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.

Open Access Publishing

It’s hard to say whether the trend in open access publishing has reached some sort of tipping point, or if I’m just paying more attention.  But recent weeks have brought several noteworthy examples.  Here’s just a sampling, with heavy weight towards those I’ve heard about this week…

Today the Open Humanities Press announced it was releasing a books from two of its series, in collaboration with MPublishing at the University of Michigan Library.  Upon further investigation, OHP is an imprint of MPublishing.  The press release is a pdf, but here’s an excerpt:

(Ann Arbor, MI-December 15, 2011) — Open Humanities Press (OHP) and MPublishing are pleased to announce the publication of six open access books on critical theory, continental philosophy and cultural studies. Each title will be freely available as full-text HTML, as well as in paperback editions, and are being released on a rolling publication schedule beginning 15 December. In a unique collaboration, the books are being jointly released by OHP, an international publishing collective run by scholars, and MPublishing, the library-based publishing enterprise at the University of Michigan.

[. . . .]

The peer-reviewed books are part of OHP’s Critical Climate Change series (edited by Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook) and the New Metaphysics series (edited by Graham Harman and Bruno Latour). MPublishing created the structured XML for electronic and print on demand publication, as well as the metadata and cataloging information, and archived the books in the University of Michigan Library for long-term preservation.

The first two books (by Bryant and Nechvatal) are available now so you can go see how the model works.  Note, however, that while MPublishing page hosts the XML web-based version, there is no link to download a pdf there; you can find that on the OHP page (linked above).  Both include links to the Amazon page where you can purchase a paperback.

A few weeks ago, I also heard of this series, co-sponsored by the OHP, called “Living Books About Life” (“with life understood both philosophically and biologically”) created a series of open access resources that can be used in both humanities and sciences.  Not content to simply release this fantastic resource, they also contend they will be updating them as needed – hence “Living books.”

All the books in the series are themselves ‘living’, in the sense that they are open to ongoing collaborative processes of writing, editing, updating, remixing and commenting by readers. As well as repackaging open access science research — along with interactive maps, visualisations, podcasts and audio-visual material — into a series of books, Living Books About Life is thus engaged in rethinking ‘the book’ itself as a living, collaborative endeavour in the age of open science, open education, open data and e-book readers such as Kindle and the iPad.


These join a variety of other emergent platforms and institutional supports for open access.  On the former, cf. the Oapen platform – which hosts this book by Jeremy Gilbert, who forwarded it proudly to a listserve.  As for the latter, my colleague Rob Gehl, who tweets and blogs at digitalresearchers.org/ recently took advantage of a program at the Marriott Library of the University of Utah.  As at many institutions, they have an Open Access Publishing Fund which paid Dr. Gehl’s author fee to Duke UP in order to make his forthcoming Social Text article open access.  Not sure where it will ultimately be housed, but for now, he’s got a pre-press version of the article (which is worth reading) on his website.

There is definitely a lot of work being made available in this manner, making curation and discoverability key issues going forward.  That and expanding the amount of hours in the day so I have enough time to read all of them.