“Nothing is over until we decide it is!”

This afternoon, I got into a Twitter conversation with Mike Caulfield:


Read the whole exchange and it may look like an argument, but I’ve actually met Mike before so I felt comfortable joking around. [Plus, I just really wanted to make a Bluto reference.] In fact, I mostly agree with his original point about MOOCs being hard to kill (sort of like Little Shop of Horrors, if you ask me). So what I thought I’d do here (as they say in Congress) is revise and extend my remarks.

I. MOOCs Are Dead. Long Live MOOCs.

I’d sure like to credit the anti-MOOC movement with killing MOOCs. Unfortunately, I think they collapsed of their own weight. I still remember the first time I ever read about a MOOC. This was before Coursera. Before Udacity. [It was after those very nice Canadian people were doing their stuff, but I hadn’t heard of them yet.] I said to myself, “No way this is going to work!” Several thousand college professors probably said the same thing to themselves at the same time. That’s why I think everybody was so nasty to Sebastian Thrun when he spoke the truth to Fast Company. We were thinking, “Why didn’t you ask me first? I could have saved you a fortune.”

But, of course, Udacity is still with us. They have that program at Georgia Tech and they have all those corporations that may or not want to let them do their professional development via MOOC, whether that development is any good or not. In fact a recent study (that I don’t have the funds or the patience to read) suggests that the instructional quality of many MOOCs is low.

Of course, commercial MOOCs aren’t really about the education, you know. They’re about delivering a minimally acceptable product at the lowest possible price* so that private companies could pocket the difference, much of which would have come from the salaries of the people universities would have fired and replaced with superprofessors. I hate to go all David Montgomery on y’all, but it’s really all about control of the shop floor. MOOCs were supposed to be a way to wrest control of the classroom from professors by moving it all to the cloud. Now, there are ways you can move college instruction online for the sake of education (take cMOOCs, for example), but this wasn’t about education. It wasn’t about educating people in lesser-developed countries either. This was about power.

So how do you wield that power if all you have is a very dull weapon? According to Clayton Christensen (and as usual, a co-author) in a pay-walled Chronicle article, you simplify, simplify, simplify:

There appears to be a good lesson here for colleges challenged by would-be disrupters: Take whatever technology and tools are available and use them to organize tightly around a job to be done, to forestall—or prevent—disruption. With the mind-set of focusing on a specific job, it doesn’t matter what new technologies emerge. If a technology can help a college do the job that it has chosen, then it should be able to make changes accordingly and seamlessly. If the technology is not useful to doing the job, then a college can ignore it.

Since MOOCs, like giant, ungainly ocean liners don’t turn around very easily, MOOC providers and the administrators they love can break them up into pieces and see how that goes over.

II. The other unbundling.

If you haven’t noticed, I’ve gotten away from day-to-day MOOC blogging. Even reading these stories can be just so exhausting to me now. So what I usually do is save MOOC stories to my Instapaper account and read them later when I’m less sick of edtech issues. While I keep wanting to believe that there’s nothing new under the sun, if you’ve read as much about MOOCs as I have you still find little things worth noting.

My first reaction to this story on the PBS NewsHour was “yawn.” Yet Anant Agarwal does say something kind of new about three or four minutes into this story (my transcription throughout):

“It [meaning MOOCs] doesn’t replace the campus. We really believe that ultimately. We ultimately believe that the right model for learning is a blended model, where you blend the best of online and the best of in person. Students watch the videos and the y do a lot of interactive exercises online and then they work in groups with the professor and the professor will answer questions and help the students and really help them learn the material.”

Wait a second? That doesn’t sound particularly disruptive. How’s that gonna put all those inefficient colleges out of business in fifty years? Congratulate yourself, anti-MOOC movement on helping to get Anant Agarwal to lower his previously very high expectations. But don’t let down your collective guard.

Some of your colleagues have yet to hear that MOOCs are dead. Some of them are even trying to take them off life support. For example, PBS NewsHour found a biology professor who thinks letting other people do his content providing for him is the bomb. Brian White from UMass Boston, who got to “add his own materials and spliced EdX content to best fit his course,” told the reporter:

“I used the MOOC’s lectures to show the students what they needed to do to come to class prepared, and then in class, rather than just telling them the information, what I was able to do is take them the next step. Show them how to use it, fill in any cracks, deal with student’s individual issues.”

Awesome, but what if your administrators decide they don’t want to pay you to do this when they can find graduate students to do the same thing? What if you teach US History instead of biology and the content you might choose to provide varies significantly than the content in the MOOC that your university licensed from edX? And perhaps most importantly, what if (God forbid) you prefer, even in your introductory courses, not to focus on any particular content at all? What if you’d rather teach skills?

That’s why MOOCs, like so much of educational technology in general, are soon to become a really important academic freedom issue.

III. “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”

We all know what’s been happening to academic freedom lately. My Twitter feed is a cavalcade of horror stories that I prefer not to link to here because so terribly depressing. But you’re not worried. You don’t make statements that some people find uncivil on Twitter, do you? But you do teach the way you want to I bet. How long do you think that will last when there’s edtech profits to be made?

If we don’t get universities to consider the traditional prerogatives of faculty when edtech is the issue, the academic freedom of nearly every last one of us will be at stake. The result of that will be a substantial drop in the quality of higher education. As this a guy from Drexel explains here:

Academic units need the ability to select (and fund) the applications and even devices they will use in their specific teaching and learning environments. Their students, faculty and administrators are better served if these can match their specific academic and departmental needs.

One-size-fits-all is seldom, if ever, the best approach in academia. It doesn’t work with pedagogy, it doesn’t work with classroom or lab spaces and it doesn’t work with textbooks or content — so why would it work with IT?

Yeah! Now let’s tell that to the commercial LMS providers of the world! But I’m getting distracted here…

What does the worst-case-scenario look like for the powerless-but-not-fired professor of the future look like? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you (for like the third time in a week) Minerva, as discussed in the Atlantic:

The pedagogical best practices Kosslyn has identified have been programmed into the Minerva platform so that they are easy for professors to apply. They are not only easy, in fact, but also compulsory, and professors will be trained intensively in how to use the platform.

Compulsory edtech? What if it stinks? Too bad, you’re elite professorial tush is working in the for-profit sector now:

I asked him whether, at Harvard and Stanford, he attempted to apply any of the lessons of psychology in the classroom. He told me he could have alerted colleagues to best practices, but they most likely would have ignored them. “The classroom time is theirs, and it is sacrosanct,” he says. The very thought that he might be able to impose his own order on it was laughable. Professors, especially tenured ones at places like Harvard, answer to nobody.

It occurred to me that Kosslyn was living the dream of every university administrator who has watched professors mulishly defy even the most reasonable directives. Kosslyn had powers literally no one at Harvard—even the president—had. He could tell people what to do, and they had to do it.

[Emphasis added]

I’ve come to believe that the struggle over MOOCs was just the first skirmish in an ongoing conflict to prevent technology from making this kind of power structure the new normal at universities everywhere. I also think that any faculty member in any discipline who cares about the quality of higher education needs to resist this nightmare scenario at all costs.

Who’s with me?

* What’s that you say? MOOCs are open? Are you kidding me? Everybody knew that was just a teaser from the beginning.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

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