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.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. For my point of view on what happened in the course, see instead

    When that IHE article was written, I was not able to answer questions from journalists (due to disciplinary procedure and legal threats) or from students (At least not 100%, because of an NDA).

    This was a messy time for me, and in retrospect I wish I had disengaged myself from my course like Richard McKenzie did from his:

    His statement “Because of disagreements over how to best conduct this course, I’ve agreed to disengage from it, with regret” looks like something that was mutually agreeable to Irvine and him., but that other officials (Dean of Education, Koller@coursera) then pile up blame on him.

    I remark that he is now suing Coursera and his own Dean:

    1. Jonathan Rees

      1. Thanks for this. I always thought the tweet that IHE used at that link makes all the sense in the world, but the world deserves to hear from you directly.

      2. Whoa! Superprofessor sues Coursera and his own Dean???!!! Where is the IHE, the Chronicle, etc. when you need them?

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