MOOCs are dead. “How can I possibly argue that MOOCs are dead?,” you may ask. After all, to borrow the stats just from Coursera, they have: 1600 courses, 130+ specializations, 145+ university partners, 22 million learners and 600,000 course certificates earned. More importantly, it appears that Coursera has received $146.1 million dollars over the years. Even though it hasn’t gotten any new funding since October 2015, unless Coursera tries to copy “Bachmanity Insanity” (Is Alcatraz still available for parties?) the company is going to be sticking around for quite a while.
What I mean when I say that MOOCs are dead is not that MOOCs no longer exist, but that MOOCs are no longer competing against universities for the same students. Continuing with the Coursera theme here, in August they became the last of the major MOOC providers to pivot to corporate training. While I did note the departure of Daphne Koller on this blog, I didn’t even bother to mention that pivot at the time because it seemed so unremarkable, but really it is.
Do you remember Daphne Koller’s TED Talk? Do you remember how incredibly utopian it was? n truth, it made no bloody sense even then. For example, she suggested back at the height of MOOC Madness that:
[M]aybe we should spend less time at universities filling our students’ minds with content by lecturing at them, and more time igniting their creativity, their imagination and their problem-solving skills by actually talking with them.
I agree with that now. In fact, I agreed with that then too. The problem with that observation to almost anyone who actually teaches for a living remains that talking with students is obviously impossible when you have ten thousand people in your class. More importantly, showing students tapes of lectures (even if they’re broken up into five minute chunks) is still lecturing.
But just because this blow proved to be glancing doesn’t mean that the punch didn’t leave a mark. For example, a lot of rich schools threw a lot money out the window investing in Coursera and its ilk. [Yeah, I’m looking at you, alma mater.] Others simply decided to spend tens of thousands of dollars on creating individual MOOCs that are now outdated almost by definition since they’re not designed for corporate training. Yes, I know that MOOC producers claim that their MOOC experience improved teaching on campus, but think how much better teaching on campus would have been if they had just invested in improving teaching on campus.
At best, MOOCs were a distraction. At worst, MOOCs were a chronic condition designed to drain the patient of life-giving revenue. Instead, those schools could have used that revenue (as well as its initial investments) for other purposes, like paying all their faculty a living wage.
My inspiration for this observation (and this entire post) is the MOOC section of Chris Newfield’s terrific new book, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them.* This is from page 227:
MOOCs were not going to leverage public colleges by buying them. But they could acquire a share of their revenue streams–that combination of student tuition and enrollment-based public funding–whose capture is one of the five key elements of privatization…MOOCs could leverage their private capital with far greater sums flowing colleges and universities without buying anything up front. This offered the attractive prospect to strapped public colleges of gradually replacing even more tenure-track faculty with technology that could be managed by private MOOC firms off campus, for a reasonable fee.
To make one of my favorite distinctions, this applies to schools that are MOOC-producers (like Arizona State) even if those MOOCs are mainly for internal consumption, and especially all those colleges and universities that were potential MOOC consumers – any place that considered replacing their humdrum, ordinary faculty with all the “world’s best lecturers.”
In order to capture part of that revenue stream, MOOC providers had to argue that their courses were better than the ones that students were taking already. That explains all the hating on large lecture courses. Except, MOOCs were nothing but large lecture courses dressed up with technological doodads. As Newfield explains on pp. 242-43:
In effect, MOOC advocates were encouraging students to leave their state universities to attend liberal arts colleges, where they could go back to the future of intensive learning in the seminars that typify “colleges that change lives.” But of course they weren’t. Advocates were actually claiming MOOC ed tech could create liberal arts colleges all for next-to-no-cost (Koller) or greatly lowering costs (Thrun). In making this claim, they ignored existing historical knowledge about learning at high-quality institutions, which made the technology seem original, when it was not.
MOOCs may have been cheaper (and Newfield even disputes that), but they certainly weren’t better – even than large lecture classes.
Again, the vast majority of us faculty foresaw this particular Titanic hitting the iceberg (including me, even if it did take me a while). Nevertheless, university administrators that partnered with MOOC providers or (even worse) bought their products, trusted Silicon Valley types more than their own faculty. This course of action was a reflection of the same self-loathing that Audrey Watters describes here:
There seems to be a real distaste for “liberal arts” among many Silicon Valley it seems – funny since that’s what many of tech execs studied in college, several of whom now prominently advocate computer science as utterly necessary while subjects like ethics or aesthetics or history are a waste of time, both intellectually and professionally.
Yet at least these Silicon Valley types had enough self awareness to go into a different field after they left college. What’s the excuse for a university administrator with an advanced degree in the humanities (or anything else for that matter) to hate their educations so much that they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to deliberately undermine them? There is none. They should have known better.
Next time Silicon Valley comes up with a new way to “disrupt” education, let’s see if we faculty can invest more time and effort in getting our bosses to listen to common sense. Instead, as Newfield notes in his postmortem of Koller’s TED Talk on p. 241 of The Great Mistake:
The categorical discrediting of faculty pedagogy made this bypass of faculty expertise and authority seem reasonable and necessary for the sake of progress.
So in the meantime, let’s fight to improve shared governance everywhere so that we’re prepared to fight for quality education if our bosses refuse to accept the obvious. Some of us becoming temporarily famous is not worth wasting so much money and effort on any technology that is obviously going to prove to be so fleeting.
* Full Disclosure: Newfield and I have the same publisher even though we publish in entirely different fields.
I’ve been streaming a lot of Simpsons with my son lately. Backwards. Since I quit watching the show regularly sometime in the late-90s, this was the best way that we could both enjoy all-new material. The quality of even the most recent stuff is obviously the good thing about streaming the Simpsons. The bad thing is being locked into watching all those Fox commercials since my cable company (or maybe it’s Fox) won’t let us fast forward. The above Uber commercial has been on full rotation for months. In fact, it sometimes plays twice an episode. I’ve been making so many “earnin’/chillin'” jokes that my son now leaves the room when it comes on.
I thought of that commercial twice while I was at the AHA in Denver last weekend. The first time was when I explained to four historians from Northern California (ironically, the first place that I ever took an Uber) how Uber works. [Key lesson: Always tip your driver!] The second time was when I went to my first digital humanities panel on Saturday morning. The commentator, Chad Gaffield from the University of Ottawa, was talking about how DH makes it possible to break down the false dichotomy between work and play. That spoke to me, because I’ve been having an awful lot of fun teaching all my classes lately. Indeed, I’m going to bring that up the next time I hear someone who teaches like it’s still 1995 start talking about “rigor.”
The other point Gaffield mentioned that I thought was really important was the way that DH blends the traditional roles of teaching, research and service. In my case, I teach students how to research using local resources that help the community once they appear online. However, I suspect there are a million variations to that. In any event, when you fill out your annual performance review, we can all include DH work in whichever category we don’t have enough material in already.
In the very early days of this blog, the role of tech critic was something of a side hustle for me. It wasn’t my day job, but my writing nonetheless found an audience. It’s through the conversations which that writing inspired that I stumbled into a large, multi-disciplinary pool of scholar/teachers who were trying to utilize the Internet to create unique educational experiences rather than cheap, dumb carbon copies of face-to-face courses. I started teaching online so that I could try to set a positive example for other people who might be reluctant to make the same jump because so much of what’s out there has a justifiably bad reputation. I still have a long way to go, but one of the most refreshing things I got out of all the DH panels I went to last weekend is that so does everybody else. Even historians who get their DH papers onto AHA panels readily admit that their learning curve remains steep.
By the time I left Denver in Sunday, I had decided I’m never going back. I don’t want my conventional courses to be entirely conventional anymore. In other words, I’ve been convinced that the digital needs to be present in every course I teach.
I am hardly the first person to draw such a conclusion. CU-Boulder’s Patty Limerick wrote in the September 2016 issue of AHA Perspectives that:
In innumerable settings, historians in Colorado are stepping up to this challenge. In the process, they are devising practices that transcend the conventional turf fights between “academic history” and “public history,” uniting in the strenuous and satisfying work of “applied history.”
I think you could make a pretty good case that food and refrigerators are relevant today, but it’s my classes which take students into the Steelworks Center of the West and the Pueblo Public Library that fit this definition of “applied history” the best.
While such activities have little to do with my current research, teaching is 50% of my job according the annual performance review I’ll have to turn in a couple of weeks from now. In short, what was once my side hustle has now become my regular hustle. While there’s still a lot of tech criticism left to write and I plan to write at least some of it when I have the time, this blog, when I have time for it (and why would I have redesigned it if I had intended to never use it again?) is going full pedagogy.
In the meantime, I have another actual history book I want to write…
Curating a respectable online survey course experience comes with a lot of responsibility. In my humble opinion, too many online US history survey courses cling to the vestiges of the traditional lecture model. As I’ve explained here and here, mine is more like an English composition class. While I’ve enjoyed teaching it so far, the whole thing is far from perfect. So in the interests of transparency and helping anyone out there who might actually be interested in following my path, I’m going to try to explain more of the mistakes I’ve made (besides this one), as well as all the fixes that I’ll be implementing when I re-write the syllabus over Christmas break for next semester’s students.
1) Many years ago, when I first started at CSU-Pueblo, I asked an Associate Provost whether he thought I should have an attendance policy. “Do it for their own good,” he responded, and I have mostly stuck with that advice. Of course, an attendance policy makes no sense in the context of an asynchronous, entirely online course, but you still need your students to log in to do the work. I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that I have lamented the fact that when I remind students that there is an attendance policy, the people who need to hear it usually aren’t in the room. Telling students to log in and do the work when they never bother to log in is even more frustrating.
That’s why I’m moving to mandatory meetings (in person or via Skype) during the first two weeks of class, when everyone’s working on setting up the various accounts and programs I require. On a human level, I suspect it’s a little harder to abandon a course when the professor is a person rather than screen presence. On the more practical level, my one question during those meetings is going to be, “How do I reach you if you suddenly disappear?” Yes, I realize that online courses have always had higher dropout rates than their face-to-face alternatives, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t try to make my course something of an exception.
2) Another typical problem I’ve had is with the discussion aspect of the course. For one thing, it proved next to impossible to get and keep a good discussion going with a very small number of students (although things have been better now towards the end of our time together), even though Slack has worked beautifully for student/teacher communications. Besides getting a bigger course, I think my problem here was requiring too little. I’ve been asking for a question and an answer and a document summary for each two-week unit. In the future, I’m going to up that to once a week, and increase the percentage of the grade that goes for discussion. I also need to recommend the Slack mobile app a little more forcefully, as it has been great for keeping track of those discussions that went well.
3) As part of those unit assignments, I’ve been requiring students to bring in a source from the wider Internet in order to evaluate it. I LOVE the fact that I can conceivably do that well in this format, especially after reading the summaries of that bone-chilling Stanford study about students and fake news. The problem in my class has been is that students don’t have any context to evaluate what makes something reliable. Indeed, the best answers I could get all revolved around the origin of the story. “It’s from the New York Times, of course it’s reliable.” Nobody cares where the NYT was getting its info.
My plan is to move the outside sources out of the week-to-week writing assignments and into the pre-exam section of the course, and try to ban them outright for the bi-weekly essays. Too many people were using Google to write their assignments anyway, and not looking at the credible assigned texts. If I move the wider web stuff to the end of the course sections, then they’ll have weeks of assignments and textbook reading that they can compare their outside sources too. If a reliable, already assigned primary source (or even the textbook) corroborates their outside source, then we can all gain a better understanding of what reliability really means.
4) I’m just gonna come out and say it: Online grade books are shit. Yes, the one in Canvas is better than the one in BlackBoard, but if your grading scheme includes something as simple as dropping the lowest grade of any kind of assignment (as mine does) it is impossible to get these systems to do what you want them to do ad still have a reliable total at the end of the row of columns. And don’t even ask me about converting letter grades into points. It’ll just make me angry.
This whole problem reminds me of why I resented grade books for so long back when I was only teaching more conventional classes. Students would constantly ask me what they’re grade was and I’d say, “Do the math.” The math wasn’t that hard, but they were so used to getting their simple running final grade totals on a platter that response made me look like an asshole. Yet there are advantages to not keeping a running total. For example, I can do crazy things like grade up for improvement over the course of the semester or even curve my results if I decide that my constant pedagogical experiments proved too much for that semester’s students.
So what am I going to do about this? First, I’m going to try to disable the final grade mechanism entirely so all that students can do is read their letter grades. I think that might work if I assign zero points for each assignment and use a separate spreadsheet at the end of the semester. If that doesn’t work, I’m going to stop using a grade book entirely. Sometimes old school is better than dumb school.
5) Read the syllabus:
Reminder: The end of the term is near.
We are at that time when students finally read the syllabus, then whine & look for loopholes! Enjoy!
— College Professor (@ReadTheSyllabus) November 27, 2016
If you thought reading the syllabus was important for regular courses, it is probably five times as important for online courses because your students don’t get the benefit of listening to you repeat reminders at them all semester. As usual, some students clearly did do so, but others clearly didn’t.
What to do here? At first I was thinking about a syllabus quiz, but that’s so boring. My new idea is an online treasure hunt that will force students to go back through the other programs I’m forcing then to use. [What is in the crazy online GIF that I embedded in the first response in Slack #random channel? Send the response to me as a Slack direct message.] Stick those commands in random places in the middle of the syllabus (and grade them), and maybe I can kill two birds with one stone.
Yes, there are a few more mistakes that I know I’ve made, but the of Gravatars or my my troubles with Hypothes.is groups were in no way pivotal to the success or failure of the class. The mistakes covered here are enough for public consumption. In the meantime, your thoughts and suggestions to what’s here would be much appreciated both by me and my fellow denizens of the CSU-Pueblo Center for Teaching and Learning who are teaching online for the first few times and trying to make their courses better too.
I remember exactly when I took my first MOOC. It was Fall 2012 (during the run up to the last presidential election) and I was on sabbatical. If I didn’t have all that extra time on my hands I never would have finished it. I’ve signed up for a couple of more since then (like the one with edX just so I could see if their syllabi actually had required reading), but I never really did any work on those. Recently, I started classifying my Coursera e-mail as spam so I wouldn’t even have to think about MOOCs quite so much anymore.
Yet much to my shock, I’ve come out of MOOC retirement. While I’m not doing the work for the University of Houston’s Digital Storytelling MOOC, I have decided to do watch the videos because I really want to be able to introduce digital storytelling as a possibility into my next digital history class. All I really need is some knowledge about the tools with which I can experiment. When I actually teach this stuff we’ll all kind of fake it together.
That’s good, because if I had wanted to do the work in the MOOC and get it graded, I’d have had to pay Coursera for a certificate. So much for open.
Not only is the grading now a privilege you have to pay for, Coursera is pushing the opportunity to get a certificate at the end of every video. Here’s an exact quote of their nagging ad (at least in week #1) in its entirety:
Purchase a Certificate today, and you’ll support Coursera’s mission to provide universal access to education.
Open access. We want everyone to have access to the world’s top courses. We provide financial aid to all learners with need.
New courses. Revenue from Certificates funds new course development.
Of course, the very existence of Coursera’s many investors is never acknowledged.
Going back through my blog archives, it wasn’t hard for me to find the post where I saw this coming. I wrote this in 2014:
[Coursera co-founder Daphne] Koller, and by extension the rest of the MOOC Messiah Squad, are performing a huge intellectual switcheroo by making arguments like this one. They’re replacing the promise of universal higher education with the promise of universal ACCESS to higher education. We’ll let you listen to our superprofessors for free, she is essentially saying, but you have to do the hard work of obtaining an actual education all by yourself.
If you think this change is why Daphne Koller left Coursera, remember that it took her two more years to actually leave. The investors’ desire to monetize Coursera overtook the promise of educating the world long before she actually departed. At least when you give PBS $50, they’ll give you a free tote bag.
Actually, Coursera’s business plan now reminds me now more of a company like Evernote than it does public broadcasting. Provide a free service that people find useful, then constantly upsell your customers in the hopes that they might pay up for it. I still use Evernote even after they limited the free service to a total of two devices because it’s useful to me. I haven’t paid them a cent. Evernote is well on its way to going out of business.
I’m well past caring whether any particular Silicon Valley company, be it Evernote or Coursera, is actually making money. What I remain concerned about is the creeping corporatization of higher education.
To explain what I mean here, I’ll pick on my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. Here’s Penn President Amy Gutmann from way back in 2012 (when MOOCs were young):
“Penn is delighted to participate in this innovative collaboration that will make high-quality learning opportunities available to millions of people around the world,” Gutmann says. “Expanding access to higher education both nationally and globally remains one of our most critical responsibilities. This initiative provides an invaluable opportunity for anyone who has the motivation and preparation to partake of a world-class education.”
But Coursera isn’t helping Penn provide “high-quality learning opportunities” to “millions of people around the world” anymore. They’re helping Penn provide mostly static content to millions of people around the world and access to low-quality learning opportunities for people with the willingness and resources to pay for it. Heck, they might as well just go back to the old MIT model of taping course lectures there and putting them online. Why not (partially) cut out the middleman and just put your videos up on iTunes U? Because Penn is an investor in Coursera, that’s why.
MOOCs were never about universal higher education. They were always about making money. Faculty and students at any university with a MOOC partner ought to recognize that by now, and pressure their schools to un-partner immediately. Then they can develop their own platforms and offer their own MOOCs on any terms they want. Hopefully, those terms will go back to really being open again.
When I decided to teach online for the first time this semester, I was determined to throw out my old survey class and rebuild a new one from the bottom up. My main design concept was to create a US history survey class that didn’t do what the web does badly, and take advantage of what the web can do well. The class is built around writing. [You can see my two earlier posts about the structure of the course here and here.] I though those of you who are still bothering to read this blog might be interested in how it’s going.
Without getting into too many student-specific details: Not too bad. I am very fortunate to have a very small class. That gives me the freedom to make mistakes with a minimum of embarrassment. It also means that I’m not burdened with too much grading as I try to to read everything I assigned (often for the first time) and continually reach out to all the students who are having trouble with either the technology or the history itself.
I have certainly made tons and tons of mistakes. Most of them have had to do with the syllabus. I spent most of last summer working on that thing, and (inevitably) there are plenty of sections in it where I could have explained what I want better. For example, I don’t think there’s a better tool out there if you want comment on and discuss student writing than Hypothes.is. I had used it a bit last semester, but after I went to a Hypothes.is workshop in Denver a couple of months ago I was absolutely dying to use it more and to use it differently. Unfortunately, I hadn’t used it enough at that point to explain how I wanted it utilized particularly well. Now that I’m using it a lot, I can assure you that that explanation will be much more clear next time around.
Before that workshop, I was actually thinking about dropping Hypothes.is entirely because there are so many different programs or publications requiring separate sign ins that I’m using in this course. Five actually. With respect to an LMS, I’m using the free version of Canvas (at a BlackBoard campus). I’m also using Slack, Hypothes.is, Milestone Documents and an online textbook. Oh yeah, there’s also a class blog (but all the technical work there is mine). Yes, I knew this would confuse students — but I did it anyway, and this has become my favorite mistake, one that I plan to repeat next semester.
Why? I wanted to use the best tools available. Period. These tools are simply not available under one technical umbrella. Moreover, since all of these tools are outside the direct control of my university, I feel happily free of direct surveillance.
More importantly, I’ve come to believe that this kind of student confusion is in and of itself a tremendous learning opportunity. One of the things that my volunteer remote instructional design coach (the fabulous Debbie Morrison) told me while this course was still in the planning stages is that you have to give up some time at the beginning so that students feel comfortable with the technology. As a result, I planned two weeks of tech work and historical activities that didn’t count towards the final grade before the students had to start writing. Of course, some students got the tech instantly. For others, though, it was a longer struggle than I ever expected — perhaps in large part (but not entirely) due to my poor instructions.
Now that the essays are coming apace, I’ve decided that those first two weeks were in and of themselves valuable. While you really can now Google anything about history and get at least an O.K. explanation eventually, getting over a fear of technology is a lot harder to do. Digital natives my Aunt Fannie. [And I’ve known this for years, not just when I started teaching online.] While I never, ever expected to teach this kind of thing back when I was in graduate school it’s now pretty clear to me that this may be the most important behavior I’m modelling in this whole online survey class.
On the other hand, all those professors in whatever discipline who say things in public like “I don’t do computers” are not only sending the opposite message. They really are preparing students for a world that no longer exists for every White Collar job in America, as well as an awful lot of the rest of them. They’re also doing a terrible job preparing their students for the outside world – even the world of history graduate school these days (should they be so foolhardy to actually choose that route).
No, I’m not telling you to turn all your courses into computer classes. I’ve basically turned my survey class into a kind of English composition seminar, so it’s not as if I’m abandoning the humanities or anything that heretical. All I’m telling you is that the world is changing all around you whether you like it or not, and all of my colleagues in academia really ought to at least make some effort to get with the program.
All us historians let out a loud sigh when we read that story about Republican Senator Ron Johnson wanting to replace us all with Ken Burns videos. It’s an incredibly stupid argument, of course, but it’s also sadly typical of everyone who has no idea what history professors actually do all day. “Leave it to someone from a party led by a reality TV star to confuse videotape with the learning experience of a classroom,” explained Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers:
“What Ron Johnson doesn’t get is that education happens when teachers can listen to students and engage them to think for themselves ― and that can include using Ken Burns’ masterful work. But this is typical for a party with an education agenda as out of date as Johnson’s Blockbuster Video card.”
We all know she’s right, but I’m afraid that simply ridiculing the Johnson position isn’t going to be enough to prevent de-skilling and automation in education at all levels.
Perhaps you saw that Ken Burns – God bless him – tweeted in response to Johnson that, “I’m here to support teachers, not replace them.” Unfortunately, Ken Burns doesn’t control the means of educational production in this country. In other words, Ron Johnson and his ilk could replace every history teacher in this country with a Ken Burns video and Ken Burns couldn’t do anything about it. Neither could those teachers themselves, especially non-union secondary school teachers and faculty off the tenure track, because their jobs are so precarious. Better to be the ones inserting the video cassette and administering the multiple choice test after the tape ends than not to have any job at all.
I understand the difference between engagement and watching videos all day. Ron Johnson doesn’t understand the difference. Unfortunately, an awful lot of college professors (the ones who rely primarily on lectures to convey the information that accompanies the skills of their respective disciplines) don’t understand the difference either. The issue here is not how best to use videos in instructional settings, this is actually a debate about what education is.
Yes, I know that some lectures are better than others. Before I gave up lecturing entirely, I took great pains to engage with and watch the faces of the students in my audience. I once had a political science professor back in college who could only lecture staring up at the ceiling. It drove me crazy because I might as well not have been there at all. You could easily have replaced him with the poli-sci equivalent of a Ken Burns video. But, then again, the same thing is true of all us good lecturers too. In my case I think it would have hurt the quality of education in my classroom, but the sad truth is that people like Ron Johnson don’t care about educational quality.
To be honest, I’m not particularly fond of Ken Burns’ work. I don’t need “The Civil War.”* The first twenty minutes or so of “Baseball” are truly mind-blowing, but I have lots of problems with the rest of that documentary.** I liked “Prohibition,” but you probably don’t care what I think about those videos. Neither does Johnson and that’s exactly the problem. The attack on our teaching methods isn’t really economic (as Johnson seems to think). It’s ideological. As a good book review that showed up in my Twitter feed the other day (and which started with the Johnson story) put it:
It’s a common complaint among conservatives that many tenured professors “radicalize” students with Marx and gender theory while living royally off of state funding and federal student loans. Online and competency-based education will fix both, according to critics like Johnson and Scott Walker, by limiting professors’ unchecked power and improving efficiency with market-based solutions.
Replacing all us professors with video, or robots, or even robots showing videos won’t save anyone any money, but it will do a great job at preventing us from “radicalizing” anybody.
All the way back in 2012, Cathy Davidson declared quite famously that every professor who could be replaced by a computer should be. I know she meant well, but the people who have the power to replace professors with computers don’t mean well at all. If educational technology is itself neutral, the companies that push it and the audiences they push it towards aren’t neutral at all. To put it another way, video didn’t kill the radio star. Video companies did. That’s why we have to have a better defense for idiotic arguments like Johnson’s than just calling it an idiotic argument. Otherwise we all run the risk of winning the argument, but still ending up unemployed.
To prevent that from happening, faculty need to choose and control their own technological tools – tools that promote engagement rather than tools that turn college into a video game or a Ken Burns film festival.*** If we suffer from a failure to communicate our true aims – or worse yet, a civil war – the consequences will be dire not just for faculty, but also for society as a whole.
* This isn’t the place to get into why, but it involves WAAAAAY too much Shelby Foote.
** For example, the almost complete absence of the oldest franchise in the National League.
*** That’s why my friend Jonathan and I have written a book about how faculty can take control of their own electronic future. If it’s not out now where you live, it will be available there very, very soon. You might consider buying it.
On November 7, 1872, the American ship Mary Celeste left New York Harbor en route to Genoa, Italy. On December 5, 1872, a British brig discovered that vessel drifting in turbulent seas about 400 miles east of the Azores. Its cargo of industrial alcohol was intact, but not a soul was aboard. No trace of its ten crew members was ever found, making their fate one of the most enduring mysteries in maritime history.
Of course, there are still plenty of people interested in producing and taking MOOCs, but the founders of the American companies that create them have lately become about as scarce as the crew of the Mary Celeste. In 2014, Coursera founder Andrew Ng left day-to-day activities that company to join the Chinese search engine firm Baidu (although he remains Coursera’s Chairman of the Board). Earlier this year, Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, departed that company earlier this year perhaps frustrated by what he once famously called its “lousy product.” Last week, Coursera’s other co-founder, Daphne Koller, exited in order to join a subsidiary of Google.
Besides MOOC leaders, some of the courses they commissioned during the early years of MOOC-Mania are disappearing too. Coursera, for instance, just changed platforms in order to make it easier for students to take classes “on demand.” As a result, “a few dozen” MOOCs became completely unavailable, and those students who do enroll in the new courses might be taking them without the benefit of thousands of colleagues taking them simultaneously like the first MOOC students did. Some superprofessors, like the Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier, have suspended their MOOCs on their own accord.
The most obvious reason why everyone from the founders of MOOC companies to students who sign up for such course are abandoning MOOCs is because these kinds of courses have not lived up to their initial hype. MOOCs were supposed to transform education as we know it, but traditional education with its inefficiency derived from the close proximity between professors and their students has proved more resilient than its wannabe disruptors ever imagined. Yes, there are still plenty of MOOCs available for people who want to take them, but it now seems safe to conclude that Sebastian Thrun’s 2012 prediction that there will only be ten institutions of higher learning in fifty years will be off by a large order of magnitude.
Why aren’t MOOCs more popular? “Many MOOCs are ill–structured, and it takes a lot of onus on the student to do a lot of the work,” explained Dennis Charsky of Ithaca College earlier this year. “It leaves for a lot of exploratory learning, which many students don’t like and can’t persist with.” While plenty of lifelong learners might be willing to consider this kind of experience as long as it remains free, every attempt to monetize the many eyeballs that MOOCs can attract has so far come up short. With MOOC production costs as high as $325,000 for a single course, profitability is almost certainly the main obstacle to keeping MOOCs viable for the long term.
This problem has been obvious to industry observers since the early days of MOOC Mania. “Coursera has simply never had a coherent plan to generate revenue,” explained Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates all the way back in 2013. “Allegedly, they were going to try to make money on a bunch of other things, like being scouts for businesses on the lookout for bright young talent, but there have been no announcements of revenue from these sources. Given how the tech news industry works, it’s a safe bet that means the figure is close to zero.” Daphne Koller’s recent decision to exit Coursera strongly suggests that this revenue problem has yet to be solved.
While companies like Coursera may still have lots of venture capital money to burn, the passing of this industry’s pioneers from the scene is as good a time as any to recognize that the profitability problem of MOOC providers is a problem that will never be solved. To make an often-used comparison in tech circles, compare education to the music industry. Most recording artists are now getting fractions of cents when consumers stream their songs because replicating digital copies of their work costs almost nothing. To make up for that problem, many bands have come to depend on touring to earn themselves revenue.
Colleges and universities, however, are already charging students an awful lot of money to see live performances by their professorial talent. Moreover, recording those lectures and distributing them for free over the Internet is a noticeably inferior experience to being on campus almost by definition. We professors do much more than talk at you during their live performances. Living, breathing faculty answer your questions, grade your papers and will even chat you up if you visit them during their office hours. MOOC providers will never be able to close this gap in educational quality.
Of course, Coursera and its ilk aren’t really trying to do so for economic reasons. If teaching were like most activities, it might be capable of being automated and scaled. But unfortunately for the MOOC providers, teaching isn’t like most activities. Every dedicated professor – even those of us who do not meet the MOOC provider’s definition of “superstar” faculty – can provide a learning experience that’s superior to watching pre-recorded lectures alongside tens of thousands of people from around the globe.
Even then, like the Mary Celeste, online courses without a live crew manning them can be very lonely experiences. A good education is an active experience, meaning that your professor can see you and adjust their teaching to the reactions of their audience and the students can respond to their professors in real time. Watching professors “on demand” on your computer, alone in your room, might make good business sense for Coursera, but it makes poor educational sense for anyone with access to an on-campus alternative. That’s why not enough people will ever fork over enough of their money to keep Coursera afloat for the long-term.
Even if Daphne Koller and company are not yet willing to admit this fact publicly, with all that MOOC hype fading quickly into the rear-view mirror their actions speak louder than their previous once ever-so-optimistic words. MOOCs and other forms of automated online education may persist as long as there’s a surplus of money in Silicon Valley anxious to disrupt higher education for the sake of capital rather than students. That ship may sail on indefinitely, but compared to the inflated rhetoric that once blew through their sails, MOOCs are destined to remain ghost ships floating on the open ocean, without the lost crew that had such high hopes to transform education forever at the start of their long journeys.
So this has happened. It may take a little while to make it from the publisher in the UK to booksellers around the world, but I still thought I’d take a moment this morning to tell you all a little bit more about it. Education Is Not an App came about as a direct result of this blog. Terry Clague from Routledge was an MOLB reader from way back, and he gradually convinced me that getting some of the sentiments contained here into book form was a good idea.
Still don’t know what a MOOC is? Read this book. Afraid the robots are coming for your job? Read this book. Do you teach critical university studies? We speak your language. Are you a university IT professional looking for a relatively short, highly-readable group read for your faculty development workshop? Well, we have a book for you. Longtime readers of this blog like Terry will recognize many of my well-worn sentiments in these pages, but there’s also tons of outside-the-box, totally new stuff.
Most of that is the direct result of my co-author, Jonathan Poritz – JP to our mutual friends who want to distinguish us more easily. JP too was reading this space way back during the “Year of the MOOC” and he served as one of my very few guest posters. “You should write a book about MOOCs,” he told me at least a couple of times. “Nah,” I said. “MOOCs are just a fad.” Well, I was at least kinda right. But as anybody who knows anything about this subject will tell you, there is a lot more to edtech than MOOCs and we wrote a book designed to take in as much of it as we could. Since JP already knew so much about copyright, OER and other very important subjects that I never touched on this blog, he proved to be the perfect co-conspirator.
If you don’t want to read it because you still think I’m just that guy who hates MOOCs, you’re in for a surprise. For one thing, I only hate some (OK…most) MOOCs now. Indeed, this is ultimately a book about distinguishing good edtech from bad edtech and we argue that the key to doing that is faculty autonomy. When administrative bean counters and greedy edu-preneurs run education technology, education suffers and the vast majority of faculty suffer with it. On the other hand, when caring faculty are given access to worthwhile tools and the autonomy to use them the way they want to use them…well, that’s when the magic happens. For that magic to happen, however, also requires professors everywhere to pay at least some attention to an edtech space that’s literally changing all the time and not always in good ways.
That’s why this book is intended as a primer for any faculty member, anywhere in the world, who hasn’t been paying attention while their world has been changing. JP even managed to convince the publisher to mark down the list price of the e-book (and the paperback to a lesser extent) so that you can easily learn more about your professional future without having it cost you an arm and a leg.
Not ready to buy it yet? I’ll point to some of the publicity we’re doing for the book from this space as it becomes available, and maybe we can convince you then.
I’ve been an Apple user since the early-1980s. I don’t think I qualify as a fanatic since I haven’t bought anywhere near everything the company ever put out. Heck, I STILL don’t own an iPhone. Nevertheless, I’m a big fan of their aesthetic and the general philosophy surrounding it, so much so that I bought the above poster on eBay a while back and have it framed behind my desk in my office at work.
Of course, because of everything that Apple has done to define modern life, it now qualifies as an official historical subject. That explains why I read Walter Isaacson’s official biography of Steve Jobs. My verdict there is that the subject is interesting, but the writing isn’t. I much preferred Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, which I picked up almost by accident trying to fill a three books for the price of two deal at a table at my local Barnes & Noble. It’s a much more interesting of Steve Jobs’ personality and philosophy than the one offered by the guy who had practically unlimited access to the man.
The interesting principles actually begin with Marc Andreesen’s forward in the paperback addition. Now I’m not exactly a fan of that guy, and this point is rather obvious, but I do think he explains what makes most Apple products superior quite well on p. xiii:
“Since I have a degree in computer science, I pride myself on never opening the manual on anything electronic. But I could not change the clock on the center console of my father-in-law’s German sport-utility truck. There’s a “Systems” button, and there’s a “settings” option in the “Systems” menu. But there’s no setting for changing the clock. I finally broke down and went into the manual for the console display, and I looked up in the index under “time.” Under “time” it said, “Refer to the other manual.” It turns out you can’t change the truck’s clock from the center console. You have to change the clock from the steering wheel because the clock is controlled by the car’s firmware, not the dash display software. It took twenty-five minutes to change the clock. Pre-Apple in the extreme.
The way Steve would react to that is simple: everybody involved in allowing this product to leave the factory without that being fixed would be fired.”
This is exactly how I felt the first time I used BlackBoard. Indeed, it’s obvious that edtech in general could use a little more of Steve Jobs’ thinking for the good of all its users, professors and students alike. But that’s a pretty easy point to make. Like shooting fish and a barrel.
Here’s a slightly more complicated one inspired by the same book. On page 225, the section about iMacs, is Schlender and Tetzeli’s explanation of what Jobs thought computers were for:
To understand why Steve could pare down Apple’s offerings so drastically in 1997, it helps to think of personal computers as protean devices that can be programmed to be any number of tools–a word processor, a supercalculator, a digital easel, a searchable library of research materials, an inventory control system, you name it. There’s no need for the machine to have a different physical form to perform each different service. All it needs is powerful adaptable software within. And in the mid-1990s, the capability of software was expanding faster than ever, thanks to the advent of local area networks and the burgeoning Internet. When software can link you to other people and to databases housed on databases far away from yours, it becomes much more powerful than an application that is strictly to whatever is stored on your own personal computer.
While a learning management system at least doesn’t have to rest inside your computer, as long as it’s designed to make it difficult to utilize material outside that system it’s just another form of walled garden. But that’s not the only problem. Because your provider sets the parameters of what that system can do, what you might want to do could very well be like trying to put a square peg into a round hole.
To draw on my own experience using BlackBoard’s gradebook last semester, I wanted to have only four out five of the ID quizzes count towards 20% of my survey students’ final grades. I had to have four slots for grades and go back and enter the last quiz in different places. This meant (among other things) that the gradebook’s running grade totals were as good as useless until the very end of the course when I gave the last quiz. This can’t possibly be an uncommon way of setting up grades, right? If you can do it on an Excel spreadsheet, you should able to be do it inside your LMS.
So me and my friend Jonathan have written a book about the many reasons why faculty should take technology choices into their own hands. Just because the systems on your campus make it difficult to think different, doesn’t mean that you can’t do so anyway.
Let me try another analogy to help explain the nature of the problem. We got a new classroom building at CSU-Pueblo about a year ago now. Most of the rooms in that building seat at least forty people and have fixed chairs raised on a slant towards the back, facing giant computer screens. All of my classes have less than forty people and now that I’ve moved my survey class online, I don’t lecture anymore either. Luckily, I still have our old, crappy building with chairs I can move into circles and smaller computer screens in front that I can use whenever I actually need them.
Working inside any learning management system eliminates this kind of freedom, even if that freedom is essential to creating the kind of educational experience I want for my course, online or otherwise. There’s an old Lisa Lane blog post that I included in our book, that I’ll cite again here because it seems appropriate:
It’s like making a movie. And I want to be Orson Welles – writer, director, actor. It’s my class. I write it when I create the syllabus and collect the materials. I direct it when I teach and assist students. I act when I’m lecturing or presenting.
But now that we’ve professionalized “instructional design” (and other aspects of education that used to be considered support rather than primary functions), I feel there’s a movement afoot to have me just act. Someone else has a degree that says they are more qualified than I am to design my class, in collaboration with me as the “content expert”. They want to do the writing, create the storyboard, tell me what the “best practices” are.
They are trying to turn me into Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Orson Welles. They want me to profess, to perform, to present, and that’s it. (They’ll record that, so my students can view it later. Others can set up a “course structure” around my performances.)
Well…that’s not OK. As a professor, I do not simply profess – I teach. All the decisions involved in teaching should be made by me. It’s not that I don’t understand the limitations (transferrability concerns, student learning outcomes), but beyond those limits the decisions about which materials to use, and how to use them, and what to have students do, and how to assess that, etc. etc. etc. should be mine. Doing those tasks are teaching.
I’m not saying that I can create any experience as good as Orson Welles, or Charlie Chaplin or especially Steve Jobs, but some control over the parameters of the technology we teach with is essential for professors to be able to create anything that bears any resemblance to a work of art.
If we don’t think different, we’re all going to end up systematized or standardized or, worst of all, automated out of existence. In other words, choose your tools wisely while the choice is still available. Your employment may depend upon it sooner than you think.