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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Doom to college as we know it

One commentator looks at the San Jose MOOC decision and forecasts the fall of American higher education.

Ferenstein presents this timeline:

  1. Pilot succeeds, expands to more universities and classes
  2. Part-time faculty get laid off, more community colleges are shuttered, extracurricular college services are closed, and humanities and arts departments are dissolved for lack of enrollment (science enrollment increases–yay!?)
  3. Graduate programs dry up, once master’s and PhD students realize there are no teaching jobs. Fewer graduate students means fewer teaching assistants and, therefore, fewer classes
  4. Competency-based measures begin to find the online students perform on par with, if not better than, campus-based students. Major accredited state college systems offer fully online university degrees, then shutter more and more college campuses
  5. A few Ivy League universities begin to control most of the online content, as universities all over the world converge toward the classes that produce the highest success rates
  6. In the near future, learning on a college campus returns to its elite roots, where a much smaller percentage of students are personally mentored by research and expert faculty

Two scenarios for the future of higher education

University Business published an infographic about changes in higher education.  It includes these two scenarios:

Two scenarios from University Business.The pair are preceded by a quick list of drivers, mostly technological: mobile devices, cloud computing, streaming video, for-profit education, etc.

Note the main divergence, some change versus lots of change.

One MOOC future

Here’s one way MOOCs could grow into a major education force, according to a New America Foundation director.

Note the way Carey blends in current developments, grounding his scenario:

Some accredited colleges—don’t forget, there are thousands of them—will start accepting MOOC certificates as transfer credit. They’ll see it as a tool for marketing and building enrollment. This is already starting to happen. The nonprofit Saylor Foundation recently struck a deal whereby students completing its free online courses can, for a small fee, take exams to earn credit at Excelsior College, a regionally accredited nonprofit online institution.

Pressure to accept MOOC credits will build and gradually move up the higher-education food chain. Public officials eager to offer credible low-cost options to parents and students fed up with rising college prices will pile on. Many will question the quality of MOOC’s, but that’s the great thing about empiricism—courses can be evaluated and knowledge assessed.

Some organizations will develop businesses devoted exclusively to credible, secure assessments of what MOOC students have learned. Security and integrity will always be issues for online learning… But these are solvable problems. Thrun’s MOOC company, Udacity, is forming a partnership with the textbook giant Pearson’s VUE testing-center service for exactly this reason…

It’s unclear just how far such a change would go.  How many institutions, especially liberal arts campuses, would be able to refuse the MOOC and maintain themselves.

(image by Alan Levine)

App.net and the future of the public social network

I’ve just watched the launch video for the product/project App.net, which is another social media network.  This one, has the attractive distinction of charging a fee for use. The argument is that, by charging a fee, they will be subject to their users alone rather than making users one step removed in the process.  The key claim (which is similar to *diapsora) is that “We will never sell your personal data, content, feed, interests, clicks, or anything else to advertisers. We promise.” This leads them to align all the interests of developing the platform to designing for users rather than advertisers or marketers.

Aside from the rather uninspiring pitch given by their founder, I fully agree with their argument about the problems of commercial-supported culture in general.  Despite the apparent belief that Facebook’s data-driven, “the product is you” approach to social media is the first occurrence of this model, the argument of the audience commodity was made in the early 70s by Dallas Smythe about commercial radio and TV. His article (which I can’t link to directly because now it is a commodity of some publisher and therefore unavailable online) was pitched at critiquing those in the “Western Marxist” tradition – mostly of Cultural Studies and but also Critical Theory – who focused too closely on the ideological role the media played in securing legitimation for the status quo.  For him, a more useful argument was  found if we looked at the commercial media as an industrial force in and of itself.

From this perspective, the question pertinent to advertising supported commercial television and radio was: what are they producing? The obvious first answer is: they are producing media.  Yet when you look at how they made their money, it the production of media actually appeared as more of an expense.  A former head of the FCC (from 1943-48), Smythe knew that when NBC or CBS “sold” their product, their primary consumer was the advertising industry, who were ultimately paying the bills. Instead of producing news or entertainment for the viewer or consumer of news directly, they were producing media, to attract audiences which could then be sold to advertisers.  Of course people in the industry had already known this for many years.  But sometimes the social science community needs to be reminded that their objects of inquiry exist in both the abstract and the concrete.  In this case, instead of recognizing the true production process, Smythe declared that ideological critiques of the culture industry focus only on “the free lunch,” which seems an obvious nod to the predominant neoliberal thinker of his age, Milton Friedman.

In addition, in a perverse form of exploitation, even though the advertiser supported, commercial media corporation may be paying people to produce this free lunch, they were not actually producing the commodity that was sold to advertisers.  Instead, it was the viewers themselves who did the work of watching the advertisements, trading their liesure time for the commodity culture in between.  Smythe found this problematic since, among other things, it meant an effective increase in the working day, well into the time we were supposed to be  resting. Only instead of getting paid, we were merely generating profits for the owners of commercial media in exchange for their production our common popular culture.

Most inquiries into Smythe seem to end here – especially those which try to apply Smythe to the current environment of social media, which is obviously very relevant.  But this misses Smythe’s synthesis which points out that, while the primary role of the media itself is not ideological, it serves that purpose nonetheless. We must be prepared for this form of liesure-consumer-labor through intensive socialization into commodity culture more generally.  In a later essay, in his 1981 collection, Dependency Road, Smythe provides concrete examples of the free labor we provide in our preparation for this dimension of the capitalist economy.  In going to the store with our parents, for instance, we learn how to think about (and to think about thinking about) brands and the other practices of commodity consumption. This creates a baseline of self-education that advertisers, marketers, and the advertiser-supported commercial media itself can all expect consumers on the other end to possess.  And this becomes an ideological support in the full meaning of Althusser’s ideology – it is a practical, material effect which helps reproduce the relations of production.

Smythe doesn’t really supply a solution to this problem, but if the problem is commodification, then one solution is to create a public institution of some sort in order to obviate the commodification of that culture: a socially controlled media that therefore serves society because they are both its controllers and primary consumers. In other words, it recognizes the political, cultural, and economic dimensions of the role of the media and attempts to solve it as an overdetermined totality of contradictions.  As jargony as that might sound, it is actually a worthwhile strategy that tries to take the multiple variables, power relations, technological possibilities, and the historical development of these within the economic landscape of the social formation.  It therefore recognizes that flipping one variable will never be enough – in this case, shifting the costs from the advertiser to the direct consumer is a silly way to run a social network – or, more accurately, it is an utterly conventional way to run one.

Although App.net provides a solution, it is based on a libertarian interpretation of the problem. This, predictably, creates a solution which overlooks the fundamentally social nature of communication.  (In a more business sense it is reinstating the model of internet communication on which AOL was based, hence its conventionality.) More accurately, it elides the social problem in its totality and castes it as an economic problem alone.  They are not alone in their approach – one could argue that peer reviewed publications (Peer J comes to mind) have adopted the same answer to their problem: but this piecemeal approach, pragmatic as it may be under the circumstances, is frustratingly disconnected from any overarching vision, limiting its understanding of the most immediate problem it aims to solve (i.e. to prevent social networks from data harvesting in the first case and overturn all of scholarly publishing in another).  What is charming about these endeavors is that they seem to sincerely believe this piecemeal approach will somehow transform the environment at large in a positive direction – or at least respond to an emergent market demand.  It’s all Pop (economics) and Popper (science).

In terms of social media, App.net claims to be responding to a demand (or, more accurately, a significant damper to potentially greater demand):

Many people have become so cynical about user-hostile, privacy-violating social services that they refuse to participate at all. We can understand why. Earning your trust is the most important thing we can do. It won’t be easy, and we will make some mistakes, but we will do our best to be honest and transparent.
Therefore, their solution is to retain the commodity form of the media, but to pass along the costs of that media to the users themselves.  So it is not a tension between commercial and non-commercial communication, but advertiser-supported commercial culture and that supported by user fees.

In purely pragmatic terms, if  the network consists of only users who have paid a fee, then that significantly cuts into your ability not only to network, but to distribute information.  What this creates is a niche market of social media consumers: “we are the people who have the principles and the financial capacity to demand a social network that is safe and private.” This is fine if we don’t take social to mean public in any way. And in that case, it makes some sense, and might be a useful solution except that it relies solely on the market for its feedback and therefore its ability to respond to the problems users see in the platform.  Albert O. Hirschman (who I’ve discussed before on my other blog in relation to education reform) argues this “taut economy” rationality is a problematic starting point precisely because it allows for the most vocal and “quality conscious” consumers to simply select a different product rather than attempting to improve the one that appears to be failing them.  App.net claim that they have enough of a financial cushion to do this with some regularity, but they are also hoping to create a monopoly of sorts (in this case a walled garden where you can have a society free from advertising supported capitalism – and participate in the pure market activity of purchasing a service from a provider); on this point they might be onto something as that is exactly the condition (along with loyalty, obviously another social media favorite) in which Hirschman claims the recuperative politics of voice are energized.

So we can divide this situation into three dimensions: the cultural, the economic, and the political.  I will tackle each of them in turn, but first we should recognize the ecosystem of social media as it currently exists. On the one hand, it is arguably directly related to the ecosystem and economy of the advertiser driven commercial media of the past (and present). For instance, despite the fact that Clay Shirky seems completely oblivious to Smythe, the amazingly productive “cognitive surplus” he discovers once people stopped watching TV is clearly related to the fact that, before they were working for Wikipedia, they were working for The National Broadcasting Corporation (of course, now that NBC is owned by an internet service provider, Comcast, the distinction is increasingly difficult).  In any case, the implication is that people are creating content more directly for themselves – but increasingly they do this on web 2.0 platforms set up to capitalize on this social energy.

For one, as my colleague Rob Gehl has pointed out, the web 2.0 articulation of the von Neumann architecture clearly creates a division between the users as the “affective processors” of information and the social media platform itself as the owner of the archive those users valorize through their labor. These platforms ultimately make money (or, in most cases, hope to make a lot of money) on the data collected and information processed by people on them.   More importantly, they hope to develop profiles of the kinds of engagements people take part in, the kinds of connections they make, and the way information travels throughout social networks. In other words, they are able to engage in a highly sophisticated version of Administrative Communication research so that they can better target advertising messages.  This is especially true of Facebook, though it remains to be seen whether this is something that will actually make them the money they believe they can make.  In other cases- such as Youtube – the traditional advertiser support remains, but there is a broader range of producers remunerated for the media created.  In any case, it is clear that the platform owners have a range of interests competing for their attention, and users are ultimately only an indirect consumer, at least according to Smythe.  App.net, hopes to short circuit this by making a product only for the users.

But even at one step removed, current “commercial” social media platforms must serve the users.  And in many cases, they are far more sensitive to users than even broadcast media.  Whereas the only index of consumer behavior NBC has to deal with is the number of viewers (and, perhaps the problems of DVRs and channel surfing), the very product Facebook or Google hopes to sell – consumer data – requires almost constant indexing of just how much participation, interaction, and attention they are selling.  In other words, it must be good enough to fulfill a basic social need and the increasing demands and expectations of the public it is serving. Thus, it is particularly sensitive to both the voice and exit function

And, on the other hand, because it is increasingly the only game in the social network business, with upwards of 850 million users, it also makes Facebook particularly sensitive to appearing as if it is an advertiser free-for-all.  If users are turned off or no longer find it a useful part of their life, they will abandon it with the speed of Friendster, MySpace, and all the previous social media leaders.  App.net doesn’t appear to have this problem: according to one watcher, although there are about 20k users, about 50% of the posts were generated by only 250 of the people involved.

This makes the platform less value as a venue for “social media” since, well, you can’t really share with all that large a society.  This social problem becomes and economic one at some point, as it many people predict it will for Facebook itself – there are likely significant plateaus in the number of users you can get.  Organizations like PeerJ and App.net, who rely only on user fees will experience this plateau in users much the way a bottom falls out of a pyramid scheme: once you’ve collected all the fees from everyone, how do you pay for sustained improvements on infrastructure or the ability to move onto new communication devices thereby retaining it as a valuable platform for social interaction. And, of course, currency inflation will always force them to charge latecomers to the party more.

The alternative is to begin thinking of Facebook as something other than an advertiser supported social media platform and more, as danah boyd long ago suggested, of a public utility. She makes a lot of the same arguments I do above about the way monopolies are forced to listen to their users in order to stay in business.  The only difference is that this public utility was born privatized and we may have a steeper climb to regulate it in the interest of the public. This suggests that, instead of joining yet another social media platform, you might be better off using the one you already have to organize people around it – and create better rules that are more in your interest. If anyone is successful in doing this, make sure to keep good notes: we evidently need a lot of training in this to fix our public infrastructure, public schools, public libraries, public universities, and, of course, our public servants.  As Hirschman might have said, democracy is messy business: but it is the only way we’re ever going to change things.

It is also worth noting that, like the administrative research of the past – where people like Gallup and Roper were intimately involved in trying to use the same techniques to produce public opinion polls that would inform government decisions – Facebook’s data gathering could serve much more noble ends.  This is highlighted by recent New York Times article on Target’s nascent ability to tell when a teenage customer was pregnant before her father even discovered it, based solely on her buying patterns (a coup only possible because Target served as one of her primary shopping destinations.) The Times highlights the wonderful, insightful social skills that the mathematicians were able to apply to making this amazing discovery even as it points to the utterly banal use the corporation made with this information (i.e. it was able to send a targeted coupon flier, meant to cement her buying habits by encouraging her to think of Target as the place you shop for stuff for your baby.)
In a very different context, Doug Henwood recently interviewed the Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis about his new job at the Valve Software video game design firm. Among the other things Yanis notes in the course of the interview, he wonders at the amazing laboratory of human interaction the games’s market interactions provide. He ultimately notes how the process of regulation is implicit in how these interactions occur – and the data about them are used to shape future interactions. As we refine these kinds of tools, it seems clear that some of what Facebook and Google and Twitter are producing through the aggregation of data about us and our personal interactions could become one of the greatest experiments of social science ever known.  Perhaps App.net hopes to do this in a non-evil way, but as Google long ago learned, defining evil is tricky business: today’s totally normal can be tomorrow’s invitation to invoke Godwin’s law.

a/Udacity of/and the future

My colleagues at NITLE and I are very excited about this new development in the Stanford AI MOOC.  The professor who taught it is leaving his tenured(?) post at Stanford to found an independent for-profit education venture.  In some ways this portends a future scenario for higher education where students and faculty are displaced from the old model and institutions of higher education, roaming free and meeting as the displaced Samurai Ronin in feudal Japan. Though in this case, it doesn’t seem like the institution was keeping him from doing this (in fact, they’ve expanded their offerings based on his success.) He just likely thinks he can make more this way – and so, evidently, does Charles River Ventures who appears to be funding it.

According to this piece, they are part time instructors, not tenured profs (though this may be in reference to two other profs at Stanford who are starting a similar project, but aren’t sure if they will try to spin it off into a for-profit entity like Udacity.) Great Ronin-esqu quote here:

the students each got a letter with their grade and class rank, signed by the professors. No Stanford seal, just the professor’s name and signature. “It raises the question: Whose certification matters, for what purposes?” Michael Feldstein, a widely read educational technology blogger, told Inside Higher Ed at the time. “If individual professors can begin to certify student competence, [then] that begins to unravel the entire fabric of the institution itself.”

More posts covering this announcement:

  • this post above notes that the first class [how to build a search engine] is taught by someone from Google, and a Google exec provided a plug for the course.)
  • more here from Rueters – which I think was one of the first places for the announcement. On the question of pedagogy, he defers to the darling of Bill Gates, et. al. It’s worth noting that his style must have been mostly lecture-based to begin with since he was teaching a class of 200.)

Thrun was eloquent on the subject of how he realized that he had been running “weeder” classes, designed to be tough and make students fail and make himself, the professor, look good. Going forwards, he said, he wanted to learn from Khan Academy and build courses designed to make as many students as possible succeed — by revisiting classes and tests as many times as necessary until they really master the material.

But note here: Thrun doesn’t help them master the material. He gives them materials to help them master the ideas, on their own. One-on-one in this context means one person watching another one on a screen. It’s still largely autodidactic and the subject matter (programming) is much further on the continuum of unambiguous topics, i.e. there may be debates, but there are often clear answers to questions of programming language. It would be far more difficult to scale humanities classes, writing intensive classes, or even social sciences classes to this level. Not that it can’t be done, but as my NITLE colleague Rebecca Davis pointed out, there is little innovation in pedagogy here.

On the other hand, it is interesting to imagine what this credential will do in the future. Students get a letter with their class rank – i.e. I was student 314,567 out of 500,000 in the Spring 2014 edition of this class. There is a very specific context in which this credential will have value. The global community of programmers and computer scientists will be able to interpret the significance of this credential based on their knowledge of this highly visible, nay celebrity, class. But as usual the focus (especially in the Reuters piece) is on the cream of the crop (“248 students out of 160K got perfect scores”). It is laudable that these students – all of whom were far away from Stanford’s campus – were so well equipped (though it’s worth noting many of them could have been advanced computer scientists simply interested in the course as a kind of game). But what does it mean to be in the bottom fifth of a class of 500,000? Just that you’re a loser? Is there any possibility that you just have a different learning style that doesn’t translate to this model? Does it matter if your future career will depend on it?  And does it mean anything to be in the top fifth of a MOOC? How many of your fellow students might be third world “credential farmers” (a la gold farmers) or even AI computers being trained to learn how to do this farming automatically?  It wouldn’t take long for these subsidiary industries to catch on once it is seen as a ticket to a good job.

My next thought was that it would be hard to imagine what it would mean 5, 10 or 15 years after you take it. I suppose that doesn’t matter since by that time you’ll have had (hopefully) several jobs on top of it. And, I suppose, if the model catches on, Udacity will get a roster of alumni to build the brand.

The other trend this could point to, especially if Google is somehow involved, is the direct training of high tech labor by the companies who want to hire them. Gates is always complaining about the lack of qualified students here. This would be a workaround. Instead of giving students apprenticeships once they finish college to complete their training, simply establish an online college that trains students in the most streamlined way possible, then hire the top 0.1%. It’s unlikely to create the kind of independent, critical thinking they say they want, but it makes it easier to skim people off the top and drop them directly into the work you want them doing. Of course, it means that, for possible workers, the training they might receive, free as it might be, will be valuable mostly to the company that provides the training. If you don’t make the cut in that online class, you’ll need to go take one with Apple or Adobe until you are able to figure out what your strengths are or if you belong in one of the few lucrative professions left in the US or if you would have been better off (or happier) going into social work. From a public policy standpoint, in other words, this would largely be another example of what Siva Vaidhyanathan might call a “public failure” – a concept he develops in relation to the Google Books project.

Public failure [in contrast to market failure, its mirror image] occurs when the instruments of the state cannot satisfy public needs and deliver services effectively. This failure occurs not because the state is the inappropriate agent to solve the particular problem (although there are plenty of areas in which state service is inefficient and counterproductive); it may occur when the public sector has been intentionally dismantled, degraded, or underfunded, while expectations for its performance remain high.  Examples of public failures in the United States include military operations, prisons, health care coverage, and schooling.  The public institutions that were supposed to provide these services were prevented from doing so.  Private actors filled the vacuum, often failing spectacularly as well and costing the public more than the institutions they displaced.  In such circumstances, the failure of public institutions give rise to the circular logic that dominates political debate.  Public institutions can fail; public institutions need tax revenue; therefore we must reduce support for public institutions.  The resulting failures then supply more anecdotes supporting the view that public institutions fail by design rather than by political choice.

It’s quite possible that Udacity will be a tremendous success at delivering the kind of content it delivers.  And in so far as it is, we should do all that we can to learn from it and genuinely integrate those lessons into the dominant model of post-secondary education.  On the other hand, I think this kind of course has a very specific purpose, one which will be better complemented by a broader education that allows for more structured forms of play, interaction and discussion built into its pedagogy.  I’m very curious, for instance, to hear what Cathy Davidson might say about this model.  I think her first observation would be the way it individualizes the students and prevents them from learning from one another.  I wonder what it would look like – and what effect it would have on the class – if students built some sort of social platform alongside this to do collaborative learning exercises.

In either case, it would seem that most people would need to have more than a single class to build up a fungible credential portfolio.  Whether they would need the equivalent of 40 classes across a range of disciplines or not is up for discussion.  And much of this may simply depend on what it seems people need in order to get jobs.  I suppose the question then becomes how much we want to make the future education of our country based solely on the narrow vocational concerns of the few remaining “job creators.”  It’s a hard question to ask right now.  They say there are no atheists in foxholes; humanists in recessions fair only slightly better.

Two models of preparing to weather change

Today’s Chronicle of Higher Ed tells of two different approaches to weathering change.

Bard, a small liberal arts college in the Hudson Valley, with, likely, plenty of cash, bought a small liberal arts college in Berlin, Germany.

After it merges with Bard, says the news release, “academic programs will be expanded and graduates will receive a dual degree accredited in Germany and the United States,” a new study-abroad program will be started next year, and “several master of arts degree programs are planned.”

Expanding into a global market in some way is one strategy; though Old Europe is not likely to have the kind of growth we’ll see in East and South Asia, Germany is probably the safest bet in that market.  Interestingly, the purchase also includes 15 buildings (for only 65 students!) so it’s worth arguing that it was also a real estate investment.

On the other hand, Southern University, a traditionally black college with plenty of real estate in its five Louisiana campuses, is expanding its services online–in part to draw upon the large number of older students in the state who might have started at Southern and been unable to complete their degrees the first time around.  The online partner will split the profits with Southern, but Southern will supply both materials and instruction for the online programs.