Superprofessors are from Mars. Meanwhile back on Earth…

30 04 2014

Since MOOCs are no longer the hot thing, in order to stay true to its contrarian spirit, Slate has decided to publish an essay by a superprofessor who teaches a MOOC on Buddhism (of all things) explaining why the high percentage of students dropping out of his course doesn’t really matter:

For starters, “enrolling” means you’ve clicked on a button that means, basically, “Sure, what the hell, send me an email when this course starts.” So it’s no surprise that, on average, nearly half of “enrolled” students don’t show up for class at all.

But even after that major culling, the downward slope continues to be pretty steep. So how steep is too steep? What’s an unacceptably high attrition rate? I maintain that there’s no such thing.

Here is what matters: How many students wind up absorbing how much material in your course? In my case the jury is still out, because the final lecture was posted a few days ago, and viewership for the lectures keeps growing for weeks. But it looks like, in the end, well more than 10,000 people will have watched all the lectures and about 20,000 will have watched half of them.

I’m sure my administration will use that line the next time our accrediting body visits campus. “Our drop out rates don’t matter. It’s the absorption rate that counts!” How can you tell what the absorption rate was? “Lot’s of people checked out video lectures from our library!”

Yet the most obvious evidence that this particular superprofessor is on a different planet than the rest of us is the way he discusses his written assignments:

How many will complete the final writing assignment? Those numbers aren’t in yet. But more than 2,000 finished the midterm assignment, and in a sense that number is amazingly high. These students not only had to write an 800-word essay; because these essays are “peer-assessed,” each student who decided to write the essay was agreeing to evaluate the essays of five other students. That’s a lot of work—which explains why courses that assign peer-assessed essays have lower completion rates than the average MOOC.

Actually, compared to any college class that I’ve ever been involved with that’s not much work at all (particularly, as seems to be true of every Coursera MOOC, there’s no required reading to go with that writing). And that comparison is the heart of the problem here. While an elite corps of superprofessors continuously wonder at how great it is to teach the under-educated masses all at once, Coursera and its ilk are plotting to make college irrelevant by doing everything they can to “ensure your [meaning their students’] certificate is as valuable as possible.”

This practice does harm to other hardworking professors who aren’t “super” because the fewer people who go to college, the less reason there is for universities to employ us. At the same time, the whole idea of MOOCs for credit anywhere lowers standards for those of us who care whether ALL of our students are actually getting the best education they can get. This is why the Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier became a MOOC conscientious objector.

Speaking of conscientious objectors, I thought the first rule of Buddhism is:

“Avoid killing, or harming any living thing.”

Does it really matter whether or not that harm is intentional?

“You never give me your money.”

25 03 2014

When is a business not a business? When it’s in the edtech business! How do I know? This quote from the new Coursera CEO, former Yale President Richard Levin talking to the Chronicle is typical of a whole genre of similar sentiments:

The company has disbursed some payments to its university partners from revenue generated by its Signature Track program, which offers “verified” certificates to MOOC students in exchange for fees. But so far, the returns for Coursera’s partners have been largely intangible.

Mr. Levin said he was not too worried about that. “Intangible returns are, in fact, the kinds of returns that we, at universities, are in the business to provide,” he told The Chronicle.

[Emphasis added]

Yet if you read all the business-oriented coverage of Levin’s hiring, you’d see them discuss very little else besides the possibility of Coursera’s tangible returns. Here’s Anya Kamenetz (of all people) hassling them because students never give them their money:

The money problem is a big one. Coursera’s growth so far has been funded by investment. They have been experimenting with different ways to attract revenue. Advertising, the most obvious choice, would likely be off-putting to students and university partners. At the end of 2012, Coursera announced a recruitment service, where employers would pay for access to users. But this didn’t get much traction.

A little over a year ago, they introduced a ”Signature Track,” which provides learners verification of their identity and course completion for a fee. Nine months later they announced $1 million in revenue from Signature Track. But that compares to $85 million in investment that the company has already taken on, from venture capitalists who expect large returns. It also translates into a 4/10 of one percent adoption rate, with just 25,000 of 7 million users opting to pay. Successful “freemium” companies, which offer some services for free and others for pay, typically have 2 to 4 percent paying users–five to ten times more than Coursera is reporting. In order to be sustainable, Coursera needs a lot more paying customers.

But wait!!! I thought Coursera’s mission was to bring education to the people who couldn’t afford it? Remember all those geniuses in lesser-developed countries? That argument is for TED talks and the New York Times. Can you imagine if Coursera’s VCs complained that the company never gave them its money and Richard Levin told them that they should be satisfied with “intangible returns?” Since the Chronicle told us that he’s being compensated with an ownership stake in the company, I think that scenario is by definition impossible.

Then there’s the question of paying students in developed countries. Here’s Ray Schroeder in the WSJ talking about other potential revenue streams:

“Coursera has huge potential,” Mr. Schroeder said. “The roadblock has always been accreditation.”

He estimates that with accreditation the company could charge in the neighborhood of $300 for a course and still undercut the cost of most other accredited courses by several hundred or even several thousand dollars.

I hate to point out the obvious, but charge $300 a course and Coursera’s initial sign up numbers are going to plummet. Their MOOCs would also cease to be actual MOOCs. Take out the massive and take out the open and you’re left with online courses, or OCs. If they’re automated, they won’t be particularly good online courses either.

While I’ve been picking on the stupidity of the phrase “intangible returns,” I should also note how stupid it is to suggest that universities are simply in the business of providing them too. It’s the determination of the modern university administrator to run their institutions like businesses that have already made so many online courses unrelentingly awful. In other words, Levin isn’t just fibbing on behalf of his new company. He’s fibbing on behalf of his new company’s clients too.

When all is said and done then, ed tech businesses are in fact businesses. It’s just that edtech businesses are less honest about it than those in other industries.

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 soft bigotry of low expectations.

25 11 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear and loathing in Arlington, TX.

14 10 2013

The rumors are true. I will, in fact, be attending the greatest MOOC conference in the history of MOOCs. If this sounds a little bit like inviting Hunter S. Thompson to cover a sheriff’s convention (w/o the drugs, of course), then you’re not alone. All credit goes to George Siemens, who actually thinks that my warped, humanities-infused, professor-centered perspective will be helpful, and is therefore responsible both for my invite and the financial assistance that will make my trip possible.

Here’s my plan for the December event:

1. Listen [All my MOOC knowledge is self-taught, you know. I have a lot left to learn.]
2. Ask questions.
3. Try to coax as many people as possible into the post-MOOC future as possible.
4. Describe the event for my readers.

Now if I can just convince Ralph Steadman to do the illustrations.

Déjà vu.

18 09 2013

“The Massachusetts Institute of Technology will this fall package some of its online courses into more cohesive sequences, just as edX prepares to roll out certificates of completion using identity verification. Seen together, the two announcements may provide a glimpse at what the future holds for the massive open online course provider.

The “XSeries” sequences add a new layer of structure to MITx, the institution’s section of the edX platform. The first of seven courses in the Foundations of Computer Science XSeries will be offered this fall, with one or more new courses being rolled out each semester until the fall of 2015. The Supply Chain Management XSeries, consisting of three courses, will begin in the fall of 2014. The two sequences will target undergraduates and working professionals, respectively.

MIT officials deny that the XSeries sequences are a first step toward students one day being able to combine a set of sequences into something that may resemble a degree.”…

“Students have been asking for certificates that have more verification, more meaning behind them that they can add to their resumes,” the edX spokesman Dan O’Connell said.

Students will pay a fee for the verification service that varies depending on the length of the course. A course lasting only a few weeks that uses the service could cost $25, while a longer course could cost more than $100. Multiplied by however many students — thousands, tens of thousands — who enroll in a massive online course, the revenue generated from the verification service could be one piece of the puzzle toward a sustainable business model for MOOCs.”

– Carl Straumsheim, “Mini MOOC Minors,” Inside Higher Education, September 18, 2013.

“If Columbia’s correspondence courses were genuinely of ‘college grade’ and taught by ‘regular members of the staff,’ as Columbia advertised, then why was no academic credit given for them? If correspondence instruction was superior to that of the traditional classroom, then why did not Columbia sell off its expensive campus and teach all of its courses by mail? ‘The whole thing is business, not education,’ Flexner concluded. ‘Columbia, untaxed because it is an educational institution, is in business: it has education to sell [and] plays a purely commercial game of the merchant whose sole concern is profit.’ Likewise, he bemoaned as ‘scandalous’ the fact that ‘the prestide of the University of Chicago should be used to bamboozle well-meaning but untrained persons…by means of extravagant and misleading advertisements.’ Finally, Flexner pointed out that regular faculty in most institutions remained justifiably skeptical of correspondence and vocational instruction. The ‘administrative professoriate,’ he declared, ‘is a proletariat.'”

– David Noble, summarizing Abraham Flexner, the leading critic of correspondence schools c. 1930 in Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education, 2001, p. 17.

“War!…What is it good for?”

27 08 2013

Apparently, when I wrote that “Anti-MOOC really is the new black,” I wasn’t kidding. From Inside Higher Ed (including an interview w/ yours truly):

For all the hype about massive open online courses (or in part perhaps because of the hype), the Inside Higher Ed survey found skepticism among both faculty members and technology administrators about many aspects of MOOCs. Relatively small percentages of faculty members and technology administrators appear to believe the hype or agree with some of the statements made by MOOC proponents.

For example, the proportion of faculty who strongly disagree with the statement, “MOOCs make me excited about the future of academe”: 46%. The proportion of faculty who disagree or strongly disagree with the statement, “Higher education should award credit for MOOCs”: 49%. I knew that things would end up this way eventually, I just didn’t think it would happen quite so fast. Looking at the entire survey, it appears that the hype about MOOCs has actually fed greater hostility among faculty towards online education in generally, which oddly enough makes me kind of sad.

The question then becomes what are administrators going to do about technology moving forward. I’m glad they included my bit about the distinction between MOOC providers and MOOC consumers. If somebody at Duke wants to flip their own classroom with their own lectures, then they know that their administration won’t take that classroom away from them. The same can’t be said for people at the average community college or mid-tier regional state university.

To impose MOOCs upon schools with budget problems is like forcing factory workers to train their own non-union replacements, and this isn’t going to go over very well. When I suggest a “professor-centered technological universe,” what I mean is edtech from the bottom up, not the top down. We use what works for us rather than one size fits all. Michael Feldstein of e-Literate is quoted in this same article:

“I don’t think anyone serious is going to argue that online learning is inherently better than face-to-face learning, nor do I think that anyone is going to argue that online learning is always as good,” he said. “But until we see 50 percent of faculty at least say that online learning can be as effective as face-to-face, I don’t think we can say that we’re seeing the cultural change necessary for institutions to fully embrace the value of technology.”

That culture certainly isn’t going to change wherever MOOCs are imposed by administrations unilaterally. Indeed, I would argue (and this is not a threat, it’s simple human nature) that with these levels of hostility on the part of faculty this might actually start a war. And, as the song says, that’s good for absolutely nothing.

I realize that my last two non-MOOC posts may seem a little extreme to some people, but really my labor politics aren’t radical at all. I simply believe that professors and administrators should sit down in an environment of mutual respect and work out educational issues together. It’s only extreme if you believe that the norm is for universities to be managed by administrative fiat.

Universities can’t run on hype, and they can’t run without faculty either.

“Piggy in the Middle.”

30 07 2013

“[Frederick] Taylor and [his protégé Carl] Barth interpreted their responsibility as that of introducing certain technological and administrative changes at Watertown Arsenal. In fact they were doing much more than this: they were disrupting an established social system and trying to build a new one. Nothing they did was, in this respect, neutral; nothing was merely technological or administrative.”

– Hugh G.J. Aitken, Scientific Management in Action: Taylorism at Watertown Arsenal, 1908-1915, 1960, p. 135.

The aspect of Taylorism that skilled molders at the Watertown Arsenal objected to most was time studies: “efficiency experts” who stood behind them, measuring the duration of particular aspects of their jobs, and then telling them how to do it better. This led to a very brief strike which actually got Taylorism banned from US government facilities.

Now imagine if that efficiency expert stood not behind those skilled workers, but between them and their work. This is essentially the situation that Lisa Lane describes here:

It’s like making a movie. And I want to be Orson Welles – writer, director, actor. It’s my class. I write it when I create the syllabus and collect the materials. I direct it when I teach and assist students. I act when I’m lecturing or presenting.

But now that we’ve professionalized “instructional design” (and other aspects of education that used to be considered support rather than primary functions), I feel there’s a movement afoot to have me just act. Someone else has a degree that says they are more qualified than I am to design my class, in collaboration with me as the “content expert”. They want to do the writing, create the storyboard, tell me what the “best practices” are.

They are trying to turn me into Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Orson Welles. They want me to profess, to perform, to present, and that’s it. (They’ll record that, so my students can view it later. Others can set up a “course structure” around my performances.)

Well…that’s not OK. As a professor, I do not simply profess – I teach. All the decisions involved in teaching should be made by me. It’s not that I don’t understand the limitations (transferrability concerns, student learning outcomes), but beyond those limits the decisions about which materials to use, and how to use them, and what to have students do, and how to assess that, etc. etc. etc. should be mine. Doing those tasks are teaching.

She’s talking about online teaching in general, but this goes double for MOOCs in particular. Here’s Karen Head of Georgia Tech (who remains my hero for describing MOOC-making in such honest detail) describing the team for her composition MOOC:

I cannot imagine doing this alone. I’m joined by Rebecca Burnett, director of our Writing and Communication Program and the project’s co-principal investigator; Richard Utz, chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication; a group of 11 postdoctoral teaching fellows; plus several specialists in assessment, IT, intellectual-property law, and videography.

And that doesn’t count the representatives from Coursera! No superprofessor is going to be able to be Orson Wells in that environment. They’d be lucky to be Ed Wood.

Perhaps superprofessors are happy just being Leonardo DiCaprio. After all, Leonardo DiCaprio gets paid very, very well. However, all the money for those salaries has to come from somewhere. More importantly, the money for a price of the ticket to watch this blockbuster for credit won’t be going to the rest of us who aren’t part of this movie. This is from that no-bid contract expose that ran in IHE a while back:

San Jose State University, a high-profile hotbed of experimentation with MOOC providers, has a revenue-sharing agreement with Udacity to offer for-credit online classes. That arrangement was not publicly bid, San Jose spokeswoman Pat Harris said. The university signed a contract addendum in April. The university expects to receive $40 per student, though students paid $150 per class.

Leland Stanford, the original California entrepreneur, and his buddies didn’t get a deal that sweet.

In other words, MOOC providers are the piggy in the middle, sucking up tuition money that could be going back into the state universities that desperately need it. As Gerry Canavan explains it:

The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent, of the people hired on campus to design or implement MOOC-ification. Some of them really are extraordinarily smart, caring people who I consider to be among my online friends. Nevertheless, they have just as much self interest in promoting MOOC-ification as I do in promoting the self-interest of my colleagues in the professoriate. How come we never hear about that?

It’s not just bad publicity. It’s a power structure that favors technology over teaching, untenurable labor over the tenured kind and growth over dealing with the actual paying students that universities have now.

PS Holy moly! The entire Rutles “All You Need Is Cash” special is on YouTube! See you in about an hour.

“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.

Reminds me of Wile E. Coyote.

22 07 2013

“Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.”

George Santayana, Life of Reason, 1905.*

The big story in the MOOC-iverse last week was undoubtedly this one, an IHE exclusive about San Jose State and Udacity putting its MOOC-ish remedial math classes on hold because so many students flunked them. Of course that sounds awful, and all the people I usually agree with pounced. Erik Loomis, for instance, wrote at LGM that this was a:

“pretty powerful piece of evidence suggesting the vast inferiority of MOOCs for students.”

Like Tenured Radical, I agree that blaming students for the failures of your course isn’t cool (particularly when the course apparently does stink), but in order to conclude what Erik concludes you’d need a representative sample of college students enrolled. The CHE coverage of the same story makes it clear that they didn’t have one.

I think an extended excerpt is in order:

“Sandra Desousa, a lecturer in math at the university**, was one of those instructors. Ms. Desousa has taught developmental math in a traditional format for seven years. This spring she and Susan McClory, another math lecturer, taught an adapted version of that course on the Udacity platform.

The instructors played to two audiences: 3,500 learners who had signed up for the course as a MOOC through Udacity, and just under 100 others who were taking the course for credit, about half of whom were enrolled at San Jose State. The two groups watched the same video demonstrations and completed the same routine assignments. The only difference was that the students taking the course for credit also were required to complete three online examinations, with monitoring by ProctorU, the online proctoring company.

Only 29 percent of the San Jose State students in the credit-bearing section passed the course, along with 12 percent of the non-matriculated students, according to Ms. Junn’s slide show.

Those rates might seem quite low, but Ms. Desousa said they were “not bad” for her developmental math course, especially given the online format. Every university-enrolled student taking the course had already failed the traditional version once, she said.”

[Emphasis added]

But why on earth did Udacity welcome students who’d already failed the course into their MOOC in the first place? Putting them in MOOCs was the functional equivalent of dropping non-swimmers into shark-infested waters 5 miles out into the Pacific and telling them to do the dog paddle back to shore.

Don’t worry, though. Next time, Udacity is going to change the “pacing” of the course. This is Udacity’s Sebatian Thrun from the Udacity blog:

For example, we are interested in innovating around the pacing of these classes. In our pilot, we stuck to a traditional, 15-week semester timeframe. While that schedule may work for full-time students on campus, we know it doesn’t for everyone. As we broaden the base of students we reach with these classes, we should broaden our perspective on what a “semester” looks like. Imagine a world where you could take these classes for credit, while setting your own pace and deadlines to fit within work schedules, within times when you have access to computers, or within high-school classes schedules.

The last line of the LA Times coverage offers a much more obvious suggestion for improvement:

Educators elsewhere have said the purely online courses aren’t a good fit for remedial students who may lack the self-discipline, motivation and even technical savvy to pass the classes. They say these students may benefit from more one-on-one attention from instructors.

Gee, ya think? Students without a college background or who failed a class already need MORE access to the professor, not less. This is so frickin’ obvious it hurts.

“We are experimenting and learning. That to me is a positive,” Thrun told AP. Sounds to me like they’re starting from an awfully low spot on the learning curve already. I’m not arguing that Thrun is stupid here. Otherwise, I would have titled this post “Sebatian Thrun: Super Genius,” in the same ironic sense that I throw the term superprofessor around. I certainly couldn’t have invented the self-driving car.

However, it appears to me that Thrun shares the same sense of fanaticism (in the way that Santayana defines it) that Wile E. Coyote or the modern Republican Party possesses. In the same way the GOP proposes tax cuts as a solution to every problem under the sun, Thrun is going to make MOOCs solve everything wrong with higher education whether they’re suited to the task or not. If I were one of his investors, I’d be scared out of my mind right now – not because MOOCs are by definition inferior to any regular college class (although I think they are), but because apparently the head of this education company knows very little about education.

* h/t to my old friend Frank Brock, who used to have a poster of Wile E. Coyote with that quote under it which I always coveted dearly.

**Since San Jose State has not been transported to Great Britain, that means she’s untenured, right? That can’t be a coincidence.

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