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 Others simply decided to spend tens of thousands of dollars on creating individual MOOCs that are now outdated almost by definition since they’re not designed for corporate training.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.

“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.

“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?

The death of expertise.

A few days ago, a Twitter acquaintance of mine – the gloriously cynical Professor Enron  – wrote out a Twitter rant that I’ve had trouble shaking.  I don’t really feel like teaching myself Storify right now, so I’m just gonna reproduce it here in full:

What’s crazy about this is that teaching is actually the reason that shared governance exists.  Because we faculty understand our disciplines better than anyone else, decisions that affect the university’s educational mission ought to be made in conjunction with us otherwise that mission will suffer.

But faculty prerogatives aren’t just being attacked by power hungry administrators, they’re also being attacked by other educators.  And to make matters worse, they’re being attacked in the name of education.  The best example of this, of course, MOOCs.  Here’s Josh Kim in his column at IHE:

One of the important outcomes of the growth of open online education has been the development of new campus competencies to evolve and support teaching and learning. MOOCs have provided venues where faculty have the opportunity to collaborate closely with teams of non-faculty educators. Developing a MOOC is a creative endeavor involving faculty, instructional designers, media educators, librarians, developers, assessment experts, and students.

How many tenured faculty superprofessors – presumably the greatest experts in their fields – have been so taken with the notion of MOOCs that they are now devoting their teaching careers to MOOCs exclusively?  I’m guessing none.  The Beatles broke up because they all wanted to be solo artists.  Other than Sammy Hagar, how many solo artists join already established groups?*

Moreover, the attack on expertise through edtech also includes people with no teaching experience whatsoever.  I just knew that an essay entitled “UberEd” was going to make me cringe, yet I read it anyway:

I believe there is someone out there who is on the verge of creating a sort of UberEd, and it is almost certainly not a university president or federal lawmaker. Instead, it’s an entrepreneur who grasps the importance of putting students first who stands to start making waves in higher education.

No matter how much expertise you have, faculty can’t make a living working a micro-job.  Look at almost every adjunct ever, yet those positions (or any other position without the protection of tenure) is likely to get unbundled first because they have the least power to resist the kinds of technological changes that redefine education for the worst.

So how do we faculty get people to respect our authority without looking like this:


Make sure that we aren’t alone.

Educational experts of all kinds want to usurp the power of faculty.  They do so by claiming expertise. But expertise is dead, remember? The next Uber for Education or the next one after that is going to privatize all those university-based instructional designers into oblivion and replace them with people who know even less about the subjects that students are supposed to be learning than the first set of interlopers did.

The compromise here is easy.  Faculty accept the expertise of the educational experts and instructional designers, and welcome them into their course design process as a resource rather than competitors.  At the same time, educational experts and instructional designers should accept the expertise of the faculty.  Stop trying to tell them what education is.

Then we can both fight the death of expertise together.

* Buckingham/Nicks doesn’t count. They were a duo.


People harsh on lectures. For example, while those of us in North America were sleeping last night, my friend Kate noted:

I’ve loved the experience of listening to people who interest me; I drove hours in the rain to hear Derek Walcott read his poems in person and that’s time I’ll never regret giving. On the other hand, I have a three minute attention span and I’ve lost it completely at meetings, in training sessions, at conferences, in the movies, and in conversation with friends. So I understand why students are on Facebook in their lectures; I’m just not sure they need to drive an hour each way or give up a shift at work to do this in person.

What I like about that whole post is that it acknowledges the obvious point that there are good and bad lectures while simultaneously opening up a new front in the war on boredom – namely, its carbon footprint.

I, on the other hand, want to open up a new front in their defense.

Say what you want about lectures, but your lecture is unequivocally yours. You went to graduate school. You learned your discipline. You keep up on your reading so that you know what’s fresh. You convey that information to your students. They (hopefully) learn something of what you know. Assuming they pass the course, you award them credit for that knowledge.

Of course, you could sell your soul to Coursera and your lectures would no longer be yours, but the problem with Coursera and their ilk has always been that they assume that conveying content to students is the ONLY thing that professors do. Even if your course has 500 students in it, there’s always some kind of follow through available to them. To put it another way, you’re not really one of Stephen Greenblatt’s students if Stephen Greenblatt will not take questions.

But there are plenty of practitioners of other kinds of online education besides MOOCs out there who need to grapple with the same problem. As a student of online education, I think the difference between the people who are ultimately a force for good in the world and the people who are a force for evil is how they handle the question of the professor’s other functions besides lecturing. If you happen to think that professors have no other functions besides lecturing, then you’re probably a force for evil. If you’re trying to create technologies that can foster (or even expand upon) the kinds of interactions between students and their professors that enable (to borrow a phrase from my friend Scott Newstok) close learning, then you’re probably a force for good.

But how much good can you do when the tools of your trade are no longer yours? You carry all that knowledge that you learned in graduate school around in your head from class to class and job to job. However, as yet another one of my friends, Paul-Olivier Dehaye learned the hard way, when you do a MOOC your class is no longer yours. I’m not really talking about ownership in the copyright sense of that word (although that may be a perfectly reasonable discussion to have with respect to some disciplines), I’m talking about ownership in the sense of control.

And I don’t mean to restrict this point exclusively to MOOCs.  Suppose you want to go one way with your online class and your administration wants you to go another way. There are a lot of underemployed people with PhDs in almost every discipline walking around these days. It would be easy as pie to fire you and your labor-intensive love of close learning with some poor adjunct with an Internet connection anywhere on the planet who’s barely making ends meet. Say what you will about all the carbon you expend driving to campus every day, but that drive limits the size of the labor market that can replace you almost by definition.

Despite the so-far depressing nature of this post, I don’t think online education has to be the first step on the road to the unplanned obsolescence of faculty everywhere.  And I don’t think the only way to survive technological change is to keep lecturing.  It took me a while to learn how to do more than lecture in my survey classes, but honestly I’ve reached the point where I’m sick of listening to my own voice.  That’s an important reason why I’ve decided to try to teach my survey classes online and that’s why I’ve been studying the practices of the people who I think are forces for good in the world.

You wanna know what I think they all have in common? They all control their most important tools. In some cases, I think it’s because there was once a great big supervisory void in the online space that online education pioneers could just fill any way they like, but I fear those days are coming to a close. The easier it becomes for administrators – or even worse, private companies – to control the actual practice of teaching, the more likely it will be that they try to do so. I also fear that overly compliant faculty without the protection of tenure (which includes people in Wisconsin who are left with nothing but faux tenure) will simply abandon that traditional prerogative of faculty everywhere.

So what can faculty do to head off this confrontation before it starts?  Assert ownership of more than just the content you learned in graduate school. Those assignments? “Mine!”  That discussion board? “Mine!” That content? “Mine!” Whether the cause is contract-related, system compatibility or even pedagogical differences between you and your department chair  – if you can’t take your teaching tools with you into your next class then you shouldn’t use that tool at all. Call it the educational technology labor theory of value. Since no edtech is worth anything without the faculty that imbue it with their content knowledge, control of that edtech should rest entirely with the faculty who employ it.

Yes, it might take a lot of work to be able to assert the kind of control to prevent your own obsolescence, but it’s going to be worth it in the long run.  These are the new tools of your trade that I’m talking about here, and a skilled crafts-person without their tools might as well just be a seagull begging for breadcrumbs.

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Way back in 2012, when the new all “online-Ivy” Minerva, was known less formally as “the Minerva Project,” the MIT Technology Review explained founder Ben Nelson’s labor plan:

Nelson says classes will be designed by A-list faculty from other universities, acting as consultants. But once the lesson plan is on paper, they will be presented to Minerva students by newly minted PhDs; Nelson says academic jobs are so hard to find that he should have no problem attracting instructors.

Too many PhDs. Too few jobs. Lots of extremely smart people left to teach at Minerva, right?

Well, maybe not. There’s a biased, but well-detailed three-part series on Minerva at PC magazine that seriously makes teaching there sound like a living Hell. For example, consider this:

As the figurative striker, the professor is expected to run plays. Faculty inherit meticulously developed curricula, and they are expected to stick to the script. (Given class-time sensitivity, Minerva has even added a timer to the system). This may trouble faculty for whom academic freedom is sacrosanct and course design a point of personal pride. Minerva isn’t for them.

That’s right, they’re literally gonna put a stopwatch on you while you’re teaching. I guess that worked at the Watertown Arsenal….oh wait, it didn’t work at all at the Watertown Arsenal. Maybe higher education will be different. After all, it’s not like professors have any unique skills that promote illusions of dignity. Oh wait…

Of course, it goes without saying that where there’s no academic freedom, there’s no tenure. With tenure (sadly) on its way out in so many places these days, I can almost understand why someone would jump for a job under these conditions, but then consider the way that faculty at Minerva are going to be evaluated:

[E]ducators must accept a greater degree of surveillance. Just as students must acclimate to seeing themselves speak in class videos, faculty must accept that everything they say during class, office hours, and advising, is recorded. From my conversation with Dean Chandler, I understand that the process hasn’t been finalized, but faculty will be evaluated using recordings from classes, feedback from students, and student performance metrics.

In other words, Minerva faculty are going to be evaluated using all the worst methods from both secondary and higher education. What could possibly go wrong?

What appears to be Minerva’s response to these kinds of concerns is contained earlier in the article I just linked to:

[U]nless an educator is hired to design curriculum, she will teach predesigned courses. Minerva representatives pitched the approach as a feature, rather than a bug: Without having to develop curricula, educators were “free” to focus on student conversations.

This definition of “freedom” is very much in line with a kind of freedom that Nicholas Carr has identified as being touted all over Silicon Valley:

The dream that the technologies of automation will liberate us from work, the dream expressed by McLuhan, is a seductive one. Karl Marx, in the middle of the nineteenth century, wrote of how new production technologies could have “the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor.” He foresaw a time when he would be able “to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.” But Marx did not believe that the emancipatory potential of technology was inherent in the technology itself. The emancipatory power would be released only through political, economic, and social changes. Technology would always serve its master.

While Minerva’s classes are from automated, what’s essentially happening here is that some of the traditional professorial functions are being turned over to a computer so that the teachers can build more widgets educate students more-intensely during their time under the stopwatch. They can do this because the technology that Minerva is employing doesn’t serve the needs of the workers or the students here. It only serves the needs of Minerva’s investors.

Whether there are enough surplus PhDs out there willing to work under these conditions is open to question in my opinion. However, the notion that anyone could offer students an Ivy-caliber education while working under these conditions is absolutely absurd. Desperation is to educational quality as Kryptonite is to Superman.

MOOCs: Making the unacceptable acceptable since 2012.

I seem to find myself writing more and more about MOOCs again.  Some of this is due to the fact that I’m finishing a book chapter on them right now.  Some of this is due to the fact that they’ve been back in the news again (think edX/ASU).  But some of this is also due to the fact that a certain category of higher education VIPs have been saying the same old very stupid things about MOOCs in public again, and there’s no better way to piss off an historian than to forget the past.

Do you have a high tolerance for nonsense?  If so you might want to read this example of an MIT professor taking the red pill in public right there in the “pages” of the Huffington Post.  Since making fun of numbering MOOC iterations is way too easy for me, I’ll just quote his definitions of “MOOC 1.0” through “MOOC 4.0:”

MOOC 1.0 – One-to-Many: Professor lecturing to a global audience
MOOC 2.0 – One-to-One: Lecture plus individual or small-group exercises
MOOC 3.0 – Many-to-Many: Massive decentralized peer-to-peer teaching.
MOOC 4.0 – Many-to-One: Deep listening among learners as a vehicle for sensing one’s highest future possibility through the eyes of others.

What’s “MOOC 5.0” going to be, you ask? My guess is Oprah’s Book Club.

As you probably know already, my schtick is to discuss the implications of MOOCs in whatever iteration they happen to be at any given moment for the academic labor system. Therefore, I can’t help but notice that the higher MOOC numbers go (at least in this version), the less important professors become.

Now a lot of you, including a fair number of you who were making fun of the author of this piece on Twitter yesterday, really do believe in your heart of hearts that this a good thing. Indeed, if I’m reading the back and forth right, this was actually the root of the Siemens/Downes argument that surfaced earlier this week. George thinks that universities are a good thing for education, including high-tech education. Stephen would rather encourage people to learn for themselves.

Well, count me on Team Siemens for this one. I’ve been teaching history for fifteen years now and shockingly enough I actually think that my services are valuable. Without me, plenty of students I’ve taught over the years would never write an essay or visit a library or even pick up a non-textbook because I was the first professor who made them do so. Not only that, I’ve seen with my own eyes students who hate history leave my class loving the subject. I’m not saying this is a common occurrence, but it is the most desired outcome of all my classes.

More importantly, I simply don’t understand how any superprofessor could ever achieve the same result. Indeed, part of what makes the red pill so appealing is that all of a superprofessor’s MOOC students actually want to be there, otherwise they wouldn’t have signed up for the class in the first place or they would have dropped out before the first taped lecture.

If there’s a message that the ASU/edX deal should send any ordinary non-superprofessor, it’s that your university can get along without you. After all, most college dropouts leave during their freshmen years. Rather than actually help those freshmen stay, ASU wants to expand their numbers into the hundreds of thousands so that they can keep the wheat and let the chaff continue to fall where it may.  That’s why if we all un-center ourselves entirely from the learning process and we’re all going to find a lot of unemployed professors before too long – just not the ones who already work for MIT.

If you want to read somebody take on this whole MOOC 4.0 thing more directly than me, then read Rolin Moe here.  However, the epiphany that Rolin’s post led me to came not from his take down of that MIT professor who’s been tripping to hard on that red pill, but from this passage:

The only reason we can have MOOC 3.0 before MOOC 2.0 (not to mention huge announcements from Coursera and edX at the same time as educational media tell us MOOC hype is over) is because MOOC has little practically defined meaning. It is immaterial, hype, folderol.

That’s what makes MOOCs so frustrating for those of us who haven’t been popping pills. We recognize them as nothing more than a way to make the unacceptable acceptable. [“You have to educate yourself, Buster. Oh, by the way, where’s your tuition check?”]  Eventually the MOOC hype will wear off and all we’ll have left is a MOOC hangover.

Unfortunately, being right about MOOCs will not be a sufficient substitute for collecting a regular salary.

Dear Superprofessors: The experiment is over.

Dear Superprofessors,

I know it has been a long time since I addressed you all directly, but there’s been an important development in MOOCville that I wanted to be sure that you all saw.  Perhaps you noticed that edX and Arizona State were starting their own all-MOOC Freshman year.  That’s not actually the development I’m referring to here.

I’m talking about this clause of the edX/ASU contract, first spotlighted by the great Tressie McMillan Cottom, as quoted by John Warner:

Non-InstitutionX MOOCs. Institution will evaluate other MOOCs offered on the edX Site and, subject to appropriate review and approval, consider offering Institution credit for a fee to edX learners who earn, or have earned, verified certificates of achievement for such non-InstitutionX MOOCs.

As Warner explains it:

This particular clause makes it clear that ASU has the potential to expand their laundry service to the entire edX universe. In other words, they may do what the founding partner institutions of edX – MIT and Harvard – would likely never consider, give full institutional credit for a course taken as a MOOC outside their own institution.

I actually think things are even worse than that.  Some of this has to do with Matt Reed’s observation about charging a fee for accepting transfer credit being novel, but what I’m really talking about is that it will now become open season for accepting credit from every MOOC out there.

This was always a possibility.  Indeed, we were discussing this in the comments of my old blog way back in 2012.  Here’s Princeton History professor (and my old superprofessor) Jeremy Adelman:

Maybe I am thick or something, but I don’t follow your logic. I know exactly how my course is being used. We/I have explicitly forbidden anyone from using our course for any credit.

And here’s David Mazel of Adams State University in Colorado (now retired), explaining the problem with that assumption:

Jeremy, I understand and respect the spirit in which your MOOC is being offered. But I’m wondering exactly how the credit exclusion (“We/I have explicitly forbidden anyone from using our course for any credit”) can be enforced. I’m trying to think how that would play out on the ground.

If my own humble institution were to start offering credit for MOOCs, it would doubtless do so under our Credit for Prior Learning policy. Let’s say a participant in “A History of the World since 1300″ winds up learning enough to qualify for credit under our CPL policy. Are we supposed to tell this student, “Sorry, kid, no credit for you, because even though you clearly know the material, you learned it from a MOOC with a credit exclusion”?

That seems neither sensible nor fair. Furthermore, how would the person charged with evaluating the CPL application even know whether there was such an exclusion in the first place? We certainly can’t rely on the student to tell us. It wouldn’t be in the student’s best interest to tell us, and anyway how many students would even read, much less remember, that kind of fine print? So, should Adams State University be keeping a list of which MOOCs can be used for credit and which cannot? I suppose we could do that, though it might prove difficult. (It would certainly be easier if it were the MOOC-provider’s responsibility to notify colleges about credit exclusions, rather than the responsibility of colleges to research the question themselves.)

Now that it’s in Arizona State’s financial interest to accept as much MOOC credit as possible, all prior restraint will disappear.  Indeed, now that the cat is out of the bag, look for more schools to become predator universities any day now.

What this means for you superprofessors is that your time to “experiment” is now over.  Whether you like it or not, people will soon be giving credit for your MOOCs to the exclusion of courses taught by living, breathing faculty all around the world.  I think this gives you two options:

a) Explain exactly why your video lectures and computer algorithms are pedagogically superior to actual human beings with PhDs. Or

b) Get out of the MOOC business altogether.

Faced with trying to do a), Jeremy essentially chose b).  As long as you choose neither, you are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

With Respect and Love,


“We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore.”

Yippee!  Rebecca Schuman is back from maternity leave and writing at Slate again. This makes me happy because Rebecca is a) prone to say exactly what everybody else familiar with academia is thinking, but too polite to put into words for any publication whatsoever and b) hilarious.  This new essay explains the kinds of comments that appear whenever someone complains about adjunct working conditions, and apparently the comments that appeared there are exactly the kinds of comments she mentions in the article.

Actually, I’m going to have to take Rebecca’s word for that because life’s too short to read the comments.  Indeed, I made the mistake of reading the comments on my last Vitae article and got incredibly depressed for about a day and a half by all the self-destructive tendencies on display there.  Never again.  Yet I now know thanks to Rebecca that some tenured people like me enjoy telling our adjunct colleagues in comment sections all around the Internet how supply and demand works.

Well, fellow tenured people, allow me to explain supply and demand to you:

1.  If there is a large supply of people willing to do the same thing that you do for a lot less money and no benefits, then profit-maximizing employers will tend to replace the more expensive people with the less expensive people in order to balance their budgets. 

Even if somehow manage to hold on to that job, working conditions will gradually drift towards the level of the least compensated among us, not the best.  What’s that you say?  You think you’re special?  You do research?  Tell that to every professor at a public university in North Carolina:

Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, introduced a bill Thursday that would require all professors in the UNC system, regardless of research obligations, to teach at least eight courses per academic year to receive their full salary.

I bet the vast majority of adjuncts in that state already teach that load.  If 76% of the faculty doesn’t have the time to do research already than your average Republican legislator is thinking, “Why not the rest of the faculty too?”  As long as we accept the idea that it’s OK for our adjunct colleagues to toil away with four or more courses and no living wage, we don’t have a leg to stand upon when they inevitably try to do this to the rest of us.

2.  If anybody in the world with a computer and an Internet connection can teach our classes instead of us, then our wages will tend to go down as the supply of labor goes up.

Yes, I’m talking about online courses, and no I’m not saying that all online courses are bad.  What I am saying is that if the supply of potential labor increases, more workers will chase a limited number of jobs.  If more workers chase a limited number of jobs, compensation will tend to go down over time.

I know, your online course is terrific.  I actually believe that.  You probably put lots of effort into it and do things online that nobody can do in a face-to-face setting.  That’s great, but how long will your online class remain yours?  What happens if your next dean, or your next President or your next Governor doesn’t give a hoot about educational quality?  What recourse do you have?

I’ll tell you what recourse you have:  You can go find another line of work, just like all those adjuncts you’re currently ignoring.

And don’t think the fact that you only teach face-to-face makes you immune.  If an online class and a face-to-face class are taken for the same credit, then most students will tend to drift to the easiest, lowest cost option and your job will disappear right out from under you.  Which kinda brings me to…

3.  If a machine can do the same work that you can do, your employers will substitute your labor with those machines because this cuts down on their demand for labor, which in turn decreases costs.

I hate to channel Tom Friedman*, the Kevin Carey of 2001, but the same forces that have outsourced accountants and X-ray technicians will inevitably lead to the outsourcing  of college professors as long as this is deemed academically acceptable.

Come to think of it, this is exactly what makes Kevin Carey so incredibly dangerous.  Again, so that I can circumvent having to read any more of his book than absolutely necessary, let me outsource this point to Audrey Watters’ and Sara Goldrick-Rab’s IHE review of the End of College that you’ve probably already read by now:

“Bowen had previously been skeptical of the idea that technology could fundamentally change higher learning. Based on his new research, he wrote, ‘I am today a convert. I have come to believe that now is the time.’” Rather than question the wisdom of sudden conversions based on single studies, Carey wonders, why didn’t colleges immediately hop on board and begin embracing what he calls “a golden opportunity to charge students less money without sacrificing the quality of instruction”?

If the quality of expensive face-to-face higher education is indeed the same as in a MOOC then an awful lot of us faculty are royally screwed.  We can explain why it isn’t until we’re blue in the face, but if we lose this argument then tenure will mean nothing because students will indeed migrate to the University of Everywhere just like Carey wants them to do and we won’t be able to do anything to stop it.

By the way, who’ll be teaching students at the University of Everywhere (assuming those students have even contact over the Internet with any faculty at all)?  Adjuncts, of course.  That may explain in large part why Rebecca ends her piece with this warning:

Academics in all disciplines would do well to tame their sanctimony about the “lesser” spirit sciences, lest they find themselves on the business end of the next collapse.

She’s talking about interdisciplinary warfare.  I’m talking about inter-class warfare.  Tenure-splaining supply and demand to adjuncts who just want to put food on the table is fiddling while Rome burns.

To try another analogy, we faculty are facing the “Independence Day” scenario here, people.  The aliens control our supply.  The aliens control our demand.  If we can’t get together and change that scenario, not even Will Smith will be able to save us from extinction.

*  The problem with Tom Friedman is not that he is a lousy reporter.  Face it, people:  The World Is Flat was WAY ahead of it’s time.  The problem with Tom Friedman is that he thinks the changes he describes in The World Is Flat are all unquestionably good things for a society as a whole no matter how many livelihoods they happened to destroy.