“I see dead people.”

26 02 2014

“When I speak with [Al] Filreis [of the University of Pennsylvania], a charismatic bearded professor, he complains that people criticize MOOCs without differentiating between those that are done well and those that are not. He is sitting at a computer and clicks between discussion boards, Facebook posts, and live “office hour” chats led by teaching assistants who discuss poems in the video lectures (the TAs have become ModPo celebrities, too).”

- Laura Pappano, “How colleges are finding tomorrow’s prodigies,” Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 2014.

No Al, you’ve got it all wrong. People who criticize MOOCs are perfectly capable of differentiating between MOOCs that are done well from those that aren’t. The problem is that even the best MOOC in the world is nowhere near as good as the average community college course. The reason is obvious: access to the professor.

I’ve gone the rounds with Al (and many other MOOC enthusiasts) on Twitter a few times so I can easily predict the response to this point: People who want to find me can find me in the forums, or in a Google Hangout or through whatever technological doo-dad they’ve invented to stimulate simulated interaction. Unfortunately, for the average student – rather than the prodigies that the Christian Science Monitor (like so many other gullible media outlets) prefers to discuss – they either won’t or can’t make use of that access. In fact, if most students actually did try to make use of that access the technological infrastructure behind the MOOC platform would collapse.

It’s simple math, really. Even superprofessors only have so much time in their days. This way, they can interact with only the brightest, most dedicated students from around the planet. What teacher wouldn’t love this arrangement? All the other students who are left waiting by the wayside. The ones who need lots of help that isn’t available or who need the kind of help that is simply too awkward to be made available over the Internet. Sadly, the Masters of MOOC Creation don’t care because real education is not profitable. Giving people certificates for watching videos and answering multiple choice questions about them (supposedly) is.

While the average community college instructor may not be a superprofessor, at least they’re accessible. That’s why MOOC enthusiasts are continually waging a deliberate campaign to belittle the contributions of non-superprofessors everywhere. This particular example is from the Economist:

Caroline Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University, argues that MOOCs threaten different universities in different ways. Less selective institutions are close substitutes for MOOCs. Course content is often standardised and interaction with professors is limited in order to keep costs down.

Really? I know there are large intro classes in many institutions, but even those professors have TAs and office hours and writing centers and early warning systems if you’re failing the course. And, of course, practically the whole point of the non-vocational aspects of community colleges is to prevent those situations from happening, to make sure that students get a user-friendly introduction to academic life and be a success when they transfer elsewhere. It’s as if all the dedicated teachers who help make that happen are dead to her.

Then there’s this (Thank you, Vanessa), “A Colorado Software Firm Is Programming Your Next Professor:”

“MOOCs and online schools have not fully thrown the student-teacher ratio out the window, but they seem to be heading in that direction. As education costs increase, it’s not unreasonable to think that professors, teachers, adjuncts, and tutors could at least be partially replaced by a $7,000 programmable character who never sleeps or unionizes, or emotionally overreacts to student behavior.”

Jesus, and I get called paranoid and delusional for suggesting that anyone is even contemplating such a thing. Never underestimate how little college administrators don’t know about education. Any university that replaces their professors with a dancing paper clip deserves the fate that awaits it. It’s not that we can’t be replaced by a dancing paper clip. We obviously can. It’s whether or not we SHOULD be replaced by $7000 avatars that is the question. If we’re all dead to them, then this process becomes much easier as students are left with essentially no other choice.

Well, I see dead people. So do students. I only hope that we all don’t end up like Bruce Willis and discover that we’re all dead already.*

* So I spoiled the end of a fifteen year-old movie. Well, I think it’s your fault if you haven’t seen “The Sixth Sense” yet, not mine.

“Luxury” thy name is flipped classroom.

19 02 2014

Way back in the day, I had to teach all my classes for the whole period, every period. I would lecture or lead a discussion of the reading or do some other hierarchical teacher thing. But now that the flipped classroom has come along, all my problems are solved! Now I can sit out on the veranda smoking cigars rather than prepare for whatever class I’m teaching the next day. Better yet, since my students are all working out the answers to the questions I’ve given them all by themselves, I can sit on my butt all class period long and just act like I’m busy.

What about the reading, you ask? As Rebecca Schuman indirectly implies here in an obviously ignorant attempt to dismiss this wonderful solution to every professor’s problems, the flipped classroom is a great way to get rid of the annoying busywork that reading entails altogether:

“[W]hat about the reading? I assign a lot of it, and if I piled on a 30-minute YouTube of me yapping about the connection between childlike being and the concept of “genius” in Faust, wouldn’t that incite mutiny? And what would constitute a “problem set” about Goethe, anyway?”

Silly Rebecca, learning about Goethe won’t help tomorrow’s college students become tomorrow’s drones in the technological “utopia” that our Silicon Valley overlords are planning now! Besides that, the taxpayers of America want a return for their investment in higher education as we twiddle away on useless humanities! How much tax revenue can your precious Goethe generate?

That’s why I’m cashing out now. I’m going to tape all my lectures (and write them for the many courses for which I don’t lecture at all) pronto so that I can start living a life of leisure! I want to become a rentier (just like all those superprofessors)! I want to be an educational entrepreneur! If I start early maybe I can contract with some desperate college that can impose my content on some poor, unsuspecting adjunct who doesn’t have the same freedom to flip as I do.

Thank you, thank you, Flipped Classroom Messiah Squad! You’ve solved all my financial problems forevermore. See you all on the veranda!

Can peer grading actually work?

17 02 2014

Longtime readers may remember an essay I did for Inside Higher Education last year called “Peer Grading Can’t Work.” It came about as a result of my experiences in Jeremy Adelman’s World History MOOC and I think it may be the second best thing I’ve ever written (after this, of course). Therefore, I was intrigued to learn that Stephanie McCurry’s History of the Slave South MOOC from the University of Pennsylvania/Coursera has tried to fix the flaws that their MOOC predecessors found in earlier peer grading systems.

Since I have no time for anybody’s MOOC these days, Ben Wiggins, Associate Director of Online Learning at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences and Lecturer in Penn’s Department of History and Department of History and Sociology of Science, graciously agreed to describe their peer grading system for MOOC-obsessed MOLB readers of all stripes. I have promised that there will be no rebuttals from me here. I simply asked Ben to come back later and tell us all how their system worked.


It is immensely difficult to create a massive open online course in the humanities and social sciences that approximates a traditional brick-and-mortar offering. This should come as no surprise given MOOCs’ origin (or to anyone reading Jonathan’s site). All three major MOOC platforms (Udacity, Coursera, and EdX) have their roots in computer science departments. And even their connectivist predecessors were created by academics in computing, too.

MOOCs emerged from the sciences because the sciences are scalable. They’re scalable on campus and they are scalable beyond campus. Sure, labs and more nuanced evaluation based on shown work are lost in multiple-choice examinations and task-based programming assignments, but the core forms of STEM assessments translate well to MOOCs. The humanities and social sciences, however, resist machine grading. Writing—synthetic expressions of the complexity of histories, societies, cultures, and creative works—rests at the center of evaluation in almost every single discipline and interdiscipline in the humanities and social sciences.

MOOC platforms are not ignorant of the centrality of writing in the humanities and social sciences, but their approximation of the campus experience—essentially relying on peer grading—has left much to be desired. I’ve never liked peer grading in my classroom and I think it’s even worse when also decoupled from instructor evaluation, as is the necessity with course enrollments regularly in the tens of thousands and instruction teams regularly less than half a dozen.

When grading is left to students, the results are mixed. Indeed, mixed may be a perfect term for peer assessments, since, as Jonathan has shown over at Inside Higher Ed, the quality of student grading varies widely. Efforts have already started to calibrate peer grading—Coursera has been a leader here—but this process takes a great deal of labor on the instruction team’s part and requires multiple offerings of the course before instruction team grades and student grades begin to correlate with much significance.

When I came to Online Learning in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences early last summer, the first project that landed on my desk was to guide production on a new MOOC entitled History of the Slave South to be taught by history professor, Stephanie McCurry. I was excited by the assignment since my background is in the historical study of race, but I knew early on, too, that it was going to be a difficult course to construct. How would we keep the discussions respectful and on point? How could we teach historical skills in a class in which we could not assign any closed-access secondary sources? How could we assign essays without instructor or TA grades?

From the beginning of my work on History of the Slave South, that last question gnawed at me. How to construct an effective, enlightening peer review became one of two questions—the other being the translation of lab sessions to an online environment—I began to ask everyone I met with an interest in online learning. The months ticked away on the calendar and the January launch date approached. It was not until the Educause Conference in October that I found a promising lead.

There, Thomas Evans, Evonne Halasek, and Jennifer Michaels, all of The Ohio State University, presented on their experience with peer review in their MOOC on writing. This team had put a great deal of effort into constructing a peer review process that would benefit student learning, not simply replace instructor grading. And though they did not find a magical secret to perfecting peer assessment, they did find some promising directions to take the process in. The one that caught my attention was the success they found in description. Their peer review had students complete three tasks: description, assessment, and suggestion. In this describe-assess-suggest structure, they found high praise from students for the utility of descriptions their peers offered. It acted as a sort of mirror. It allowed students to see if they accomplished what they set out to accomplish. This focus on description immediately reminded me of a tactic I had used in my own on campus courses—the three questions of The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

Written by French philosopher Jacques Ranciere in 1987 (and first translated to English in 1991), The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation builds on Joseph Jacotot’s early-nineteenth-century panecastic pedagogy to argue for the “equality of intelligences.” Jacotot—the protagonist-muse of Ranciere’s text—was subdirector and professor at the École Polytechnique in Dijon and it was there where he crafted a pedagogy of “universal teaching,” which posited that each student is capable of teaching oneself as well as all others. We must free ourselves from the “masters” of traditional classrooms argues Jacotot and echoes Ranciere. Only then can we can achieve “intellectual emancipation.”

All a bit heady, no? And certainly a critique of expertise that does not sit well with historians like myself who reside in an institutional economy based so deeply on demonstrations of expertise.

For History of the Slave South, we did not leave behind the “master.” I cannot imagine a course like this without foundational lecture videos, highly curated texts, and refined discussion questions. Leaving students with no prerequisite knowledge of slavery’s history to teach each other is a scary proposition (though, a MOOC community might do better than “masters” in Texas). However, there is a place for Jacotot’s method in humanities and social sciences MOOCs—in peer review.

To teach his “students,” Jacotot asked them only three questions:

o What do you see here?
o What do you think about it?
o What do you make of it?

These questions, like the first stage of the Ohio State MOOC’s peer review, promote learning through description. This is an ideal method for a peer review in which the level of historical context about the subject at hand varies greatly from student to student. Our first assignment, for instance, tasks students with building tables from the Slave Voyages Database and interpreting them. We can’t assume whether or not a student knows if a peer’s interpretation is “correct.” Indeed, much of the point of the assignment is to expose the limits of interpretation in numerical representations of human lives. In essence, there is no correct answer. So rather than make our MOOC students into an army of pseudo-experts or TA proxies, we’ve tried to make their feedback more useful than judgmental. We’ve stopped calling it peer review or peer grading and, instead, termed it “peer reflection.” We want these reflections to act as a mirror to their peers. We want our writers to view their peers’ reflections as a way to see if they accomplished what they set out to accomplish. We significantly tempered the grading of our writing assignments so that it is now simply an “unsatisfactory,” “satisfactory,” “accomplished” scale. It is our hope—and here I must thank Stephanie and her teaching assistant, Roberto Saba, for fully committing to what I’m sure was a strange-sounding pitch with a radical nineteenth-century teaching method at its core—that a peer reflection system based in description will create a more useful experience for our learners.

After months of fretting and weeks of refining, Stephanie, Roberto, and I crafted the following instructions:

When assessing your peers’ work, please follow the instructions below:
1. Identify and describe your peer’s argument; what does it communicate to you?
2. Identify and describe your peer’s use of historical evidence; how does the evidence support the argument?
3. What makes your peer’s analysis persuasive? How could it be stronger?
To receive credit for your peer reflection, you must answer all three questions. Your reflection is required to be at least 150 words long and should not exceed 300.
In addition to this narrative feedback, please rate your peer’s essay as “unsatisfactory,” “satisfactory,” or “accomplished.”

We are under no delusions that our peer reflection will ever be as rich as most instructor feedback. But to claim humanities and social science MOOCs as anything even nearing an approximation of our campus offerings, we need to experiment with creative solutions in spaces in which massive, open courses have the greatest limitations. If we cannot find solutions to the conundrums that plague humanities and social sciences MOOCs soon, then the humanities and social sciences will once again falter where the STEM disciplines excel.

PS You can follow Ben on Twitter at @WigginsBenjamin.

The flipped classroom as MOOC waste product.

13 02 2014

This is a hard post for me to write. For one thing, I have an article coming out in the next Academe that covers some of this ground. For another thing, as my friend Phil Hill knows all too well, I have a #Slatepitch in for an essay on the evils of the flipped classroom. I think they’re going to take it (eventually – assuming the one and only Rebecca Schuman doesn’t do it first), so I don’t want to give away the whole store here.

But this paragraph is just way too much for me to bear:

The MOOC, in our view, is the ideal way to flip the classroom, replacing both the lecture and the textbook. Whether they build their own content or draw on an existing MOOC, professors can off-load content to on-line formats and spend face-to-face time interacting with students. Students will actively debate history -for instance–rather than transcribing the professor’s lecture. Universities will not be destroyed, only lectures, and in their demise better conversations will happen.

To make matters worse, I’ve met one of the co-authors of those words. Louis Hyman teaches at Cornell, his books on the history of debt are excellent and if I had all the time in the world I’d be taking his upcoming MOOC on the history of capitalism just for the sheer enjoyment of it. I’ll bet you anything that he’s a terrific lecturer, but if you think I’d let him or anybody else replace my own content on any subject you’ve got another thing coming.

Why not? I need to back up a little in order to explain that.

Let’s begin by considering the possibility that Hyman (and his co-author, Edward Baptist) raise with respect to “building your own content.” The vast majority of people in academia do not have their own MOOCs. Nothing is stopping them from recording their own lectures. However, anyone doing this really should understand the risks. Yes, it’s time to quote Leslie M-B writing about “lecture capture” again:

“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.”

Are you a professor? Then providing content is an important part of your job. If you don’t want to do that duty every semester, somebody might just relieve you of that burden. I can hear the anti-professor catcalls now: “They’re too lazy to tailor their lectures to their audience! Why is tuition so darned expensive then!” Besides that, aren’t you ever going to change your lectures at some time in the future? If the answer to that question is “no,” why the heck did you bother to become a teacher in the first place?

Now let’s go to the other possibility that Hyman and Baptist raise: to “draw on an existing MOOC.” The unspoken assumption here – that most lectures are boring, but superprofessor lectures are all Grade A – is not only empirically wrong (as any wide-ranging MOOC student would readily attest to), it’s flat-out insulting to the rest of the professoriate. Not only are there plenty of people who do a fine job of lecturing outside of the MOOC limelight, even the less-gifted lecturers among us have the advantage over a recording in that they can actually tailor the content of their lectures to the goals of their individual courses.

Indeed, one of the reasons that the vast majority of the professoriate does research is that what we learn doing our research makes us better teachers. That’s how we keep our content fresh. Some of us even have undergraduates do research with us! Teach somebody else’s content and in this economic climate you can kiss that course off you get for research goodbye, if not your entire job with it.

What bugs me the most about this newfound enthusiasm for the flipped classroom is the sheer superfluity of it all. If I can thank Hyman and Baptist for anything it’s for making it abundantly clear that the rise of MOOCs and the sudden fad for the flipped classroom are intimately related. To borrow some inflammatory language from Marc Bousquet, the second is a waste product of the first. If the MOOC providers are like meatpackers, then the flipped classroom is how they’re going to get us to eat their offal.

Not making enough money from your MOOC? Sell the content to unsuspecting campuses without MOOCs of their own. Coursera has already started doing this. [That's why the Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier quit his MOOC last year.] And Coursera isn’t offering MOOC content directly to professors. They’re marketing it to administrations who will need to find a financial justification for their very expensive MOOC content purchases.

So to all my caring colleagues out there who are flipping your own classes without any prodding: Thank your lucky stars you still have that freedom. Just remember though that your new educational silver bullet has already been co-opted. The more you flip freely, the more likely it is that somebody else will be flipped against their will in the future. You’re the people who gave the administrators of the world this idea. You’re the people who are currently in the process of legitimizing this idea. Denounce flipping other professors involuntarily all you want, but you are still partially responsible for that result. Just because you can unbundle and rebundle your job at will, doesn’t mean that the rest of your colleagues can.

The MOOC don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles.

11 02 2014

“If you look at sub-Saharan Africa, the place where education is hardest to achieve – in the Western world, 70 percent of the students of college age are enrolled in either a two-year or a four-year program and the average years of education you can expect if you were born today in the United States is 16 years. If you were born in sub-Saharan Africa, then less than 10 percent of the kids go to any kind of college [or] any kind of post-high school, and your average years of education are eight. So there’s something I think to add to the rest of the world…And that’s a good thing for Stanford to do, it’s a good thing to do for the rest of the world, and then we can do it with relatively little cost associated with us at the end.”

- Stanford President John Hennessey, Stanford Daily, October 30, 2012.

But skeptics say the virtues of MOOCs also are emerging as vices.

“Two words are wrong in ‘MOOC’: massive and open,” Stanford President John Hennessy said in a widely noted interview with the Financial Times.

- Meghan Drake, “Old School rules! Wisdom of massive open online courses now in doubt,” Washington Times, February 9, 2014.

What’s gotten into John Hennessey? Doesn’t he want to educate the people of sub-Saharan Africa anymore? More importantly, how does the leader of the school mostly responsible for pushing MOOC mania on all of us get off being depicted in any major publication as a MOOC skeptic?

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows and the wind has not been blowing in the direction of MOOCs for some months now. Anti-MOOC really is the new black. That’s why all the alleged “MOOC skeptics” that the Washington Times has interviewed want to mend MOOCs not end them. The MOOC don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles, they’re essentially telling us. When we put the handles back on, everything will be right with the tsunami again.

Of course, putting the handles back on will take more time and more money. To get both, the MOOC Messiah Squad had to adopt a new tone. While it was once hip to claim that the world of higher education was about to change forever, it’s now hip to claim the exact opposite. Consider Dartmouth:

Dartmouth College recently announced a partnership with edX. Joshua Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, said the college is starting to add MOOC courses slowly because it “very consciously did not want to jump on the bandwagon.”

Dartmouth will add four MOOCs in the next couple of semesters, Mr. Kim said, but they will not be substitutes for and will not change regular Dartmouth courses.

“The promise of MOOCs has been overpromised,” he said.

MOOCs have been overhyped. Therefore, Kim tells us, Dartmouth’s MOOCs will be hyped just right:

“Lifelong learners will be able to take part in a Dartmouth course, but they will not receive a Dartmouth education,” he said.

Don’t call it a Dartmouth education, then nobody will get confused and everything will be OK.

You can see the same futile obsession with superficial labeling issues in Coursera’s History and Future of Higher Ed MOOC, which I’m not taking, but have been following in blogland. Here’s Tamson Pietsch and Melonie Fullick describing the assumptions behind that course:

In the framing of the course higher education is cast as something whose features ‘were designed specifically to prepare workers and leaders of the Industrial Age’ – the Fordist era of the Model T. But since public access to the internet was made available in 1993 (on April 22 to be precise) everything – so we learn – about ‘our lives, our work, our occupations, our culture and our entertainments’ has changed. Our education, it is suggested, needs to catch up.

They beat that assumption senseless in the next few paragraphs, but I couldn’t even get that far. Before I ever got there I couldn’t help but wonder how a course devoted to ending educational Fordism could assume the most educationally Fordist structure possible; namely, an xMOOC. Teach one thing. Do another. Perhaps Cathy Davidson wants higher education to evolve beyond MOOCs someday. Sadly, if you carry the hierarchical, every-student-for-themselves assumptions inherent in an xMOOC into the future you will never escape the reasons why so many caring educators oppose MOOCs in the first place.

Let’s try to make this perfectly clear to the people who are sick of the MOOC bandwagon and want to hop on the anti-MOOC bandwagon instead: The problem with MOOCs isn’t the name. Its not even the components of that acronym. The problem with MOOCs is that they’re being designed to create low-quality, hierarchical courses that can be championed by unscrupulous administrators to fire caring professors and leave unsuspecting students to fend entirely for themselves. In short, it’s not the quantity (of students), it’s the quality that’s the problem.

Cosmetic changes will not solve these problems. Only re-thinking the entire xMOOC experience from the ground up will have even the slightest chance of creating something worthwhile. Unfortunately for the get-rich-quick edtech entrepreneur crowd out there, this is unlikely to be all that revolutionary or all that profitable. This, unfortunately, will do nothing to stop them from trying to disrupt the rest of us anyway.


6 02 2014

All of the papers from our MOOC forum at the American Historical Association about a month ago are now online at AHA Perspectives. Mine is here. This seems like a good place to thank David Mazel, Ian Petrie and especially Perspectives Editor Allen Mikaelian for helping make that essay the best it could be. However, it is no different than the version you may have already heard by playing the tape of the session.

The same thing is not true of Jeremy Adelman’s paper. You may remember, Jeremy got caught in Amtrak hell during an East Coast snowstorm and didn’t arrive at the room until very late in the program. Since he didn’t have time to deliver a full paper, this is the first place I’ve seen his written remarks.

Most of the essay explains the changes he made between the first version (the one I took) and the second version of his World History MOOC. Some things went better. Some things went worse. What I find extraordinary, however, is his theory as to why one important aspect of his MOOC got worse in version 2.0:

There are now 108 partners and almost 600 courses. There is a tendency to study (if you can use that word) extensively, not intensively.

This has changed the learning ecology because students online are less engaged in the active learning components than they once were when there were fewer courses. The online forum discussions, where Russians spoke with Brazilians, Americans with Indians, were once a vibrant and exciting component, but they’ve lost their energy. Whereas I once feared the forums would be Babelian, with many different voices talking past each other, my fear now is silence. Version 2.0 was, as far as student interactivity is concerned, a shadow of version 1.0.

[Emphasis added]

Honestly, I didn’t think Version 1.0 was all that interactive in the first place, but that’s not why I find this theory so interesting.

Jeremy is reminding us that no MOOC is really free. Students pay with their time (and, trust me, Jeremy’s class takes an enormous amount of time to even complete in a half-assed manner). With MOOCs of all kinds competing for the attention of the mostly white, male retired physics professors of the world, anybody expecting to rack up tens of thousands of eyeballs can’t ask too much of their students. Nobody wants to feel like a shirker, so thousands of students will undoubtedly rather enroll in the easy MOOC with no reading or writing requirements that they know they can complete than the hard MOOC that they’ll just surf through occasionally on the way to greener pastures.

Of course, since students pay for MOOCs with their time, they have to be the kind of students who have time to give. If Daphne Koller had her way, we’d all imagine the typical MOOC student as some impoverished under-schooled 18-year old with no access to schooling. In fact, those are precisely the kinds of people who would be least likely to afford the time, let alone the Internet connection to watch superprofessors do their thing. That’s why the typical active MOOC student is highly-educated and career-oriented. They have the time and especially the incentive to take advantage of everything that MOOCs have to offer. Lack these incentives and you’ll either a) Never watch a lecture to begin with or b) Give the next MOOC over a shot at keeping your attention.

I think Ann Little’s point about the problem of teaching controversial subjects in MOOCs also plays into this overall argument. While I covered it in my initial notes from the session, here’s the explanation in her prepared text:

The demands of the MOOC—particularly its massiveness—work against introducing students to the latest, cutting-­edge research and conversations happening in our profession because MOOC professors will be asked to offer only the broadest and most inoffensive courses out of fear that courses on certain subjects—­slavery or genocide; gender and sexual minorities; nonwhite people in general—won’t sell.

These are also the kinds of courses that are the most difficult to teach, even on a face-­to-­face scale, because of the various political views and life experiences of our students. As someone who teaches courses on women’s history, gender, and the history of sexuality, I have serious doubts about how much breadth and complexity MOOC history courses can offer.

Sexism? Too depressing. Change the channel. Racism? Too depressing. Change the channel. Genocide? Are you kidding me? I only want to take happy MOOCs! After all, life’s too short to spend the whole time bummed-out by history. Of course, the happy/sad dichotomy will more likely work itself out as a slow slide into banality as pressure from providers or university administrators to attract more possibly monetizable eyeballs leads superprofessors into injecting more and more of the MOOC equivalent of T&A into their classes.

Come to think of it, how long will it be until MOOC providers begin to inject actual T&A into their MOOCs? After all, if we’ve learned one sure lesson here in the early history of the Internet, the only way anyone can be certain to make money in this new medium is to sell pornography. Hopefully most of the superprofessors of today will quit long before that moment arrives. Unfortunately, I strongly suspect a few of them will go off and start their own edtech companies.

How does your typical provost think?

1 02 2014

That report came out of the budget forum that I wrote about last week in Vitae. Most of it isn’t very interesting, but I think what our chancellor says at the end here is well worth repeating.

“We live in a world in which the public has decided that they’re going to invest less in higher education across this country and it happened in this state.”

This (yet again) reminded me of something that reclaimuc has written, this time about the Frederick Wiseman film “At Berkeley.” As reclaimuc sees it (and I agree) that film is mostly about heroic administrators trying to fashion a world class university out of constantly worsening budget situation. The money isn’t coming back, these administrative heroes tell us, so we all have to do more with less.

One way to do more with less is with technology. As Clay Shirky recently explained:

Interest in using the internet to slash the price of higher education is being driven in part by hope for new methods of teaching, but also by frustration with the existing system. The biggest threat those of us working in colleges and universities face isn’t video lectures or online tests. It’s the fact that we live in institutions perfectly adapted to an environment that no longer exists.

What we have here then is two different ways of killing higher education as we know it. One is through plain old starvation. The other is through disruption. Of course, implement these two different ways at the same time and it becomes twice as likely that the patient will expire. This is particularly true when the cost of disruption generally comes out of the resources that keep the rest of the university going.

Daphne Koller of Coursera knows this, or at least she claims to know this. As she told the TED blog recently:

“We understand the higher ed ecosystem at this point better than most people, and I don’t think they [the VCs] claim to have a deep understanding of how your typical provost thinks.

How does the typical provost think? It should hardly be controversial to suggest that the typical provost thinks that cutting the cost of higher education is their reason for being. Yet Daphne Koller has also said (both here and elsewhere) that her MOOCs should not replace an on-campus university education. But wait a second, doesn’t she know how provosts think? What if this whole MOOCs shouldn’t replace a real university education thing is just for plausible deniability? After all, if you’re going to be a party to a murder, you don’t want to be caught holding the murder weapon.

Sebastian Thrun, on the other hand, actually wants you to think that he’s one of the good guys. He told TED:

I mostly stay awake at night thinking about pedagogy, about what will this digital medium end up looking like.

Let’s take him at his word here, OK? What he’s worrying about then is how to make the unacceptable acceptable. How can he, Sebatian Thrun, create a medium that will not be as good as a conventional university education, but be just good enough to his new (post-pivot) corporate clients. I got to hand it to him, at least he tells it like it is.

Unfortunately, Udacity, Coursera and even edX all have a hand in this murder. Every last resource that goes to them (or to build a CSU campus in South Denver for that matter) is money that could be going to make conventional. existing education better. Instead, we have to experiment so that we can do more with less, with absolutely no guarantee that any of those experiments will be successful in the short run, let alone the long run.

Can we spend a little less time talking about the future of higher ed and more time on its present? What do the administrators of the present owe their students of the here and now? The editorial board of the Daily Texan has this one pegged with respect to MOOCs:

The University hasn’t laid out long-term goals for the MOOCs, and the numbers don’t bode particularly well for the courses’ overall success. Still, the System says they will continue funding UT’s MOOCs to the tune of $150,000-$300,000 to produce each new online course. We’re confused as to why an unproven and unused educational experiment that isn’t even aimed at UT students is something the System feels they should continue funding.

Get enough MOOCs going and that kind of money adds up. The student journalists down in Austin understand this:

The MOOCs were, apparently, designed without revenue in mind, though the System invested $10 million to both develop the MOOCs and to host the courses on edX, an online platform created by Harvard and MIT…

The System should stop investing millions of dollars on gambles like these, which lack financial exit strategies and viable forms of revenue. If the founding structure of a project doesn’t include a business model for growth and profitability for the University, who is expected to fund it?

Unfortunately, administrators aren’t paid the big bucks to administer anymore. They’re paid to gamble in order to let the public off the hook from having to invest in higher ed the way that they used to do. After all, what happens if they lose? It just means that their predictions about the outdated model that is American higher education were right in the first place.

The “outer limits” of online education.

24 01 2014

“Sitting in on part of Wednesday’s meeting, [California Governor Jerry] Brown challenged regents to develop classes that require no “human intervention” and might expand the system’s reach beyond its student body.

“If this university can probe into” black holes, he said, “can’t somebody create a course — Spanish, calculus, whatever — totally online? That seems to me less complicated than that telescope you were talking about,” referring to an earlier agenda item.

After receiving pushback from UC provost Aimée Dorr, who delivered the presentation, that students are “less happy and less engaged” without human interaction, Brown said those measurements were too soft and he wanted empirical results.”

“Jerry Brown pushes UC to find ‘outer limits’ of online education,” Sacramento Bee, January 23, 2014.

Let me summarize the last two and a half years or so of this blog: 1) I get concerned about the quality of online education. 2) Lots of people (mostly Kate) convince me that online education can be done well if it’s done by caring people for the right reasons. 3) I grow concerned that the administrators leading these efforts don’t care whether online education is done well or not. 4) “The Year of the MOOC” only deepens those fears. 5) Lots of those same online instructors concerned about quality (including Kate) begin to share those fears.

Obviously, Jerry Brown calling for online courses that are totally automated only justifies this fear even more. At almost the same time that Daphne Koller is re-iterating her claim that she doesn’t want to replace real higher education with MOOCs, Brown is saying exactly the opposite. While I shouldn’t have to go through all the reasons why pushing the outer limits of online education is a bad idea, it feels like it’s been a long time since I’ve done any MOOC blogging so I’m going to do it just for fun:

1) Students will never know whether their answers are right or not unless the answer is always “11.” Essays, in other words, are dead out. Yes, computers can grade for grammar and for sentence structure, but (as I’ve explained before) they can’t do anything with respect to ideas let alone the moral judgments that come with complex topics in history or literature. So we might as well write off the humanities in Jerry Brown’s world. Of course, that might actually be the point.

2) Students will be learning alone in their rooms, entirely by themselves. But what about forums, you ask? Surely students can form online groups and learn together, right? Did you see this article from IHE yesterday?:

A professor’s plan to let students in his Coursera massive open online course moderate themselves went awry over the holidays as the conversation, in his words, “very quickly disintegrated into a snakepit of personal venom, religious bigotry and thinly disguised calls for violence.”

In other words, large groups of people can’t be left to their own devices. They need authority figures, i.e. teachers, to steer the discussion, or else anarchy will break out quickly. If they don’t interact with each other, it’s not teaching. It’s broadcasting. You might as well go back to the “College of the Airwaves” then and skip MOOCs entirely. The whole notion of MOOCs without group interaction defeats the entire reason that all those nice Canadian people came up with MOOCs in the first place!!! Do you really want to make George Siemens cry?

3) The wrong motives. Did you notice the part in that above quote where Jerry Brown was getting pushback from a provost? A PROVOST!!!??? You know you’ve gone too far if something like that’s happening.

For all my carping about administrators not caring about the quality of education, at least they’re almost all willing to still pay lip service to that idea. Heck, even Sebastian Thrun famously derided his own product on the grounds that it didn’t maintain his commitment to educational quality. There is no other reason to completely automate higher education besides the naked desire to pinch pennies. Find me one study that says that students – any students at any level – do better without teachers. Find me one educator who thinks students will learn more if they sit completely on the sidelines and not communicate with the people they’re teaching at all. They don’t exist, and if they do exist then they’ve obviously been so compromised by the potential payout of building an acceptable “teaching machine” [cue Audrey Watters] that they’re no longer worth listening to at all.

4) Treated as nothing more than a commodity, students will run for the exits. Is anybody gonna pay for an all-MOOC higher education when they can learn the same thing from reading a bunch of books or just watching a bunch of video tapes? Seriously, I thought people paid all that tuition money to avoid having to do that.

They control the vertical. They control the horizontal. However, students can still always turn off their TVs.

PS I seem to remember liking the old Jerry Brown much better than this one.

Is Tim McGettigan a threat to public safety?

20 01 2014
Tim McGettigan addressing a rally at CSU-Pueblo last Friday.

Tim McGettigan addressing a rally at CSU-Pueblo last Friday.

Last week, the irreplaceable Audrey Watters introduced me to something called “Betteridge’s Law of Headlines.” As Wikipedia explains it:

“Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

What do you say we put Betteridge’s Law to use right here?:

“Is Citing History a Threat?” “Is Tim McGettigan a Threat to Public Safety?” “Do You Really Want to Use a Commercial Learning Management System?”

This article from Inside Higher Ed explains why the answer is always “no.”

“Why don’t you call me sometime when you have no class?”

16 01 2014

“Back to School” is hardly my favorite movie. It’s not even my favorite movie about college (which would be “Wonder Boys.”), but they filmed it at the University of Wisconsin – Madison just a few year before I arrived there. For that reason, I think of it fondly as my introduction to the place. [Longtime Badgers will notice how they did everything possible to block out all the ugly buildings on campus, especially my old workplace, the Mosse Humanities Building.]

Despite the explicit efforts in that movie to de-Madison Madison, I can’t tell you how often I thought of the joke excerpted above when I was in graduate school there. Not to spoil the fun by analyzing it too much, it depends upon two meanings of the word “class.” The first is an even during which instruction is taking place. The second is the kind of refinement one gets from being born to or living in affluence. Trained as a labor historian, I always imagined a third meaning for the word class: the dialectical relationship between labor and capital. Yes, it doesn’t fit the context of “Back to School,” but that line sure is handy when discussing just abut anything else in American life.

I thought of that line again when reading Cathy Davidson this morning. Like so many technologically enthusiastic educational reformers, I know she means well. I even agree with the vast majority of what she writes in this article from “Hybrid Pedagogy.” However, this particular part is worthy of very close consideration:

“The hype about MOOCs offering the equivalent of a Harvard or Stanford education for free is just silly. Equally implausible is the ancillary hysteria that MOOCs will be used to take away jobs. The appalling and reprehensible 70% contingent and adjunct labor statistic in higher ed began long before MOOCs were a gleam in Sebastian Thrun’s or Daphne Koller’s eye.”

The existence of adjuncts is precisely the reason that so many of us do think MOOCs will be used to take away jobs. If administrations are willing to sacrifice the quality of the educations they provide by creating and deliberately growing adjunct labor, why wouldn’t they take the next step and do away with tenure track jobs altogether? The motivation of saving money for their own ends would be precisely the same.

Davidson’s chicken/egg problem only grows over the course of this paragraph:

“[I]f we scapegoat MOOCs for all the troubles in higher education, we’ll be left with no solutions, no progress, no innovation, and no change in the status quo. Simply protesting MOOCs is not enough. We have to be smart about new ideas and about what is or is not threatening and what is or is not efficacious about MOOCs. We need to work together, and with the interest of our students utmost, to change the conversation back from a contempt for higher education to appreciation of its importance to civil society and to the future. There is no victory in undercutting MOOCs if our hostility does nothing to change the percentage of adjuncts or public support for higher education — or the status quo of the structures, legacies, outmoded methods, assumptions, and metrics of higher education today.”

I think where you stand on this issue depends upon where you sit. Suppose just for a moment that Cathy Davidson is wrong about MOOCs not taking away people’s jobs. She’s a superprofessor. She’s at Duke. She can offer her apologies and go back to work. A lot of the rest of us in academia will not have that option. Ironically, the people who are most likely to be replaced (or perhaps just further underpaid) because of MOOCs are precisely the adjuncts that Davidson expresses a desire to protect. After all, they’re the easiest people to get rid of during a race to the bottom caused by technological disruption. With MOOC students scattered all around the world, their online mentors don’t have to be on campus either. Administrators (or more likely private MOOC providers) can pay them whatever traffic will allow since they’ll have to compete against every surplus Ph.D. on the planet with an internet connection to even do a pale imitation of the work for which they trained.

Does all this sound as if I have “lost my marbles?” Will people who have “lost their marbles” be welcome in Cathy Davidson’s new Coursera MOOC on the past and future of higher education? Perhaps I would consider attempting to make a glib attempt to follow along except my version of reforming higher education is to try to help save the jobs of up to fifty of my colleagues. That takes up an awful lot of my time these days, along with other important considerations apart from my regular teaching load.

For those of you reading this who are participating in that MOOC, though, let me give you one piece of advice: higher education has always had class, and it always will. And I’m not talking about class in either sense of the word that Rodney Dangerfield meant it when he was trying to pick up Sally Kellerman. I mean it in the third sense of that word, the one I learned in graduate school.

You folks can come up with the most brilliant way to solve every last one of higher education’s problems, but if you refuse to acknowledge the existence of higher education’s inherent class divide nothing you propose will ever be implemented. Not one thing.


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