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

Two-fer Tuesday.

TFW two pieces you had a hand in get published one the same day.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Education Is Not an App, Teaching, Writing, 0 comments

My manifesto (at least for this year).


This morning, Hybrid Pedagogy published an essay that I’ve been working on for almost a year now. It started life as a blog post here. Then I took it to the last AAUP annual meeting.  Then I wrote it up so that I could get into #DLRN15 at Stanford last October.  It served as the basis of both my papers there.  After open peer review, what’s left is at that first link above.

The influence that Audrey Watters and Jim Groom have had on my thinking should be obvious.  Nevertheless, when the one and only Kate Bowles heard me give this talk at Stanford she described it as the most “Jonathan” paper she could imagine. I tend to agree.  Think of it as my manifesto, at least for this year.

As of this moment, I’m putting the finishing touches on a (co-written) edtech book that started life as this blog.  It will allegedly be out in July.  To be honest, I’m sick to death of this subject now.  Nevertheless, next on my agenda (after the manuscript is done) is writing modules for an online history survey class, which at least has the advantage of being discipline specific. Indeed, I will likely post more on that here than I have been lately.

Maybe I’ll even go back to history blogging…

Posted by Jonathan Rees in History, Technology, Writing, 0 comments

My favorite part is the Edgar Allen Poe joke.

Maybe the Atlantic will let me write about education issues for them some day, but until then there’s this essay about my love for refrigerator magnets (featuring an appearance by my actual fridge).

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Personal, Publications, Writing, 0 comments

Happy MOOC Year (or maybe not)!

While most people spend the start of the New Year looking forward, I’ve been looking back at my old MOOC posts today, trying to think of something new to say for the book chapter that I’m drafting.  Luckily for me, there have been a few good MOOC-y (or at least MOOC-ish) posts showing up in my Twitter feed lately that have helped get all those happy, happy memories flowing.

Apparently, David Wiley and I are re-reading David Noble at the same time.  However, I think he’s using the original articles and I have the published book, Digital Diploma Mills, permanently perched on top of my desk with a bunch of Post-Its popping out of the edges. I think the differences between the two texts are minimal, but this still confuses me:

I use these quotes to further reinforce the point that there really is very little difference between traditional online courses and MOOCs. What difference there is – the free auditing difference, with its accompanying brand inversion – is a very small delta, but one that moves the field significantly closer to the state that Noble foresaw over 15 years ago. If anything, Noble’s old warnings about online courses are even more important now than they were in 1998.

I agree that Noble’s old warnings about online courses are even more important than they were in 1998, but how those warnings prove that there is no difference between MOOCs and traditional online courses totally eludes me.

The giant, obvious, glaring difference between MOOCs and traditional online courses is scale.  In a traditional online course, particular back in the last century when there were far fewer online students, it was possible for a single professor to supervise the learning of an entire class.  In the MOOC age, students have to win raffles in order to get join a Google Hangout with the superstar they know only from video.  As online education has matured, some such courses have gotten much better than what Noble described. Others have gotten much worse.  MOOCs, on the other hand, have to function on the “you’re on your own” kid pedagogical model – otherwise they wouldn’t be MOOCs.

Or at least xMOOCs.  Daniel Lemire takes us back to the difference between cMOOCs and xMOOCs in explaining why MOOCs are probably doomed.  Without the interaction between professors and students, universities with MOOCs are simply pushing content. As Lemire describes it:

What colleges do not do, at least on campus, is to make money off course content. As it is, you can easily order all the textbooks you could possibly read on Amazon. You can join discussion groups about them. You sneak into lectures, or find tons of them online. There is simply little value in the course content.

Do not believe me? Run the following experiment. Make all courses tuition free. Students can enrol for free and if they pass the exam, they get the credit. However, they must pay $20 for each hour of lecture they choose to attend. You know what is going to happen? Nobody but the instructor will show up. How do I know? Because, as it is, with free lectures once you have enrolled in a class, most students never show up for class unless they are compelled to do so. Why would anyone think that it is going to be somehow different with pre-recorded lectures online? You know, the lectures colleges like so much? The truth is that there is only value at the margin for course content.

Not only that, contrary to what Koller et. al. tell us at every opportunity, plenty of college professors never lecture at all.  It’s as if they think they can create an entire college education made up entirely of survey courses.  That’s like trying to understand American cuisine by only eating fast food.

Of course I still hope Lemire is right about MOOCs being doomed, but what if the MOOC purveyors succeed in redefining education as nothing but selling content?  Here’s the disruptors’ playbook as summarized by a report out of the University of Denver called Unsettling Times: Higher Education in an Era of Change:

While a disruptive technology may not perform as well as established products or services, the new, less expensive innovation is “good enough” for those in markets that have been ignored or priced out of mainstream providers. Over time, however, the quality of the innovation improves and it becomes more broadly accepted.

Online education, delivered by respectable institutions, has indeed improved and become more broadly accepted as a result. I’m not saying it’s all good, but it’s certainly not all bad either.

MOOCs (or at least xMOOCs), on the other hand, can never improve because of the scale at which they are conducted.  Superprofessors will not suddenly clone themselves so that they can be there to help everyone in need of help.  Universities will not reach out to troubled students at risk of leaving their MOOCs because those students simply stop logging in to watch the lectures.  They have no skin in the game, and should they be asked to provide that skin the number of students involved will hardly be massive anymore. At that point, your MOOC becomes nothing but a conventional online course and if the total number of students involved is higher than what one professor can follow it probably isn’t a good one.

Those of you have read all (or even most) of the posts that I’ve written about MOOCs have seen me constantly vacillate between optimism and despair as to whether the kind of education that I’ve invested my career into will ever be “disrupted.” Sometimes I’m optimistic that the students will never accept higher education on autopilot. Sometimes I’m convinced that administrators only care about money and our students only really care about getting a degree so therefore we’re all doomed.

Looking back on what I’ve written, this is the best I can do now with respect to offering everyone something new: This issue is too important to leave to chance. Every professor, online or in-person, needs to make it abundantly clear what they bring to the table when they’re doing their job.  That list should include, experience, insight, knowledge and inspiration, among other traits.

Without those things, education will become a chore and fewer students will succeed.  When potential students see what’s headed down the road at them and opt not to pay tuition in the first place, then the real disruption will begin and faculty will not be the only ones getting disrupted.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, MOOCs, Writing, 7 comments

Mind the gap.

Yesterday was a pretty good day for two reasons: 1) I learned that the first Trader Joe’s has opened in Colorado Springs. 2) I went to see Jad Abumrad speak at Colorado College last night.*

Being the public radio groupie that I am, I could explain in excruciating detail why his speech was awesome, but I don’t really feel like doing that. Maybe it’s all the extra work. Maybe it’s something else. Either way, Jad played this video of another public radio fixture, Ira Glass, and I’ll be damned if this isn’t one of the most profound things that I’ve heard:

Hope this helps you the way it has helped me already.

* If by some chance you don’t know who Jad Abumrad is, then for heaven’s sake click here. If you need a starting point, I could tell from listening to him that this episode is clearly one of Jad’s favorites.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Personal, Writing, 0 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Publications, Writing, 1 comment