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:

http://gerrycanavan.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/some-preliminary-theses-on-moocs/

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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Extrapolating through the North Pole

Here’s an interesting little case of extrapolation. Maybe the number of ships crossing the Arctic Ocean will increase, as the northern ice cap continues to recede.
Check out the numbers:

Shipping routes through the opening-up Arctic.

If we trace that arc forward, when do we hit 100 ships, 2020 or so?

 

Extrapolating the future of computer hardware

Here’s a good example of the extrapolation method, applied specifically to computer hardware.  Feld provides many examples, some tutorials, and finally offers caveats.

(via the LinkedIn Predictors group)

What happens next in a big economy?

Forecasting the next moves of a big, complex economy is very challenging.  This post about a possible recession demonstrates those challenges well.

Notice, for example, conflicting indicators in this chart:


Industrial production (purple) and personal income ex. transfers (blue) are dipping down, while manufacturing and trade sales (red) and nonfarm payroll employment (green) bode well.  How to assess their relative influence?

Compare with the economists’ survey at the end.

Computing and learning after the smartphone

What happens to digital technology if Moore’s Law continues to hold?  What happens to learning, if hardware keeps on shrinking?

Here‘s a neat use of extrapolation to imagine a future.
Prompt:

It is hard to imagine the implications of being able to embed a tiny fully functional networked computer into pretty much anything we desire. Couple semantic agents that can make sense of ‘big data’ streams with fully functional computers that can sense their environment (sensors like mobile phones), communicate with other agents/computers, and take action on that basis – the possibilities are endless.

Visual:
d

Right after reading that post, I cam across this one from the Singularity Hub: “The key development in 2013 will be computers molded to human anatomy (finally!).”  It fits nicely in that extrapolative curve: “It’s time for computers to integrate with biology, and there’s no better place to start than with the eyes.”

(via Stephen Downes)

The quest to find predictable patterns in history never ends.  For example, one team thinks it has detected a stable cycle in American popular violence.

To Peter Turchin, who studies population dynamics at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the appearance of three peaks of political instability at roughly 50-year intervals is not a coincidence. For the past 15 years, Turchin has been taking the mathematical techniques that once allowed him to track predator–prey cycles in forest ecosystems, and applying them to human history. He has analysed historical records on economic activity, demographic trends and outbursts of violence in the United States, and has come to the conclusion that a new wave of internal strife is already on its way. The peak should occur in about 2020, he says, and will probably be at least as high as the one in around 1970. “I hope it won’t be as bad as 1870,” he adds.

The limits of extrapolation

When extrapolation goes wrong is the theme of a recent Oil Drum post.  Tom Murphy focuses on the problematic assumption that an upward curve will continue in that direction.

He offers good examples of this problem, pointing to mining, transAtlantic transportation, a Simpsons scene, and space travel. The trick is to look ahead to where an upward curve flattens, then turns downwards.

Congressional Budget Office futures

The United States Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued its annual projections about this nation’s fiscal health.  As before, the CBO offered a scenario set, which draws heavily on extrapolations.

That’s two (2) scenarios, one being the “if things go on and people are sane”, the other where things are kinda worse (“much bleaker”).

Interestingly, “extended alternative” is not the worst CBO could come up with.  The end of the report mentions negative factors which could appear, including bad interest rates and a decline in gross national product (GDP).

Narrowing down the indicators

Here’s a good example of narrowcasting the future.  One Chinese leader apparently sees only three (3) economic indicators as worth tracking:

In a 2007 cable made public by Wikileaks, [Le Keqiang] … explained that he only looked at three statistics to gauge the health of the economy: (1) Bank lending, (2) Electricity consumption, and (3) Rail cargo volume. 

This is an example of an old futuring technique.  The predictor selects a handful of subtle stats (rail cargo!) and argues for their global importance.  It goes against the many factors approach, as well as against complex simulations.

What about GDP?

GDP figures are “man-made” and therefore unreliable, Li said…

By looking at these three figures, Li said he can measure with relative accuracy the speed of economic growth. All other figures, especially GDP statistics, are “for reference only,” he said smiling.”

Wikileaks cable source is apparently here, but that’s timing out for me this morning.

Math to predict history

Here is an intriguing (and very short) talk by the lead of Harvard’s Culture Observatory., a/k/a the Culturnomics guys.  Michel quickly outlines several ways of using math to understand history.

Note the final point, about using digitized books to build up forecasting models.

Apparently Michel is one of the guys behind Google’s nGram viewer.

(via Radio Freethinker)