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.


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.

What is a…university? Credentialing function edition

As I imagine all of these posts will be, the question of what a university is seems both straightforward and even banal.  However, as I’ll hopefully illuminate below, there is a lot to unpack in how we think of these institutions as well as how they function.  And, by understanding all that they can entail, we can have a more informed discussion about their future.  As I enumerate their attributes, I’ll also mention some of the disruptive innovations in the field and how they compare to the paradigmatic institution.

I suppose I should include a caveat here: while we can make this a more variegated canvas as we go, when I say “university” I mean all forms of post-secondary education, most specifically at this level: degree-granting institutions.   This covers everything from small, liberal arts colleges to large research universities.

This caveat provides me with my first social function.  Universities fulfill a credentialing function.  As many recent economic analyses have shown, the credential of the undergraduate education – the BA, BS, BFA, etc. – or higher has significant value, even in the current recession.  In the national discourse around higher education, there is often only an implicit relationship between the learning processes and personal/educational development students are presumed to have experienced in order to achieve the degree.  In other words, it doesn’t matter all that much to employers or policy makers if students undergo some form of bildungsroman, just that someone somewhere has vetted these students in some way.

For instance, in a recent speech about the future of higher education, Arne Duncan mentioned Governor’s State University as an important model. In addition to it’s being online (an attribute I’ll discuss below) Governor’s State is a competency based institution, meaning it doesn’t operate on the model where students have to take a whole class, for a whole semester, to get a grade and advance to the next class.  Instead, there are certain competencies that are outlined for each major or class: once a student has mastered these competencies (which could take more or less time for each student) they are allowed to advance.

Their degree, therefore, like most undergraduate degrees, performs a signaling function.  Though the university is often discussed as a sort of medieval institution, this current function shows it to be a thoroughly modern one.  In Anthony Giddens’ book The Consequences of Modernity, which is his 1990s account of globalization, he points to the importance of what he calls “disembedding mechanisms:”  “By disembedding I mean the “lifting out” of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time-space.” The two major mechanisms he mentions are symbolic tokens and expert systems.  Symbolic tokens – like money – and expert systems allow local forms of value and expertise to get stretched across time and space.  Or, as he puts it:

Expert systems are disembedding mechanisms because, in common with symbolic tokens, they remove social relations from the immediacies of context. Both types of disembedding mechanism presume, yet also foster, the separation of time from space as the condition of the time-space distanciation which they promote. An expert system disembeds in the same way as symbolic tokens, by providing “guarantees” of expectations across distanciated time-space. This “stretching” of social systems is achieved via the impersonal nature of tests applied to evaluate technical knowledge and by public critique (upon which the production of technical knowledge is based), used t o control its form.

The undergraduate degree sits right at the intersection of these disembedding mechanisms of modernity.  Like the High School diploma, is supposed to act as a symbolic token which is guaranteed by a form of expert system, namely, the university faculty and their credential granting institution.  This allows its holder’s credential to travel through time and space.

There are many good reasons for needing something like this, and for the undergraduate degree having an economic premium.  But one can be demonstrated by looking at this recent big data project using IRS tax stats.  It’s an interactive map on the Forbes.com website.  The big headline is “40 million Americans move from one home to another every year.” This shows a fairly under-appreciated fact about the distinction between what migration analysts call flows and stocks.  For instance, if you click on Travis county, where I now reside, you can see that it has had a (stock) population increase of about 100,000 people between 2005-2010.  However, if you look at each year, you can see that this increase in the stock is just what is leftover from a dramatically higher flow.  In each of those years between 2005 and 2010, almost 60,000 people migrated into Travis country from other counties in the country, and nearly as many migrated out.  The 100,000 increase in stock is just what’s leftover in the flow of 500-600,000 people over the course of five years.  Keep in mind, these are also only the migrations in and out of Austin from within the US – though if you look at where on the map people are going and coming, it is pretty widespread.  40 million citizens moving around the country is more than 10% of the population.  Over a decade, this means the equivalent of every person in the country will have moved.

All of these people, moving in and out of cities far apart in our geographically enormous country likely have a wide variety of work experiences and backgrounds.  And many of them are likely moving for a job of one kind or another – some of them might be going to school (though most moving for school are likely going on to JDs, MAs or PhD many as most college students wouldn’t file their own taxes).  But employers and professional schools rely on the credential of the BA as an index of basic proficiency: they may need to call your references or ask for letters of recommendation from someone who is an authority of some kind, but your degree serves as an indication that you have completed the national requirements for proficiency as judged by some national accredited agency.  Your authority and proficiency is therefore allowed to stretch from the local context where you worked and went to school into the new place you are moving.

This also explains why the idea of digital badges is getting so much play.  In many ways, this is the major problem we are having with education as a whole in the current era.  The issue of credentialling is moving further down the education food chain, as we try to decide how we will give authority and how we will value expert systems from elementary schools to high school teachers.  The problem is that many forms of the most important kinds of learning do not respond to quantitative metrics of proficiency.  Perhaps more importantly, the economic function of this credential is being overvalued, to the extent that economic prowess is, perversely, now signaling educational proficiency.  Billionaires, as Diane Ravitch has lamented, seem to think that their ability to game capital markets qualifies them to reform US education.  More on this, later.

The flipside of this, is that, as this credential has become an economic necessity, it has very problematic effects on how students in higher education value and take advantage of that experience.  If the only goal is to get the credential in order to get a job, how you get there and what you actually learn becomes incidental.  Likewise, who teaches you (fulltime faculty, underpaid adjuncts, or – if the Venture Capitalists get their way, cleverly designed computers) and where you go to school are less important than the fact that you exchange time and money for a degree which guarantees you for employment in the US.  The problem, of course, is if the term “guarantee” is taken as a promise rather than a symbolic token: the central complaint of both the Occupy movement and the even more relevant Occupy Student Debt is that many people took the culturally appropriate actions in terms of securing the credential and this has yet to yield employment.

Obviously this is one of the central features of the crisis of higher education, but the credentialing function is only one of many social functions which the university performs.  Since I’m already nearing 1500 words on this post, I suppose I’ll save the others for future posts.  For a preview, I’ll just outline them briefly here:

Universities (for students) provide an efficient portal for access to faculty (experts), technology (computer labs, science labs), resources (libraries, databases), services (food, housing, health, fitness), and networks of other students (alumni, fraternal organizations, student activities, etc.) Organizing access to all of these – many of which are necessary for either the completion of the degree itself, which assist in providing the necessities of life while students concentrate on the degree, or which will be essential resources upon graduation – would be an onerous and expensive task if undertaken on an individual basis.

Universities also help produce learning experiences and research processes for students, faculty, and administration.  These are supposedly the central pursuits of the university, made possible by the unique configuration of forced and facilitated access and interaction the residential campus provides.  It is a truly, deeply important social function which seems greatly overshadowed by the focus on credentialing in the current conversation.

The cynic in me sees this isolated focus as the intentional and reasonable result of the financial philistines who have taken it upon themselves to reorganize this system.  The credentialing function of the university creates a fairly inelastic demand for its services.  This, in turn, creates a captive market of citizens willing to take on enormous loads of debt in order to acquire the credential.  The financial, economic and labor market functions are tied into this credentialing function, especially in the short term view of finance capital.  Arguably the learning experiences and research processes are more important for the long term economic development of the country.  But these cannot be measured immediately in terms of costs and benefits so they are more difficult to value and validate, except rhetorically.

I’m sure there are other functions I am missing – probably many – so it is good to line up the rest and hopefully expand on this list as we go.