Where was I? Oh yeah, MOOCs

Slowly but surly (surly but slowly?), the MOOC book project I’ve been working on continues. I don’t want to jinx it by saying too much, but I am hoping to finish a manuscript by late summer/early fall fall/early winter, which I think is completely possible since I have a “Faculty Research Fellowship” from EMU coming up. This means that I’m not teaching this fall, which is probably a good thing for me with all this nonsense about equivalencies.

I wrote about this a bit last year here and also here, and I am sure it will come up again. I’ve always been pretty positive about Eastern as a place to work (albeit a place that has always had problems), but I have to say I feel like it’s kind of a dark time at EMU right now. If I were “new” here, I’d probably pay pretty close attention to what other positions are coming open. It all does make me contemplate what I really want to do for the last third or so of my career and/or working life. But that’s a different blog post.

But where was I? Oh yeah, MOOCs.

So MOOCs are still “a thing,” as they say, though they are no longer the kind of red-hot existential threat of a thing they were when Charlie Lowe and I were putting together Invasion of the MOOCs in 2013, let alone during the downturn/“Trough of Disillusionment” they were in when the book came out in early 2014. MOOCs have changed a lot, which actually kind of helps the argument I’m trying to make with the book I’m trying to write right now.

It seems to me that one of the biggest changes that has come about in the last year or so is the ways in which the discourse about MOOCs have been merging with/melding into other forms of online and/or distance education. For example, there’s the Handbook of Research on Writing and Composing in the Age of MOOCs edited by Elizabeth Monske and Kris Blair that came out late last year, which is as much about online instruction more generally as it is about MOOCs. (Not to brag too much, but a ton of the chapters in this book cite chapters from Invasion of the MOOCs, which was nice to see). Elizabeth Losh has an edited collection coming out later this month that I think will try to capture these shifts, MOOCs and Their Afterlives: Experiments in Scale and Access in Higher Education (and spoiler alert: I have a chapter in that collection). I think this sentence in the book blurb on Amazon gets at in terms of how MOOCs are changing: “The collection goes beyond MOOCs to cover variants such as hybrid or blended courses, SPOCs (Small Personalized Online Courses), and DOCCs (Distributed Open Collaborative Course).” That’s funny: I thought I was just teaching small online courses as part of my regular teaching at EMU for the last dozen or so years. Turns out I’ve been teaching SPOCs!

I think that was part of what was going on with some articles that came out recently about an experiment in MOOCs online courses at MIT. The headline in the Inside Higher Ed article, “For-Credit MOOC: The Best of Both Worlds at MIT?” is sort of understandable, but it wasn’t really a MOOC. Based on what I’ve read in the executive summary of the experiment, what was really going on here is there was a special online course within the MOOC structure for a course on Circuits and Electronics at MIT. Basically, a small group of students– it ended up being a total of 27 who finished– were allowed to take the course with the MOOC materials though in a decidedly not “Massive” format with lots and lots of attention. Among other things, these students had regular interactions with the course TA, weekly homework and lab assignments, and students who seemed to be lagging behind were encourage to complete the work via personal emails and/or to come to campus office hours.

In other words, these students took an online/quasi-hybrid course and it worked out well. Oops, I mean a SPOC. So clearly, one of the lessons learned here is the scale, the class cohort, and the support for that cohort beyond the MOOC content all make a big difference. But I’ll also say something I (and lots of others) have said before: one of the positive things to result from the rise/fall/leveling of MOOCs has been the realization by the “Flagship” universities in the US that online and/or hybrid courses (which have been offered at places like EMU for a long time now, of course) might not be such a bad idea after all.

But online courses are of course not the same thing as face to face courses. It’s about the affordances of the formats, and you’re mileage will vary in all kinds of important ways. That is kind of the conclusion of a study sponsored by the Brookings Institution, “Promises and pitfalls of online education.”  I’ve only read the executive summary (one of the reasons why I’m linking to it here is to read it later) and Inside Higher Ed had a good piece of various experts reacting to the study. The two basic takeaways I have right now (neither of which is exactly earth-shattering) are a) yes, online courses are not a “one size fits all” solution, and b) under-prepared or otherwise marginal students struggle in college and need a lot more attention to succeed.

(As a slight tangent: while I often disagree with him, I think Fredrik deBoer highlights the often ignored basic requirements people need for academic success, which has nothing to do with the medium or format of how we offer college courses and everything to do with the luck of our births. Those of us who had parents who went to college, who grew up middle-class, who don’t have some sort of cognitive or developmental disability, who weren’t exposed to lead or born premature, and who weren’t abused or neglected have a much better chance at being academically successful than those who didn’t have this luck. All of which is to say it’s a whole lot more complicated than a class being online or face to face.)

But where was I again? Oh yeah, MOOCs.

One of the things I want to do as I start wrapping up this project is to revisit how I became interested in MOOCs in the first place: I want to take a couple more MOOCs. I haven’t completely decided yet, but I am leaning toward two different approaches to MOOCs that have emerged in the last year or so and that are different from the MOOCs I took before. I’m interested in the MOOCs that are happening at edX in association with Arizona State– ASUx. I’m also planning on doing something different from what I did before by signing up for a self-paced course in something I know I am really quite bad at, College Algebra and Problem Solving. My lack of math skills is one of the main reasons why I ended up as an “English major” way back when. I could pay the “verified certificate” fee of $49 and then, if I pass the course with a “C” or better, I can pay $600 for the credit which is valid at ASU or, presumably, transferable to other universities. Since I don’t really need this course for anything, I think I’ll pass on that– though upon registering, I see I can “upgrade to verified” later on. And I’ll be curious if there are things built into the course to “motivate” me to keep going with it.

I’m also going to sign up for a Udacity course– not part of their “Nanodegrees” but something free. Udacity made a pretty hard shift really away from higher education to more of a training model a few years ago and in some level of partnership with various corporate partners. Take the Digital Marketer nanodegree, for example: this program is supposed to take 3 months to complete to (presumably) make you eligible for jobs with salary ranges between $42K and $182k a year, and it is offered in collaboration with Facebook, Google, Hootsuite, and others. Since the “full-immersion” nanodegree is $1000 and the “self-study” version of the program is $600, I don’t think I’ll be going there– though like I said, the way things are going at EMU, maybe it would be worth the investment.

Anyway, for now, I’ll stick with something for free that still might be useful for me, Intro to JavaScript. We’ll see where that (and a math class!) takes me.

 

Once again, the “International MOOC Colloquium: The MOOC Identity” (a conference recap)

I am writing this (or I at least started writing this) post while flying back from Italy where I was at the second conference I have attended in Anacapri in the last two years, the “International MOOC Colloquium: The MOOC Identity” sponsored by Federica Weblearning at the Universitá di Napoli Federico II (here’s a PDF of the program).  I of course didn’t have to do this on the plane, but a) because it’s the first day of classes, including for my online one, I thought it was worth it to to pay the money and do some teaching/worky-work stuff over the Atlantic and b) I wanted to do my best to stay as awake as possible to adjust to the time difference once we get home (more or less mission accomplished on that one).

Once again, I wondered why I was invited in the first place (pretty much the same reason as before, the Invasion of the MOOCs book and also because I was there last year), and once again I was one of only a few Americans (though also once again there were a few Canadians and folks from South America, too), and this time, I think I might very well have been the only “teaching classes on a regular basis” kind of professor.  Everyone else was some version of administrator, entrepreneur, policy analyst, researcher, and/or educational tech person. Originally, there had been some people on the program from Africa and India, but it didn’t work out for them to be there for one reason or another.

Here’s a link to my presentation (slides incorporated into the Google Doc that was more or less my script– the live version was a little different of course). A general recap of what happened after the break:

Continue reading “Once again, the “International MOOC Colloquium: The MOOC Identity” (a conference recap)”

As Koller Exits Coursera, Thinking About What’s Next with MOOCs in Context

Besides preparing for the start of the Fall term here at EMU, I’m also preparing for a return to Capri for the second International MOOC conference being sponsored by the University of Naples Federico II. No one is more surprised about this than me. As I wrote about/recapped last year, I assumed that my invitation last year was one of those once in an academic career kinds of things I got to recall while I was getting to retire or something. I guess now I get to tell the story of how I was invited twice.

The theme of last year’s conference was “The Future of Learning at a Distance and the Role of MOOCs,” and a lot (not all) of the talks were about the ways that MOOC were going to figure into changing higher education as we know it. The theme of this year’s conference is about “MOOC Identity,” concern with the fast changing nature of MOOCs, the role of professional and “less scholarly” MOOCs, and the evolving “corporate” and “academic” partnerships. Last year’s conference was great and I’m sure this year’s one will be too, but once again, a lot has changed with MOOCs in less than a year.

Which brings me to my point: as Rolin Moe discusses here and as Jonathan Rees discusses here, Coursera’s Daphne Koller’s is leaving and going to Calico (which is a Google/Alphabet company). On the one hand, she’s just the latest. Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng left in 2012 (though both remain involved in Coursera on their board), and Sebastian Thurn stepped back from Udacity earlier this year (though he too remains involved, just not as directly).

On the other hand, Koller’s departure is different and important because she has been the face and driving force behind Coursera. She was the one who gave a TED talk where she said Coursera was going to bring the dream of higher education to the slums of South Africa.  She’s the one who (at least as quoted in Keven Carey’s The End of College) said something along the lines of “If only 2 percent of all the people in the world are willing and able to pay $74 for a service, that’s $10 billion a year, which is a lot of revenue for a company that can fit all of its employees into one part of one floor of a commercial office building in Palo Alto.” And she’s the one who later claimed that the hype around Coursera was always overblown and the company was doing well by pivoting as a credential provider, the kind of thing professionals might list as an achievement on their LinkedIn accounts.

Moe’s point is that MOOCs are a myth/dream/hope the EdTech world continues to chase:

We push MOOCs not because they have any chance of solving whatever it is which needs to be solved, but because we want to believe there is some one-click option that we could employ and it would create the solution we desire.  [T.S.] Eliot is the oft-quoted but wrong lens.  It is better to consider Barthes’ view of myth and the resurrection of the falsely obvious.  In his preface to Mythologies (1972), Barthes notes how the dominant cultural nodes throughout everyday life conspire to “dress up” our reality to contextualize it in terms of history.  This history should not be considered objective, factual or just but rather the determination of the dominant social climate of the time.  As Neil Selwyn (2013) notes, the expansion of technology (and the rise of EdTech) coincides with a growth in libertarian ideals and neoliberal governmental policies, a one-two punch of individual exceptionalism and belief in the power of the outsider.  We believe in the spirit of the entrepreneur, the perspective of the organization and the power of the technological.

Rees’ metaphor is of the abandoned ship, though he references the mysterious case of the Mary Celeste which was discovered abandoned but none of the crew members were ever found. The “MOOC ship” has/is being abandoned because it never lived up to the hype of the initial “mania,” but it is more than that:

If teaching were like most activities, it might be capable of being automated and scaled. But unfortunately for the MOOC providers, teaching isn’t like most activities.  Every dedicated professor – even those of us who do not meet the MOOC provider’s definition of “superstar” faculty – can provide a learning experience that’s superior to watching pre-recorded lectures alongside tens of thousands of people from around the globe.

Even then, like the Mary Celeste, online courses without a live crew manning them can be very lonely experiences. A good education is an active experience, meaning that your professor can see you and adjust their teaching to the reactions of their audience and the students can respond to their professors in real time.  Watching professors “on demand” on your computer, alone in your room, might make good business sense for Coursera, but it makes poor educational sense for anyone with access to an on-campus alternative. That’s why not enough people will ever fork over enough of their money to keep Coursera afloat for the long-term.

I think Moe and and Rees are slightly wrong, but basically right. I say “slightly wrong” because, as I will be reminded once again in Capri in just over a week, there are many players still involved in the MOOC biz, and the ones outside of the U.S. have different reasons and means of support than the ones inside the U.S. As I learned last year, a lot of the MOOC efforts in Europe are government-sponsored enterprises of various types, and this year’s conference looks to feature speakers from Africa and India, two places that have different goals and needs with higher education generally and MOOCs in particular.

Also, let’s not forget that a) there are some Canadians (paging Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, and George Siemens) who would argue in different ways that Coursera and Udacity and the like never were “true MOOCs,” b) there are still a lot of other big MOOC players where things seems to be going at least “okay” (EdX, for example), and c) just because someone leaves a company doesn’t mean the company is going under (Bill Gates and Steve Jobs immediately come to mind).

But again, Moe and Rees are basically right in that the hype of MOOCs completely transforming higher education as we know it has proven to be wrong and it was always wrong. For me, that’s part of what makes MOOCs all the more interesting to study as both another innovation– not a disruption– in distance education technologies, and also as a phenomenon about the glaring ignorance of how education “works” combined with ginned up fears of missing out.

A simple and cursory tour of the history of distance education demonstrates that there have been plenty of hyped phenomenons similar to MOOCs in higher education over the last 150 or so years. Some (radio and television immediately come to mind) had their moments but were ultimately transformed into something else– in the U.S., public broadcasting. Correspondence and “traditional” online courses were hyped, feared, and/or critiqued as threats to the foundations of “The University,” but they ultimately became relatively “normal” means of taking college classes in the U.S.

MOOCs have always had a significant student audience problem. Rees is right– a lot of the problem (based on my own experiences and writing about this, at least) is that the MOOC learning experience isn’t at all comparable to the actual college experience, face to face or online. And while talking about dropout rates with MOOCs is tricky for many reasons (Are MOOC participants really “students?” If they poke around a MOOC for a week and decide they aren’t interested, are they a “dropout?” If a participant gets what they want out of a MOOC but doesn’t finish, is that a “failure?”), any mode of instruction where over 90% of participants don’t complete the course for some recognizable and transferable form of “credit” is not going to replace what we’re doing right now.  But it’s more than that. I think it’s always been a problem of the MOOC providers offering a different “product” than what degree-seeking college students want.

As I have blogged about before, there is consistent data about why students choose the institutions they choose, and by a wide margin, the top two reasons incoming students cite for their choices are the school’s academic reputation and the perception that the school’s graduates get good jobs. The cost of attendance as a reason for picking a particular school is more or less tied for third with financial assistance, schools reputation for social activities, and a visit to campus. In other words, while everyone agrees that tuition is too high, the cost of attendance doesn’t turn out to have a whole lot of effect on the choices going to college students (and their families) make. This survey data is very much in evidence in my local community, where the expensive (and the more highly perceived) University of Michigan attracts many more applicants than the less expensive (and less highly regarded) Eastern Michigan University. If costs were more important than perceptions about academic reputation and potential employment, then EMU would be the school turning away more than half of the people who apply.

In any event, Koller et al initially thought (hoped?) they would draw students away from a place like EMU (and maybe even U of M) because their certificate options were so much cheaper. But that’s like setting up a hot dog stand and trying to sell it to people who are trying to go out to a decent and multi-course sit-down meal. Worse yet, almost all of the participants MOOCs have attracted already have college degrees and they’re not that interested in paying for some “infotainment.” To extend my food metaphor a bit more: it’s hard to market hot dogs to people who really aren’t that hungry– oh sure, maybe they’ll have a sample, but they aren’t going to pay for one.

I think there’s also been a disconnect of perceptions of what MOOCs are potentially for between administrative-types (not to mention various pundits and politicians) and the faculty involved in developing and teaching MOOCs. None of the MOOC professors I’ve read, published in Invasion of the MOOCs, or interviewed for my current project think that MOOCs could replace the experience of taking an actual college class. MOOCs might be useful for lots of things (research, community outreach, PR, and maybe even a way to validate “life experiences” for credit of some sort), and maybe MOOCs make the idea of an online class more palatable. But that’s it.

So what I’m getting at is what’s interesting about looking at context of the rise and fall of MOOCs is not about MOOCs themselves. It’s not useful (or smart) for anyone to look at the “end” of MOOCs and to happily pronounce “well, I’m glad that’s over with and I’ll never have to worry about that again.” No, what’s interesting is seeing how the MOOC phenomenon has proven to be similar and different compared to earlier instructional technologies, and what impact MOOCs will have on what’s next.

Clinton’s not exactly brilliant plan on addressing costs in higher ed

There was an article in Inside Higher Ed the other day about presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s “innovation” plan for helping to address costs in higher education. I am sure there is a lot more to this than what IHE was able to summarize, but here’s part of what IHE said:

The plan proposes $10 billion in federal funding (a significant amount in tight budget times, no matter who wins the election) for students to enroll in vetted boot camps, coding academies, massive open online courses and other programs run by alternative education providers, as well as providing unspecified rewards for colleges that accept those programs as credit toward graduation.

For entrepreneurs, the plan proposes letting them and potentially their first 10 to 20 employees defer payments on their student loans, penalty-free, for up to three years “as they work through the critical start-up phase of new enterprises.” Entrepreneurs whose start-ups serve “distressed communities” or “provide measurable social impact and benefit” will after five years be able to apply to have up to $17,500 of their loans forgiven.

There’s also a big emphasis on STEM programs, education toward jobs, etc., etc.

I think Alexander Holt has a nice follow-up column to this, also in Inside Higher Ed, “Clinton’s Giveaway to Silicon Valley.” Among other things, Holt points out that more STEM training isn’t automatically “the solution” since there is some evidence that there is actually a larger supply of STEM trained would-be employees than jobs, that the status quo already has loan deferment plans along the lines of what Clinton is proposing, and the last group of students who college students who need financial help from the government is would-be entrepreneurs. To quote:

If Clinton wants to give away money to people who will eventually be wealthy, this proposal is a great idea. People working in tech start-ups will likely go on to earn a fairly high income in life. If a young entrepreneur has a degree from a good school and highly valuable skills, she can still get a high-paying job even if the company fails. If her company succeeds, she will eventually have a lot of money.

And just to add: for the most part, Clinton’s plan to help entrepreneurs is not going to help most of the students we have at Eastern. Most/many of our students are from working class/working poor backgrounds and they are often first generation college students. These students are getting college degrees to get a foothold into the middle-class. Sure, some of our students have Silicon Valley-like savvy and the desire to start their own businesses, but the vast majority of our students are trying to get into an already existing field and business. The same probably goes for most students at most universities, actually.

But speaking specifically about MOOCs and alternative providers: Clinton (and whoever she is listening to on this) is just flat-out ignoring how higher education works. I’ve blogged about this many many times before, and I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly new or controversial. To sum up:

  • MOOCs and professional training enterprises (like Lynda.com) are mostly useful to adults who already have college degrees and jobs who are seeking additional training and credentials, and particularly training and credentials in IT related fields. Traditionally-aged (18-21 year olds, more or less) would-be college students are interested in a degree program, not miscellaneous classes that they cobble together from various MOOCs and “boot camps.” This is why MOOCs have been pivoting to the adult/corporate training market and away from the higher education market.
  • While everyone agrees that college is too expensive and that the costs should be contained, the solution is not to offer cheaper and largely unproven alternatives. Rather, the solution (IMO) is to look at all of the alternatives that already exist. Unlike in a lot of parts of the world, in the U.S. we have hundreds of community colleges and regional universities (like EMU) that are geographically accessible.
  • Furthermore, (as I’ve blogged about before too), while the costs of attendance obviously matters to traditional college students and their families, it is only one factor students make about where to go to college, and it’s usually not the most important choice. The Higher Education Research Institute has been surveying first year students for fifty years, and in answer to the question about what was “very important” in their decision about where to attend college, cost consistently runs behind “the college has a very good academic reputation” and “the college’s graduates get good jobs,” and it is almost tied with “the college has a good reputation for its social activities.” If cost was the most important reason for why students decide to go where they go, Washtenaw Community College would have to turn down a significant percentage of the students who applied and the University of Michigan would be begging people to think about going there. In short, the solutions being proposed– making higher education cheaper– doesn’t address the real problem, which is access to high quality higher education.
  • To the extent that MOOCs are going to be useful for students earning college credit, it is most likely going to be for things like the College Level Examination Program (aka CLEP tests), advanced placement, or for various “experience-based” degrees and credits. For example, Georgia Tech has an Online Masters of Computer Science program that is running more or less as a MOOC. As I understand it, a lot of the students in this program are IT people who are well-versed in the kinds of things they are studying.The students enrolled in this program are there not so much to “learn new things;” they are there to prove to a credential-providing institution that they already know these things. That’s all fine and good, but it isn’t going to help the 18 to 20 year old looking for experience in the first place.
  • While the dropout rates in MOOCs might mean a lot of different things, one thing is for sure: students who successfully start and complete a MOOC for credit have an unusually high level of self-motivation and ability to work independently. Most traditional college students are not like this. Actually, most everyone is not like this.

Now, if Hillary et al were to call me and ask for my ideas, the first thing I would suggest is that they look around them to the solutions that exist in the form of accessible community colleges and regional universities like EMU. In theory, I’m for a system where students can attend universities like EMU for free, though in practice, I worry about the strings that would be attached to that kind of program by the Feds (as if Institutional Assessment of various flavors wasn’t bad enough). Besides, it’s a fantasy to think that Hillary (or Bernie, for that matter) can wave a magic wand and make that happen over night.

What could happen more easily (maybe?) is the Feds could boost the amount of money going into the Pell Grant program, they could ease the restrictions on how students can use that money (let them go to summer school, for example), and they could roll back the cost of student loans to either zero points interest or the same as the prime rate. There is absolutely no reason why the Federal government ought to be making any money off of its student loan program.

But then again, no one asked me, so….

ASU and MOOCs: six months later, I might actually still be right

I noticed this morning an old post of mine had gotten a couple of hits, this post from back in late April, “ASU’s edX MOOC deal: Lots of links and a few thoughts.” This was when Arizona State University announced this big plan with edX to offer a freshman year of college via something they called the “Global Freshman Academy.” This came shortly after a widely publicized deal with Starbucks to offer its employees ASU online courses.  Back then, I quoted Matt “Confessions of a Community College Dean” Reed’s post “What Problem are ASU and EdX Solving?” at some length; among other things, he argued that this ASU deal doesn’t make a lot of sense since community colleges are simply a better deal. Besides agreeing with Reed, I also argued:

  • MOOCs haven’t proven themselves to “work” well for the kind of general education courses part of this initiative;
  • As we’ve seen with other online initiatives, students tend to take online courses fairly locally; and (and this was my main argument),
  • This is an example of how MOOC providers are focusing on the wrong goal and the wrong audience. To quote myself: “students pick colleges first based on academics, second on job prospects,  and then (roughly tied for third/fourth/fifth place) on scholarship opportunities, cost of attendance, and social activities. And as I’ve also blogged about before, all the data suggests that most MOOC takers/students already have a college degree, don’t need or want the credit, and are taking the course for personal enrichment/’edutainment.'”

This ASU deal was big, was supposed to be a game-changer. I’ve interviewed a bunch of people for my (still on-going, not getting done fast enough) MOOC book project, and I can recall at least one interview where this came up as an example of where MOOCs were heading. When I was at that conference in Italy, this deal was brought up a couple of times as something to watch closely.

Well, six-ish months later, I’m still right.  Continue reading “ASU and MOOCs: six months later, I might actually still be right”

Recapping the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference & Some Italy Sidetrips

Last week, I was in Naples and Capri, Italy to attend the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference. My brief talk/presentation/position statement (everyone just gave small talks) was more or less called “A Small View of MOOCs: A Limited Look at the Recent Past and Likely Future of MOOCs at the Edges of Higher Education in the United States,” and that link takes you to a Google Doc version of my talk– the slides and the script I more or less followed. Here are links to my tourism pictures of Naples, Anacapri, and Pompeii on Flickr.

After the break, I go into way more detail than necessary about the conference and the trip. Read on if you’re interested, though a lot of it is really me writing/thinking out loud for myself, which is often the case on my blog, right?

Continue reading “Recapping the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference & Some Italy Sidetrips”

A “Modest Proposal” Revisited: Adjuncts, First Year Composition, and MOOCs

I’m posting this at 37,000 or so feet, on my way back from Italy from an international conference on MOOCs sponsored by the University of Naples (more accurately, Federica WebLearning). Normally, I wouldn’t pay as much as I’m paying for wifi on a plane, but I wanted to stay awake as much as possible to get back on USA time by Tuesday morning and because I had some school/teaching work to do. Plus there’s a weird extra seat next to me because my row with three chairs has a row of four chairs right in front of it.

Anyway, I’ll be blogging about that in the next few days once I go through my notes and collect my thoughts about the conference and about Italy. In the meantime though, I wanted to post this. I was trying to place this as a “thought piece” in something like Inside Higher Ed and/or The Atlantic, which is why there is more “apparatus” explaining the field and the state of adjunct labor in fycomp than is typical of things I write about that here. But nobody else wanted it/wanted to pay me to publish it, so it will find a home here.

Continue reading “A “Modest Proposal” Revisited: Adjuncts, First Year Composition, and MOOCs”

MOOCs and PR: That’s not exactly what/all I said

Here’s an example as to why I am often not all that interested in talking to reporters. I was quoted in Crain’s Detroit Business in the article “Massive online courses grow; what’s in it for the universities?” by Kirk Pinho. Here’s how I’m quoted:

Steven Krause, a professor in the Eastern Michigan University Department of English, Language and Literature who co-edited the 2014 book Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses, said that in many ways MOOCs are good public relations for universities.

“It represents, for UM or Ohio State University or MSU a little less so, PR. And it’s not a huge cost to them. It’s more about trying to attract a student to apply to UM rather than take a MOOC online. It’s essentially advertising,” he said.

That’s not inaccurate, but it’s not at all complete, either.

Pinho called me up to talk MOOCs after getting my name from one of the PR folks here at EMU. He told me he was pretty much done with his article and was contacting me at this point to get some additional thoughts. He seems like a nice guy; we chatted for about 30 minutes about a variety of different things, mostly MOOCs.

Just to be clear, Pinho isn’t misquoting me or misrepresenting me. I do think that MOOCs represent a form of PR for the universities offering them. It’s just that I said a lot more than that. For example, I think that the University of Michigan et al feel a completely earnest and legitimate obligation to give back to the community at large, sort of along the lines of what Geralyn Stephens from Wayne State says in this piece. Pinho and I talked a bit about some of the possibilities of “internal” MOOCs, along the lines of what Stephens talks about as well. We talked about completion rates and how one of the problems with MOOCs is the definition of “student” and how that also problematizes things like completion rates. And on a completely different topic, we also talked a bit about how companies like Coursera seem to be making a pivot away from higher education and more toward “just in time” training and certificates.

And anyone who has read this blog at all knows that I think MOOCs are about a whole lot more than PR.

Anyway, I realize Pinho is just trying to do a job here and this is just one out of seemingly hundreds of articles that are “out there” in the MSM along the lines of “gee whiz, what’s up with all this MOOC thing I am hearing about?” I am guessing that Pinho’s editors were the ones who cut the shit out of his piece to make it fit, etc., etc. It just gets kind of frustrating to see what I thought was the least interesting thing I said to be the only thing that makes it into this article.

But at least the book got mentioned again, so that’s a good thing.

I am not sure what Kevin Carey is imagining here….

I started this on Sunday night while a bunch of folks were at my house playing a very very involved board game called Civilization. I did not play along. It is a long story, but the short version is I instead cooked what turned out to be a pretty good and more elaborate than I was planning dinner, and when it comes to playing games generally, I really have to be in the right mood and with the right game. I like game theory a lot more than actual games.

Anyway, late in the night while they were playing (the game went on for about 10 hours and still hadn’t finished), I got around to reading Kevin Carey’s New York Times Op-Ed “The Fundamental Way That Universities Are an Illusion.” I came to it via a commentary from a response Cathy Davidson had on HASTAC, “Universities are No More Illusory Than Journalists: Rsp to Kevin Cary and NYT,”  and also on Facebook.

Carey opens with the story of an athletic scandal at UNC where student athletes were taking classes that were technically legitimate classes but where the lack of recognizable requirements (like not having to attend) helped the less scholarly of student athletes to stay eligible for sports. It seems to me that stories like this cheating scandal pop up every few years, but that’s a problem of college sports and not “college” generally, and probably a different post. Then Carey writes:

Most colleges, presumably, aren’t harboring in-house credit mills. Yet in its underlying design, organizational values and daily operations, North Carolina is no different from most other colleges and universities. These organizations are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence. When it comes to exerting influence over teaching and learning, they’re Easter eggs. They barely exist.

Let’s try to walk through that logic for a moment:

  • Big-time college sports tempt coaches, students, and even sympathetic professors/fans to create “in-house credit mills.”
  • While most colleges (presumably) don’t have a lot of this kind of problem, the design, value, and operation of most other colleges are “no different” from the school where these fake courses happened.
  • Therefore (I guess?), colleges/universities are “not coherent” when it comes to consistency, standards, classroom excellence, and influencing teaching and learning practices.

So for me, part of this is “well, duh,” that there is cheating in big-time college athletics. Obviously. As Davidson points out in her post, what Carey’s example demonstrates is a problem with college sports rather than college. But why would Carey (or anyone else) think that from this example it logically follows that the colleges across the board have no consistency/standards/oversight when it comes to teaching and learning practices? I know op-ed commentators are fond of the hasty generalization fallacy, but this seems a bit of a reach even for Carey.

Having read Carey’s book The End of College (and one of these days, I’ll blog a more extensive review of that), I think I know where he’s trying to go here. In his book, one of the main problems Carey has with higher education are the damn professors because professors are too independent, too lazy, too focused on their research, too indifferent to teaching, too petty, etc. So in Carey’s view, there’s no coherence or standards in higher education– that’s why it’s an illusion– in large part because professors get away with doing whatever it is they want to do. More on that in a moment.

But at the same time, Carey argues here that the college experience doesn’t vary much between schools. Carey wants to make this argument because one of the other points he hammers on in The End of College is that college rankings are way out of control. He cites Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, authors of How College Affects Students, which appears to be a giant and long-standing study on the question of (duh) how college affects students.  Carey writes:

“The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth,” the authors write. “If there is one thing that characterizes the research on between-college effects on the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills, it is that in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude.”

And a little later:

 People can learn a lot in college, and many do. But which college matters much less than everyone assumes. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini explain, the real differences exist at the departmental level, or within the classrooms of individual professors, who teach with a great deal of autonomy under the principles of academic freedom. The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

If it’s true that at the level of big data that there isn’t much difference between different four year colleges– that is, you put all the undergraduate students attending “traditional” universities that grant bachelors degrees and those students come out statistically close to the same– then that means that there actually is a lot of consistency and coherence in higher education. And broadly speaking, I think this is true: that is, I believe that the experiences that EMU graduates have in terms of personal growth, subject knowledge, and academic skills are similar to those of University of Michigan graduates (though of course, individual results vary quite a bit). In other words, because the best available research suggests that there is a lot consistency, coherence, and statistical similarity between between different universities, there is no need for the mandated standardization and regulation Carey implies is necessary to make the college a less “illusionary.” Indeed, it isn’t an illusion at all.

But I want to dwell on that second paragraph I quote here because it demonstrates the problems I see with Carey’s “logic” generally. He begins with a claim that I think most people in higher education would actually agree with, that most people learn a lot in college regardless of what college they attend. Then he slips into a claim that the differences that exist within higher ed are a result of the “autonomy” and “academic freedom” of individual professors, and those professors are not “guided by a shared sense of educational excellence” at all. Rather, these damn individual professors are all just a bunch selfish entrepreneurs who bitch and complain about parking. Jeesh.

As Davidson points out in her post, if we’ve learned anything from the “No Child Left Behind” nonsense forced on to K-12 in this country, the absolute last thing we need is more regulation to curtail individual approaches to teaching, autonomy, and academic freedom. As she writes, “We are already so regulated, credentialized, rule-bound, bureaucratized, accredited, credentialized, governing bodied, politicized, overseen, and structured that radical reformation–which is what we really need–is extremely difficult.”

But beyond that, who are these “professors?” Depending on how you define permanent work and the “tenure track” in higher education, at least 70% (maybe more) of the folks doing the teaching aren’t professors at all; rather, they are graduate students, part-timers, and full-time instructors who might enjoy job security through renewable contracts (or not– some full-timers are on contracts that are not renewable after 3-5 years). These folks are not professors in that they are not usually required to do the research and service/administrative work of professors (that’s certainly the case at EMU), and, for better or worse, they don’t enjoy the level of autonomy and academic freedom of professors. Take our first year writing program, for example, one that is similar to a lot of first year writing programs in that almost everyone teaching classes in it are not professors (full disclosure: I’m the interim associate director of that program right now). We have specific outcomes we expect everyone teaching the class to get their students to meet, and we have a curriculum that offers teachers options but only within the expectations of the course. We wouldn’t hire (or rehire) folks who weren’t willing or able to teach within those expectations. I can’t claim that this level of “programming” and “control” exists across the board in other disciplines, but I’m certain it isn’t “anything goes” for most of the non-professors doing most of the teaching in universities nowadays.

Further, Carey’s assumption about the level of autonomy professors (as in the 30% or so of us who are on the tenure-track) have in their teaching is wrong too. Davidson wrote a LONG comment on her own blog post outlining the steps that are pretty typical for getting a new course approved at a university, a process that more or less squares with my experiences here at EMU. The same kind of bureaucracy is in place for degree programs and any significant change to a course or a degree program. I wish I worked in the environment Carey imagines for me.

I guess what bothers me the most about Carey’s views here and in other places, notably in The End of College, is the amount of airtime it gets in places in the mainstream media like The New York Times. He purposefully sets up the most visible part of higher education– professors– as the sole problem, conveniently skipping past the bloated administrations and edu-entrepreneurs that are profiting the most from out of control tuition. He is a self-described education policy wonk who (surprise, surprise!) thinks that the problems in higher education can be solved with more strident and controlling policies and regulations.   He’s tapping into the lizard brain general public “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” sentiment that always exists since things are always getting worse, and he does this by making sweeping generalizations that have truthiness to them but that are demonstrably wrong. The problem is it’s very difficult to change people’s lizard brain minds with actual logic and evidence.

Though Carey is right about one thing: the complaint that unites all of academia has to do with parking.

These hyperboles about the slow change in education make me want to eat my shoes while jumping off of a bridge, literally

My own effort at hyperbole with my post title here….

From The Wall Street Journal comes “Daphne Koller on the Future of Online Education,” It’s a pretty non-news/routine interview of Koller talking about MOOCs and Coursera, though one interesting little bit I hadn’t heard before is Coursera is planning on rolling out a MOOC MBA program. That makes a certain amount of sense, but that is also a far cry from the days where she was giving TED talks about bringing higher education to the slums of South Africa.

Anyway, what got me here was the opening paragraph:

“If you put an instructor to sleep 300 years ago and woke him up in a classroom today, he’ll say, ‘Oh, I know exactly where I am,” says Daphne Koller, co-founder of the online-education company Coursera. The same couldn’t be said for agriculture, manufacturing and health care, she notes.

If I were to read this paragraph charitably, I’d say Koller was being hyperbolic: that is, she knew this was an untrue exaggeration meant to draw attention to her argument. The problem with that reading though is this “nothing has changed until now” trope has been invoked far too many times by her and by EdX’s Anant Agarwal and by Peter Norvig, and I’m sure by others too. It has crossed from hyperbole to “truthiness” in the sense that if you repeat something often enough, you start to convince yourself (and hopefully others) that it is actually true.

No, I think Koller et al have drunk their own kool-aid.  When Koller says nothing has changed in education for 300 years– until now!— I think she believes this to be literally the case. Think what you want about MOOCs (and my own feelings about them are much more complicated than they are “good” or “bad”), but this “nothing has changed ever in education” claim drives me crazy. So, let’s parse this out a bit: what would the professor from 300 years ago think if they were plopped into today’s classroom? Continue reading “These hyperboles about the slow change in education make me want to eat my shoes while jumping off of a bridge, literally”