal higher education.

29 05 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Teaching at Harvard means never having to say you’re sorry.

20 05 2014

I’m afraid that this is going to destroy grad students,” one professor told me. “Not because of what it will do to elite universities, but other places. Why should a community college hire a new PhD when they can pipe in Stephen Greenblatt?”

That quote comes from the Harvard alumni magazine via a post I wrote last year. I titled that post “Stephen Greenblatt will not take questions,” which happens to be the answer to the question in that quote. This was particularly true at that time because Stephen Greenblatt did not have a MOOC. In the future, Stephen Greenblatt will still not take questions even though he’s now making a MOOC of his own.

Should the English grad students of the world be worried? On Sunday, the Boston Globe offered a behind-the-scenes look at the making of his MOOC (along with another one being developed by the Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). Toward the end we find out that Greenblatt shares precisely these concerns about MOOCs:

Yet Greenblatt also counts himself among the many Harvard faculty worried about the potential downsides of Harvard’s foray into online courses. He and Ulrich were among several dozen professors who wrote a letter to the administration last year seeking more discussion about the “costs and consequences” of HarvardX.

Among his worries: Will cash-strapped colleges park their students in front of MOOCs and cut back on hiring professors? What will that do to the careers of up-and-coming scholars, and what will it mean for students’ access to faculty mentoring?

“There are serious, completely unresolved questions all over the place here,” Greenblatt said.

One of the concerns in that letter Greenblatt signed was “the impact online courses will have on the higher education system as a whole.” His quote in that story strongly suggests that Harvard has yet to address that concern (or in fact any concerns at all), but Greenblatt is becoming a superprofessor anyway.

To be fair to both Greenblatt and Ulrich, there seem to be concerns about the misuse of MOOCs all over Harvard amongst the people working on them. This is from HarvardX’s Justin Reich:

The faculty who teach MOOCs and see potential are among the same faculty who are concerned with cost, value, and ethics. The HarvardX team has the same combination of idealism and caution; we had a staff retreat on the Friday before the article came out, where we talked very explicitly about the ways in which MOOCs could exacerbate educational inequalities. Of course, on balance, the team leans towards optimism, and so they are there under the sewing machines, trying to make them work. But nearly everyone on this project is looking carefully at the consequences.

Of course, they’re still all doing MOOCs too. There’s lots of introspection at Harvard apparently, but absolutely no restraint. MOOC first, answer questions later.

What makes this attitude doubly infuriating is that future problems are readily apparent just from the information in that Boston Globe article. Here’s the key part:

As for the cost question, Harvard officials insist HarvardX must and will find a way to support itself and not detract from campus needs. The goal is a mix of funding sources, including philanthropy and licensing software and courses to other institutions. A donation, for example, paid for the deluxe studio in Widener Library.

And Harvard is beginning to experiment with ways to charge MOOC learners for extras, like a verified certificate or even course credit.

Peter K. Bol is one of the professors who taught the MOOC on China and is a vice provost overseeing HarvardX. He thinks every MOOC should have an automated version available for free. But for virtual office hours and other interactions with professors and teaching assistants, he imagines a small fee. A modest $10 or $20 from thousands of students could cover the cost, he said.

“As we go forward we have to always ask the question, how can we afford this?” he said.

Leave aside the obvious problem associated with asking students to pay up in order to “make magic happen.” People paying edX for course credit will not be paying local community colleges or public regional comprehensive universities for the same thing. And of course the fastest way to raise money is to convince colleges to award credit for MOOCs with ordinary faculty serving as the people who students can see for help.

To me, this suggests that the future of MOOCs will not be determined on the production side. Coursera, edX and the rest of them are going to keep on chugging MOOCs out until the money disappears. The future of MOOCs will be determined on the consumption side. MOOC producers will not be satisfied with revenue that comes from certificates or from charging bored people who already have college degrees to do Google hangouts with their superprofessors. MOOCs for credit is where the money is.

How will faculty at community colleges and public regional comprehensive universities respond when their administrations sign secret deals with edX or Coursera and then try to shove MOOCs down their throats? I’ve seen many hints that this is already happening and the faculty at such schools have already responded badly. It’s time for education and edtech journalists to stop focusing on the Stephen Greenblatts and the Harvards of the world and start doing stories on what happens out in flyover country when the MOOC rubber meets the less-selective university road.





“More than MOOCs.”

18 05 2014

So the nice people at Academe let me publish what amounts to my manifesto, at least for this year. Longtime readers will recognize much in that article, but I think it all goes together well in one official place like that. If you’re interested in reading my manifesto from last year, I don’t think I’ve ever linked to this before. I think it holds up pretty well.

Having it come out now also has the added benefit of buying me some time before I feel compelled to blog about this particular puff piece published in the Boston Globe this morning.





“[T]he low end always wins.”

16 05 2014

You were just dying to know what I think of that video from the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, weren’t you? George Siemens has already called it a “flailing rage walrus response to MOOCs,” and the campaign itself the “Thrun of anti-MOOC.” Well, in my effort to be the George Siemens of the anti-MOOC crowd, I want to try to look at the video rationally.

First, let’s talk about the good stuff. Oh my God, where did they get those xMOOC promotional films???!!! They look like the https://moreorlessbunk.wordpress.com/wp-admin/edit-comments.phpworst daytime TV ads for online for-profit schools x 3. You know what I mean, “You can go to school in your pajamas.” [Or is that one just a Rocky Mountain thing? Maybe TressieMC can help me there.] I also appreciate all Alice in Wonderland references wherever they may surface. On the other hand, the cartoon figures of the actual people involved just seem gratuitously nasty.

Similarly, the subtitle, “Teaching Millions or Making Millions?” gives away the video’s basic argument, which to me is also its biggest flaw. The campaign is upset that the Lords of MOOC Creation act as if they’re saving in the world when they’re really trying to make money, and so am I. But that’s a pretty lazy argument upon which to rest an entire video. People like me, those of us whose class politics resemble the CIO c. 1937, will probably be swayed by an argument like that, but not the vast middle ground who haven’t really formed an opinion on the subject of MOOCs yet. That’s why I’ve spent so much time on this blog trying to explain why MOOCs – to be specific, commercially-sponsored xMOOCs – are bad pedagogy compared to their traditional alternatives.

Which goes to the other obvious counterargument to this particular attack: All MOOCs are not the same. It sounds as if this is the line of attack that Stephen Downes would spring upon the campaign if they actually accepted his invitation to debate MOOCs with him, and of course he’s right. As I’ve written before, getting crowdsourced out of your job is no different than being replaced by an xMOOC. Nevertheless, I think everybody should have the opportunity to take a cMOOC in something, during college or afterwards, so that they can take advantage of the collective wisdom that these groups offer and learn the kinds of skills that they can’t get in a traditional college class. I’ll even go so far as to suggest that every college student today should take at least one online class just so that they can have that kind of experience under their belt.

The problem comes with the possibility that MOOCs, cMOOCs or xMOOCs, may sweep everything else away in its wake. Clayton Christensen, who really deserves just as much flack from the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education as the MOOC purveyors are getting, has repeatedly suggested, “[T]he low end always wins.” Like with Walmart, he’s arguing, the bad will drive out the good because everybody cares about price and nobody really cares about quality.

Honestly, I constantly go back and forth over whether Christensen is right about that or not. After reading Sarah Kendzior on the state of college with respect to the broader economy these days, I’m on the “Christensen is right” bandwagon this week. Who knows where I’ll be next week? I think I could live with this proposal to treat MOOCs as health clubs rather than as hospitals (it’ll make sense if you read it), but I simply don’t trust the average administrator to exercise any particular online educational option wisely without substantial faculty input.

So in this environment, who can blame the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education for flailing around like a rage walrus? After all, when discussing the future of higher education, we faculty have so much to be angry about.





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.








%d bloggers like this: