“What goes up, must come down.”

20 06 2014

My knowledge of the contemporary steel industry is a little rusty, but it’s better than you might think. About a decade ago, my poorly-read dissertation was enough to get me invited on as a consultant to two NEH seminars conducted at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, OH. Those gigs included tours of the huge Mittal plant there, where we discussed the difference between how steel is made now and how it was made back in the day.

The big difference is that nobody manufactures steel at all anymore in America. The price of scrap steel is so cheap (and his been so for decades now) that just about every blast furnace in America* has been taken down and replaced with electric arc furnaces that melt old steel so that it can be recycled into new products. Just last week, I got a chance to tour the arc furnace building here at Evraz in Pueblo for the first time. They have “recipes” which they use to turn various kinds of scrap into first-rate finished products. I don’t think anybody bothers to call plants like this one “minimills” anymore. In reality, they are old plants (the one in Pueblo dates from 1906) that have been retrofitted for new market realities.

All this serves as background for my reading of the primal scream of an interview that Clayton Christensen just gave Business Week in response to the Jill Lepore takedown of disruptive innovation in the New Yorker. Here’s the part about the steel industry:

[Disruptive innovation] is not a theory about survivability. I’d ask [Lepore] to go see an integrated steel company operated by U.S. Steel. Seriously. And come back with data on, does U.S. Steel make rebar anymore? No, they’ve been taken out of rebar. Do the integrated steel companies like U.S. Steel make rail for the railroads? No. Do they make rod and angle iron, Jill? No. Do they make structural steel I-beams and H-beams that you use to make the massive skyscrapers downtown, does U.S. Steel make those beams? Come on, Jill, tell me! No!

So what do they make? Steel sheet at the high end of the market. The fact is that they make steel sheet at the high end of the market, but have been driven out everywhere else. This is a process, not an event.

For all I know, Christensen may be right about what U.S. Steel makes (although there must be a hell of a market for high-end sheet steel if they can dominate the entire steel industry from that niche). I can, however, tell you this: Evraz makes rail, and apparently they’re the market leader. And they do this from a plant that looks like Hell from the outside, but is obviously incredibly high-tech from within. In other words, this particular facility (under a different owners) caught up in its battle against the slash-and-burn “innovators” of the steel industry. And they’re still a union shop!!!

But you don’t even have to innovate in order to keep up. I heard a story in Cleveland that still haunts my dreams. Apparently, there was once a rolling mill there that the owners sold to a Chinese firm. That Chinese firm took that mill, disassembled it piece by piece, reassembled it in China and starting making steel there again. They couldn’t make money from it in America because of labor costs and environmental regulations, but the old technology still worked fine in China. What’s standing at that site now? A Walmart, of course.

Unlike Lepore, who did the research across industries and got it fact-checked, I’m not saying that Christensen is full of it. What I am saying is that the situation in the steel industry is clearly much more complicated than he has suggested. Unfortunately, complicated stories don’t sell books to businessmen. Complicated stories don’t get you expensive speaking gigs. Complicated stories don’t make you the darling of Silicon Valley. Simple ones do.

“What goes up, must come down,” is probably too simple to explain what’s happening to Christensen at this moment, but it’s the best I can do at the moment so I’m sticking to it. If anybody out there would like to revise my revisionism, please be my guest. After all, that’s how scholarship is supposed to work.

* Nobody was sure whether U.S. Steel still made its own steel in Gary, IN anymore. That’s a harder question to answer than you might think. Mittal maintained the capacity to make its own new steel, but when I was there they told me that they almost never used it.





Disruption disrupted.

17 06 2014

I never took a course in the history of technology. My dissertation (and very poorly read first book) were about labor relations in the American steel industry. While overdosing on industry trade journals, I quickly realized that how steelworkers labored depended upon how steel was made and that the best way to distinguish what I was writing from the many studies that had come before was to get the technological details right.

This proved to be a terrible strategy. While I’m quite sure that I did indeed get the technological details right, the people who read my manuscript never recognized this since they had all read or written books that got them wrong or never covered them at all. The worst comment I ever got (which, of course, I remember to this day) was “Rees knows nothing about the technology of the steel industry.” I begged to differ, but what could I do about it? Nothing.

I wrote Refrigeration Nation because I enjoyed reading old trade journals to get the details right and because I wanted to examine the technology of an industry that nobody else had written about. Surprisingly, when I picked my second book project that description included the refrigeration industry. Actually, refrigeration is not one technology, but many: ice harvesting equipment, large scale industrial refrigerating machines, electric household refrigerators and others. If you read the book (and I certainly hope you do), you’ll see I spill the most ink writing about the transitions between one technology and another.

These transitions can be painfully slow. Ice harvesting didn’t die until around World War I. The ice man still delivered machine-made ice door-to-door in New York City during the 1950s. Even today, you can still buy what is generally known as “artisan ice” for people who really want their drinks to be special. Perhaps this explains why I’ve always been so suspicious of Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation.” Everything I’ve ever studied that you’d expect to disappear in the blink of an eye when in competition with better technology always managed to hold on for decades.

By now, you’ve probably already read Jill Lepore’s absolutely devastating takedown of disruptive innovation in what I presume is this week’s New Yorker. [It appears rather late in my neck of Colorado. Thank goodness this one is outside the paywall!] If you still haven’t let’s just say that Lepore is unimpressed by the work of her Harvard colleague:

Disruptive innovation as a theory of change is meant to serve both as a chronicle of the past (this has happened) and as a model for the future (it will keep happening). The strength of a prediction made from a model depends on the quality of the historical evidence and on the reliability of the methods used to gather and interpret it. Historical analysis proceeds from certain conditions regarding proof. None of these conditions have been met.

And remember, there’s plenty of excellent evidence for the pace of technological change in countless American industries. You’ve never read an Alfred Chandler takedown because Chandler actually consulted this stuff. Christensen apparently not so much.

Since I don’t have a team of fact checkers at my disposal, I’m just going to concentrate here on the industry Lepore covers that I know best: steel. Here’s Lepore:

In his discussion of the steel industry, in which he argues that established companies were disrupted by the technology of minimilling (melting down scrap metal to make cheaper, lower-quality sheet metal), Christensen writes that U.S. Steel, founded in 1901, lowered the cost of steel production from “nine labor-hours per ton of steel produced in 1980 to just under three hours per ton in 1991,” which he attributes to the company’s “ferociously attacking the size of its workforce, paring it from more than 93,000 in 1980 to fewer than 23,000 in 1991,” in order to point out that even this accomplishment could not stop the coming disruption. Christensen tends to ignore factors that don’t support his theory. Factors having effects on both production and profitability that Christensen does not mention are that, between 1986 and 1987, twenty-two thousand workers at U.S. Steel did not go to work, as part of a labor action, and that U.S. Steel’s workers are unionized and have been for generations, while minimill manufacturers, with their newer workforces, are generally non-union. Christensen’s logic here seems to be that the industry’s labor arrangements can have played no role in U.S. Steel’s struggles—and are not even worth mentioning—because U.S. Steel’s struggles must be a function of its having failed to build minimills. U.S. Steel’s struggles have been and remain grave, but its failure is by no means a matter of historical record. Today, the largest U.S. producer of steel is—U.S. Steel.

Two other factors that Lepore doesn’t mention (which makes me think that Christensen didn’t either) are environmental regulation and foreign competition – the second being the more important of those two to the overall fate of the industry. The success of minimills also required a huge decrease in the price of scrap steel. What these other factors suggest is that any hard and fast rule of technological change will inevitably fall victim to the unpredictability of people. My old advisor used to call this the social system of production, and practically the entire subfield of the history of technology is predicated on this notion rather than Christensen’s brand of technological determinism

For example, if I remember right, Chandler’s last book (I get the titles mixed up) is about the various quirks in the path of industrialization across international borders. In my work, the most important factor determining the speed at which one refrigerating technology transitions to another is its reception by consumers and amazingly enough lots of refrigeration consumers just hate “progress.” Just to namecheck a great book that I happen to be reading right now, in Seeing Underground, Eric Nystrom describes the effect of political factors – especially lawsuits – on the quality of mine maps. In Butte, Montana, at least, the more lawsuits there were the more precious metals they eventually found.

Of course, my interest in Christensen comes from his pronouncements about higher education. Lepore does very little with them in her article, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from applying the same logic that I just did here. There is no scientific law of the jungle that fates universities to go entirely online or die off. If people value direct human contact and the educational advantages it brings, they should be willing to pay – or force their governments to pay – for universities to teach in face-to-face settings. Like I wrote in Inside Higher Education a really long time ago now, all this talk about inevitability is just a way to shut down discussion so that the educational traits that we once valued will be abandoned more easily.

The great service that Lepore has performed is to metaphorically take the fight over those values to the source of the attacks against them. Like MacArthur at Inchon, she has landed behind enemy lines and will hopefully force the enemy to pull back and defend ideological territory that they thought they had already conquered. Those of us currently at risk of becoming victims of creative destruction can only hope she succeeds.





A Facebook education?

16 06 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You technologists out there should go fix that for everybody.





“I don’t need no beast of burden.”

11 06 2014

I have very eclectic interests. Labor history. The history of technology. The history of food. Monty Python. Ferris Bueller. The music of the Rolling Stones. The survival of higher education in America. All this makes the fact that I’ve stuck to one subject on this blog for so long really quite amazing.

The advantage of having these eclectic interests is that it makes it possible for me to draw some connections that other people might miss. So let me begin by briefly summarizing two rather amazing articles that I read this morning and then trying to pull them together. First, the distinguished Atrios guest poster alumni and Corrente blogger Lambert Strether published a higher education post over on Naked Capitalism that really is quite epic. I’m not sure there’s all that much here that I didn’t know already, but it is certainly very helpful to see it in one place.

He begins with a discussion of the actual privatizing of public universities, citing this Bloomberg piece:

After gaining greater independence, many public universities have increased tuition, raising fears that West Chester would follow suit.

“For any university that leaves the state system, tuition and fees will likely go up — creating an added burden for students and their families,” Frank Brogan, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, said in a statement opposing the bill when it was introduced.

The independence drive is analogous to the rise in K-12 education of charter schools… Like charters, breakaway universities want less red tape and more freedom to experiment with academic programs.

I had actually heard that the University of Alabama (of all places) actually increased faculty salaries after doing something similar, but anybody who puts their faith in the majority of college administrators (or even a significant minority) to do the same thing is deluding themselves. As Lambert goes on to point out, the usual effect of more revenue at a corporate university is for it to become even more corporate, despite the fact that their students still need to depend upon public assistance through student loans in order to attend there at all. Welfare is to Walmart as student loans are to the corporate university, especially the for-profit corporate university, but even the ones that you’d have thought were better than that too.

Skipping a lot (please do read the whole thing), Lambert concludes with an analogy to Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine:

It’s almost like there’s a neo-liberal playbook, isn’t there? No underpants gnomes, they! Defund, claim crisis, call for privatization… Profit! [ka-ching]. Congress underfunds the VA, then overloads it with Section 8 patients, a crisis occurs, and Obama’s first response is send patients to the private system. Congress imposes huge unheard-of, pension requirements on the Post Office, such that it operates at a loss, and it’s gradually cannibalized by private entities, whether for services or property. And charters are justified by a similar process.

Having read that book more than once now, what I want to point out here is that this Shock Doctrine-style privatization actually began a long time ago. No, you don’t have to get a charter to operate as if you were corporate, all you have to do is outsource large sections of your core mission to private companies, just like the U.S. government did in Iraq.

Consider, for example, education technology. This is where the second great article I read this morning comes into the picture. While I normally wouldn’t be caught dead reading the Educause Review (since David Noble called them out as corporate stooges about fifteen years ago), they might actually be getting better as they published this remarkable article by Jim Groom and Brian Lamb called “Reclaiming Innovation,” [h/t David Kernohan].

As you might imagine, my favorite part is where they go after the Learning Management System. For purposes of this post, the key argument of their five-point LMS condemnation is #4:

The expense of enterprise LMSs is an inexhaustible drain on institutional resources. Even when they are operating at optimal efficiency, the commitment required to maintain them represents an immense set of challenges. And any technologists who have been involved in a migration from one system to another, or in significant upgrades of the same system, can testify to how time-consuming and troublesome these processes will be.

In other words, all the techies you’re hiring to keep the thing operating could be going to keeping tuition low. More importantly for my audience here, all that money going to Blackboard could be going to raising faculty salaries or even just giving adjuncts a living wage. And the really insane thing is that none of these G.D. things make anybody (students or faculty) who uses them particularly happy!!! They are solutions that solve nothing. In fact, what they mostly do is create new problems.

Read the whole thing to see Groom and Lamb’s elegant solutions, but what I want to point out here to the education technology-inclined is that no matter how convincing you happen to be in your advocacy for open source anything, you’re still going to have to overcome the neo-liberal mindset that Lambert describes so well. You want to design something truly innovative and all they offer you is an electronic beast of burden. Worse yet, their ultimate neo-liberal wish is to use that beast of burden to put you out on the streets – to put you out, put you out, put you out of misery. Like the coal companies in Colorado one hundred years ago, they’re more interested in mules than people and that goes for students as well as faculty.





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.





I am no longer anti-MOOC.

6 06 2014

You may have noticed my general failure to avoid discussing MOOCs lately. “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Actually, that’s not an entirely accurate assessment. There’s my latest for Chronicle Vitae, which is entirely MOOC-free. And sometimes instead of writing exclusively about MOOCs these days, I find myself writing about things that are MOOC-ish (MOCs, POCs, XOCs, etc.) or, like that Academe article of mine, I write about MOOCs in a wider context of technological threats to faculty prerogatives.

The more I think about it, the more I think that this last subject is where the real battle for the future of higher education will occur. While Coursera might love to stuff MOOCs down our throats, administrators of ill will are much more likely to use a wide range of technological tools to change higher education for the worse by making most faculty irrelevant. After all, the vast majority of us are too busy or too old school to follow every little twist and turn in education technology. That’s why it should be easy to slip something by us.

Which is why I’m making this announcement: I am no longer anti-MOOC (and not just because I like DS106). Anti-MOOC is so 2013. I am now anti- “the misuse of technology to destroy higher education by usurping faculty prerogatives.” Of course, that INCLUDES the vast majority of MOOCs, but really the threat we face is so much bigger than MOOCs and their ilk.

In order to spread the word about what’s going on, I’ve decided to get my act together and take it on the road. Yes, I’ve just started working up a presentation for interested faculty everywhere (and am teaching myself Keynote in order to do it) which I’m tentatively calling, “Educational Technology, Budgetary Priorities and Academic Freedom.” Anybody interested in booking me to present this analysis for their event need only contact me at the e-mail address here on the right.

Does this mean I’m selling out? The answer to that question is, “Sort of.” If you happen to have money to pay for my services, I will accept it. However, if you are an impoverished faculty group (and of course I know the vast majority of faculty groups are very impoverished), I’ll go anywhere and speak just for expenses, just like all the speakers I know through AAUP do all the time.

PS If you need a reference, contact the nice people at the Connecticut AAUP. I had more fun speaking there last year than I ever thought possible, and all they gave me was a personalized poster (which I will treasure for the rest of my life or until I get replaced by a robot, whichever comes first).





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.








%d bloggers like this: