Profit, Prophecy, and the Case of the Hybrid University (Ctd.)

One more point about the Bloomberg article raises pertains to the plight of adjuncts.  Though SNHU’s online program was initially supported by adjuncts getting paid the usual pittance, it has generated enough revenue to hire full-timers to do more (and, hopefully, eventually, most) of the teaching.  This may be a way to break the fatal logic of the adjunct dilemma as it exists at (solely) brick-and-mortar universities.  Not only would schools have the resources to ensure that many, most, or all of their on-site teachers are full time, but now adjuncts could still teach part-time, but do so more comfortably, without having to shuttle from campus to campus, which is a major drain on time, money, and mental health.

Of course, the true adjunct dilemma is faced by the teachers themselves, not the administrators.  My fellow blogger Dan Mullin recently shared his ambivalence about going back to adjuncting after a hiatus.

The Dark Side of MOOCs

Check out this infographic on MOOCs posted over at

The Dark Side of MOOCs

I will have more to say about the developing debate over MOOCs later, but at first blink, I have two impressions based on everything I have read:

The Good News:  MOOCs will disseminate the highest quality education to the poorest people.  As I noted in a previous post, and as Thomas Friedman has pointed out, whatever the fate of MOOCs in higher ed in the developed world, one unadulterated good they provide is giving people in the developing world a chance to acquire the knowledge and skills they will need to have a fighting chance in the 21st century economy.

The Bad News:  The new strains of premium MOOCs being devised and piloted by the elite universities–the Big Three players listed in the graphic above–threaten the other players in the higher ed ecosystem:  for-profits, non-profit, 2nd and 3rd tier private schools, and non-profit state universities.  Harvard et al., fueled by virtually unlimited coffers, can BOTH kick butt in the arms race for prestige, and leverage that prestige to dominate the online landscape, thus furthering weakening the hand of mainstream, “middle class” universities.  Indeed, (ironically) Harvard economist David J. Collis predicted as much; in The Last Professors:  The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Frank Donogue explains Collis’ prescient speculation:

“[Collis] speculates that these top universities, made all the richer by capitalizing on their brand names to market “basic lectures and course”s online, could then ‘shift back to the tutorial system to differentiate their on-campus education’ experience.  They will, in other words, offer convenience to one market of students and prestige to another.”

They will, in other words, corner the markets for both the Technical University and what David Brooks has recently called the Practical University.  I will treat Brooks’ proposal–which seems correct but salutary in a depressingly restricted sense–in a separate post.

But one thing to notice is the story behind how Harvard made the decision to MOOC forward.  As Nathan Heller recently reported in the New Yorker,

One day in February, 2012, a social scientist named Gary King visited a gray stone administrative building in Harvard Yard to give a presentation to the Board of Overseers and Harvard administrators. King, though only in his fifties, is a “university professor”—Harvard’s highest academic ranking, letting him work in any school across the university. He directs the university’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, and he spoke that day about his specialty, which is gathering and analyzing data.

“What’s Harvard’s biggest threat?” King began. He was wearing a black suit with a diagonally striped tie, and he stood a little gawkily, in a room trimmed with oil paintings and the busts of great men. “I think the biggest threat to Harvard by far is the rise of for-profit universities.” The University of Phoenix, he explained, spent a hundred million dollars on research and development for teaching. Meanwhile, seventy per cent of Americans don’t get a college degree. “You might say, ‘Oh, that’s really bad.’ Or you might say, ‘Oh, that’s a different clientele.’ But what it really is is a revenue source. It’s an enormous revenue source for these private corporations.”

HARVARD feels threatened?  Are you serious?  One is reminded of the bizarre phenomenon in recent American politics, in which the RICH plead that they are under attack by the “takers.”  Whereas under “normal market conditions,” the only class reasonably contemplating any kind of protest and revolt would be the lower and working classes, in today’s bizarro world of Gilded Age income inequality, the people at the top are so out of touch with reality, so insecure about their position at the top–perhaps haunted by a kind of “thriver’s guilt” fueled by the deep down knowledge that they did not really earn it, but won a cruel lottery–that they deceive themselves that they are under attack.  It is not enough that Harvard win the prestige game, it is not enough that they be the richest (with an endowment of–take a deep breathe, because i guarantee you are not ready for this figure–over $30 billion)–no, they must one-up the “1.0” for-profits (University of Phoenix, et al.) by leveraging their brand name, with one hand, and undermine the strapped middle class state universities and struggling 2nd and 3rd tier private universities, with the other.

This is a seriously incomplete and somewhat ranty account, and there is much more to the story–and, I think, more Good News that what I noted above–but it’s a perspective that needs to be laid out on the table and reckoned with.



After a prolonged hiatus–due almost exclusively to the interminable demands of the mad campaign of the academic job market–I am finally returning to blogging.  Over the next several weeks, I’ll be exploring the supercluster of issues orbiting education, technology, and the rapidly evolving relationship between them (so-called “EdTech”).

Along the lines of education, I’ve been working my way through several of the most recent screeds on and exposes of higher education.  I’ll be trying to sort through issues such as the following:

  • Corporatization of the university
  • Adjuncts
  • The future of tenure and the nature of academic freedom
  • The very idea of a public intellectual in the 21st century
  • The so-called “skills gap”
  • For-profit universities
  • online education and “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses)
  • The role of Big Data in higher ed
  • Student loans and the prospect of a higher ed “bubble”
  • Changing student demographics
  • The psychology and culture of academia

One of the most fascinating things I’m coming up against in this research, again and again, is how ignorant many academics, particularly humanists, tend to be about the conditions of their labor (as well as their reluctance to recognize what they do as labor), about how the university works, about the macroeconomic forces operating, as Hegel might say, “behind the back of consciousness.”  Our reflexes dictate that we bemoan the corporatization of the university, and scoff at the conservative critiques of tenure, intellectuals, and academia in general, yet we often fail to consider whether these positions have a kernel of truth.  What the research suggests–what students and the public suspect, and what more self-aware academics know–is that the university is not what it seems to be.

In much the same way that we continue to refer to something called “the middle class” in America, despite the radically changed and changing economic landscape of the last few decades, and especially the last five years, we continue to cling to a conception of the university that arose in a very different era; it is part of our “social imaginary” and is deeply bound up with our understanding of what it means to be a successful, middle class American; which, for many of us, sadly, is more or less equal to what it means to be a full citizen and, like, an actual human being.

On the technology front, I will be exploring recent critiques of the micro- and macro- roles and effects of technology:  in our personal lives, and in our political economy and culture.  Jaron Lanier, a founding father of virtual reality and early web, has emerged as one of the most perceptive and, given his tech chops, authoritative, critic of digital culture.  Lanier’s most troubling claim is that Web 2.0 and what he calls the worldview of “cybernetic totalism” is not only making it more difficult to be an actual person, but is accelerating the erosion of the middle class set in motion decades ago.

The great danger, he thinks, is that cultural creatives–musicians, journalists, and the like–are canaries in the “data mine”, but the first wave of middle class professions that will be rendered “redundancies” as more and more jobs are made obsolete by robots, computers, etc.  To this list, we can add professors.  As Lanier has it, a democracy is not possible without a middle class, but a middle class is not possible unless a society is structured to provide sufficient opportunities for most of the people to amass more wealth than the infinitesimally small number of people at the top.  The symbolic numbers of Occupy Wall Street point toward what Lanier considers the barely distant future:  In our new technopolis, there are the Lords of the Cloud, and the digital peasants.  Digital technology, the child of a democratic society in which prosperity was widely shared, is coming to undermine the bulwarks of the society that spawned it.

While Lanier focuses more on the political, economic, and social dimensions of tech, Sherry Turkle, MIT sociologist, zeroes in on how tech might be harming our psyches and our relationships.  Her central concept–that in the new, hyperconnected world we are always and everywhere “alone, together”–points to the dark side effects of technology, and the ways in which we have become addicted–like the incubants in the Matrix, or the prisoners in Plato’s Cave.

And that, it seems to me, is what connects these two great themes of education and technology:  they so pervasively define the contours of life in today’s world, yet their recent pasts are so unknown, their present effects are so hard to pinpoint, and their likely futures are so difficult to predict.  They constitute such a crucial part of our contemporary Cave.    The great task, then, is to patiently, persistently grapple with them.

(Image courtesy of

MOOCs, Globalization, and Geist

originalThomas Friedman, ever the technological optimist, heralds the coming revolution in online education.

There is a kind of Hegelian strain in Friedman’s boosterism for neo-liberalism and globalization; not the state, but the free market is the march of spirit on Earth.  Any nasty consequences are just the acceptable side-effects and bugs of the beta version of something that will be surely perfected in the next iteration or soft-ware update.  Though Friedman’s natural optimism sometimes gets the better of him, his point about the potential impact of online learning in so-called developing countries is hard to deny.  This, coupled with increasing access to nimble tools like micro-finance, may well give people in the poorer countries and forgotten places of the world more opportunity to improve their lives.

We often discuss the merits and demerits of online education in the context of life in the developed world.  While this is surely an important discussion to be having, it may blind us to the prospect that the most far reaching, world-historical effect of online education may be felt not by us, but by those still struggling to secure basic needs.

What Courage Looks Like

My friend and colleague Dan Fincke just posted a reflection on his own journey through the twisted funhouse of the academic employment market.  Dan’s energy and passion–as a teacher and a blogger–has for years simply dumbfounded those of us who know him; his efforts are über-human, and in this way he is true to the ideal of his favorite philosopher, Nietzsche.

Dan’s situation is a symbol for what is wrong with professional philosophy.  In much the same way that Andrew Sullivan–one of Dan’s role models as a blogger–has led the charge in upsetting the conventions and exposing the limitations of traditional print journalism, Dan is leveraging the new medium of the blog to do philosophy in way that is accessible, interesting, relevant, and important for a broader audience.  I don’t say “popular” audience because that carries the whiff of “pop culture,” which spells “dumb.”  But today’s popular audience, in some parts of the country and the world, at least, no longer spells dumb.  When academics turn their nose up at “popular” writing and venues, I think they have this 19th century vision of a semi-literate hoi polloi a world removed from the elite bastions of oak-adorned studies and sophisticated salons.  But Dan, like an increasing number of younger academics, smells the rot and decadence that infects this way of thinking and this way of doing philosophy.  Again, like his intellectual hero, Nietzsche, Dan is finding a way to do philosophy outside the confines of academic scholarship.  And it should concern us that the 20th century was the first in which almost all the major philosophers were academics.  I heard a talk recently where a scholar argued that philosophy has always done better as a parasite (gadfly?)–when it uses something else as fodder for reflection, be it new developments in science, culture, technology, or politics.  Whenever it tries, or pretends, to become it’s own thing, it retreats into a sorry sort of solipsistic solitude, a cloud of self-important knowingness; a retreat fueled by fear and insecurity.  Voltaire’s Candide is precisely a mockery of this tendency–Dr. Pangloss (literally, “all words”) is the caricature of this mindset.

Continue reading “What Courage Looks Like”

Out of the Shadows

What leadership looks like:

On Thursday afternoon, on Day 2 of the Council of Graduate School’s annual meeting here, Michael F. Bérubé was scheduled to give a plenary address titled “The Future of Graduate Education in the Humanities.”

“There is no way to talk about the future of graduate education in the humanities without talking about everything else involved in the study of the humanities,” he told a rapt audience of about 700 graduate deans, most of whom were not from humanities fields.

Mr. Bérubé opened his remarks by saying that every aspect of graduate education in the humanities is in crisis, from the details of the curriculum to the broadest questions about its purpose. “It is like a seamless garment of crisis, in which, if you pull on any one thread, the entire thing unravels. It is therefore exceptionally difficult to address any one aspect of graduate education in isolation,” he said.

Among the problems he cited were high attrition rates among graduate students, the many years it takes students to get their degrees, the need to revise the content of graduate courses so that students are prepared for jobs outside of academe, whether alternative forms should replace the traditional dissertation, and if some programs should be reduced in size or eliminated altogether.

Mr. Bérubé also noted the glut of Ph.D.’s in the academic-job market and the 1.5 million people now employed as adjuncts, with no hope or expectation of ever getting a tenure-track position.

“For what are we training Ph.D.’s in the humanities to do, other than to take academic positions in their fields?” Mr. Bérubé asked the audience. “What does one do with a Ph.D. in philosophy or history, other than aspire to teach and conduct research in philosophy or history?”

The great task of the current generation of graduate students and early-career academics is to answer that question–together.  The university system cannot save them.

A Modest Proposal

Lenny Cassuto makes one:

What if we reconceived the guiding assumption that Ph.D.’s are supposed to become professors? As the Versatile Ph.D., a Web site dedicated to alternative careers for Ph.D.’s, pointed out in a comment to me, “Recognizing nonacademic placements as legit communicates a much more positive message about the skills and abilities that are nurtured by graduate education. It affirms the value of the entire enterprise.”

But it also throws a bone to administration.  If graduate programs were tricked out with nonacademic job training programs and workshops; if they forged partnerships with university career services offices, AltAc alumni, and administrators; talked openly about applying PhD training and skills, rather than relegating these conversations to the shadows; and/or incorporated internships and/or service learning into their programs–if any or all of these things are done, then graduate schools gain a competitive advantage.  They can say to prospective students:  “We don’t just place our graduates in tenure-track jobs.  We prepare them for a whole host of careers in different sectors.”  A healthy culture is one capable of criticism, reform, and adaptation–that is how institutional metabolism works.  But as Cassuto points out, cultural change can only happen if it starts at the academic equivalent of birth:

That affirmation has to begin at the earliest stage of graduate school. Professors need to shape students’ expectations before they enter graduate school—which means more transparency about their career options. And we need to shape students’ expectations while they’re in school about what’s waiting for them afterward. Most important, we need to alter their training accordingly, to prepare them for the full range of jobs they will be able to get.

The system only gets fixed from the inside, granted.  But I worry that Cassuto’s solution is only a rearguard action that eases the passage of the current generation of graduate students but concedes that the war is lost:  admissions will be cut and programs will close, and “becoming a professor” will no longer be a legitimate career path.

In any case, if present trends continue, I think we’re likely to see three species of PhDs:  the few Elites idling in Ivy Heaven , the many Plebs toiling away in Adjunct Hell, and the plucky, creative NACs who parlay the PhD into something new.

The AUdacity of MOOCs: “These are people who just want to learn”

In the last two posts, I broached the question of what long-term, structural effects online learning will have on higher education.  At Thanksgiving, I spoke a great deal with my two nieces, who are getting ready to go to college next year, and their parents, about the myriad dimensions of the process.  Like health care, college has become one of the most complicated, and most anxiety-inducing, pieces in the puzzle of modern life, not least because they are the sectors in which costs mock inflation.  Indeed, with the election over, I’d wager that families discussed these issues more than maybe any others.

As we’ve seen over the last decade, industries we considered staples of life in the modern industrialized world–music, journalism, and retail–were radically disrupted and transformed when the world became Flat.  This year, the New York Times has declared 2012 the Year of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), with 3 flagship online universities pioneering the new platform:

I want to follow up and throw into the mix two other perspectives I’ve come across in the meantime:

  • Robert Koons, a professor of philosophy at University of Texas at Austin.  Though Koons does not explicitly discuss online learning or MOOCs, his scathing, Closing-of-the-American-Mind-ish critique of the modern university–which he considers the most corrupt institution in modern society–casts light on spiritual, intellectual, moral, and economic weaknesses in the status quo that make the university vulnerable to the digital disruption.
  • Clay Shirky, NYU new media guru, one of the closest things we have to a public intellectual.  Essentially, Shirky seems willing to bet his tenure that early MOOC platforms like Udacity are tantamount to Napster, and that over the long haul online learning will indeed to to higher education something like what the mp3 did to music.

Continue reading “The AUdacity of MOOCs: “These are people who just want to learn””

The “Rock Star” Professor

The NY Times’ fascinating report on the rise of the MOOC raises questions about what we might call the “Professors of the Future”:

Udacity courses are designed and produced in-house or with companies like Google and Microsoft. In a poke at its university-based competition, Dr. Stavens says they pick instructors not because of their academic research, as universities do, but because of how they teach. “We reject about 98 percent of faculty who want to teach with us,” he says. “Just because a person is the world’s most famous economist doesn’t mean they are the best person to teach the subject.” Dr. Stavens sees a day when MOOCs will disrupt how faculty are attracted, trained and paid, with the most popular “compensated like a TV actor or a movie actor.” He adds that “students will want to learn from whoever is the best teacher.”

The implications are enormous, and difficult to sift through.

Continue reading “The “Rock Star” Professor”