“Video killed the radio star.”

29 07 2013

As you might imagine, I’ve been reading a lot of insufferable technological determinism aimed in my direction ever since that Slate article came out. Of course, there’s been, “How dare you resist progress?” and “Don’t you understand business history?,” or, my favorite…well, let’s just say it gets even worse from there. Since I only title blog posts in order to amuse Ian Petrie now, I’ve decided to call the belief system that motivates these kinds of arguments, “The Buggles Theory of the History of Technology.”

Under this system, progress marches on from one technology to another (like video killing the radio star), always getting better. Under this system, the people who lose out need to just stand aside and accept their obsolescence without making a peep since the dead are silent. No mention of political decisions (like chronically underfunding higher education) or power structures (cough…contingent faculty…cough) or even the actual history of technology will be tolerated! And God forbid you mention the self-interest of your own profession, because that will invalidate your argument immediately since it proves that you’re biased.

Of course, MTV no longer plays any videos anymore, but that just proves their point doesn’t it? After all, if the people want “Teen Wolf” or “Buckwild” or reruns of “Jersey Shore,” then the history of MTV proves that capitalism works. After all, I can still watch any video I want on YouTube (such as “Video Killed the Radio Star”) whenever I want to see it. I can even embed it in a blog post. Therefore, the people have spoken!

That’s all well and good, but how do we know that students actually want MOOCs? Sure, tens of thousands of people will sign up to access MOOCs for free, but what evidence do we have that anybody, especially college-age students, will actually pay for them? I’ve covered potential problems with the MOOC business model in this post. What I want to do here is expand on what was point #3 there: Whether paying college students will be willing to put up with being treated like faces in the crowd.

In just the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot more evidence that they won’t. For instance, here’s Rob Jenkins writing in the Chronicle:

It’s true that during the past decade, the number of students enrolled in online courses grew at a significant rate. But according to a recent study, that growth started leveling off in the fall of 2010, when about 31 percent of all postsecondary students were taking at least one online class. Researchers concluded that “the slower rate of growth … compared to previous years may be the first sign that the upward rise in online enrollments is approaching a plateau.”

Moreover, a survey conducted this year by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University found that students at two-year campuses, in particular, prefer face-to-face over online instruction, especially for courses they deem difficult.

So while some students want, need, and benefit from online classes, the argument that students in general are clamoring for them doesn’t exactly hold up.

This is just for online courses, the ones in which students can actually be treated as individuals. Student attitudes towards MOOCs inevitably have to be worse since they aren’t treated as individuals at all. [Don’t worry, MOOC Messiah Squad, you can always just hold your hands over your ears and chant “access” until all the bad news goes away.]

Then there’s what happened in my own state. My friend, fellow cog in the CSU system machine and future debate partner Historiann reminds of this in her most recent post on MOOC Madness. Here she quotes an absolutely appalling op-ed from the Washington Post:

What about that experiment to offer dramatically reduced tuition for MOOCwork courses at Baa Ram U.? It’s even more hilarious than you can guess [Historiann’s emphasis]:

Colorado State’s Global Campus advertised last year that it would give credit to enrolled students who passed a MOOC in computer science. This would cost students $89 instead of the $1,050 for a comparable course. There were no takers. Seven additional institutions are set to make similar offerings in the coming year. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, they expect only hundreds, not thousands, of takers.

But why are prospective students so reluctant to jump on the MOOC bandwagon when 10% of them stand to learn so much? Why is it only a few tenured edupreneurs at prestigious universities who are pushing MOOCs by reassuring us that they’re inevitable “for good or ill?” But why? Santy Claus, why? Why are you taking our Christmas tree? Why? Even the not-very-intelligent commenters at the Washington Post have called bull$hit on this advertorial: my favorite is the one that says “Yeah, and blow up dolls are a good substitute for a wife…”

I still think this is more an indictment of online education in general than MOOCs in particular, but students aren’t stupid. That’s why I wonder how much market research any of these schools are doing. What if “hundreds” turns out to be “a handful?” Where will that leave the Buggles Theory of the History of Technology?

Unfortunately, there’s one way that the Buggles Theory of the History of Technology can be rescued from the dustbin of horrible edtech punditry: Make sure that most students have no other option but MOOCs, and the people running the show can still make money even if many students do forego college in droves. However, that doesn’t have to happen.

It’s still early yet in the process of MOOC-ification. We can still rewind. We haven’t gone too far. Those of us who haven’t given themselves over to the Cult of MOOCs simply have to make sure that anti-MOOC remains the new black until the providers all come crashing down courtesy of their non-existent business plans. Cathy Davidson is right. If all the MOOCs went away tomorrow, higher ed would still be in a world of hurt, but at least those problems couldn’t get much, much worse much, much faster than anybody imagined before MOOC Mania began.


Meanwhile, back in my real job…

17 04 2013

I’m told that I make my debut as a talking head on this Rocky Mountain PBS program about the history of my adopted hometown of Pueblo, Colorado:

I’ve also been told that I didn’t bring shame upon my university and my family name, but I’d still rather watch these Talking Heads than watch me.

You are welcome to take either option. We all stopped making sense a long time ago.

“Ethel…I think we’re fighting a losing game.”

12 04 2012

In 1910, the famously liberal Boston Lawyer (and future Supreme Court justice) Louis Brandeis lobbied before the Interstate Commerce Commission against a railroad rate hike under a surprising rationale. Brandeis had just discovered Frederick Taylor’s system of scientific management. He was convinced that if American railroads instituted Taylor’s system, they could save a million dollars a day. That would be enough to keep rates low, profits up and railroad workers well-paid.

Like so many well-meaning liberals of that (or any other) age, Brandeis hadn’t thought this idea all the way through to the end. Most companies who instituted the Taylor system in the subsequent decade kept the profits generated by more efficient production entirely to themselves. Worse yet, once they discovered upon instituting Taylor’s piece rate reforms that their workers could work harder, they lowered wages too. This forced workers to to work harder still in order to keep their total paychecks at about the same level. While highly influential, especially in Japan, Taylor’s system proved so unpopular with workers that it created more industrial relations problems than it ever solved.

I thought of Brandeis when I read this piece about automated grading by John A. Casey, Jr.:

Mark Shermis, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Akron, is supervising a contest created by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that would award $100,000 to the programmer who creates an effective automated grading software.

Shermis argues that if teachers weren’t swamped by so many student papers in need of grading, they would assign more writing and student’s would greatly improve their written communication skills. He sees this new technology as an aide to the overworked writing teacher rather than a potential replacement.

Once you demonstrate that you can handle 50 essays per week with this new automated tool, they’re not going let you start assigning two essays per week. They’re going to double the size of the class to 100. Why? Because they can, that’s why.

Since I’ve got other things to do myself before the end of the afternoon, I think I’ll just quote myself from the last time I brought up automated grading software:

You don’t do this sort of thing because it offers a better critique of written work than a living, breathing person does. You do it because it’s cheaper. Much cheaper. More importantly, the labor cost savings can go to football, climbing walls in the gym or just higher administrative salaries. And Pearson doesn’t make out too badly either.

The goal of automation is not to provide a better education. It’s to save taxpayers and students money.

And if you somehow think that this isn’t headed for higher ed soon, you’re fooling yourself. The Obama Administration’s higher education policy (or as I like to call it when discussing all education matters, Bush III) is to make college as cheap as possible so that more people can attend, regardless of whether there are any jobs waiting for them once they graduate. They’ll never differentiate between an essay graded by a computer program and one graded by a human being in terms of quality because they only care about potential cost savings. Even if this grade-o-matic allows professors to assign more writing, doing so will be impossible in the new age of permanent austerity because that would slow down production.

More importantly, administrators and politicians of all stripes would be delighted to throw any number of professors under the bus if that’s what it takes to keep college costs down. Even adjuncts are more expensive than machines. Who cares if the faculty that remain have to stuff a few chocolates under their hats along the way as long as the production line keeps going?

The functional equivalent of eating through a tube.

15 08 2011

A new option has arisen, called online learning portals, that might make college superfluous. For example, a company like Learning Counts allows students to create portfolios that document their knowledge and skills. College professors examine the portfolios and certify what the students know and what they can do. This can, of course, lead to college credits. But it can also lead to a classic “cutting out the middle man” phenomenon: students bypassing college and taking the certifications directly to prospective employers. After all, in a real sense a college education is merely a means to an end, and if a better means turns up … well, you get the picture.

– Bob Roper, “Online learning tests campuses,” Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune, July 31, 2011.

Wow. When I wrote about education as a means to an end I never expected to read someone taking that so literally! Where’s the joy in an online learning portal? Now remember this quote, while I continue this post by discussing a completely different subject…

While I haven’t noted it lately, I may be the only vegetarian in the world who’s an Anthony Bourdain fanatic. No Reservations is pretty much the only thing I watch regularly on TV these days (at least until Fringe comes back) because I desperately want to travel more and because I can treat all the meat-eating on the show as a cultural/historical learning experience.

This is a clip from a recent show where Tony visited the legendary Spanish restaurant El Bulli before it closed:

If you watch to about four minutes in, you’ll see the part where Bourdain notes that the chef, Ferran Adria, really enjoys himself while eating. “I love that you’re having so much fun at your own restaurant,” Tony notes. Apparently, Adria used to eat the ever-changing, 52-course menu each week in order to make sure that the diners enjoyed it as much as he did. This seems like a no-brainer to me since customers were undoubtedly paying big bucks to eat there, but apparently it’s rather novel in the restaurant world.

Like an expensive dining experience, higher education ought to be infused with a lot of customer service and at least a little bit of joy. Learning is not just something we do to get a job. It’s supposed to be fun. You might not like all of the 52 courses you get served during your expensive college banquet, but ideally both the chef and the diner should enjoy the experience.

I’m not a big fan of the student as customer model, but if technology destroys the authority of professors in the classroom to look out for educational matters, perhaps it is appropriate to ask why students should settle for compromises when getting an education that nobody would ever accept while eating out. If you went to a restaurant that cooked your meal in one gigantic pot a thousand miles away, you’d send it back. If they gave you warmed-over versions of last year’s meals, you’d send it back. If they handed you a clicker and said “Press ‘A’ if you want more pepper,” you’d leave the restaurant immediately.

Perhaps you don’t like black truffles. Suppose McDonald’s is your kind of place. That’s fine if it makes you happy. Food is a means to an end too (that end being not starving), but think of all the wonderful dining experiences you’d be missing! If you don’t care about the taste and texture and smell of your food, you might as well get all your nutrients through a tube.

I bet getting your nutrients through a tube would be much cheaper than actually eating if the packets hooked up to the other end of those tubes from your arm were mass-produced. Think of the time that would save! No more trouble finding a place to park! No more sitting around chatting with your friends while they cook your dinner in the kitchen! [Making someone’s meal to order is so inefficient.] No more need to tip the waitstaff to bring your food around! No more need to cook at home will leave plenty of extra time for watching TV! [I could watch even more Bourdain!]

If we’re really, really lucky, maybe someday they’ll figure out a way for us to get all our nutrients over the Internet. Happy happy, joy joy.

Handy for teaching very recent history.

4 02 2011

Confusion reigns on the Today Show in January 1994:

Did I mention that I’m a vegetarian?

11 09 2010

But the history of meat still fascinates me:

The most bizarre “Bizarre Foods” that I’ve ever seen.

9 05 2010

What I always find funny about watching “Bizarre Foods” is that most of what Andrew Zimmern eats isn’t all that bizarre. Seriously, if you’re going to eat meat, why is the pig’s butt acceptable but the intestines somehow disgusting?

In Cambodia, however, just about all of what he ate was truly bizarre:

You can find the whole episode on YouTube in pieces if you are so inclined.

“We never change the Volkswagen to make it look different…”

27 03 2010

Saw this one at the Henry Ford today:

I’ll write more about the museum after I get my pictures developed. [Yes, I had to buy a disposable camera because I wasn’t thinking ahead. Sigh.]

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.

24 02 2010

My wife tells me that she doesn’t like Jamie Oliver, but I bet I could get her to DVR this show if she watches this:

Just in case you’ve missed “The National Parks”…

30 09 2009

Shame on you. It’s really good. Lucky for you though, you can still watch it online. Since I had to teach last night, I just started Episode 3 now.

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