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

I have run out of interesting things to write about edtech.

Welcome to the new More or Less Bunk. I think this is version #4, if memory serves me well. I redesigned it again because I’ve started guesting in that computer science class I described in this post. Since I knew I was going to have to describe how to build actual web pages, I had to build one myself.  That would be my new landing page, and I had to redesign here at the same time because of the way I structured this site back in 2014.  I have more to do here, but this is yet another example of learning by doing on my part. I remain stunned that this sort of thing is now technically half my job description.

With more actual doing, I’ve become far less interesting in pontificating.  It helps that I’ve been writing my next actual history book all summer. Lately, I’ve been doing a deep dive into the history of catsup!  So you’ll understand why I don’t much care about MOOCs or personalized learning or the coming faculty apocalypse (which, of course, JP and I already covered here).  Since I’m running a Faculty Learning Community (a term I picked up from the one and only Adam Croom) for our very incipient Domain of One’s Own project on campus starting in August, I still have to follow this stuff to some degree.  However, I’m pretty sure that I’ve run out of interesting things to write about edtech.*

However, before I leave this subject for what may be a pretty long while, I thought I’d review where we’ve been over four versions of this blog.  In 2012, a bunch of people in Silicon Valley started claiming that MOOCs were going to disrupt education and make universities obsolete.  I spilled a ton of pixels worrying that they might be right.  It turns out they were wrong.  But the really interesting question from the history of technology standpoint is exactly why they were wrong.  The rather surprising popularity of this post about edtech and refrigerators made me want to review this because maybe it’s not quite as obvious to some people as it is to me.

Disruption theory is built on analogies.  If I remember right, Clayton Christensen invented disruption theory by looking at the computer storage industry, then applying those lessons elsewhere.  Eventually, he applied the same principles to higher education.  The same way that Silicon Valley shills like to pitch things as “Uber for____,” there are useful versions of this kind of argument and less useful versions of this kind of argument.  Frankly, I’m not sure that this is the correct chronological order, but “Uber for hotels” gets you Airbnb.  On the other hand, disrupting education the same way that Zip Disks disrupted the computer industry during the 1990s gets you a really shitty education – a.k.a. MOOCs.

The obvious reason for this is the degree to which the new thing replicates the old thing.  Storage is storage.  Someone’s house still gives you shelter, just like a hotel.  Someone’s car still gets you where you’re going.  And in all three of these cases, it gets you what you want much, much cheaper.  Reach back to refrigerators, and the new technology is actually a vast improvement over the old one, ice boxes.  But i turns out that there isn’t much of a paying market for watching professors lecture and answering a bunch of multiple choice questions, at least among potential college students.

But even if there was, completely disruption isn’t exactly inevitable.  Sometimes the hotel itself is the reason for your visit.  Whether it’s a conference or just the pool and the buffet downstairs, hotels will always have something on Airbnb.  To go back to that refrigerator post again, some people  actually prefer going to the laundromat that owning their own washer/dryer – particularly if they don’t have their own house.  Sometimes even if the experience seems better, disruption may take time or might never happen at all because of strange cultural considerations that mere business professors will never bother to contemplate.

So what’s the deal with education technology?  MOOCs were and remain a mostly lousy experience, except for corporate training apparently – perhaps because corporations don’t much care about the quality of the student experience.  Various efforts to disrupt other aspects of the college experience with edtech have met varying receptions.  Sometimes the reception has been good (think textbook rental services, for instance).  Sometimes the reception has been bad (think e-textbooks, for instance).  If the savings are worth the inconveniences of an inferior experience or can somehow provide a better experience, those companies will prosper.  If they aren’t, then we’ll have yet another fad on our hands.

What I’ve learned in my years of studying this topic, is that there are actually a ton of really devoted people who are trying to develop and utilize various educational technologies to create useful and – at least in some cases – superior experiences to how colleges and classes operate now.  These efforts are, as you might expect, hugely labor intensive.  Therefore, they seldom appeal to private Silicon Valley companies trying to make a quick buck.  They do, however, appeal to all of us who are in higher education for the long run and a willing to try something new.

I got drafted to teach WordPress in a computer science class because I became one of those people.  What used to be peripheral to my job has moved to the center thanks to learning by doing.  While I may share a few of those experiments in this space moving forward, I’m afraid my days of long-winded pontificating about edtech are over.

Maybe it’s time to try history blogging again.  Anyone want to hear about the history of catsup?

* The one exception to that statement is an article that JP and I have in the hopper.  Actually, I drafted it from one of Poritz’s ideas and he’s been sitting on it for a few weeks now. It may see the light of day eventually, but if you’re reading this JP, I think you know what you have to do in order to make that happen.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in MOOCs, Teaching, Technology, 2 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’ve come out of MOOC retirement.

I remember exactly when I took my first MOOC. It was Fall 2012 (during the run up to the last presidential election) and I was on sabbatical.  If I didn’t have all that extra time on my hands I never would have finished it.  I’ve signed up for a couple of more since then (like the one with edX just so I could see if their syllabi actually had required reading), but I never really did any work on those.  Recently, I started classifying my Coursera e-mail as spam so I wouldn’t even have to think about MOOCs quite so much anymore.

Yet much to my shock, I’ve come out of MOOC retirement. While I’m not doing the work for the University of Houston’s Digital Storytelling MOOC, I have decided to do watch the videos because I really want to be able to introduce digital storytelling as a possibility into my next digital history class.  All I really need is some knowledge about the tools with which I can experiment. When I actually teach this stuff we’ll all kind of fake it together.

That’s good, because if I had wanted to do the work in the MOOC and get it graded, I’d have had to pay Coursera for a certificate.  So much for open.

Not only is the grading now a privilege you have to pay for, Coursera is pushing the opportunity to get a certificate at the end of every video. Here’s an exact quote of their nagging ad (at least in week #1) in its entirety:

Purchase a Certificate today, and you’ll support Coursera’s mission to provide universal access to education.

Open access.  We want everyone to have access to the world’s top courses. We  provide financial aid to all learners with need.

New courses. Revenue from Certificates funds new course development.

Of course, the very existence of Coursera’s many investors is never acknowledged.

Going back through my blog archives, it wasn’t hard for me to find the post where I saw this coming. I wrote this in 2014:

[Coursera co-founder Daphne] Koller, and by extension the rest of the MOOC Messiah Squad, are performing a huge intellectual switcheroo by making arguments like this one. They’re replacing the promise of universal higher education with the promise of universal ACCESS to higher education. We’ll let you listen to our superprofessors for free, she is essentially saying, but you have to do the hard work of obtaining an actual education all by yourself.

If you think this change is why Daphne Koller left Coursera, remember that it took her two more years to actually leave. The investors’ desire to monetize Coursera overtook the promise of educating the world long before she actually departed.  At least when you give PBS $50, they’ll give you a free tote bag.

Actually, Coursera’s business plan now reminds me now more of a company like Evernote than it does public broadcasting. Provide a free service that people find useful, then constantly upsell your customers in the hopes that they might pay up for it. I still use Evernote even after they limited the free service to a total of two devices because it’s useful to me. I haven’t paid them a cent. Evernote is well on its way to going out of business.

I’m well past caring whether any particular Silicon Valley company, be it Evernote or Coursera, is actually making money. What I remain concerned about is the creeping corporatization of higher education.

To explain what I mean here, I’ll pick on my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. Here’s Penn President Amy Gutmann from way back in 2012 (when MOOCs were young):

“Penn is delighted to participate in this innovative collaboration that will make high-quality learning opportunities available to millions of people around the world,” Gutmann says. “Expanding access to higher education both nationally and globally remains one of our most critical responsibilities. This initiative provides an invaluable opportunity for anyone who has the motivation and preparation to partake of a world-class education.”

But Coursera isn’t helping Penn provide “high-quality learning opportunities” to “millions of people around the world” anymore. They’re helping Penn provide mostly static content to millions of people around the world and access to low-quality learning opportunities for people with the willingness and resources to pay for it. Heck, they might as well just go back to the old MIT model of taping course lectures there and putting them online. Why not (partially) cut out the middleman and just put your videos up on iTunes U?  Because Penn is an investor in Coursera, that’s why.

MOOCs were never about universal higher education. They were always about making money.  Faculty and students at any university with a MOOC partner ought to recognize that by now, and pressure their schools to un-partner immediately. Then they can develop their own platforms and offer their own MOOCs on any terms they want. Hopefully, those terms will go back to really being open again.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in MOOCs, 7 comments

Why America’s MOOC pioneers have abandoned ship.

The Mary Celeste by an unknown artist.

The Mary Celeste by an unknown artist.

On November 7, 1872, the American ship Mary Celeste left New York Harbor en route to Genoa, Italy. On December 5, 1872, a British brig discovered that vessel drifting in turbulent seas about 400 miles east of the Azores. Its cargo of industrial alcohol was intact, but not a soul was aboard. No trace of its ten crew members was ever found, making their fate one of the most enduring mysteries in maritime history.

Of course, there are still plenty of people interested in producing and taking MOOCs, but the founders of the American companies that create them have lately become about as scarce as the crew of the Mary Celeste. In 2014, Coursera founder Andrew Ng left day-to-day activities that company to join the Chinese search engine firm Baidu (although he remains Coursera’s Chairman of the Board). Earlier this year, Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, departed that company earlier this year perhaps frustrated by what he once famously called its “lousy product.” Last week, Coursera’s other co-founder, Daphne Koller, exited in order to join a subsidiary of Google.

Besides MOOC leaders, some of the courses they commissioned during the early years of MOOC-Mania are disappearing too. Coursera, for instance, just changed platforms in order to make it easier for students to take classes “on demand.” As a result, “a few dozen” MOOCs became completely unavailable, and those students who do enroll in the new courses might be taking them without the benefit of thousands of colleagues taking them simultaneously like the first MOOC students did. Some superprofessors, like the Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier, have suspended their MOOCs on their own accord.

The most obvious reason why everyone from the founders of MOOC companies to students who sign up for such course are abandoning MOOCs is because these kinds of courses have not lived up to their initial hype. MOOCs were supposed to transform education as we know it, but traditional education with its inefficiency derived from the close proximity between professors and their students has proved more resilient than its wannabe disruptors ever imagined. Yes, there are still plenty of MOOCs available for people who want to take them, but it now seems safe to conclude that Sebastian Thrun’s 2012 prediction that there will only be ten institutions of higher learning in fifty years will be off by a large order of magnitude.

Why aren’t MOOCs more popular? “Many MOOCs are ill–structured, and it takes a lot of onus on the student to do a lot of the work,” explained Dennis Charsky of Ithaca College earlier this year. “It leaves for a lot of exploratory learning, which many students don’t like and can’t persist with.”  While plenty of lifelong learners might be willing to consider this kind of experience as long as it remains free, every attempt to monetize the many eyeballs that MOOCs can attract has so far come up short. With MOOC production costs as high as $325,000 for a single course, profitability is almost certainly the main obstacle to keeping MOOCs viable for the long term.

This problem has been obvious to industry observers since the early days of MOOC Mania. “Coursera has simply never had a coherent plan to generate revenue,” explained Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates all the way back in 2013. “Allegedly, they were going to try to make money on a bunch of other things, like being scouts for businesses on the lookout for bright young talent, but there have been no announcements of revenue from these sources. Given how the tech news industry works, it’s a safe bet that means the figure is close to zero.” Daphne Koller’s recent decision to exit Coursera strongly suggests that this revenue problem has yet to be solved.

While companies like Coursera may still have lots of venture capital money to burn, the passing of this industry’s pioneers from the scene is as good a time as any to recognize that the profitability problem of MOOC providers is a problem that will never be solved. To make an often-used comparison in tech circles, compare education to the music industry. Most recording artists are now getting fractions of cents when consumers stream their songs because replicating digital copies of their work costs almost nothing. To make up for that problem, many bands have come to depend on touring to earn themselves revenue.

Colleges and universities, however, are already charging students an awful lot of money to see live performances by their professorial talent. Moreover, recording those lectures and distributing them for free over the Internet is a noticeably inferior experience to being on campus almost by definition. We professors do much more than talk at you during their live performances. Living, breathing faculty answer your questions, grade your papers and will even chat you up if you visit them during their office hours. MOOC providers will never be able to close this gap in educational quality.

Of course, Coursera and its ilk aren’t really trying to do so for economic reasons. If teaching were like most activities, it might be capable of being automated and scaled. But unfortunately for the MOOC providers, teaching isn’t like most activities.  Every dedicated professor – even those of us who do not meet the MOOC provider’s definition of “superstar” faculty – can provide a learning experience that’s superior to watching pre-recorded lectures alongside tens of thousands of people from around the globe.

Even then, like the Mary Celeste, online courses without a live crew manning them can be very lonely experiences. A good education is an active experience, meaning that your professor can see you and adjust their teaching to the reactions of their audience and the students can respond to their professors in real time.  Watching professors “on demand” on your computer, alone in your room, might make good business sense for Coursera, but it makes poor educational sense for anyone with access to an on-campus alternative. That’s why not enough people will ever fork over enough of their money to keep Coursera afloat for the long-term.

Even if Daphne Koller and company are not yet willing to admit this fact publicly, with all that MOOC hype fading quickly into the rear-view mirror their actions speak louder than their previous once ever-so-optimistic words. MOOCs and other forms of automated online education may persist as long as there’s a surplus of money in Silicon Valley anxious to disrupt higher education for the sake of capital rather than students. That ship may sail on indefinitely, but compared to the inflated rhetoric that once blew through their sails, MOOCs are destined to remain ghost ships floating on the open ocean, without the lost crew that had such high hopes to transform education forever at the start of their long journeys.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in MOOCs, 13 comments

Both sides now.

Way back during the “Year of the MOOC” my friend Jonathan Poritz in our math department wanted me to turn the predecessor of this blog into a book. “No way,” I said. “MOOCs are a flash in the pan.” While I still think that’s a correct assessment, it turns out that that particular flash in the pan has played an important role in a larger trend involving the movement of higher education online, but all online classes are not the same. The worst thing you can do to a committed online instructor is to confuse what they do with MOOCs. Why? Because there’s good online instruction and bad online instruction and MOOCs clearly fall into that second category.

My provost doesn’t read that much about edtech, but he did see enough of my writing and press mentions back in the day to keep calling me the “Anti-MOOC Guy” for quite a while. Now he’s wondering why I’ve volunteered to teach an online class, publicly accusing me of “doing a 180” on the subject. “It’s more like a 90,” I told him in response. I’ve seen edtech from both sides now. Many such classes still stink. Others don’t. Indeed, some of the things that professors can do with technology in an online or hybrid setting are downright awesome.

Knowing this, I’ve felt some responsibility to help guide my university, my discipline and academia in general towards doing something worthwhile with online education because (as Clay Shirky points out here) the cat has already gotten out of the bag.

While my online US History survey class still has a ways to go, the manuscript that I’ve written with that same Jonathan Poritz is in production at Routledge now. It’s not a MOOC book, although I had the privilege of drafting the MOOC chapter. It’s not an edtech book, although some aspect of that subject is at the center of every chapter. It’s really a guidebook for faculty who haven’t been paying attention to these technological developments so that they can both consider their own place in the fast-changing higher education landscape and distinguish the good changes from the bad ones.

After talking to JP the other week, we’ve decided to let the very last page of the book out of the bag first: Our one appendix. It’s our rules to live by, derived after we surveyed everything we wrote both together and apart. Reading this, you can get an idea of all the subjects that we cover (including a few that have never come up on this blog before).

Here they are with a little pre-commentary from just me (although JP, feel free to jump in down in the comments if you think I’ve gotten anything wrong):

(1) Every real student deserves individual attention from, and interaction with, a real teacher.

This one is basically straight off my old blog. Notice how it doesn’t play favorites between online and face-to-face classes? A gigantic lecture class where you can barely see the professor at the front of the room and he or she is never their during office hours is just as bad as an online class with 400 or 500 students in it. JP and I aren’t anti-online or pro-face-to-face as much as we just want to encourage more good pedagogy and less mindless memorization.

(2) Professors’ working conditions are their students’ learning conditions: professors without autonomy and agency cannot teach those characteristics.

Of course, that phrase usually connotes adjunct faculty exploitation, but we intend it more broadly here. People off the tenure track certainly have no autonomy or academic freedom, but so do instructors on the tenure track who can’t control their own technology. Learning Management Systems are the most obvious manifestation of this. Why administrators and IT people get so much power to decide something that is fundamentally an educational decision just mystifies me.

(3) Your university is not broke: The root causes of IT decisions are ideological and political, not economic.

The first part of this is a common AAUP saying. The second part is a sign of our emphasis on political economy in this book. You can’t understand edtech unless you try to understand the new austerity regime at universities around the world, as well as the common tendency of administrators to keep spending freely on edtech (despite their alleged austerity) in the hopes that it will eventually save them a fortune labor costs.

(4) Edtech wants to be free. FLOSS is the best way to build that freedom.

This one is all JP’s, but I can tell you that that’s free as in “unencumbered” rather than free as in beer.

(5) It is the responsibility of the academic faculty to keep current on technological developments, no matter how far outside their comfort zone such learning may

I know you’re busy, but how would you feel if your job gets automated right out from under your nose and you didn’t even see it coming? Yes, MOOCs can’t do what professors do, but what appens if what you do gets redefined so that they can? You know that education is not the same as content transmission, but unless you stay engaged with all the two-bit hucksters who think it is they will win the battle of public opinion and your tenured sinecure will dry up when your students all enroll at some barely acceptable online clown college.

That’s why you can’t laugh off MOOCs, even though they’re still a lousy product. That’s why you can’t keep your head in the sand no matter how well paid you are or how good your students happen to be. That’s why you need to read the education press. Another way to keep up on such things is to buy our book, Education Is Not an App: The Future of University Teaching in the Internet Age coming this summer from Routledge.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Books, Economics, Learning Management Systems, MOOCs, Technology, 1 comment

“You can’t always get what you want.”

There’s a moment in the first segment of the 60 Minutes piece on Apple that ran last Sunday that I found kind of amazing. It’s in an exchange between Charlie Rose and Apple’s head of marketing, Phil Schiller, towards the end of that segment:

Rose: Is there danger of one product cannibalizing the other product?

Schiller: It’s not a danger, it’s almost by design. You need each of these products to try to fight for their space, their time with you. The iPhone has to become so great that you don’t know why you want an iPad. The iPad has to be so great that you don’t know why you want a notebook. The notebook has to be so great you don’t know why you want a desktop. Each one’s job is to compete with the other ones.

It’s not really the fact that there’s a tacit admission of planned obsolescence here. That’s expected with anything from a Silicon Valley tech company. It’s the fact that Schiller seems convinced that every new iteration of that planned obsolescence is actually going to be superior to the previous version.

Remember, this is the same company that brought us the Lisa and the Newton. With respect to more modern developments, I never saw the point of iPads. I certainly don’t see the point of Apple Watches unless you want to advertise your location to the NSA during every waking moment of your life. Yet Apple seems convinced that it knows what we want, even though they won’t release Apple Watch sales – probably, 60 Minutes suggested, because they’re really disappointing.

That explains why whether Apple actually knows what we need is a different question entirely.


Back in October, Audrey Watters, while speaking in South Africa, explained how

“California – the place, the concept, “the dream machine” – shapes (wants to shape) the future of technology and the future of education.”

On the way to explaining that California Ideology, she defined something similar. “The Silicon Valley Narrative,” she argued:

is interested in data extraction and monetization and standardization and scale. It is interested in markets and return on investment. “Education is broken,” and technology will fix it. It’s an old and tired refrain, but it’s a refrain nonetheless, repeated over and over.

Audrey is rightfully concerned about the effects of the California Ideology has on existing inequalities of race and class and gender – most notably the way it erases those concerns from our consciousness. Yet before the Silicon Valley Narrative and the California Ideology can do any of that to education, the ideologues behind then have to redefine what education is.

Since you can’t always get what you want, it’s worth asking exactly what you need in the educational space. What students need is a trained, caring teacher dedicated towards student success. Too many students per teacher and this becomes impossible. Edtech fixes are created almost by design to get around that problem – to replace people with technology, to make the previously unacceptable acceptable.

Somewhere rattling around the back of my head (and others apparently) is an old saying about the best form of education being “Socrates at one end of a log and a student at the other end.” Turning that log into a computer connection has the same fundamental effect as adding students to the other end of the log. It decreases the quality of education. Yes, you can do some flashy things when you’re no longer bound to one end of a log, but the impact that that change has on the immediacy of the educational experience will inevitably felt.

I’m not saying that this sacrifice shouldn’t be made. What I’m saying is that piling on the edtech pyrotechnics won’t improve the educational experience by definition – particularly if those pyrotechnics are provided by companies that are more concerned with setting up a situation of planned obsolescence than they are with improving the quality of the educational experience.


Of course, the story that set me off down this long, discursive path is about MOOCs:

“Less than 1 percent of the learners in the massive open online course partnership between Arizona State University and edX are eligible to earn credit for their work, according to enrollment numbers from the inaugural courses…

The number of learners who opt for credit may be even smaller. To be eligible, learners first have to pay $49 for an identity-verified certificate and earn a grade of C or better. Because of how the MOOCs are structured, learners can complete all the lessons and assignments and view their final grade before deciding whether to pay for a transcript from ASU. Learners have a year to make up their minds.

Hardly revolutionary is it? Back when edX and Arizona State introduced this program, I wrote that:

Arizona State is now the first predator university. They are willing to re-define what education is so that they can get more students from anywhere. If they don’t kill other universities by taking all their students with a cheap freshmen year, they’ll just steal their fish food by underselling 25% of the education that those schools provide and leaving them a quarter malnourished.

I still think that that might be right, but it turns out that this initial weapon is so big and so clunky that it can hardly kill anybody – at least not yet. As Matt Reed explains:

To the extent that folks watched MOOCs in the same way that they watch, say, TED talks, I don’t see the harm in it. But to the extent that the partnership was supposed to be about opening pathways to bachelor’s degrees, it doesn’t come close to comparing to the already-established route of starting at a community college — in this case, I used the tuition rate of Maricopa Community College, the largest feeder to ASU — and transferring.

Students, in other words, don’t get what we want them to get, they just get what they need.

But don’t despair for disruptive innovation! MIT’s Justin Reich tells us towards the end of the article linked at the top of this section:

“These numbers show it’s not an immediate breakthrough revolution in recruiting and enrollment, but that’s fine…It may still be worth exploring if this is a viable alternative path either for recruitment of students already likely to go to college or bringing new students into higher ed.”

As you might imagine, I disagree.

I may want an Apple Watch. Apple may want me to buy an Apple Watch. They may find the perfect color of paint for the strap so that my wrist starts twitching every time I see one. However, if there are simpler, cheaper, more effective ways to accomplish what my Apple Watch can accomplish, all the pyrotechnics in the world won’t make it a hit with consumers. The same is obviously true of Internet fridges, a product that the powers that be have been trying to push on unwilling consumers for over fifteen years now.

Sometimes the best tech is actually old tech. On the other hand, MOOC U, Apple Watches and Internet fridges seem a lot more like hoverboards to me, only much less funny.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in MOOCs, Refrigeration, Teaching, Technology, 1 comment

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:



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

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