Rage Against the Machine


Over at Adjunct Rebellion, a scathing assessment of MOOCs:

While the last 20 years of academia have seen these two destructive practices aimed at the professoriate, it hasn’t been until lately that the threat is driven by the internet — in the case of academia, in the form of MOOCs that are now looming enormous, casting monstrous shadows over the college campus. The MOOC model, from the standpoint of the professoriate, is an entirely exploitative one.  The professor designs a class, has lectures and other media support shot and “canned” — and then the university, or the MOOC itself owns that material.  It OWNS the intellectual property of a professor who has trained for, on average, a decade for advanced degrees, who has taught for years and developed skills and abilities.  And, once that particular area of scholarship is canned — who needs the professor, ANY professor, anymore?

This is an example of the rhetoric of crisis I discussed earlier, and let me be clear that I don’t always think that’s a bad or un-useful thing–it just depends on what your goals are.  If your goal is to wallow, then it works great.  If your goal is to get tenure, you’re barking up the wrong tree (these two goals, incidentally, are espoused by the folks over at the Philosophy Smoker Blog, a nest of nattering nabobs of negativism, which openly admits that its focus is to “bitch about” trying to make it in academic philosophy).  If your goal is to make a living, then just quit and do something else (and you CAN do something else).

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One Meta-MOOC to Rule Them All

Cathy Davidson, a professor at Duke, has a great idea:

In January 2014, I will offer a six-week Coursera class, “The History and Future of Higher Education,” free and open to anyone. I’d like to turn the class’ weekly forums into an opportunity for a massive, global, collaborative, constructive, peer dialogue about how higher education got to its current dilemma. And from there, I hope we can come up with some creative, innovative, and workable ideas to make a better future.

A MOOC about MOOCs seems to make a great deal of sense for a few reasons.

For one, it provides a forum for investigating just what a MOOC is, what it can and cannot be, whether and to what extent it does indeed enhance learning, and whether and to what extent and in what ways this can be measured.  If it turns out that such an experiment yields a more nuanced and useful picture of the ontology and application of the MOOC, then this itself would be evidence that the MOOC is a sound design and delivery mechanism.

Second, as Cathy notes,

In the present mood of high polemic, hyperbolic promise, and hysterical panic, it is almost impossible to sort out the questions, let alone the answers to these questions, on either a national or international level: Is now the time to reject or embrace massive online learning? Do MOOCs yield improved learning and free and open access to those who have been excluded from higher education—or are they yet another cynical attempt to defund the public and extract profits from tax payers and diminish the value of what virtually all universally claim to be the public good of higher education?

Crisis rhetoric is seductive but does not have a great signal-to-noise ratio.  A MOOC that took a, well, academic approach to MOOCs might help to dispel the fervor over the MOOC-ment and help people think clearly about just what it is and what it means.

Third and related, much of the chatter about MOOCs is so focused on the “disruption” of the status quo, but sometimes the storied history of that status quo is not sufficiently excavated.  An inquiry into MOOCs in the context of the history of higher ed might help us see that the notion of Higher Education enshrined in our social imaginary is a historical anomaly made possible by a set of specific events, notably World War II and the G.I. Bill.  The Chronicle of Higher Ed just ran a piece along these lines (though it is paywalled).

I have finally decided to take the plunge:  I have signed up for Coursera’s “Internet History, Technology, and Security” course.  It’s not quite Christopher Hitchens voluntary trying out water boarding in order to do his subject justice, but I figure it only makes sense to walk the walk.  Reports forthcoming.

A Balanced Approach to MOOCs (Ctd.)


Robert Maguire has profiled a math MOOC funded by the Gates Foundation and launched at the University of Wisconsin LaCrosse that had an unexpected effect:  though it was offered worldwide, it was widely embraced around the state by high schools and led to deeper coordination between high school and college students, teachers, and administrators in order to avoid the “redemial math trap and close what we might call the “Preparation Gap.”  From McGuire’s interview with two representatives from the college:


The way MOOCs are growing I imagine a lot of graduating high school seniors are thinking about using them this summer, whether they’re being driven to it by the necessity of a placement exam or for enrichment or to stay sharp for college. What would you advise a graduating high school senior who’s thinking about taking a MOOC?


A MOOC can be helpful to show what a college course actually looks like, how it’s done and what to expect in their first year of college.


Over summer, taking a MOOC is going to help them learn how to be an independent learner, how to study, how to find that internal motivation, how to seek out resources, recognizing that they do have multiple ways they learn, and they need to find that strategy within themselves.

Students might look at what’s aligned with their discipline of study. If someone’s looking at going into a history major, then they might look for some different history MOOCs. They can use the MOOC as a way to find out, “Is this something I am really passionate about and want to study for the next several years of my life.”

This is proof positive of an idea Noel B. Jackson floated which I mentioned yesterday:  MOOCs not only expand open access to what, for convenience sake, I’ll call the Third World (Globalization), but they can strengthen local and regional communities in the (f/c/s, again) First World.  They not only expand the net to wire more nodes, but they deepen the connections around each node.  MOOCs can potentially have “glocal” impact.  In the case of the MathMOOC at UWL, the connections are spanning vertically across the different levels of the education system.  This might take the teeth out of the objections of MOOC skeptics, who dismiss MOOCs as trojan horses for neoliberalism or digital colonialism.

This “localizing” side-effect of MOOCs targets a serious problem that so many college teachers face:  beset with near illiteracy and/or innumeracy in their students, they find themselves asking, “How did these kids get into college?”  This often happens with writing skills. The college teacher faces a dilemma: should I teach them the content, or teach them how to write? If you just teach the content, then a) they aren’t likely to grasp it as roundly, since you can’t cleanly separate the ability to write clearly and the ability to think clearly, and b) you shirk your responsibility as the “last line of defense” before the students get out into the real world bereft of solid writing skills. If you teach them how to write, you’re not teaching the content. And if you try to split the difference, well, as Lao Tzu says, “if you chase two rabbits, both get away.”

Better coordination between high school and college teachers and administrators could help close the “preparation gap” that frustrates so many teachers and short-changes many students.

By the way, MOOC News and Reviews is a treasure trove of information about the cluster of issues orbiting the MOOC-ment.

(image courtesy of www.apartmenttherapy.com)

A Balanced Approach to MOOCs


Noel B. Jackson, a professor of literature at MIT, has a thoughtful and balanced take on MOOCS over at “Sustained Inattentions”–he has the advantage of proximity, since he is essentially at one of the two ground-zero’s of the MOOC movement (Silicon Valley and Cambridge).  He testifies that, in his time at MIT, no issue has arrested the attention of folks in higher ed as much as the MOOC.  His view on the place of MOOCs in current discourse about higher ed is insightful:

“The MOOC has become a repository for utopian and dystopian narratives about the present and future directions of higher ed.”

The rhetoric of crisis and disruption can inhibit us from thinking clearly and carefully about how best to surf this strange new wave.  The utopian and dystopian narratives are, as Noel points out, the views that MOOCs are either democratizing or corporatizing:  that they are either making the highest quality education available to the world’s poor, or they are merely the latest step in the corporatization of the university that has been underway for decades.

Confessing his ambivalence about MOOCs, he points to a possible benefit of MOOCs that I hadn’t heard of before:

“My interest in MOOCs extends to how the format can be imagined to provide access to a university curriculum to populations that may not have had this kind of access, as this is the population that stands to gain most from them. But in addition to the flat, global learning community ritually invoked as the audience for MOOCs, we could benefit from thinking locally too. How can the online course format make possible new relationships not only with the most far-flung remote corners of the earth but with the neighborhoods and communities nearest to campus? Can we make MOOCs that foster meaningful links with the community or create learning communities that cut across both the university and the online platform?”

This is certainly a pressing need at the university I teach at.  Fordham University’s main campus is an oasic bubble plopped in the middle of one of the poorest counties in the country, and few of the students venture past the perimeter of security-saturated environs.  Anything that could facilitate a deeper engagement–heck, any engagement–with the world beyond the walls would be a very good thing; and perhaps MOOCs and other online approaches might facilitate that, though I’m not sure how.

(image courtesy of www.apartmenttherapy.com)

David Brooks’ Practical University


David Brooks has, I think, made progress in the discussion about MOOCs and online education.  His central idea is that given the increasing sophistication and decreasing cost of online learning as a delivery mechanism for technical knowledge and skills, universities can no longer cling to a business model in which they charge a small fortune to impart technical skills.  As Brooks flatly states, “There will be no such thing as a MOOC university.”  One thing they can do–perhaps with a somewhat lower price tag–is specialize in the acquisition and development of practical knowledge and skills–the “Practical University”:

So far, most of the talk about online education has been on technology and lectures, but the important challenge is technology and seminars. So far, the discussion is mostly about technical knowledge, but the future of the universities is in practical knowledge.

Practical knowledge is not about what you do, but how you do it. It is the wisdom a great chef possesses that cannot be found in recipe books. Practical knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized; it can only be imparted and absorbed. It is not reducible to rules; it only exists in practice.

While Brooks’ notion of “practical knowledge” is a bit thin (column-sized), the point is important.  What makes all of this possible is the “flipped classroom.”  While humanities teachers have generally shaken their heads at and pooh-poohed EdTech, the flipped classroom is a game-changer.  Lectures on Plato, colonialism, and Melville can now be placed online (and software can check to make sure students are watching them), while class time can be used exclusively for seminar-style interactions in which students can develop prized social skills.  As Brooks notes,

Think about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, “Lean In.” Put aside the debate about the challenges facing women in society. Focus on the tasks she describes as being important for anybody who wants to rise in this economy: the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.

Let’s face it:  where and when do we deliberately try to develop these “soft”, “people” skills?  One might carp at Brooks using an example of a corporate environment–a critic might say that this just makes university seminars into a lab for “behavior modification”–but we can view his point more expansively:  that universities taking this approach are helping to develop the whole person; in that sense, they could become more congruent with the original liberal arts ideal.

Whereas before professors had to (often awkwardly) balance lecture and discussion, now they can have a clearer division of labor.  I can testify to the challenge of “getting through” lecture–transmitting the ideas, interpretations, facts, etc., that you want to highlight from the reading–to get to what, in my heart, I consider the real business of teaching:  the conversations that you foster and facilitate in the classroom.

Brooks explains how technology might be used to enhance the classroom environment:

The goal should be to use technology to take a free-form seminar and turn it into a deliberate seminar (I’m borrowing Anders Ericsson’s definition of deliberate practice). Seminars could be recorded with video-cameras, and exchanges could be reviewed and analyzed to pick apart how a disagreement was handled and how a debate was conducted. Episodes in one seminar could be replayed for another. Students could be assessed, and their seminar skills could be tracked over time.

In this way, technology can create the space in which a stronger sense of community can take root in the classroom.  Moreover, in reviewing their performance on video, they would be able to see how they appear in public.  This would make students uncomfortable in the very way that we want them to feel uncomfortable.

The general sense in these sorts of discussions is that all of this EdTech stuff is bad news for humanists.  However, notice that the technical knowledge sounds like stuff that robots can do; as Kevin Drum details, the long imagined future of the robot worker is not too distant at all.  This might lead to a cruel irony:  online learning is maturing–through gamification, analytics, adaptive learning mechanisms, and so on–at around the same time as automation.  What is the sense in equipping the masses with all of these technical skills if robots are just going to perform the jobs to which they are suited?  Then, you might say, people should be trained how to build the robots and do the programming and engineering, etc.  But the reality is that there are only so many people who will be needed for this kind of work.  All of which begs the question:  just what the hell are all of these people going to do for a living?

But this might put humanists in a surprisingly good position.  Daniel Pink, one of the new darlings of the business self-help industry, has argued that Right Brainers will rule the future.  And indeed, Forbes recently listed the Top 10 In Demand Skills in 2013–check out the top four.  What is driving this?  I think it’s the fact that life in our new Technopolis is creating problems and raising questions that are not scientific and technical problems and questions.

My chief concern with Brooks’ proposal is not about substance, but about scale.  It’s easy to imagine something like this going on at Harvard et al.  But at Wannabe University?

(image courtesy of marketingzen.com)

The Dark Side of MOOCs

Check out this infographic on MOOCs posted over at www.onlinecolleges.net:

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.

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.

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