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.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Mark Curcher

    Great post. I agree with so much of what you write here and look forward to the reading the book.
    From this post and the description it looks like a book that I have also been feeling needs to be written. Also happy to write a review.

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