These days

I find myself disagreeing with Alex Usher much more often than not, but it’s hard to stay mad at a guy who comes up with the phrase “techno-fetishist windbags” to describe promoters of MOOCs and other “disruptive” technologies. Read the whole piece for some good quotes from Sebastian Thrun, founder of patient-zero Udacity, including his admission that “[w]e have a lousy product” or my fav: “We’re not doing anything as rich and powerful as what a traditional liberal-arts education would offer you.” Doesn’t get blunter than that.

(Read the original interview with Thrum.)

More MOOC-talk

[F]ar from a radical innovation, MOOCs are simply the natural extension of trends that have been at the heart of the modern university for decades….
[N]early all of America’s colleges and universities have moved away from the cultures and intellectual traditions within which they were founded.
“We are concerned that there is an experiment being done on students and we don’t know the outcome but it could jeopardize their higher education,” said Eileen Landy, the elected secretary of United University Professions, the bargaining union for faculty at 30 of the State University of New York’s 64 campuses. She said union leaders were left in the dark until the deal was announced and said there could be collective bargaining implications of the new arrangements.
  • Outsourced Lectures Raise Concerns About Academic Freedom.” Steve Kolowich. The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 28, 2013): “[W]where state legislators and college administrators see an opportunity, some professors see a threat—if not to their jobs, then to their freedom to teach a course as they believe it should be taught.”

letter, published on Thursday in The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, and signed by 58 professors, asks Michael D. Smith, dean of the FAS, “to appoint a committee of arts and sciences faculty members “to draft a set of ethical and educational principles” that would govern their colleagues’ involvement in Harvard-branded MOOCs.”

  • Massive (But Not Open).” Ry Rivard. Inside Higher Ed (May 14, 2013): “The Georgia Institute of Technology plans to offer a $7,000 online master’s degree to 10,000 new students over the next three years without hiring much more than a handful of new instructors.”
  • Not Staying the Course.” Chris Parr. Times Higher Education (May 10, 2013): “The average completion rate for massive open online courses is less than 7 percent, according to data compiled by an Open University doctoral student as part of her own MOOC studies.”
Companies, colleges, and columnists gush about the utopian possibilities of technology. But digital life has a bleaker side, too. Over the weekend, a cross-disciplinary group of scholars convened [at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee’s Center for 21st Century Studies] to focus attention on the lesser-noticed consequences of innovation.

Alert readers may wonder why I seem so obsessed by MOOCs,

particularly as at UNB they are, as yet, only a twinkle in the eyes of one or two BoG members. And particularly as they seem to promise so much in terms of increased access to higher education.

To address the latter point: I think we would be very foolish to confuse the promise and potential of MOOCs with the probable reality. Potentially, they could presage a vast democratization in higher education and a revitalization of how we teach; in fact, however, they are an entrepreneurial venture promoted by people who want to “monetize” educational “assets.” Any long-term effects on higher education are irrelevant; never mind thinking about seven generations: some people can’t think seven minutes into the future. Implemented for the wrong reasons and handled badly, as they inevitably will be, MOOCs will be worse than just another boondoggle, because the whole MOOC hysteria, if it continues and enough decision-makers are convinced, has the potential to undermine our already teetering post-secondary system yet further: further casualization of academic labour, further polarization between elite and other institutions, shrinkage of access to campus-based education, job loss, degradation of academic research and dissemination of knowledge to “content provision”, division of “content generation” and “content provision”: and the list goes on.

All this is not to say that university instructors should shy away from the possibilities of new technologies. University instructors should not. Universities should, however, other than facilitating their employees’ use of such technologies. A perversely arcane position, I know, to claim that university ancillary functions should exist first and foremost to support the work of academic staff. I’m sure the reader can just imagine the incredulous smile on the face of their favourite administrator, should the latter chance to hear such a sentiment expressed. Keep that vision in your mind when you contemplate the possibilities for MOOCs. Or for anything else, for that matter. Cui bono? And, who holds the reins?

Still talking about MOOCs

MOOC Professors Claim No Responsibility for How Courses Are Used.” Steve Kolowich. The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 21, 2013): “[Mohamed A. Noor, a professor of biology at Duke University] says he believes dismantling departments and replacing them with MOOCs would be ‘reckless.’ But the Duke professor also believes that, in such a case, ‘the fault lies with the reckless administration,’ and not the professor who furnished the MOOC to the vendor that furnished the MOOC to the administration.”

ETA: “Laptop U: Has the future of college moved online?” Nathan Heller. The New Yorker (May 20, 2013):

David W. Wills, a professor of religious history at Amherst … started out being open to moocs, he said. But the more he heard the more his concerns grew, and none of edX’s representatives seemed able to address them. “One of the edX people said, ‘This is being sponsored by Harvard and M.I.T. They wouldn’t do anything to harm higher education!’ What came to my mind was some cautious financial analysts saying, about some of the financial instruments that were being rolled out in the late nineties or early two-thousands, ‘This is risky stuff, isn’t it?’ And being told, ‘Goldman Sachs is doing it; Lehman Brothers is doing it.’ ” The language he heard from edX, he said, was the rhetoric of tech innovation—seemingly to the exclusion of anything else—and he worried about academia falling under hierarchical thrall to a few star professors. “It’s like higher education has discovered the megachurch,” he told me.

[T]he political theorist Thomas L. Dumm, described the conveyance of moocs to weaker universities as “eating our seed corn.”

Duke U.’s Undergraduate Faculty Derails Plan for Online Courses for Credit.” Steve Kolowich. The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 30, 2013): “Duke signed a contract last year with 2U pledging to develop online courses, the first of which would be offered on the 2U platform in September. But a late push by skeptical faculty members, many of whom resented the Duke administration for not consulting with them before entering into a preliminary agreement with 2U, set the stage for a close vote.”

Why Some Colleges Are Saying No to MOOC Deals, at Least for Now.” Steve Kolowich. The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 29, 2013): “Th[e] known costs, combined with uncertainty about whether the MOOCs will make enough money for colleges to recover their investments, might be enough to deter some institutions, says R. Michael Tanner, a vice president and chief academic officer at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities—especially public universities that are facing budget cuts.”

Mind the money, not the Moocs.” Steve Smith. Times Higher Education (April 18, 2013):

I also think that the likely impact of Moocs is being overstated. That is not to say that they will not transform much of the way in which university education is delivered, but I do not think that Moocs themselves can replace the education offered by or the brand value associated with traditional universities. Not every university will face the same level of threat, mind you; Moocs pose a very different challenge depending on which part of the university ecosystem you inhabit. They also need to be monetised, and to find a way of linking study with assessment.

There is a certain irony that the only institutions prestigious

enough to be courted by the biggest MOOC companies are also the only ones secure enough — in every sense — to turn them down. Some lovely quotes here:

EdX Rejected,” Ry Rivard, Inside Higher Ed (April 19, 2013): “Would we join some sort of agribusiness company that was taking over family farms and producing junk food if they offered us some incentive to do it?” [Amherst chair of  neuroscience Stephen A.] George said.

Isn’t this one of the Seven Seals?

The government of California is getting into the business of determining curriculum with the introduction of new legislation:

California Bill Seeks Campus Credit for Online Study.” Tamar Lewin. The New York Times (12 March 2013):

“This would be a big change, acknowledging that colleges aren’t the only ones who can offer college courses,” said Burck Smith, the founder of Straighterline. “It means rethinking what a college is.”

Why he sounds positively giddy. But wait:

“What’s really going on is that after the budget cuts have sucked public higher education dry of resources,” [Lillian Taiz, the president of the California Faculty Association] continued, “the Legislature’s saying we should give away the job of educating our students.”

So, to recap: the California state government is defunding post-secondary institutions to the extent that those institutions cannot adequately serve their students, and then they are using that failure — that they themselves directly caused — as the rationale for undercutting the bedrock principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

Yes, I really think it must be one of the Seven Seals.

There is an emerging economic divide

in access to online education, despite all the press about affordability:

“‘Bandwidth Divide’ Could Bar Some People From Online Learning.” Jeffrey R. Young. The Chronicle of Higher Education (4/3/13): “The Bandwidth Divide is a form of what economists call the Red Queen effect, explains Mr. Hilbert, referring to a scene in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass when Alice races the Red Queen.”