On the future, MOOCs, tenure, etc.

Last week I spoke on MOOCs in an online seminar with faculty and staff of about 40 different schools. The consensus among that group seemed to be that developing in-house online programs would be to their benefit as institutions. In other words, many of them are looking to create some form of digital teaching program in order to have a version of that product in the case that it gets higher demand from students (or parents.) Many of them are also excited by the pedagogical idea of using digital platforms differently.

This Rutgers University statement on audio/visual recording is very interesting.  In part, it is admirable in that it finds compelling legal and pedagogical issues to recommend against allowing widespread recording (and sharing via social media) course materials or classroom activities. Namely it focuses on the copyright issues that might arise if, for instance, Youtube becomes a popular place for students (or faculty) to post lecture videos or even student discussions. On the one hand, the classroom is seen as a protected space in the copyright code. As I point out below, the recent GSU lawsuit provides a case in point. On the other hand, taping conversations that go on in a classroom, and making them public, has significant pedagogical consequences. Even in the best of scenarios – where students welcome being taped, raising no privacy concerns – we risk having them act as if every meeting was a small episode of Big Brother, where the watching only makes them perform more fully for the camera, rather than engaging in the risky, personal reflection that leads to real learning. The point made by the Rutgers faculty is crucial – public conversations are not always as productive, especially for students who are just trying to figure out what they believe and what they want to learn. For them, the privacy of the classroom, and instructors’ responsibility in the conversation are essential elements for successful, critical pedagogy. Rethinking copyright and privacy seems essential for how we move forward in the open, online environment.  But so is understanding how we value our own teaching and research – and how we expect others to value it.

In this, it is hard not to read this statement in the context of the broader conversation about “disruptive innovation” and venture capital’s version of rethinking the classroom for a digital age.  This discourse is seductive because it is based on a certain promise: MOOCs and even lecture capture could be very useful for generating conversations beyond our individual classrooms, perhaps drawing our students into that broader conversation through the dynamic forums Standford, Harvard, and MIT have created in their MOOC platforms. So it is possible that educators could reach and interact with far more students than they do now – to the benefit of both themselves and their students. This, in turn, sounds very good to the U.S. education department as it is underfunded and under fire.

To them, the learning possibilities are less important than the economics of scale. MOOCs seem important to business minded administrators (and their newspaper editorial gurus e.g. Thomas Friedman) because they seem to solve the entire cost problem in education in one swoop: it is made technologically glamourous, infinitely productive, highly demanded, and incredibly cheap. It has never been a better time to be an educational entrepreneur because everything is on the table. Every other industry has had active intelligent laborers replaced with machines that could standardize their human actions, turning our jobs over to robots (or at least threatening to): we can mechanize factories to lower the labor costs of cars, why is it taking so long to do away with these pesky professors? As Andrew DelBanco recently quoted Richard Vedder, “With the possible exception of prostitution . . . teaching is the only profession that has had no productivity advance in the 2,400 years since Socrates.”

For them, the promise of MOOCs upsets much of the present infrastructure of education, especially the tenure system itself, which is the precarious, but fundamental subsidy of the entire present system. Lost in the conversations about both academic publishing and the arrival of MOOCs is the way the present infrastructure was made possible by these broader subsidies. It is true that an increasingly smaller number of faculty are put on the tenure track, but every year for the better part of the last two decades, we have turned out a fresh new crop of people hoping to secure a place in that realm, working relentlessly for free with the brass ring of tenured employment dangling ever more remotely in front of them. Those that don’t succeed at first, continue teaching as adjuncts, exploiting themselves for the larger goal of educating the next generation of Americans.

Even leaving aside the idea that shared governance might actually be more efficient (and therefore tenure a better political economic model on which to base the university) the security and responsibility of tenure is a priceless motivation of the higher education system. Removing it will create untold havoc in the intellectual economy that serves as the foundation of MOOCs. Many people have pointed out that MIT, Harvard and other elite schools are basically using their own well established brands and resources, currently with little hope of turning a profit on these activities. Already there are signs of people deciding not to go back to school, with many graduate programs reporting lower enrollments and law schools in unprecedented decline. How will MOOCs (or education in general) function without tenure as a subsidy? How will academic publishers continue to produce knowledge? The boycotts of Elsevier and others are small potatoes compared to the decimation of the free academic labor pool caused by truly unleashing market forces on higher education. Gerry Caravan had a different way of phrasing this, which got some attention back in February:


The whole post is worth reading, but this part stuck out to me especially:

Failing to account for, and pay for, the continuation and reproduction of a necessary system isn’t economic rationality; it isn’t a hard-nosed commitment to making the tough choices; it’s the exact opposite. It’s living as if there is no future, no need to reproduce the systems we have now for the future generations who will eventually need them. The fantasy that we could MOOCify education this year to save money on professor labor next year, and gain a few black lines in the budget, ignores the obvious need for a higher educational system that will be able to update, replenish, and sustain the glorious MOOCiversity when that time inevitably comes. Who is supposed to develop all the new and updated MOOCs we’ll need in two, five, ten, twenty years, in response to events and discoveries and technologies we cannot yet imagine? Who is going to moderate the discussion forums, grade the tests, answer questions from the students? In what capacity and under what contract terms will these MOOC-updaters and MOOC-runners be employed? By whom? Where will they have received their training, and how will that training have been paid for? What is the business model for the MOOC — not this quarter, but this decade, this century

Related to MOOCs is the struggle over scholarly communication more generally. Academic fair use and the ability of libraries to create digital archives are under direct attack by the academic publishing industry. But it is not that industry alone. Take the recent lawsuit brought by Sage, the University of Oxford and several other major academic publishers – publishers who make their money off the very labor we all do, virtually for free, but really subsidized by the tenure system. Because a condition of our job is that we publish, we do so with little expectation of direct economic gain from these activities. These publishers sued librarians and faculty – as individuals – for the policies they had in place around online course reserves. The library provided some digital course reserves and faculty also provided some digital copies of articles and book chapters through learning management systems (LMS) – like the MOODLE platform many of us use to provide course materials. Since Georgia State University – as a public institution – has sovereign immunity in these cases, the publishers instead sued the individual administrators within the system, holding them liable for all of the activities around sharing

Publishers accused the schools of making greater use of their materials than was allowed by copyright law. But it is really about the future of academic publishers in a world where we can share digital materials far more seamlessly than ever before. And if we can be sued for sharing academic materials, what is to stop us from getting sued if a student videotapes us showing a movie clip and it becomes popular enough to attract attention? The judge in the case found that only 5% of the cases the publishers cited would fall out of even a conservative definition of fair use, and thus that faculty and librarians are largely on the right side of the law. Yet the publishers have said they were going to appeal the case, not to protect their own economic interests, but on the advice of the authors of the texts in question, who would like your students to pay their residuals check every time you have them use that article (thank you very much.)  In short, those of us in academia and academic publishing are living in a den of vipers, in which each side is willing to strike the other down for the few remaining morsels of public higher education funding.

If we can’t put course reserves on library websites, how will students not have to pay for them on MOOCs? And what does that mean in terms of it being “Open?”  In some cases, getting students to pay for the text is the primary goal of the MOOC : The economics professor at U.C. Irvine who was removed as instructor from his own MOOC, in part because he was insisting that, to participate in the MOOC, the 40,000 or so students would need to buy his $90 economics textbook. The flipside of this is what the AAUP has often feared will happen: once our lectures can be recorded, once our MOOCs created, what is to stop universities from repackaging them, assuming them to be “works for hire,” leaving faculty no claims to copyright in their teaching materials.

MOOCs might present some interesting possibilities for the students that will soon be graduating into our universities and colleges – and those who, while qualified, will not be able to afford a formal education because support for the public system is itself under fire. Since so much of their conversation with their peers will be mediated by some form of audio-visual artifact, it is intriguing to think about what the circulation of our classroom discussions might mean. It is difficult to chart a path through this landscape that doesn’t ultimately lead to a cliff on the other side. Luckily my colleagues – like Bryan Alexander – are on the case.

I’m not sure if the Rutgers Senate statement strikes the right balance, but at least it errs on the side of giving students and faculty control over how recordings will be used. Now they just need a statement of imagination outlining all the possible ways it could help enhance learning if recording were allowed.

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