As the learning management system turns…

“[T]he LMS does a very poor job at providing a lot of the learning technologies desired by faculty and students. There is no way that a monolithic LMS can keep up with the market – it cannot match functionality of open internet tools especially without adding feature bloat.”

– Phil Hill, “LMS and Open: The false binary is based on past, not future markets,” e-Literate, September 15, 2014.

A good friend of mine who (normally) works at our sister school about three hours up I-25 from Pueblo, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, forwarded me the changeover announcement for their new learning management system. I’m about to fisk it. I don’t usually write about my own university on this blog, but, of course, I don’t work in Fort Collins. However, if anybody up in our system office reads this and thinks it’s a little too close for comfort, let me assure them that this sort of thing is happening just about everywhere. I’m using this particular e-mail only as a means to get at several broader points that you can appreciate even if you don’t work in Colorado at all. This announcement was simply the one that appeared in my mailbox first.

Introductory language aside, let’s start with that fisking!:

“Dear Colleagues,

We’re writing to update you on CSU’s upcoming move from the Blackboard Learn learning management system to Instructure’s Canvas learning management system. This transition will progress over the next three semesters, and will be complete before summer session 2016. At that time, Blackboard Learn will no longer be available to faculty, staff, and students at CSU and Canvas will become the only fully supported learning management system available at CSU.”

Three semesters? This must be a big deal then! I wonder if the faculty were consulted about this decision beforehand. Apparently not:

“The University’s decision to move to Canvas is a result of our involvement as a founding member of Unizin (, a consortium of leading universities that includes CSU, the University of Florida, the University of Indiana, and the University of Michigan. Unizin, which will soon be joined by a half dozen other institutions of comparable stature, is intended to increase the influence of higher education institutions in the development of a new educational ecosystem.”

Notice the language here: “The University’s decision to move to Canvas…,” not the faculty’s. “[I]ncrease the influence of higher education institutions,” not faculty. Apparently they’re more concerned about muscling out Unizin’s potential competitors than they are in opening up the decision-making process to their own employees.

In fact, it seems as if the decision to go with Unizin wasn’t really CSU’s decision at all. As my buddy Phil Hill has reported, faculty input in joining this consortium was minimal. Yet all the schools got together and settled on Canvas before Unizin was even public, despite the fact that very few of the founding members of Unizin used Canvas before this announcement. If I worked in Fort Collins I might develop the academic equivalent of those right-wing tendencies to believe that the United Nations is secretly plotting to establish world government. CSU is voluntarily giving up its sovereignty.

Yet you wouldn’t know that by reading this e-mail. Here’s the last sentence of that above paragraph:

“In brief, we want higher education faculty and staff to have a larger voice in the technology that our students use to learn.”

They’re not exactly off to a flying start on that front, are they? More importantly, look again at the Phil Hill quote I topped this post with again. Faculty everywhere have already performed the electronic equivalent of voting with their feet. If they bother to use their LMS at all, they barely use the bells and whistles that these companies offer them – perhaps because the wider Internet offers more options that they can actually control themselves or perhaps because they don’t need those bells and whistles to do their jobs well.

Yet the LMS bandwagon marches on. Back to that e-mail:

The founding members of Unizin have selected Canvas as our common learning management system. We’ve negotiated a highly favorable pricing agreement with Instructure, which will reduce our overall costs. Also, Canvas is a system that has significant advantages in features and ease of use over all other learning management systems, Blackboard included.

What’s missing from those Canvas advantages? Educational value, of course. Yes, I know that the folks who made this decision undoubtedly believe that CSU can offer better classes through Canvas rather than Blackboard, but shouldn’t faculty be the ones to play the most important role in making that decision – particularly if you want them to buy into this decision by using that new system once it’s in place?

Instead, those technologically-sophisticated faculty are left with more work to do:

“That said, this change requires instructors and students to learn the new system. We know this will take time, effort, and patience. And we know that it will take a great deal of support from the larger campus community. With that in mind, our colleagues at ACNS, TILT, and OnlinePlus have collaborated to develop a Canvas website ( that hosts a rich set of resources to smooth the transition to Canvas. You’ll find a workshop schedule replete with training sessions beginning October 15, online guides and videos, and information about one-on-one work sessions and a Canvas Information Center in Morgan Library. You’ll also find, over the coming months, lists of short courses, PDI sessions, and summer workshop sessions as well as a growing collection of videos, tutorials, and web guides.”

IHE reported the other day that the US LMS market is saturated. As a result, you can expect the same kinds of classes coming to your college as providers drop prices to entice cash-strapped administrations into changing systems for budgetary reasons rather than educational ones.

But there is another option. Be your own LMS. Learn and use those open Internet tools that react to the much-vaunted market faster and more effectively than any giant corporate entity that only contracts with administrations rather than individual faculty members ever can. It’s faster. You’re guaranteed that the tools you pick will gibe with your teaching style (because you’ll pick them) and – here’s the kicker – it’s almost certainly cheaper for your employer:

“Please know that we are making every effort to ease the transition from Blackboard to Canvas. In addition to our pilot studies this semester and next, this includes the development of software tools to import existing course content from Blackboard to Canvas. Finally, it involves a significant allocation of staff resources to help instructors make the move to Canvas.

[Emphasis added]”

I gotta crazy notion: How about reallocating those resources towards faculty? Think how many adjuncts could get an exceptional work environment with all that money, Tony.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Adjuncts, Learning Management Systems, Technology, 5 comments

“I’ll only buy a book for the way it looks, and then I stick it on the shelf again.”

The last Radiolab podcast I listened to was kind on insane. It featured Jad Abumrad’s brother-in-law, who apparently wrote a really, really dense book about nihilism called In the Dust of This Planet, which nobody read, but the cover of which has become some sort of high fashion meme.

Jad’s brother-in-law, nonetheless, takes all of this in stride. He claims, quite eloquently, that he would keep writing along even if nobody else ever read it. Remembering the very early days of this blog, I sympathize. I think I was writing for purposes of therapy at that point, but I’ll be damned if I have time for that kind of uncompensated therapy anymore. If nobody is going to read the stuff I write then I don’t want to write it anymore. This explains why the big post I wrote last week didn’t come out here, at this still comparatively lonely new blog. It’s up at Chronicle Vitae now.

You can see my (entirely different) point there by clicking that link, but for now I want to use the opening story of that piece to make a point about academic writing. Besides not checking publishers’ lists in advance, the other reason that I had to send the manuscript that was my dissertation to seven publishers before it got accepted was that it had no independent reason for being. I was writing on labor policy in the American steel industry, which had been done for death, and my goal was to find a hole in that vast literature. I found it, but nobody cared if that hole ever needed filling.

The initial reason I started writing this wonderful book about the history of the American ice and refrigeration industries was that the whole subject had been untouched for fifty years. It was wide open! But I now realize that that simply shouldn’t matter. Works of history need to be able to stand on their own, and if they aren’t readable by people who nothing about the subject coming in then they do not stand on their own.

Laboring seven+ years on a single work and selling only 350 copies worldwide (if you’re lucky) is pure insanity. And the problem here isn’t technology; it’s academic culture. The only people who can change that are ourselves.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Publications, Writing, 1 comment

You’re not really paranoid if somebody actually is out to get you.

“My partners and I often fantasized about an end state in which professors would be free agents and education could become “unbundled” from the traditional campus setting and offered more freely as a consumer service, or commodity, by other providers.”

– Roger Novak, “Ed Tech’s Next Wave Rolls Into View,” Chronicle of Higher Ed (subs. req.) September 15, 2014.

I’m sorry that quote is paywalled, because to really understand its beauty you have to read the whole article. Roger Novak is a venture capitalist – and not just any VC. He’s an edtech VC who backed Blackboard. Moreover, he’s not talking about last year there. He’s talking about 1997, before Blackboard came online. That’s right, my friends, the Silicon Valley money machine has been plotting to separate you from your tenure and your job security for over fifteen years now.

To say that they’re doing so to serve their own ends almost goes without saying. What may be a little less obvious is that their ends and the goal of achieving an effective education are not one in the same. Another story in this week’s Chronicle suggests the size of the huge gap between these two objectives:

In a 10-year longitudinal study of students at a small college, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Christopher G. Takacs and I found that personal relationships with both peers and faculty members, starting from direct contact, were fundamentally important to undergraduate success and could readily be facilitated by institutions. The influence of friends, teachers, and mentors on students’ careers can be truly pervasive, running from start to finish.

Now try to do that in a world where every professor is a free agent. It’s bad enough when 76% of faculty are adjuncts. Permanent free agency for everybody will only make matters worse.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the quote at the top of this post is that a VC feels comfortable enough to admit to the existence of his nefarious ends in a higher ed publication. That’s like posting recipes for rabbit stew in a forum for bunny adoptions. In other words, not only have these people declared open season on faculty and education in general, they’ve left stealth mode and are now hunting right out in the open for everybody to see.

Yet many faculty still act as if our unbundled, nearly all-online future will be a good thing for us and our students. When are they going to wake up and smell the coffee?

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Adjuncts, Teaching, Technology, 5 comments

“Every man, woman and mutant on this planet shall know the truth about de-evolution.”

I have to admit that I became much more fond of Clay Shirky the moment that I found out that he occasionally reads this blog (or at least the last version of it). It’s not like I had anything particularly against him before. It’s just that I had only read a few of his articles and a couple of blog posts and all of it seemed a bit too technologically utopian for my taste.* Little did I realize that he has the same kinds of problems that I do:

The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

As a result, Shirky has banned electronic devices in his classes.

I sympathize. Indeed, I’ve been all over the place on precisely this question. What I settled on is a pretty simple general principle: different technologies for different classes. In classes which are mostly lectures (aka surveys), I’ve ask students who want to use a laptop to sit in the front row. Since I’m a walking lecturer as well as a lecturer who’s been doing the same survey class long enough to work without written notes, I can see who’s not paying attention. Since my survey classes aren’t huge, I can therefore do something about it if I see that anybody’s not paying attention.

Phones are a different matter entirely. I can’t imagine a single viable reason why anybody would have or want to take notes on their phone. Usually, they’ll bend over the desk or table, cradling their phone lovingly and try to be unseen. But come on! It’s kind of obvious what’s going on and it’s also rude as heck.

Yet I am now teaching a class where students have to bring their laptop to sessions. Indeed, without it, they’d be lost.

I. My own personal three-ring circus.

My time with the nice people at RRCNMH has been put to good use almost instantly. Having been forced to teach a forth class this semester and not wanting to do something conventional for fear of boring myself to death, I decided to teach a hybrid, experiential learning, digital humanities course based around the collections of our local corporate archives, the same one I wrote a book out of just a few years ago.

So far it’s been amazing in many sorts of ways. Since I had some experience with a few DH tools before, I knew that the great appeal is that you get to ponder entirely different kinds of questions than you do in ordinary classes. To borrow one from a few semesters ago in the early days of my wiki, should the sanitariums of old Colorado Springs be categorized as “Medical Facilities” or do they belong under the existing category of “Leisure?” [The class and I picked leisure.] The same kinds of questions are emerging already and the semester is only three weeks old.

More interestingly, the entire way that I teach has changed. It’s not just that I never expected to be paid to introduce undergraduates to digital tools like Dropbox or Omeka. It’s that it’s almost impossible to script any class in advance. For one thing, I have no idea what I’m doing from week-to-week so the agenda kind of arises organically from student blog posts and e-mails. I also have no idea how long reviewing any of these tasks are going to take.

The most interesting thing about the whole endeavor is the potential for students to teach me. After all, I literally have no idea what I’m doing. If they figure out a problem first then certainly I can learn from them. Then, when I do this again for my first undergraduate Colorado history course next semester, I might actually cease to feel like a fraud. At least for the moment I’m a fraud who’s enjoying himself.

It all sort of reminds me of an old Steven Wright joke: “You know how it feels when you lean back in your chair and you think you might fall over backwards and you don’t? I feel like that all the time.”

II. Shared governance rocks.

Sick person that I am, another thing that I do for enjoyment is read books about shared governance. OK, I know of only one book about shared governance, and when I read about it in IHE a while back I actually bought it. Since it’s written by a historian covering the history of this important (at least to us) subject, it has turned out to be more fun than I ever expected.

I don’t want to review Larry Gerber’s The Rise & Decline of Faculty Governance here (maybe if anybody reading this has a publication interested in such an essay, you can drop me a line?). What I do want to do is drop a lot of quotes. You see, Gerber starts with shared governance (or lack thereof) all the way back at the beginning of American higher education and reading old-timey professors complain is a little like that scene in The Shining where Jack Nicholson is looking at all the pictures on the wall and he sees the ghosts all around him in them. It’s hard to tell what era they (or you for that matter) are really occupying.

Here are a few examples:

A) Louis Aggassiz, 1874 (p. 26):

“I believe that there is no scientific man who will concede that there can be a university managed to the best advantage by anybody but those interested in its pursuits, and no body of trustees can be so interested.”

B) The Nation, 1881 (p. 29):

“…[The businessman trustee] wishes very much, indeed, that a college could be carried on without professors, and has a vague notion that by some sort of improvement in organization this result may some day be attained.”

C) William Channing Russel, President of Cornell, 1881 (after he was dismissed by the Board of Trustees there, p. 34).

“[Universities] are not business enterprises, nor are professors clerks or servants, nor have the Trustees any right to look down on them, ignore their claims, or treat them summarily…”

I could go on. Heck, I’m not even done with it yet. Who knows how many ripped-from-the-headlines kinds of academic controversies I’ll eventually find?

III. Jocko homo.

I swear I wasn’t going to read this book with a highlighter, but the quotes were just so good and they just kept coming that I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to be able to get back to them later. It’s not that I even expected to blog about them later, but eventually the link between tech and shared governance became very clear to me.

Human interaction matters. Human beings matter. As Nick Carr wrote earlier today, summarizing his new book:

I argue that we’ve embraced a wrong-headed and ultimately destructive approach to automating human activities, and in Apple’s let-the-software-do-the-talking feature we see a particularly disquieting manifestation of the reigning design ethic. Technical qualities are given precedence over human qualities, and human qualities come to be seen as dispensable.

That’s why teaching machines are a contradiction in terms.

But the people in charge don’t seem to understand that. The same way that Apple is pushing automated conversation on us, whether we want to or not, too many administrators are pushing automated education on us whether we need it or not. My class, if nothing else, has already demonstrated the importance of having a living, breathing professor around to help students with cold feet and to serve as a ringmaster in the three-ring circus.

Of course, if there’s only one path students can take then the ringmaster seems superfluous. That’s why this article from Slate about those textbook company course packages just scares me to death:

Creating online courses from scratch is expensive and time-consuming. When universities try to do it themselves, the results can be erratic. Some online classes wind up being not much more than grainy videos of lectures and a collection of PowerPoint slides.

Publishers have rushed in to fill the gap. They’ve been at the game longer, possess vast libraries of content from their textbook divisions, and have invested heavily in creating state-of-the-art course technology.

Faced with these alternatives, schools frequently choose the plug-and-play solution.

Unfortunately, in an online university which might have faculty scattered across the planet, shared governance is very difficult. In a university which makes vital technological decisions like which learning management system to use, shared governance does not exist in the traditional sense of that word. In a university that forces professors to use their e-mail system for professional correspondence or their web pages for conducting your course business, faculty prerogatives no longer exist.

Shared governance is the vehicle by which faculty can resist these and countless other similar developments. What’s technologically sophisticated may be pedagogically backward, and it’s up to the well-trained, tenured faculty of the world to tell the difference.

Anything else sounds like de-evolution to me.

* Indeed, if I’m really going to get into this education technology thing in a big way, I should probably read his books.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Digital Humanities, Shared Governance, Technology, 2 comments

Happy professorial moment.

So my son and I went to Mesa Verde National Park today, and our guide at the Cliff Palace turned out to be one of my former students, M’lissa Morgan:


She was, of course, mortified. I was delighted for many reasons besides the fact that she was a fantastic guide.

For those of you who don’t have the privilege of living in Colorado, here are a few more pictures from the day. The long shot of the Cliff Palace:


It continually amazes me how hidden these places really are. Inside Spruce Tree House:


And, last but not least, my son Everett through a window at the Cliff Palace:


Posted by Jonathan Rees in Personal, 3 comments

“Nothing is over until we decide it is!”

This afternoon, I got into a Twitter conversation with Mike Caulfield:

Read the whole exchange and it may look like an argument, but I’ve actually met Mike before so I felt comfortable joking around. [Plus, I just really wanted to make a Bluto reference.] In fact, I mostly agree with his original point about MOOCs being hard to kill (sort of like Little Shop of Horrors, if you ask me). So what I thought I’d do here (as they say in Congress) is revise and extend my remarks.

I. MOOCs Are Dead. Long Live MOOCs.

I’d sure like to credit the anti-MOOC movement with killing MOOCs. Unfortunately, I think they collapsed of their own weight. I still remember the first time I ever read about a MOOC. This was before Coursera. Before Udacity. [It was after those very nice Canadian people were doing their stuff, but I hadn’t heard of them yet.] I said to myself, “No way this is going to work!” Several thousand college professors probably said the same thing to themselves at the same time. That’s why I think everybody was so nasty to Sebastian Thrun when he spoke the truth to Fast Company. We were thinking, “Why didn’t you ask me first? I could have saved you a fortune.”

But, of course, Udacity is still with us. They have that program at Georgia Tech and they have all those corporations that may or not want to let them do their professional development via MOOC, whether that development is any good or not. In fact a recent study (that I don’t have the funds or the patience to read) suggests that the instructional quality of many MOOCs is low.

Of course, commercial MOOCs aren’t really about the education, you know. They’re about delivering a minimally acceptable product at the lowest possible price* so that private companies could pocket the difference, much of which would have come from the salaries of the people universities would have fired and replaced with superprofessors. I hate to go all David Montgomery on y’all, but it’s really all about control of the shop floor. MOOCs were supposed to be a way to wrest control of the classroom from professors by moving it all to the cloud. Now, there are ways you can move college instruction online for the sake of education (take cMOOCs, for example), but this wasn’t about education. It wasn’t about educating people in lesser-developed countries either. This was about power.

So how do you wield that power if all you have is a very dull weapon? According to Clayton Christensen (and as usual, a co-author) in a pay-walled Chronicle article, you simplify, simplify, simplify:

There appears to be a good lesson here for colleges challenged by would-be disrupters: Take whatever technology and tools are available and use them to organize tightly around a job to be done, to forestall—or prevent—disruption. With the mind-set of focusing on a specific job, it doesn’t matter what new technologies emerge. If a technology can help a college do the job that it has chosen, then it should be able to make changes accordingly and seamlessly. If the technology is not useful to doing the job, then a college can ignore it.

Since MOOCs, like giant, ungainly ocean liners don’t turn around very easily, MOOC providers and the administrators they love can break them up into pieces and see how that goes over.

II. The other unbundling.

If you haven’t noticed, I’ve gotten away from day-to-day MOOC blogging. Even reading these stories can be just so exhausting to me now. So what I usually do is save MOOC stories to my Instapaper account and read them later when I’m less sick of edtech issues. While I keep wanting to believe that there’s nothing new under the sun, if you’ve read as much about MOOCs as I have you still find little things worth noting.

My first reaction to this story on the PBS NewsHour was “yawn.” Yet Anant Agarwal does say something kind of new about three or four minutes into this story (my transcription throughout):

“It [meaning MOOCs] doesn’t replace the campus. We really believe that ultimately. We ultimately believe that the right model for learning is a blended model, where you blend the best of online and the best of in person. Students watch the videos and the y do a lot of interactive exercises online and then they work in groups with the professor and the professor will answer questions and help the students and really help them learn the material.”

Wait a second? That doesn’t sound particularly disruptive. How’s that gonna put all those inefficient colleges out of business in fifty years? Congratulate yourself, anti-MOOC movement on helping to get Anant Agarwal to lower his previously very high expectations. But don’t let down your collective guard.

Some of your colleagues have yet to hear that MOOCs are dead. Some of them are even trying to take them off life support. For example, PBS NewsHour found a biology professor who thinks letting other people do his content providing for him is the bomb. Brian White from UMass Boston, who got to “add his own materials and spliced EdX content to best fit his course,” told the reporter:

“I used the MOOC’s lectures to show the students what they needed to do to come to class prepared, and then in class, rather than just telling them the information, what I was able to do is take them the next step. Show them how to use it, fill in any cracks, deal with student’s individual issues.”

Awesome, but what if your administrators decide they don’t want to pay you to do this when they can find graduate students to do the same thing? What if you teach US History instead of biology and the content you might choose to provide varies significantly than the content in the MOOC that your university licensed from edX? And perhaps most importantly, what if (God forbid) you prefer, even in your introductory courses, not to focus on any particular content at all? What if you’d rather teach skills?

That’s why MOOCs, like so much of educational technology in general, are soon to become a really important academic freedom issue.

III. “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”

We all know what’s been happening to academic freedom lately. My Twitter feed is a cavalcade of horror stories that I prefer not to link to here because so terribly depressing. But you’re not worried. You don’t make statements that some people find uncivil on Twitter, do you? But you do teach the way you want to I bet. How long do you think that will last when there’s edtech profits to be made?

If we don’t get universities to consider the traditional prerogatives of faculty when edtech is the issue, the academic freedom of nearly every last one of us will be at stake. The result of that will be a substantial drop in the quality of higher education. As this a guy from Drexel explains here:

Academic units need the ability to select (and fund) the applications and even devices they will use in their specific teaching and learning environments. Their students, faculty and administrators are better served if these can match their specific academic and departmental needs.

One-size-fits-all is seldom, if ever, the best approach in academia. It doesn’t work with pedagogy, it doesn’t work with classroom or lab spaces and it doesn’t work with textbooks or content — so why would it work with IT?

Yeah! Now let’s tell that to the commercial LMS providers of the world! But I’m getting distracted here…

What does the worst-case-scenario look like for the powerless-but-not-fired professor of the future look like? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you (for like the third time in a week) Minerva, as discussed in the Atlantic:

The pedagogical best practices Kosslyn has identified have been programmed into the Minerva platform so that they are easy for professors to apply. They are not only easy, in fact, but also compulsory, and professors will be trained intensively in how to use the platform.

Compulsory edtech? What if it stinks? Too bad, you’re elite professorial tush is working in the for-profit sector now:

I asked him whether, at Harvard and Stanford, he attempted to apply any of the lessons of psychology in the classroom. He told me he could have alerted colleagues to best practices, but they most likely would have ignored them. “The classroom time is theirs, and it is sacrosanct,” he says. The very thought that he might be able to impose his own order on it was laughable. Professors, especially tenured ones at places like Harvard, answer to nobody.

It occurred to me that Kosslyn was living the dream of every university administrator who has watched professors mulishly defy even the most reasonable directives. Kosslyn had powers literally no one at Harvard—even the president—had. He could tell people what to do, and they had to do it.

[Emphasis added]

I’ve come to believe that the struggle over MOOCs was just the first skirmish in an ongoing conflict to prevent technology from making this kind of power structure the new normal at universities everywhere. I also think that any faculty member in any discipline who cares about the quality of higher education needs to resist this nightmare scenario at all costs.

Who’s with me?

* What’s that you say? MOOCs are open? Are you kidding me? Everybody knew that was just a teaser from the beginning.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Labor History, MOOCs, 1 comment

High Anxiety: Minerva edition.

If you had seen the first draft of the essay I turned in for the Baffler, you would have seen two distinct arguments. The first was the argument about being a for-profit cutting into their quest for prestige. That’s entirely intact in the final version. Indeed, thanks to great editing, it is expressed much better than the way I wrote it originally.

The second was an argument about how creepy it is to be obsessed with achieving elite status in the first place. While you can still see a whiff of that second argument in the final essay, I thought I’d write a little more about it here by popular demand.

Ben Nelson, the Minerva CEO, has exhibited an extraordinary amount of status anxiety in the articles I’ve read about the project going back to its inception. Take, for example, this quote that opens a 2012 article on the Minerva Project in the MIT Technology Review:

“Harvard, by many measures the most prestigious college in the U.S., has been at it for nearly 400 years. Ben Nelson, founder of an online education startup called the Minerva Project, says he can do equally well in just three.”

Most entrepreneurs would be happy becoming profitable in just three years. Nelson has to top Harvard AND presumably be profitable (since if he could actually do that it inevitably would be) over the same span of time.

Similarly, there’s this quote from the same Atlantic article I used last week which didn’t make the final cut of my post:

“To him [Nelson], the brass ring is for Minerva to force itself on the consciousness of the Yales and Swarthmores and “lead” American universities into a new era.”

Do you want to destroy elite colleges or lead them into a new era, Ben? It’s like he’s working out his issues on a public stage.

Cancel the “like” in that last sentence. Nelson and I share the same undergraduate alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. He, however, went to the Wharton School, which, the last time I checked, was still the best undergraduate business program in the country. Even though I majored in history and political science a little less than ten years before him, I understand completely what this is all about:

His ambition to reform academia was born of his own undergraduate experience. At Wharton, he was dissatisfied with what he perceived as a random barrage of business instruction, with no coordination to ensure that he learned bedrock skills like critical thinking. “My entire critique of higher education started with curricular reform at Penn,” he says. “General education is nonexistent. It’s effectively a buffet, and when you have a noncurated academic experience, you effectively don’t get educated. You get a random collection of information. Liberal-arts education is about developing the intellectual capacity of the individual, and learning to be a productive member of society. And you cannot do that without a curriculum.”

The reason Nelson thinks general education was non-existent is because he got an undergraduate business degree. I can assure that when I went there I had plenty of general education requirements that forced me to take all sorts of courses that I didn’t want to take at the time: Anthropology, psychology, distributional requirements that forced me to study areas of history outside the United States, etc. I ended up enjoying most of those required classes.

If Nelson was anything like my friends in Wharton, he hated all his classes because all his classes were, in fact, boring. Seriously, which would you rather study, accounting or anthropology? Look at the current distribution requirements at Wharton. Wouldn’t you rather study something else and maybe save the accounting for your graduate program?

Certainly, what Nelson did study was enough to serve as CEO of, but it doesn’t tell you much at all about higher education is actually practiced. While he was dreaming of remaking education in his accounting classes, professors and students in College Hall (inspiration for the house on the Addams Family) over on the other side of campus were living his dream every day. That’s why I think Nelson is working out his aggressions against Harvard for the entire world to see. They made him go to his safety school.

So now you know why I tell almost everybody who asks that I went to Wisconsin, which is actually the more relevant degree for my profession. That, and Penn’s obsession with MOOCs, of course.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Technology, 3 comments

Chalk one off the bucket list.

I have been published by the Baffler. The subject is the Minerva Project and thanks to really intense, fantastic editing I’m very happy with the result.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Personal, Publications, Teaching, Technology, 0 comments

Lepore/Christensen revisited.

Here at the end of the summer, I wanted to revisit something from the beginning of the summer: the great Jill Lepore/Clayton Christensen smackdown of June 2014.  Why? Well, I’m beginning a new project that requires me to read the book that George Siemens says “will infect your pets. Erode the foundation of your house. And cause you to walk in unrighteousness,” so I wanted to go back and look again at how Jill Lepore handled such a difficult task first. With time, it’s also possible to survey other reactions to the controversy besides mine.

If you don’t remember, the core of Lepore’s now-classic New Yorker article, entitled “The Disruption Machine,” was a close reading of Christensen’s 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma.  Lepore tested Christensen’s now-legendary thesis by examining the situations in many of the industries that Christensen examined, and found it wanting.

Reviewing his case study of the disk drive industry, Lepore notes that company Christensen profiles in The Innovator’s Dilemma began to thrive right after the arbitrary cut off point he chose for the book. Lepore accuses Christensen of ignoring factors that don’t support his theory, which would explain how he could conclude that the steel industry was somehow disrupted despite the fact that its largest firm has been U.S. Steel for more than one hundred years. As if to rub it in, Lepore impolitely notes that the investment fund that Christensen started to profit from his ideas lost 64% of its value and closed within a year.

In the wake of Lepore’s article, business publications quickly came to Christensen’s defense. Rather than addressing her arguments directly, a columnist at Forbes questions her interpretation of Christensen’s lessons and goes on to note that Lepore shows “a clear disdain for the innovator.” A Financial Times op-ed entitled “Attack on Clayton Christensen’s theory falls wide of the mark” never explains what she actually got wrong. A columnist at Bloomberg View called Lepore’s attack on Christensen’s book “incompetent.” The legendary fact checkers at the New Yorker probably disagree.

Reading these assessments, it feels like the 1990s all over again. In much the same way that business pundits told the world then that the new economy would make old constraints on stock process irrelevant, Silicon Valley and its backers have developed a new, quasi-religious faith that there is money to be made by disrupting established industries. To have these views questioned seemingly out of the blue by a mere history professor clearly struck a nerve. Not prepared to engage in a debate over evidence, the business press fell back on assertions to defend the faith-based investment strategy of the day.

At least that was better than blatant male chauvinism. The most obvious example of this kind of response to Lepore’s article came in a phone interview with Christensen himself published in Business Week. Throughout the exchange, which can best be described as a prolonged primal scream, Christensen addresses Lepore directly as “Jill.” At the very end of the published interview, the reporter asks:

“You keep referring to Lepore by her first name. Do you know her?

I’ve never met her in my life.”

Imagine for a moment that Jill Lepore was actually named “Jim.” Would Christensen have addressed a man he didn’t know who he considered his intellectual equal this way?

No matter how deep the gender divide at Harvard has become, the gender divide in Silicon Valley is almost certainly greater. For that reason, a series of tweets (preserved in the Twitter picture below) by the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen about Lepore demand to be read the same way:

The fact that Andreessen deleted the tweets shows that he understood the problem they exacerbated for his industry and himself, if only after the fact.

Just a few months after Lepore’s story first appeared, it is impossible to tell whether Christensen’s reputation will suffer permanent damage. While Lepore has revealed Christensen’s seminal work to be both poorly researched and badly conceived, the business press and its friends in Silicon Valley have always believed what they want to believe. But this was a much-talked-about story in a very popular magazine that received far more press than the same magazine’s very positive 2012 profile of the same person did. What could be different this time then is that the general public may think twice now when the people touting Christensen’s theories tell them that a little disruption is good for almost everybody.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Technology, 5 comments