Academic Labor

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:


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


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

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 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

“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

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.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, MOOCs, Shared Governance, Teaching, Technology, 2 comments


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.

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

“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.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Freedom, Academic Labor, Teaching, Technology, 2 comments

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.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, MOOCs, Teaching, 1 comment