How long will your course remain yours?

I am a fundamentally lazy person. That’s a heckuva thing to admit in public, but really all it means is that if I don’t like what I’m working on I get bored very fast. Please don’t take me off your blogrolls Paul or John, but my least favorite subject in my whole discipline is American religious history. Of course, it’s also incredibly important, so back when I taught the first half of the American survey I had to address it repeatedly. These days, I teach the second half every semester not just because religion comes up far less often, but because I do a better job teaching material I know better and enjoy more. I also happen to think that this makes me a better teacher.

This fact about myself explains a lot about why I trained in labor history. I have nothing but respect for people who do the kinds of jobs that I never wanted to do, so I wanted to learn about their lives. How do they make it through the day? Where does their mind go when they get bored? Do they even have the luxury to ever get bored? How do they really feel about their bosses? This also explains my interest in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century industrial history because I wanted to understand how craft workers felt as their once-interesting jobs got pulled out from under them.

All this is why I’m scared about the prospect of having the same thing happen to professors everywhere.

I. The Many-Headed Hydra.

Let’s talk about MOOCs. What’s that you say? MOOCs are yesterday’s news? Since I’m not named Daphne Koller or Sebastian Thrun, I tend to agree with that assessment. However, I’m afraid that even if you can take the MOOC out of the university, you can’t take the ideology that made MOOC Mania possible out of the university without holding some kind of exorcism.

My jumping off point for this post is #massiveteaching. I mentioned before that I’ve been Twitter-chatting with Paul Olivier-Dehaye, the superprofessor involved with that particular MOOC debacle. A few days ago, he posted an open letter to his students that finally explained his side of that story in terms that anybody can understand:

In the wake of the Facebook experiment it led me to cast an even more critical eye on the handling of your data, and to judge to the best of my ability that no proper procedures were in place. In fact, I could not rule out that I myself was party of an experiment without giving any informed consent.

This is the reason why I pulled content: academia and civil society need to have a global debate on the issue of data mining of students, for both commercial and research purposes. Regulations differ widely across the world, and creative but morally dubious solutions are being found. However much I would have liked, my course was not the proper place to initiate that debate since I am not qualified: the setting of a course on a commercial platform was too risky for me from a legal standpoint to even express doubts.

For this reason, I resolved to pull out the videos, and simplify the forum to the maximum, to just one thread. Both my university and Coursera were surprised, and reinstated content.

As the author of a post entitled “Dear Superprofessors: Your MOOC isn’t yours,” I am not surprised at all by this. Indeed, I think Dehaye was being more than a bit naive to think that he had the power to do anything with respect to that course without consulting Coursera first.

Nevertheless, I think anybody who thinks that these kinds of issues don’t apply to them because they aren’t teaching a MOOC is being equally naive, if not more so. After all, the kinds of intellectual property issues that Chris Newfield describes here can apply just as easily to any kind of online course. Moreover, they can also apply to any kind of course that is contains any online component, which explains my recent obsession with mandatory LMS use.

Imagine a bridge. You’re on one side. Your students are on another. There’s a large troll under the bridge that can hear everything you shout to your students on the other side and is ready to eat you at a moment’s notice.  You see another bridge across the river in the distance and you want to cross there, but that’s when your associate dean taps you on the shoulder and says, “We have a contract with that troll that says you have no choice but to cross there.”

What are you gonna do?

II. Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom.

You may think that troll was your typical MOOC provider and you’d be right, but that troll could just as well be your LMS provider or just about any other edtech company with which your school contracts.  There’s a reason that so few of them try to win over individual professors to use their services. Professors who care can find cheap or even free technologies on the open Internet to do the things they want to do in their classes. Administrators, on the other hand, usually know very little about education technology and are willing to lock their universities into expensive contracts just to demonstrate that they are taking the initiative to combat largely nonexistent problems.

Mike Caulfield has something of the Ur-post up about this issue up right now, which is the text from one of his speeches. Here’s the part that I think is most worthy of discussion (and, yes, I’ve also borrowed Mike’s picture):

Many face-to-face classes are good, but so many are not. There are an awful lot of classes which have no empirical basis for the way they are designed whatsoever. And even where they are good, the experience can be so disconnected that the most flexible of students feels a bit overwhelmed.

At the same time, the online world is moving in. This is a world where many design methodologies came out of the military, a world comfortable talking about courses as reproducible experiences, suitable for mass manufacture at a zero marginal cost. And they are bringing in something that looks like this:

image007And I think a lot of administrators are frankly relieved about this, because as more and more education moves online, the idea is that we can bulldoze our strip-mall exburban eyesore and replace it with something centrally managed and controlled.  And courses will be delivered as these closed, feature complete products, designed by the experts — us, the instructional designers.

Yay, us.

And the feeling I get is in this massive battle that’s about to happen you are expected to be either for design anarchy or for Big Design’s waterfall process.

Mike supports somewhere in the middle between big, top-down design and course design anarchy. Me? I’m on team anarchy all the way.

For one thing, just because there hasn’t been a scientific test done on somebody’s course doesn’t necessarily make it bad. Individual professors have different teaching styles just like individual students have different learning styles. Like me, I think most professors teach better when they control what material they teach as well as how to teach it. If somebody is making bad pedagogical decisions, then the intervention can be made at the level of the individual classroom – not by limiting every professor’s academic freedom.

I once heard the President of an all-online college brag that all of the web sites at their university used the exact same template. The justification for this was that this made it easier for students to navigate. Not only does the World Wide Web not work this way, LIFE doesn’t work this way. Indeed, I beginning to think that the whole purpose of online education is to suck the life (pun intended) out of the instructional process. That doesn’t mean that some of the really, really good online instructors that I know can’t make a seemingly dead instructional vehicle come alive, but nobody can do that if all of their traditional prerogative as teachers are tied behind their backs.

III. “I Told Them We Already Got One.”:

I realize that this must seem like lunacy to some people. How can you possibly let bad teachers keep teaching badly? For one thing, I don’t believe that the failure of any person to adhere to whatever the current expectations of what course design is supposed to be constitutes bad teaching.

And here’s a shocking position for an historian: just because the old ways are old, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad. Mike compares the current course design situation to urban sprawl (to be fair, he’s not advocating for communist-style tenement blocks either), but I happen to think that urban sprawl can be beautiful.

So what’s the best way to make sure that your idea of aesthetics gets respected? At Vitae, I’ve compared the answer to that question to learning to drive the tractor that plows over your land, but that still raises the question of how are you going to get them to let you drive the tractor?

Tell them you already got one.

You say there’s a MOOC that will allow you to bring the best professors in the world into your classroom? Well, I have this thing called YouTube that allows me to bring not just the best professors in the world into my classroom, but tape of just about everything else ever recorded. And it’s free! You says there’s this learning management system that helps me with all the things I need to run my class? Well, I’ve got this thing called WordPress and Google and…well, you get the idea. [Talk to Laura Gibbs if you want a more comprehensive list.]

Is this argument going to work? I’m not sure. I guess that depends upon how eager your administration is at displacing you from your traditional prerogatives, but honestly I think most of them see online education as their Holy Grail precisely because they think that such a thing is possible. Bryan Alexander just brought up a speech that the embattled president of the University of Texas, William Powers, gave that should give us all chills:

American higher education has been de-tenuring itself, that is, unleveraging itself, for the last 20 years. My point here is that we need to do this in a purposeful way that is aligned with our large-scale teaching and research goals in ever more detailed ways… [emphasis added]

Alexander calls this de-tenuring, but I don’t think that’s quite right. I think what Powers is actually proposing is to make an end run around traditional faculty which would include moving more classes online. Yes, this would include hiring more adjuncts, but I actually think this is more about control than it is about cost.

What happens if our employers won’t abandon this fight for control over our courses? Well, if any of my arguments here fail you can always dump (metaphorical) garbage on their heads until they get frustrated and go away. After all, we faculty control the moral high ground.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Sherman Dorn


    I think there are at least three or four intertwined issues here.

    1) The relationship between supporting structure and faculty judgment. As someone who has taught handcrafted online courses a few times, I can attest to the value of advice from very good instructional designers on how students work (or don’t work) online. So I understand the motivation behind the Quality Matters stuff. It really can help both faculty and students. At the same time, I also bristle at the boxes in which QM and other self-anointed “standards” issuers want to squeeze faculty.

    What I don’t have is an easy balance (and perhaps that’s not a good idea). But I do know that at some level, chaos is not in the interests of students. At some level, while life is messy and chaotic, do we really want students to be navigating the equivalent of IRS and ICE forms just to finish a course? I think it was Tom Scheinfeldt (or maybe Mills Kelly) who said that he assigned non-LMS systems for courses that involved digital history content because no graduate uses an LMS after they graduate. That’s not quite correct (LMS-like things exist outside colleges and universities), but I do see the argument for pushing students to explore technological systems where that requirement is clearly tied to pedagogical goals. On the other hand, I’m not sure there’s a reason to make students navigate 3-4 systems in a semester if that is unconnected to what they’re learning in their courses.

    2) Faculty intellectual property. I’ve worked in a university with a pretty strong collective bargaining agreement from an IP standpoint, where faculty owned the materials they developed for courses. I’m currently working in a university where the governing board makes no claims on written scholarship, for the most part, but where teaching materials are work-for-hire. FWIW, I don’t think it makes sense for academic administrators to try to keep using older materials precisely because of the chaos you argued for and because so much teaching material is obsolete within a few months. If a university’s anaesthesia best-practices class is essential taken completely from what a faculty member who retired five years ago did, I wouldn’t want to be in the care of any graduate of that college of medicine.

    3) Developing courses for yourself or for colleagues. Jen Ebbeler (UT Austin, classics) makes a reasonable argument that there is an honorable role for a faculty member in designing courses not primarily for herself but mostly for colleagues who teach the course. Essentially, this is what happens with program development — the setting of requirements that then govern faculty who are hired later — except at the course level. My friend Roy Weatherford observed many years ago that the principles of academic freedom don’t easily resolve the potential contradictions between group faculty decisions and individual faculty judgment, and I think that applies here. In most cases, developing courses for others can be a productive role. In some cases, the decisions won’t work, and where that line is … well, I don’t know in abstract, or more importantly who owns that dividing line.

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