The rhythm of the classroom.

“There’s a tsunami coming,” President John Hennessy of Stanford University told the New Yorker in 2012. That presumably explains his efforts to keep his university at the forefront of the edtech revolution since it is better to ride a wave than to be submerged under it.

Elsewhere, Hennessy has been much more specific about what happens when this wave hits. At a 2012 forum on “Higher Education in the Digital Age,” Hennessy declared the public university model untenable. Therefore, he told that gathering, “You have to blow up the system.” More importantly for purposes of this analysis, if you check his published comments from that forum, you’ll see that Hennessy told that gathering, “faculties will shrink as technologies grow.”

These days, with the MOOC revolution now looking significantly less revolutionary, Hennessy has seemingly changed his tune. This is from Inside Higher Ed just a week or so ago:

Repeatedly in his talk, Hennessy talked about the importance of the faculty role in instruction, and he acknowledged that there are senior-level “high touch” courses that faculty members should lead, in part with time saved from doing the lectures for introductory courses.

All of the technology, he said, would help “only with intense collaboration of faculty who touch the lives of our students every single day.”

That sounds great, right? They can’t do away with faculty if faculty are your collaborators. Let me remind everybody that before all this education technology came along, your administrators would never have dreamed of telling faculty how they should teach their classes.

In other words, the glass isn’t half full. It’s half empty, and leaking all the time. Things have gotten so bad that someone like Hennessy who merely addresses structural changes to higher education in the passive voice rather than cackling with glee while predicting imminent doom for everybody who’s not on the bus already can now try to pass himself off as a faculty ally.

I. Bad Cops.

If Hennessy somehow gets to be good cop, then Kevin Carey is bad cop extraordinaire. If you want some fun, go read Mills Kelly’s Twitter timeline from about here towards the present for about seven or eight tweets.  He absolutely shreds Carey for even implying that the end of college will somehow have a democratizing effect.  The techno-fetishist future of a university that runs almost by itself is really just a fig leaf for cutting off access to actual education for everyone else.  It’s every man or woman for themselves.  Board the train before it leaves the station or get left behind.  What’s new now is that the edtech company’s vision is now being spouted by people inside the system.

I can certainly see why this particular excerpt from Carey’s book set Kelly off.  Of all the excerpts of that book to appear in print, this is the one that most made me want to lose my lunch.  For example:

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, offered by dozens of elite colleges give students a chance to prove that they’re ready for a university — and in turn, the institution gets an accurate measure of whether a student is prepared for its academics, helping refine what is quite an imprecise science.

Accurate?  Really?  Now nobody hates standardized tests more than I do, but the notion that the ability to master a MOOC demonstrates college readiness assumes that teachers don’t exist. After all, the winners of this potential MOOC lottery have already shown that they can fend for themselves. Why would they need more help after they’re admitted? Yet it gets worse. Much worse:

These are not watered-down classes. I took a genetics course through MITx, the university’s branch of edX. It was the same class taught to freshmen in Cambridge, Mass. — the same lectures, homework assignments, midterms and final exam. MOOC success is much more likely to predict success in college classes than SAT scores, because MOOC success is, in fact, success in college classes.

Leaving Carey’s obvious ego problems out of this, that’s only if you think that all college classes are designed by teams of nineteen – including one overwhelmed, overburdened super-professor willing to give up their traditional prerogatives for a single shot at stardom.

Here’s hoping that the rest of my profession has other ideas.

II. Give Up Without a Fight?

Faced with Carey’s vision of a university that goes by itself, will most faculty lay down and die without a peep?  This is, of course, exactly what the disruptors want, as this piece from Fast Company suggests:

“Most professions can point to dramatic changes in the way they work, thanks to technological innovations, but teaching still looks and feels an awful lot like it did when today’s teachers were themselves students,” says [Joe] Williams [Executive Director of Democrats for Education Reform]. “It is starting to change, but it has been incredibly slow.”

Of course, he means secondary school teaching but that argument could slip right into the techno-fetishist critique of higher education too. Teachers must change because change is inevitable. Under this way of thinking, self preservation is inherently conservative. Who cares if it also happens to work towards most people’s best interests?

Writing about Nick Carr’s The Glass Cage in The Baffler, Evgeny Morozov gets to the heart of the problem that all tech criticism faces:

That radical critique of technology in America has come to a halt is in no way surprising: it could only be as strong as the emancipatory political vision to which it is attached. No vision, no critique. Lacking any idea of how sensors, algorithms, and databanks could be deployed to serve a non-neoliberal agenda, radical technology critics face an unenviable choice: they can either stick with the empirical project of documenting various sides of American decay (e.g., revealing the power of telecom lobbyists or the data addiction of the NSA) or they can show how the rosy rhetoric of Silicon Valley does not match up with reality (thus continuing to debunk the New Economy bubble). Much of this is helpful, but the practice quickly encounters diminishing returns. After all, the decay is well known, and Silicon Valley’s bullshit empire is impervious to critique.

So do we give in to the inevitable without a fight? Hell no.

I think the key to combating the techno-fetishist vision of the future of higher education is not to try to make tech more education friendly. The key to combating the techno-fetishist vision of the future of higher education is to make sure that the people who control the technology know a lot more than the slightest thing about actual education. That means establishing a labor-oriented, shopfloor-based critique of the techno-fetishist vision, one that would benefit students and professors alike.

III. “I Won’t Back Down.”

I’ve made a David Montgomery-inspired shopfloor critique of education technology several times before on this blog (and my last one). The great irony of this is that I’ve always been much more synpathetic to Herbert Gutman’s E.P Thompson-inspired version of labor history than David Montgomery’s more conventional kind. If educational technology isn’t a threat to the culture of higher education, then I don’t know what is.

Rather than find some nice novel, I picked Sven Beckert’s history of the global cotton trade as my Spring Break reading. While he’s far from a labor historian, he does a great job making a Gutman-esque argument on page 179 of this tour de force:

[In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries] [t]he rhythm of work was determined by many things–by the climate, by custom, by the cycles of nature–but not by machines…The new world of making yarns and cloth, as one of the innumerable cogs in the empire of cotton, was utterly, fundamentally different. Cotton manufacturing rested on the ability to persuade or entice or force people to give up the activities that had organized human life for centuries and join the newly emerging factory proletariat. Though the machines themselves were stunning and world altering, this shift in the rhythm of work would be even more consequential.

Think it’s bad when your students expect you to return their e-mails instantly? Go talk to an online instructor about what it’s like when all your students expect you to be on call 24/7. Do you know that feeling of dread you get when the dashboard on your LMS changes for no apparent reason? Think what happens when your university contracts with Coursera for the content of your course and they decide to change the lectures to keep them fresh.

The whole idea of going to college in your pajamas came about as a result of a workforce that’s totally beholden to the irregular, unhealthy time demands of modern industrial capitalism.  Online education by extension forces those rhythms on professors, regardless of the effects they have upon actual education.

Your courses need to stay yours because you teach better than a machine can, but they also need to stay yours otherwise you won’t want to teach at all.  I certainly don’t want to work at a pace set by machines. Do you? Avoiding this kind of crap is exactly why I went into academia in the first place.

I saw a commercial for a financial planner while watching The Wonder List last night. This woman goes to her boss and announces that she’s retiring – effective fifteen years from now. If John Hennessy and Kevin Carey eventually win this very important argument, then I am too. I don’t want to be teach anymore if people can no longer tell the difference between successful content transmission and actual learning.

I know what’s right. I got just one life. In a world that keeps on pushing me around I’ll stand my ground.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Doug didier

    Been hoping for AP MOOC On history. Don’t know if it’s broken down.. I.e. Different tests for western history, world history, american history . The ones on other subjects are pretty complete. It’s hard to believe that high school students are at that level of proficiency ..

  2. Sporch Ezza

    For American history, why not read American Yawp instead of waiting for a MOOC?

  3. Doug didier

    Hmm.. Interesting project.. Website said intent entire was to improve the textbook every year, based on feedback etc.. Next year audio/visuals. I emailed one of the two professors at the top of the project, 350 professors are contributing, that Eric Foner had open sourced his lectures in his three MOOCS, going from Coursera to eDx to do so.. This was his last year and he wanted to give as a gift to further education. So he’s going to look into it.

    Way of the future, world class lectures, and world class textbook to support, with continuous improvement..

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