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.)

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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:

McGuire

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?

Kosiak

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.

McHugh

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)

Gamification, Part One

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[Reposted from the following discussion thread]

Discussions about education these days often reference something called “gamification”:  the use of games or game-like structures to enhance learning.

On the one hand, I see the appeal: rather than fight the forces affecting students’ behavior outside the classroom, harness them and integrate them into the learning process. “Badges” will replace “grades,” and “competence-based learning” will replace degrees, etc. Now earlier iterations of online learning may well fall prey to the diploma mill problem (a piece of paper saying you can now do what you could already do), but it sounds as though the next generation of online learning tools will be more sophisticated: they will be able to empirically demonstrate that student x has learned skill y to do job z. And they achieve that result through an engaging learning process that motivates them through gamified learning modules (like a video game) that take less time (more efficient) than the traditional course/degree model.

But what unsettles me about this, from something like a sociological perspective, is that it turns everything into a “game”–the game of professional advancement and money-making that people will be playing for most of their lives, of competing and achieving and winning, will become seamless with the educational sphere. It feeds into the hyper-competitive culture we are becoming more and more each year.

Moreover, the shift from text to image based learning seems to be a kind of surrender to our culture, which has been image-based for a long time. In my view one of the chief functions is to give students the tools to RESIST and challenge and criticize the present culture–to give them a chance to be an individual. And so gamification seems like another stage in the subsumption of education by corporate values: “fun” on the outside (infotainment), soul-eroding on the inside. All to equip students with 21st century skills so that we can “beat China”, or whatever.

But to challenge THAT–video games aren’t what they used to be. Many involve sophisticated cognitive tasks. So part of the gamification craze is a challenge to the highbrow, elitist prejudice that only book smarts and book learning are real smarts and real learning. There is a parallel here to the time-lag in critiques of capitalism. I wonder whether Marxist, or Marxish, intellectuals are ragging on a form of capitalism that was, well, creatively destroyed, ages ago, and not that capitalism is perfect, but 21st century capitalism is an importantly different animal. They might retort that it is still the same SPECIES–inherently, structurally unjust and exploitative and dehumanzing, and so on…which is an essential debate to have.

David Brooks’ Practical University

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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)

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.

Profit, Prophecy, and the Case of the Hybrid University (Southern New Hampshire University)

Looks like Southern New Hampshire University has devised a nimble business plan.

This is just the kind of “disruptive innovation” that Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has predicted:  this refers to, in John Hechinger’s words, “the process by which companies at the bottom of the market use new technologies to displace more established competitors.”  The attack comes, not from the front, but from the side:  from the other two raptors you didn’t even know were there.  It is exactly the kind of thing that universities that wish to survive will need to do if anything like Christensen’s Prophecy–that in 15 years, HALF–that is right, half–of the institutions of higher learning in the United States will be gone.  (More on Christensen’s Prophecy–and the coming Avalanche–later…)

This may well be a viable pathway–and the only pathway–for middling universities attempting to surf and survive the volatile seas of the EdTech Era.  Frank Donoghue, whose essential book I’ll be plumbing in upcoming posts, thinks that the lasting mark on higher education left by the first generation of online for-profits will not be the companies themselves, but the selection pressure they exert on traditional institutions of higher learning:

“The real legacy of this industry, I believe, is its lasting and widespread influence on traditional universities.  Whatever the fate of specific campuses of the University of Phoenix, Career Education, or DeVry, these companies have demonstrated that it is possible to operate a university as a business….  The business model for higher education devised by the for-profits has tremendous appeal to administrators and lawmakers in an era of steadily declining public funding and tuition increases that are quickly becoming prohibitive.”

Donoghue thinks that the majority of non-profits will be torn asunder by the cross pressures of vocational for-profits, which lead to jobs, and elite nonprofits, which leverage prestige.  Large state research universities, he thinks, have largely lost their way, unable to decide what their mission and role in society really is, and thus plagued by “mission creep.”  This is the arms race that Christensen terms the “bigger and better” virus that has infected academic administrative culture.  However, the model of SNHU may well offer them a middle way:  the profits from an online apparatus that offers primarily vocational training can be funneled back to the leafy host campus in order to boost its prestige.  The challenge facing universities that take this path is, in part, one of perception, as Hechinger relays:

“Even some of the beneficiaries of Southern New Hampshire’s online push are uneasy. John Wescott, a 19-year-old sophomore at the physical campus, expects to graduate with only $15,000 in student debt thanks to financial aid. Yet he recalls a spirited discussion at a student-government meeting: ‘There was a sense that we were turning into the University of Phoenix and the value of our degree was going down.'”

Thus the “threat to Harvard” I discussed yesterday comes not just from the for-profits themselves, but from the effects they are likely to have–and are already having–on the non-elite, traditional universities.  But, again, let’s be clear:  Harvard feeling “threatened” is like the prom queen who is insecure about her appearance.

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.

Resumption

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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 gasparandmichelle.com)