Academia

The all-faculty university.

JP and I wrote about Western Governors University in Education Is Not an App.  Therefore, when I heard that the Inspector General’s Office at the Department of Education had asked for $700 million dollars back after an audit that found no substantial faculty interaction between faculty and students – indeed, that WGU was essentially a correspondence school – my first reaction was:

via GIPHY

My second reaction….and I’m not entirely proud of this…was:

via GIPHY

After all, here’s a university with the innovative hook of getting rid of faculty. Maybe not completely, but they obviously believed that they could take care of most of my job by replacing me with a “program mentor.” Is it any wonder that I would take this personally?

Seriously, how bad must the situation at WGU be if this kind of decision could go down during the Trump Administration at Betsy DeVos’ DOE? It must be mind-blowingly awful. Yet that hasn’t stopped the inevitable, “The Department of Education is stifling innovation” hot takes from coming. The one that tipped me over the edge into writing this is from Anya Kamenetz at NPR:

“The audit is akin to taking horse-and-buggy era laws and applying them to the automobile,” argues Phil Hill, an independent expert on educational technology who has consulted for institutions including WGU. “It’s really rooted in a traditional classroom model of seat time.”

Under this interpretation of the law, Hill says, if a statistics instructor gives a 45-minute live lecture three times a week to 300 students, that’s “regular and substantive contact.”

If students view that same lecture in video form, and that same instructor, with the same credentials, is available as needed to help students one-on-one or in small groups, that wouldn’t count. That’s despite research showing that the second model can help students understand concepts more thoroughly and often progress more quickly.

Actually Phil, they’ve tried the “show the class videos and make the instructor available for questions” plan before. They were called “Massive Open Online Courses.” Does anybody remember MOOCs? A statistics instructor in a large lecture hall may not be the ideal pedagogical situation, but he can nonetheless 1) Take attendance 2) Read the audience to see how they react to individual nuggets of information and 3) Give a test that doesn’t require a machine to grade it so that he can check the student’s work and see where they went wrong. Even a faculty-led online class can include the kinds of interactions that make some version of all three of these things possible. A poorly-paid, and poorly trained “program mentor” interacting with the student entirely online can’t.

What has always made me angry about Western Governors University is their decision to go with a next-to-no-faculty model when the costs of faculty have been dropping for about forty years now. What am I talking about? Here’s the Guardian from this morning:

Sex work is one of the more unusual ways that adjuncts have avoided living in poverty, and perhaps even homelessness. A quarter of part-time college academics (many of whom are adjuncts, though it’s not uncommon for adjuncts to work 40 hours a week or more) are said to be enrolled in public assistance programs such as Medicaid.

They resort to food banks and Goodwill, and there is even an adjuncts’ cookbook that shows how to turn items like beef scraps, chicken bones and orange peel into meals. And then there are those who are either on the streets or teetering on the edge of losing stable housing. The Guardian has spoken to several such academics, including an adjunct living in a “shack” north of Miami, and another sleeping in her car in Silicon Valley.

All of this gives me an idea: Let’s create an innovative university that’s run entirely by faculty. It could be an autonomous collective where everybody picks the courses they want and the technologies that serve their needs the best. Perhaps we can elect a sort-of “Executive Officer of the Month” to liaison with the DOE and other government agencies when we need to, but the key point is that we could then be for damn-sure that education would always come first.

After all, who plays a more important role in keeping your university running, the faculty or the associate deans? We could probably use technology to eliminate both groups, but in only one of those cases would getting rid of them entirely turn your college into a correspondence school.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, MOOCs, Online Courses, Teaching, Technology, 2 comments

The means of educational production.

I’ve had two articles come out in the last two days, and I think both deserve at least a shout-out here. The first is a Chronicle Vitae “column” about teaching that has been well-received on Twitter. Give it a look if you’re interested in teaching….or trucks.

The second is a collaboration between my co-author Jonathan Poritz and I in the AAUP journal Academe. While it obviously shares some similarities to Education Is Not an App, I like it a lot because it’s such a good collaboration that I can’t tell where my ideas stop and JP’s begin. The one exception to that is the reference to the “shopfloor” in the title of the essay (as I’m the labor historian of the two of us) – and a few very stray references to Marxism/Leninism in the text.

This is the residual to what was the first conclusion to this piece, all of which ended up the cutting room floor. However, I want to resurrect a bit of it here for the sake of added value. While JP and I were discussing shared governance during the planning process for that article, it suddenly struck me just how unique shared governance is. After all, what other worker besides college professors have even a fraction of the control over the conditions of production that we do? We work alone. As long as we don’t make the mistake of using the learning management system there are few direct records of our work and our output is almost impossible to measure accurately.

I’m not saying that professors should have completely unfettered control over their workplace. That’s why it’s called shared governance, after all. However, our training and expertise has traditionally bought that us far more autonomy than most other workers. Technology is a threat to that autonomy. If you want to see why, look at practically every other post on this blog going back five or six years.

But – and this is where my epiphany come in – unlike skilled production workers, college professors don’t have to unite with anybody in order to control the means of production. By employing whatever educational technology best suits our needs, we can ride the wave of automation all by themselves – like my Chronicle Vitae piece suggests, automating the tasks that should actually be automated, and utilizing our skills to combat the edge cases that come up in teaching every day. Because we already control the means of educational production, we don’t have to give it up without a fight.

The problem comes up when either the labor supply expands beyond what the market can absorb – see Marc Bousquet on grad students as a waste product – or when technology enables our employers to try to re-define what learning is. Shared governance is our protection against both these kinds of changes. That’s why fighting for its continuation can be revolutionary all by itself.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, Shared Governance, Technology, Writing, 1 comment

BYOB (Be Your Own Boss).

You might not know this about me (as I don’t write about it much here), but I’m Co-President of the Colorado Conference of the American Association of University Professors (or AAUP).  In that capacity, I knew about this story long before it got reported (even though I didn’t participate in the investigation or contribute at all to the report):

A new report from the American Association of University Professors alleges that Colorado’s Community College of Aurora terminated an adjunct because he refused to lower his expectations for his introductory philosophy class. The report sets the stage for the AAUP to vote on censuring Aurora for alleged violations of academic freedom later this spring, but the college denies such charges. It blames Nathanial Bork’s termination on his own teaching “difficulties.”

I know Nate pretty well, so I’m more than a little biased when it comes to a case like this. Nevertheless, there are a couple of things about this incident that just made my head explode. First, as you can see from that IHE article, Nate still teaches at Arapahoe Community College, which is part of the same community college system as the Community College of Aurora. At CCA, Nate was allegedly such a bad teacher that the college fired him “virtually on the spot,” yet he’s still working productively down the road. If Nate was really such a menace, don’t you think CCA might have wanted to warn its sister school about him?

The second, even-more-mind blowing part of this case goes back to Nate being fired “virtually on the spot.” Nate was apparently so awful that they fired him DURING the semester, leaving all of his students in a lurch with some patchwork of substitute teacher(s) until finals week ended. He’d have to have been pretty darn awful for the benefits of that maneuver to outweigh the considerable costs. Of course, it wasn’t really about Nate’s teaching.

Nate’s firing was about making a point. The authors of the AAUP report on Nate’s case cover this subject very deftly:

A cannier administration might have let Mr. Bork finish the semester and then have declined to renew his contract. Insofar as this could have been done for exactly the reasons that appear to have motivated the CCA administration’s summary mid-semester dismissal of Mr. Bork, it would have constituted just as severe a violation of academic freedom. But the administration would have enjoyed the plausible deniability afforded by policies and procedures that enshrine arbitrary nonrenewal of appointments for adjunct faculty members.

It is certainly no secret that adjunct faculty lack real academic freedom precisely because of their precarious employment. Yet the administration at CCA made no pretense of the idea that Nate and other adjuncts there have the same control over their classrooms that tenure track faculty at most places (hopefully) have. They came up with this “Gateway to Success Initiative,” imposed it indiscriminately upon faculty of all kinds and fired Nate in response to his desire to be his own boss (at least as far as the way that he chooses to run his classroom is concerned).

While the AAUP’s Committee A (which oversees investigations like the one at CCA) doesn’t take that many cases in any given year, it should be obvious why this one is really important. Here is an administration that won’t even make the usual happy noises about all faculty having academic freedom. They think they should have more power over curricular decisions than their own faculty do. While I ran a few courses on spec in grad school, I’ve never taught as adjunct. Nevertheless, I have to imagine that one of the reasons that you’d put up with low pay, no benefits and zero job security is precisely that you can be your own boss in the classroom setting.

Yes, if you’re a terrible teacher, you might be subject to observation and discipline. But that discipline should be meted out by other faculty (like your department chair) and not by your administrators. You should also have the opportunity to change course if your teaching is somehow not up to snuff, and not get summarily dismissed in the middle of the semester.

Everything I’ve written about this case so far should be obvious to any informed faculty member who considers the issues at stake. But I want to make two more points that might not be so clear to everyone.

First, adjuncts are just the low-hanging fruit in a long-term administrative movement towards trying to control the way that faculty to teach. You can discipline adjuncts, particularly CC adjuncts, because they have few expectations of academic freedom and (often) a dire need for continued employment. Once this becomes the norm, there is no reason to believe that administrators will let tenure-track and tenured faculty exercise their traditional prerogatives in their own classrooms. Running a university like a business means closely controlling exactly how work gets done. If faculty acquiesce to this kind of academic Taylorism, we’re all gonna end up working with stopwatches behind us no matter what our employment status happens to be.

Second, to get back to a subject more common on this blog, technology is already greatly enabling administrators in this quest to control the classroom. My old obsession, mandatory LMS usage is just part of this phenomenon. But the destruction of faculty prerogatives goes beyond just administrators. Consider this observation from Jonathan Poritz and I in our book Education Is Not an App (p. 65):

While a typical face-to-face course, or even a regular fully-online course, does not have to cater to the recommendations of the nineteen or twenty people who may collaborate to produce a MOOC, the rise of online learning tools has meant that professors of all kinds have less say over their own classrooms than they did even twenty years ago. One reason that the power of [“teaching and learning specialists”] has increased is that the power of faculty has dwindled as technology has made it easier for faculty prerogatives to be divided when the work of teaching gets unbundled.

Now we’re not saying that instructional designer stink and they all must be destroyed. What we are saying is that the final decision about how the classroom will operate must belong to the professor, no matter what their status of employment happens to be. If you build a better mousetrap, use the carrot not the stick. Most faculty are smart and caring enough to join any technological bandwagon worth joining.

For all these rasons, by taking a stand on Nate’s behalf, the AAUP is actually taking a stand on behalf of us all. If you’re appreciative of this kind of work, you should consider joining us.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in AAUP, Adjuncts, Shared Governance, Teaching, 0 comments

MOOCs: A Postmortem

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.

That’s why MOOCs were never going to destroy universities everywhere. There will still be far more than ten universities fifty years from now. Or to put it another way, the tsunami missed landfall.

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.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, MOOCs, 4 comments

“I don’t need your civil war.”

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.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Adjuncts, Teaching, Technology, 0 comments

“I always feel like somebody’s watching me.”

My old friend Historiann has a post up today that really deserves every professor’s attention. The subject is a new-fangled productivity measuring tool now being implemented at Baa Ram U.:

This fabulous new system is called Digital Measures, and as it’s being implemented at Baa Ram U., it relies on faculty to dis-aggregate the information we have on our CVs and in our annual evaluations and enter it into 300 or more little boxes organized into 15 or 20 different categories. (And believe me, the web page looks just as inviting as that chore sounds.) Each little box must be clicked on separately and have information typed or cut-and-pasted into it. Seriously!

Historiann covers all the obvious problems with this for us historians: the fact that books take MUCH longer than articles to write but count the same, that when we do write articles we generally write our articles alone and that we often have to travel long distances to accumulate the information we need to write anything at all. I might have also have thrown in the Schuman-esque, impossible-to-forget-once-you-read-it information that as many as 50% of academic articles only have three readers: You, your editor and the outside reviewer.

But I don’t want to go there, and that’s not really the main point of Historiann’s post either. The title of her post is, “Who do faculty work for?,” so I think the point of her post is here:

I’m sure like me you can see the advantage of this system for administrators. “Let’s see which colleges and departments are publishing more articles? I’ll just push this button and generate this cross-tab, and voilá!” (In fact, we were told by a colleague in the know that the reason Baa Ram U. bought this garbageware is because the president of our institution didn’t know how many articles each department had published in a given year.)

The garbageware’s web site says it “transforms the way you leverage your faculty’s activities and accomplishments,” but of course it can also do the exact opposite – reveal the identities of faculty members who aren’t performing up to quota. “I’m sorry, Bob. You haven’t produced enough articles this week so we’re going to have to let you go.”

To put it another way, yearly productivity reports aren’t good enough for Baa Ram U. anymore. They want their productivity reports in real time. The machinists at the Watertown Arsenal rebelled for precisely this reason. Will faculty put up with this same kind of surveillance?

Unfortunately, another post I first saw today – this one from my friends at e-Literate – suggests that they probably will. This is Michael Feldstein:

Most faculty that we speak to these days take the LMS for granted and, while they will often grumble about some aspect that they are unhappy with, more and more of them are making significant use of the platform—more than just posting a syllabus and some announcements. More of them will use adjectives like “useful,” unprompted, when talking about their particular LMS. I even heard one faculty member describe his school’s particular LMS as “humane” recently.

As a recent convert to Indie Edtech, I can’t tell you how sad this makes me. For the sake of convenience, faculty interested in using online tools for whatever kinds of classes they happen to teach have accepted a system created by private corporations, promoted by administrations eager to measure the productivity of individual professors even though there is an open, largely free Internet out there that anyone can adapt to their own needs just as easily as they can learn the ins and outs of any particular learning management system. And best of all, you can do it away from the prying eyes of your employer.

No this is not a license for anarchy. As Historiann, puts it:

I have a rule when it comes to any technology or software: it works for me, I don’t work for it. End of story.

And if it works well for you, then you’ll be doing your job just fine – whether or not you have the article citations to prove it. That’s all the watching that the vast majority of faculty require. Turning our classrooms and offices into electronic sweatshops won’t change that fact one bit.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, 4 comments

What happens if you’re the asshole?

There ‘s a Chronicle article from last week that has been stuck in my craw ever since I read it. You may have read it when it was free for 24 hours (and since paywalled). Yes, I’m talking about the biologist from the College of Charleston who got suspended from teaching for refusing to change the Woodrow Wilson quote that he used as the learning outcomes statement on his syllabus. But the part that really got to me, was this:

[Robert T.] Dillon [Associate Professor of Biology] describes himself as a “prickly guy,” but it may be more accurate to say he is the antitenure crowd’s straw man made flesh. In his 34 years at Charleston, he has received three official letters of reprimand, along with many negative evaluations from his supervisors and his students…

Mr. Dillon’s teaching methods run to the Kafkaesque. He refuses to answer students’ questions with anything but questions. He says he sometimes purposely misleads students by making factually wrong statements in class, reasoning that students who did the reading should be able to correct him. (They rarely do, he says.) The professor is not interested in meeting students halfway; he believes it is more edifying to put them in a crucible and see if they are “critical, rational, mathematical, analytical” enough to intuit their way out.

Even though the Chronicle also published an extremely reasonable response by Professor Dillon, everyone in my Twitter feed thought this guy is a Grade-A asshole. Heck, I think this guy is an asshole, but even assholes have some uses. In this case, I think it’s the fact that Dillon’s intransigence has revealed something really interesting about assessment language. Going back to the original article:

In fact, the accreditor has no formatting requirement for learning-outcome statements. Those come in all shapes and sizes, says Belle S. Wheelan, president of the commission.

To be clear, Ms. Wheelan does not think Wilson’s century-old remarks speak eloquently to what students are supposed to learn in a genetics course. But her agency focuses on learning outcomes at the level of academic programs, she says, not individual courses. “One set of course outcomes,” says Ms. Wheelan, “is not necessarily going to negatively impact the accreditation of an institution.”

In other words, like FERPA or Title IX, learning outcomes are good things that alas can be turned into weapons against professors by feckless administrators. In this case, it has taken an asshole in order to discover that fact.

Of course, one doesn’t need to be an asshole in order to discover such things, which is precisely my point here. What happens if you’re the asshole? Any professor who challenges the seemingly benevolent bureaucratic status quo can become the asshole, whether they are actually an asshole or not. That’s why the due process protections that come with tenure are so important for faculty everywhere. They make it much easier to speak truth to power.

Of course, tenure isn’t what it used to be. While never a guaranteed job for life even at its best, academic misconduct, budget cuts or just living in a state with a crazy Republican governor can now leave tenure protections just a speed bump on a very short road. Absent those situations, however, professors at all levels of employment – even the assholes – deserve due process protections whether they are on or off the tenure track.

Applying this standard to this case as described in that article, it appears that Professor Dillon is a lousy teacher. If his treatment of students is enough to get him multiple reprimands, then his treatment of students should be enough to get him fired if that’s a solution that the faculty handbook at the University of Charleston allows. Of course, Professor Dillon should also have the opportunity to change his approach to teaching so that his firing would no longer be necessary. However, suspending (and possibly) firing someone over the learning outcomes language in their syllabus is pretty stupid because 1) That doesn’t fix the real problem and 2) The College of Charleston’s accrediting body has made it pretty clear that the exact learning outcomes language in a single course doesn’t even matter to them anyway.

You might not like Professor Dillon’s attitude or his methods, but his freedom to teach his classes his way are what guarantees my freedom to teach my classes my way and your freedom to teach your class your way too.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academia, Academic Freedom, Teaching, 1 comment

“With or without you.”

So it appears that Western Governors University [WGU] is being scrutinized by the federal government about the role of faculty in its competency-based online offerings. Here’s the key part of the story in today’s IHE:

The inspector general’s interest in competency-based education so far has centered on federal definitions of what constitutes “distance education” versus correspondence courses.

Rules for federal aid eligibility require “regular and substantive interaction” between students and instructors in distance education programs. That requirement does not apply to correspondence courses. Students typically initiate contact with their instructors in those courses, which often are self-paced.

I don’t get to say this much but, “Rock on, Obama’s Ed Department!” They like us. They really like us.

Problems with these kinds of programs from the standpoint of faculty should be obvious. On a purely self-interested level, competency-based education programs don’t require faculty at all – just “mentors” in order to monitor them. As it’s clear from that story, WGU employs no traditional faculty. The curriculum is determined entirely by outside experts. In fact those “mentors” handle eighty students at a time, calling them up weekly in order to check on student progress. When it comes to the day-to-day slog of learning, students are left to essentially teach themselves.

Who are these mentors? While WGU’s mentors may have graduate degrees, they aren’t exactly treated like professionals. For example, as the anonymous author of the blog “Fed Up at WGU” explained the story of a fellow mentor there:

“The students didn’t have to return her calls or complete any school work. If she tried to push them at all, they would just ask to be moved to another mentor and it would be approved. Honestly, not only would it be approved, but she would be punished for their request. I told her she was giving up her life (20+) hours per week and her moral beliefs for nothing in return – not for her benefit nor for the students. The only people benefiting were her manager and WGU.”

Having no control over curriculum or working hours or even the technology with which you interact with students is what makes this kind of treatment possible. To be unbundled this way destroys professorial power and prerogatives.

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that having faculty around to help you learn is a good idea. Back to that IHE story:

Russell Poulin, director of policy and analysis for the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), said the rules for faculty interaction in distance education are outdated.

“Regular and substantive [interaction with faculty, the rule that is the subject of the federal investigation of WGU] has to go,” said Poulin, who has written on the topic. “It’s focused completely on process and not on outcomes.”

Translation: They think universities can function with or without you. Given that option, which one do you think your administration would choose?

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, Teaching, Technology, 0 comments

MOOC madness takes its toll.

It seems as if it’s been a very long time since I’ve written anything about MOOCs. To be honest, I’ve been avoiding clicking on MOOC links entirely in order to avoid the urge to write about them. Unfortunately for everyone, last week I accidentally came across a story with a MOOC section so scary that it should send shivers down every faculty member’s spine everywhere. So let’s do the time warp again and party like it’s 2012:

One insight may be to think differently about how academic assets like MOOCs are marketed and, more importantly, assessed. Consider this evaluation of a MOOC at Kennesaw State University. KSU offered its first MOOC in 2014 — the K12 Blended and Online Learning MOOC (K12BOLM). According to an assessment of the MOOCs first run,

“By traditional measures, the first iteration of the MOOC aligned as expected. Enrollment decreased weekly. Of the close to 6,000 learners initially enrolled, 40% were active in week 2. At the conclusion of the 8-week guided course, 6% of the learners enrolled in Week 1 successfully completed all aspects of the course. This included weekly discussions, video embedded quizzes, readings, peer-graded activities and three unit level assignments.”

I know this is bad of (particularly since the school in question is at least one or two rings on the prestige ladder above my employer), but the first thing I thought when I read this was, “Kennesaw State has MOOCs?” To be fair, so does the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, but it’s not the quality of the MOOC provider here that gets my goat. It’s the fact that Kennesaw State must have something better to do with its money.

For example, KSU’s last reported six-year graduation rate is just 42%. They could have taken all the money that went to Coursera (through the University of Georgia system) and spent it on scholarships, or maybe giving decent wages to their adjunct faculty (who, according to this site, make 58% less than the national average for adjunct instructors) or even building a new building that their existing students could conceivably enter and use one day. But no, Kennesaw State had to get their own MOOC.

So what happens when you invite a platform vendor like Coursera into your university? The whole governance structure of the place changes. These are slides from Paul-Olivier Dehaye’s #DLRN15 presentation that deserve to be tattooed on the chest of any administrator at a college that’s thinking about MOOCs when they have students who are already enrolled their who deserve first crack at those resources. Think of them as before and after:

Dehaye1

Dehaye2

Once you have a hungry edtech startup in the middle of your governance structure, it’s hard to get them out. MIT and Harvard have the assets to feed the beast, I’m guessing Kennesaw State University does not.

So how does Kennesaw State justify its time in MOOCs?:

Some skeptics might consider KSU’s experiment a failure because of its low completion rate. But in evaluating this MOOC in 2015, KSU looked at other factors, including social media mentions. And, in fact, the MOOC helped to increase brand awareness: “Over 25,000 Twitter Hashtags Tweets and Re-Tweets were documented. … More than half had never heard of the institution. Another 25% had heard of the institution but were largely unfamiliar with it.”

I think they would have gotten even more brand awareness had they lit $350,000 on fire in the football stadium during the homecoming rally, but who’s counting?

If anything I think example shows that everyone wants to be a MOOC producer. Nobody wants to be a MOOC consumer. This would explain Coursera’s over-reliance on university partnership funds and nano-degree certifications rather than licensing fees for all the courses they’ve created. Flipping you class with someone else’s lectures is an admission of inadequacy, which is why it is extremely hard to find any self-respecting college professor who has done this voluntarily.

This explains why those of us who are interested in the whole MOOC life cycle can now look forward to the Darwinian struggle stage. It costs money to pay graduate students to police discussion forums. It costs money to license old photos. It costs money to update your MOOC continuously. Eventually, increased “brand awareness” will not be enough. The first MOOCs to go will be the ones that don’t attract enough people willing to pay for certificates. Then the next MOOCs to go will be the ones that don’t fit into those micro-degree programs. By the time Coursera disappears, most of its current offerings will already be dead letters.

Nonetheless, MOOC madness has still taken its toll.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Adjuncts, MOOCs, Shared Governance, 2 comments