Superprofessors: Not actually all that super.

I have come to regret my frequent use of the word “superprofessor.” Sure, it’s fun to disaggregate it: “Super-” means over. “Super-” means superior. And in a sense that always made me giggle, “super-” means powerful. Like Superman. But I am afraid that superprofessors are in fact a lot closer to nine stone weaklings with knobbly knees. And if they do have some power, they have power in the sense that Coca-Cola has brand power. In other words, they have the power that other people choose to place in them, rather than power that they can actually wield themselves.

Take the case of Paul-Olivier Dehaye. Who? Does #massiveteaching ring a bell?  Like my good friend Kate, I’ve been chatting with him lately over the Inter-tubes.  I’m certainly not going to talk about what’s in those conversations, but I can tell you that the public comment that he made on the Academe blog (and which I quote here with his foreknowledge and permission) sounds a lot more like the actual guy than the image you got from all those crazy stories a few months ago:

Over the past year I have been repeatedly confronted with the fact that _reportedly_ non-STEM scholars did not have enough understanding of technology to make informed decisions about MOOCs. In some ways I felt a responsibility to act, knew the road was uphill, but was ready to take it because I thought the issue was important. With limited options, I have tried to scientifically assert facts, basically by living them so I would be able to reshare this experience later. This meant teaching a MOOC about MOOC platforms and contracts on Coursera, that would intentionally test many of the limits imposed by Coursera on the MOOC format itself and its content.

Back in June/July (before Salaita), very aware of Sokal, a succession of events has led me to intentionally tweet nonsense (while hiding targeted sensical tweets to expected allies among this otherwise intentionally confusing stream). I never made a reference to Sokal, and that aspect seems to have been lost by everyone in the bubble of people who have looked at the debacle around my course.

This is a pity since at some point I did have to keep my bravado in check, faced with serious personal legal risks (i.e. I had to shut up). In retrospect, I chickened out too soon: while initially there was some promising support, without any concrete mean to defend myself the tide quickly turned into uninformed speculation.

A pity indeed. To summarize: Superprofessor wants to cover stuff in MOOC that MOOC provider doesn’t want covered. Superprofessor quickly loses control of situation. Superprofessor not that super anymore. I, and all of us who care about academic freedom, should have been more sympathetic to Dehaye’s plight from the beginning – but then again most of us will never have our own MOOCs.

Unfortunately, it strikes me that too many people who do have their own MOOCs actually do act as if they are superprofessors. A bunch of the folks quoted in this story from the Harvard Political Review seem to fit that characterization well:

“These courses are not a substitute for face-to-face education,” [Leonard] Muellner, [Professor of Classical Studies at Brandeis University] told the HPR, describing how the large number of participants prevents instructors from providing personalized responses to assignments.

You can say that until you’re blue-in-the-face, but that won’t do anything to stop some unscrupulous university from doing precisely that if they choose to license your output from edX. Once you cast your MOOC upon the waters, you have no idea where it might land. Who among us thinks that your MOOC content, (you know, that stuff which takes twenty people to create) reverts to the professor once it’s done? Not. Gonna. Happen.

Then there’s the question of goals and priorities. Here’s another from that HPR story:

MOOCs also allow researchers and instructors to improve education in a broader sense. “It’s a great learning laboratory,” [Michael] Parker, [an Assistant Professor of Medicine and the Faculty Director of Online Learning for External Education at Harvard Medical School] told the HPR. “The fact that you can continually make changes and collect data on these changes” means that you can “refine in a much tighter feedback loop.” In this way, MOOCs allow researchers to quickly amass data on how decreasing video lengths affects dropout rates, or whether incorporating assessment questions during videos affects participation.

Compare that to this summary of a quote from Coursera’s Daphne Koller:

This morning at Disrupt SF, Coursera’s president Daphne Koller pushed back against the notion that her company is a for-profit education company: In her view, Coursera is instead a for-profit technology company.

The story that Dehaye commented upon was about the two cultures of academia. What’s gonna happen in the cultural struggle when EITHER of those culture’s goes up against the culture of Silicon Valley? Whose interests are going to be served first?

At the very least, the interest of education will inevitably fall down the list of priorities several notches. When that happens, no superprofessor will be able to come to its rescue, and we will all be worse off as a result.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. anonymous

    ” In this way, MOOCs allow researchers to quickly amass data on how decreasing video lengths affects dropout rates, or whether incorporating assessment questions during videos affects participation.”

    This side of the MOOC world has always freaked me out: the number of Education Profs who seem to think it’s a gold rush that knows no IRB standards and suddenly makes them Big Data kingpins. The question never gets asked so let me ask it:

    Is learning how to get students to watch videos longer worth the cost to human privacy of studying their every educational action on a micro level?

    And by ‘worth’ I do no mean, can we monetize that information? I mean, do the educational benefits to the students and society outweigh the costs? And while we’re at it: who gets to decide? Shouldn’t the fact that students are more the object than the subject of these classes — in that the real excitement increasingly seems to come from studying them, not what they study — be advertised like a cigarette warning?

    1. Now if you look carefully at the parallels between your question and those asked in the context of the Facebook emotion manipulation experiment, you know exactly why my MOOC got derailed.

      It’s not quite as you say: education professors at good institutions are still bound by IRBs, but they still benefit from research conducted outside of academia. Still, they are heavily pressured to compete when experimenting on humans, and some are definitely cutting corners.

      Small corners maybe, but we know how erosion works.

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